Shungudzo plays songs from 'I'm not a mother, but I have children' in Virtual Session

Shungudzo - Virtual Session (MPR)

Shungudzo joins Mary Lucia in conversation about the ways poetry are intertwined with her songwriting, her experiences as a child moving from Zimbabwe to the US, and what she's got planned for the fall. Plus, watch performances of tracks from her new record, 'I'm not a mother, but I have children'.

Interview Transcription

Edited for clarity and length.

MARY LUCIA: I'm Mary Lucia and we're doing a virtual session which I'm super excited about with Shungudzo and there's so much to talk about with the record with you with everything. But how are you today?

SHUNGUDZO: I'm doing pretty well, I woke up really grateful to be alive. I've been thinking a lot about the fact that the odds of even being born are something like less than one in 400 trillion, and the fact that we get to also wake up every day and live our life again is really just remarkable. How about you?

I woke up, I had one of those dreams where I clearly had to go to the bathroom. So the whole dream was about me trying to--and then it's just like, "Just wake up! You have to go to the bathroom, you have to pee." So it was about an hour and a half of me walking around going, "Where can I go?" So anyways, that's a really positive attitude that you have. I've got to know, did it take a long time for you to be able to wake up with that much clarity in your life?

That's a really great question. I think as a child I really embodied this attitude of having a lot of gratitude for being alive, or the birds singing outside my window, or the trees in my yard. Just those, those really beautiful things that as humans we get to witness and experience without really doing much of anything. But I would say probably in my late teens and earlier adulthood I kind of forgot that mentality and then had to work really hard to come back to it.

"It's a good day (to fight the system)" is such an amazing song because I love when a song has a super powerful message, but it's just a complete banger of a pop song.

I've never heard it described as a banger of a pop song.

It is! It is. It's catchy, I just think your message is very loud and clear. And it's always interesting when you can put the framework around it in almost the sense of something like a traditional pop song. I think it's super effective.

Oh, thank you. Yeah, I thought when making that song, and also, when making all of the songs on the album, I really thought emotion first. What is the feeling that I want to express here, and how can I best express it? So on "It's a good day (to fight the system)" I really wanted to be able to capture the optimism I feel about the fact that we're having so many difficult conversations, and that we're participating in so many protests of various kinds, or the ways that so many of us have had to change our internal worlds and also gradually change our external worlds too--whether that's our friendships or our jobs, or the things that we're trying to transform in our communities. That can be really terrifying and exhausting. But it can also be really exhilarating, and create this feeling of hope and certainty that we can make the world a better place.

Did you limit at all your exposure and time spent watching news in the last year?

Yes, I did. I actually began limiting my exposure to the news after I worked in the news for some time. I really felt like I was in the business of profiting off of losses and seeing it from the other side. Obviously, this is not all news. But a lot of news that functions as both a source of information and then in a sort of sick way, a source of entertainment for people can be really desensitizing. It starts out painful, and then becomes desensitizing.

My old job was to wake up every day, look up all of the most terrible things that had happened in the world and decide which were most important to sell. It was very heartbreaking to have to do and I quit that job to do music. After that decided that I would no longer live in the news, I would live in my activism and my community, and in the conversations that I have with friends and other activists and that through those conversations, I can become informed in a way that the news doesn't really inform me. More importantly, I can have more solutions-based rather than problem-based conversations because I think that it's very easy, especially within news to get caught up into repeating the story of what's wrong without actually doing anything about it.

How easy was it for you to organize a group of people whom you trusted, and were sure that had the same desire as you to get to not the sensational or the exploitive, but to the real part of what can we do about this?

Would you say, within my friendships, or within music, or all of that?

I mean, who did you get to org when you first thought, "Okay, I'm quitting this job, and I want to be very active in activism." Did you seek out people? Did they seek you out? How did you find the people to surround yourself with?

That's a great question. I would say, I've always had a very strong community of women who inherently have always known that something needs to change in order for them to be able to live the life that they want to live and accomplish the things that they want to accomplish. And many of those women are women of color. So then naturally, we also oftentimes discuss race. But I would say within the music industry for a long time, within the particular circle I was running in I felt very much alone in desiring change in a in a real way more so than just talking about it over dinner and drinks. It took me a really long time. It also took me a lot of, lovingly removing certain relationships from my life in order to make space for the ones that I wanted to have which are mutually beneficial relationships. Both in a personal sense, but also in the sense that we want each other's worlds to become better places.

I think sometimes an outside opinion thinks that those actions are so selfish. You're really eliminating things that are negative, so that it's only what's good for you. But that's the key to the world.

Well, it's not necessarily removing things that are negative to you because they challenge you. Because I do think we should be surrounded by people who challenge us. Challenge us to be better versions of ourselves and challenge us to be better members of society.

I know the world has this sort of complex of one size fits all. And it's the most frustrating thing, whether it be as an artist, as a activist, as a woman, as a person--and you think, here we are 2021. While of course advances have been made, there's just so much work to do. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming. But I love the name of your record, because I'm not a mother, but I have children spoke to me right away. And I wondered how many dumbbells have been like, "What does that mean to you?"

I always ask people what they think it means first, even when receiving that question, because it's been really interesting to see how different people translate it. So how, what does it mean to you?

Well, I have three cats, two dogs. I have co-workers I love that are younger than me that I feel something of a mentor to. I don't have biological children. I just understood it from a perspective of--not even in such a traditional role of what maternal might mean. But I'm a huge empath, which I'm guessing you are as well.

Yes.

Yes, and that can be a problem. I'm not gonna lie, because I think being true empaths just makes the world harder sometimes for you. Because if you get caught up in every injustice, why do you want to get out of bed? But I just related to it on the level of, "No, I think my place here on this earth is to is to look out for help. Lift voices underserved." That's my interpretation.

That's so beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

Well, thank you. It means a lot.

I totally can relate to what you're saying. Because for me, I'm not a mother, but I have children means that I feel a really great responsibility. I felt this responsibility since I was born, since I started thinking consciously to try to make the world a better place for the people around me, and then my community, and then on a grander scale in whatever ways that I can. I feel that we all as human beings have this ability to decide what life for future generations is going to be like. Not just human life, but life for the birds and the trees, and the planet at large. I think sometimes it's easy to forget that power. It's not necessarily that we're selfish by forgetting it, but that life can be so difficult and our own struggles can be so difficult that it can be hard to look ahead and go okay, but what do I want the world to be like in 10 years? 20 years, 50 years, 200 years? How does each of the decisions I make today impact what that world will be? And what types of struggles people and plants and animals will have at that time? How can we make sure that in the future, all living things don't have to suffer in the way that they do now and have in the past?

Another thing to be true with that line of thinking is I've never been a "Why me?" person. I've always been a "Why not me?" if that makes any sense to you. Well, we're gonna listen to another song. This next one is "There's only so much a soul can take," and then we'll be back and we'll be having more conversation with Shungudzo.

[music: "Theres only so much a soul can take" by Shungudzo]

There's so much I think about your growing up that it just--I don't know, I feel like I always think of people, artists and songwriters who it almost seems within our generation, it might be more acceptable to say I want to be a writer or a songwriter, rather than to say, I want to be a poet. And yet, most of my favorite musicians and songwriters, lyrically translate so easily into poetry. I know that that's a lot of what you did when you were working on the record.

Yeah, I grew up writing poetry and wanted to be a poet before I realized that songwriting can be poetry too. I spent every day writing poems at some point, whether they were poems that I wrote in my head and repeated to myself throughout the day, or poems that I wrote in my journals. I found it to be such a beautiful way to explore my inner thoughts, both about myself and about the world around me and to feel this freedom to not necessarily say the wrong thing, but freedom to write it all down and then decide how much of that I really believed because I think once you take your thoughts out of your mind, within your mind, so many other voices can envelop themselves around your thoughts, your parents, the government, organized religion, if you grew up with that, like so many other voices can come in. But I find that when I write it down, I can very easily discern between what is my original thoughts, and what is a thought that has been given to me and I can decide whether or not I want to keep the thoughts that were given to me, or if I want to allow myself to remove those so I can become true to who I am. Poetry has always really done that for me and I kind of naturally fell into music because I realized that maybe if poetry is naked words, then music would be putting clothing onto those words and deciding how you want to put them out into the world.

Yeah. That's a great way to look at it. Yeah, I remember reading something about did you spend your formative years in Zimbabwe, like the growing up childhood years? And then at what age did you move to the States?

I moved to the States about 10.

Okay, and at 10 years old was there a dream or a hope that you were moving to a place that was less racist? Less homophobic, less xenophobic? Even at 10?

Yeah, I mean, I was always so observant, my mom recently told me, I started reading at 18 months old and I was writing shortly after that and I was born very aware and empathetic towards other people's pain, but also aware of my own pain and the pain within my family. Also, the pain within the country I lived in, for example, the AIDS epidemic. And the hardships of growing up under a dictatorship where freedom of speech was not allowed, and is still not allowed. I was always really aware that there were certain limitations on my life because of where I was growing up. I assumed that moving to the United States would remove all of those limitations, you know? Would remove the racism that I was experiencing in Zimbabwe, or the the health crises that I was seeing in Zimbabwe, or the homelessness, the starvation, all of these--even the trauma within my family, I somehow thought would just magically disappear once we landed in America. I also thought America was all beaches.

Wouldn't that be great?

Just all the way around, in the middle too. Moving here, we very quickly realized--my little sister and I--that it wasn't going to be this dream land that we had pictured or been sold. In Zimbabwe, we held hands with my mom in a circle and danced, "Yay, we're going to USA! Yay, we're going to USA!" And that excitement, immediately, when we moved here, my mom begins working in a paper factory overnight, we're on food stamps, we're in a city where there are so many homeless people--we're struggling in ways that we didn't struggle in Zimbabwe, and then seeing other people with even more struggles than we had. It was quite a slap in the face to realize that this place where you're told all dreams can come true is actually a place where so many people's dreams are limited, and very much due to gender, or the color of their skin or sexuality or simply thinking outside of the American box.

When you were still in Zimbabwe, and I would imagine you were sort of consuming the civil rights of Africa. How much preparation or history did you learn about the US? The long, horrific, long standing systemic racism?

I knew nothing.

Oh wow.

Well, I think that most governments, when we're talking about, firstly, Zimbabwe, in history, we'll leave out the problematic stuff. And the American government sort of leaves out the problematic stuff, even here. So what we received was, yes, some anti Western messaging from our dictator, who very much hated America and Europe. But not a lot of the specifics. I was actually quite shocked to move here, I loved history as a kid, I thought it was such an interesting way to learn about how we got to where we are. I always believe that part of why we keep repeating history is because we don't learn it and we don't learn the true history.

Exactly.

But I was so shocked. I remember being in class learning about slavery, and our teacher just blew by it. He went, "Okay, so there's a time there were slaves, and then we freed them. So we're the heroes." And I remember as a kid going, "Wait, how can America be the hero?" How can America be both the illness and the remedy? How can you claim both things--or not even fully claim the illness and then really claim the remedy? I think there really needs to be more accountability in history, all governments needs to be able to say, "We messed up. We messed up in a really terrible way, and we're committed to fixing it now."

As an artist, I think just inherent to being an artist there is risk taking that's involved. But sometimes when I really think about it, risk taking can be a privilege that not everyone has.

Yes, it very much is. In Zimbabwe there is no freedom of speech in the way that we know it in America. For example, a man was arrested for getting on a bus and saying bus fares are too high, because the government controls bus fares. To Tweet, to Facebook, to YouTube, to express any sort of distaste or even just a grand desire for help from your government can have really terrible consequences. To protest can have really terrible consequences. Obviously, there are consequences here, as we saw a lot of last year to protesting however, the risk that people are putting themselves in, in a place where freedom of speech is illegal, is so much greater. I really feel that because I have the privilege of freedom of speech, although it should be a right, because I have the privilege of it, that it's very important that I use my voice to speak up for people who don't have the ability to speak up or don't have the platform on which to speak up or don't have the bravery to speak up. Because we're not all ingrained with this, the "F the system, and I'll do anything to tell you!" That mentality.

Watching something on the nightly news is one thing and living in Minneapolis in the last year and a half. It's your home, it's your neighborhood. These are your brothers and sisters, and your families. It really felt different maybe to me than someone else watching it because it was so close in proximity. It was so disheartening in so many ways, I still always think it's a good thing to to pull the curtain back on some some really corrupt things. It's necessary, but it was literally in our backyard. I was talking to Valerie June, do you know Valerie June, the artist?

I don't.

She's from Memphis. Oh, she's so cool. We were talking about how there was--we experienced with the death of George Floyd a collective heartbreak. If there's anything to glean from it, it's that there isn't always something wrong with having your heart broken, because a heart broken is a heart opened. It might open you to look at people differently and treat people differently and think of them in a different way. So if there was any kind of remotely positive spin on all of that, I think that's sort of where I settled.

That's a beautiful way to see it, right? Like, I think it would be beautiful if we could live in a world where these kinds of heartbreaks don't happen. But if we live in a world in which we do, then we need to figure out what to do with it. I think that way, too, with the concept of privilege, a lot of people are very afraid to address their privilege and acknowledge their privilege, because they're afraid to admit they've been wrong for so long or afraid to feel like bad people. But I've been having this thought recently about how we can't demonize people for being taught the wrong stuff.

For sure.

For being taught the wrong things by their parents, and their grandparents, and their communities and history books, and the government. However, as soon as you are informed that it's wrong, it then becomes your responsibility to do something about it. And to transform those lines of thinking that cause you to think less of somebody because they're different from you, even if it's really subconscious, to transform those thoughts into thoughts of understanding and empathy and love. People who can do that are great people, but people who run from change, because perhaps they're comfortable as is and they don't want to feel discomfort, or perhaps they genuinely do feel some sort of negative feelings towards people who are different from them. People who run from that and run from that growth and change are inherently also running from themselves. They're running from truly understanding themselves and their traumas, and healing their own pain they're not yet ready to to even begin to try to heal other people's pain and that's really sad to me because I think if we could stop running from the hard feelings then we could all really grow as a community. One of the best things in the world to be is wrong and go,"Oh my goodness my whole life I thought it was this way but it's not."

Make friends with change has been my motto. Let's get another song and we'll chat a little bit more. The next one that you're going to do it's "To be me," and we'll come back and chat some more. This is a virtual session here with Shungudzo on 89.3 The Current.

[music: "To Be Me" by Shungudzo]

You're listening to Shungudzo that was an amazing track "To be me," the record is I'm not a mother, but I have children and, you know, I find that it's really interesting too--are you following the gymnastic pre-Olympic trials that were going on last week in Missouri?

I actually realized that they were happening after they had happened, I was so sad about it.

Because for anyone who doesn't know your history, and I was just speculating about this--so you can answer this for me. I mean, when I look at gymnasts, and maybe it's just because I've only seen them on television, but they look like they're small in stature, but they're powerhouse strong women, even though they can be very, very young, which I imagine you have to start at a very young age. So what age did you start with dance and gymnastics?

Oh, my goodness, I'm not even really sure. I would say probably three ish? Three or four. I was really little, I'm not exactly sure. But I was quite young, and I started off doing it with my mother, my mother would put lines of tape on the ground for a balanced beam. We would use a tree or a jungle gym for the bars, and we would pile all of these couch pillows really high up as a vault. The reason I started training with my mom, my mother taught men's gymnastics at a boy's high school was because the gymnastics in Zimbabwe was notoriously really racist and she didn't want me to go do something that was meant to be fun, and meant to instill me with all of these positive qualities, but then have to experience the kinds of racism she knew I would experience there for my teammates and from their parents. So she took a lot of time training me on her own. When I was finally ready to move to a gym, I moved to a gym, but she was right, there was so much racism there. My teammates would beat me up during the breaks that we got, like, take me out to a field and hit me or when I caught on to that they would get a friend of mine and trap them in a shed. So I would come save them, and then they would hit me, and I would also see their parents encouraging that behavior. In a way, seeing their parents encouraging it allowed me to never harbor hatred towards my teammates, because I thought, this isn't even your idea. You know? This isn't even yours. Your parents are telling you publicly to be mean to me. The issue here your parents. You still have time to be a wonderful human being and to change in so many ways between now and when you're your parents' age, but it was more, at a very young age, really watching how racism can be planted into people's minds--innocent people's minds, and how important it is to work to stop that from the source, right? In addition to asking people we know who are fully formed individuals to consider something different. There's also this grand importance that we teach children from a young age to be understanding of other people and empathetic towards other people and curious about differences rather than hateful towards them.

I think the thing that seems so prevalent within any, I guess, athlete or anyone that that excels to a certain certain level, is this just insane drive? I've often wondered how much of that is yours as a child, as a young girl, and how much was put upon you and how you dealt with that.

That's a great question. I would say that from a very young age, my parents had very grand plans for me. Part of it came from the fact that when I was born, I wasn't breathing, and the doctors prepared my mother for my death. And then, they had a certainty that I wouldn't survive, or they wouldn't be able to bring me back to life. When I lived, they told my mom that I would be severely mentally damaged, and that I would live a pretty difficult life. And I think my mom then and there was like, "That's not going to be my daughter!" And obviously some beautiful cosmic force of nature to write that preserved my mind. And that's the day that my aunt gave me the name Shungudzo, which means to be determined, because in her mind, I was so determined to live. But as a result, I think partially at that moment, there was always this idea that, "Oh my goodness, if she's alive, and she's capable of doing a lot of things, then we should make her do all of the things and see what she's great at." So I started first grade when I was three. I believe I tested into second grade, but they told my parents it would be too emotionally damaging for me to be that much younger than my classmates. At the same time, from a very young age my parents put me in a very professional track in both ballet and gymnastics, and I would say that all of those things taught me an amazing amount of discipline. How to sit down, or get up and do the things I need to do to make a dream come true. However, I also gained this immense perfectionism that led to self hatred that I had for many years. Many years working out of me and I used to attach my value as a human being to my accomplishments, rather than to having a good heart. I had to work a long time to learn to love who I am more than what I do. Then to make what I do a reflection of who I am rather than who I am a reflection of what I do.

It's one thing to say, "Well, what am I good at?" But, what is good for me?

Mhmm. Yeah.

Well, I have loved talking to you so much and the record is great. Do you have any plans for any kind of shows getting back into the world of actual people and performance?

Yeah, I'm currently in talks to open up for a friend's band that I love very much in the fall, I believe. Then also some days in Europe later next year, and I'm also just sort of getting my live show together so that I'm ready to go for any opportunity and and I'm also manifesting opening for Michael Kiwanuka so I'm saying it out loud!

Hey, put it in there because it could happen. That is so great. So we're gonna go out on the title track it's "I'm not a mother but I have children," and thank you so much and have a great day.

Oh, thank you so much, Mary. It's been so nice talking to you and I hope that you have a wonderful day and life.

Songs Played

00:01 It's a good day (to fight the system)
14:47 There's only so much a soul can take
30:45 To be me
42:11 I'm not a mother, but I have children
All songs appear on Shungudzo's 2021 debut album, 'I'm not a mother but I have children'.

External Links

Shungudzo - official website

Credits

Host - Mary Lucia
Producer - Derrick Stevens
Digital Producer - Jesse Wiza
Technical Director - Eric Romani

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