“I am mother, child, daughter of the soil, born and raised in the north…” croons Nosizwe Lise Baqwa in the opening introduction of her debut album “In Fragments”; her lyrics unravelling the complicated identity of the person behind those earthy vocalised tones. “We have all these different identities, and we have these fragmented experiences and I wanted to sing on those”; explains Nosizwe of the concepts behind the album over a telephone call this last week. “In Fragments” was an album made up of songs that “exemplified singular moments or experiences” for the artist, brought together in the context of a long player as individual pieces juxtaposing and synchronising with a multi-faceted whole. It’s a “deconstructed concept” proposes Nosizwe, an album that simulates life as “many fragments brought together” in an undetermined way, which in turn “becomes your experience of being alive.” Underpinning all of this, the very existence of the artist, and the human experience of it all, is that “quest for wholeness, the bigger picture” which is tied up in the long-player format of “In Fragments” and putting all these tracks in the same context.
Much of this was achieved on the production table for Nosizwe through the work of the album’s producer, Georgia Anne Muldrow. With some pieces already in existence before work on the album commenced, Nosizwe and Georgia “tied a red thread” through the music of the album as they brought it together from disparate corners. “There wasn’t necessarily an organic process in terms of creating the sounds specifically for the album”, explains Nosizwe, but once she started picking through Georgia’s beats, she found that they co-existed in a very harmonious way although they were very different from one to the other and through that, she could begin to “tell the story of this fragmented existence”. In a way, Georgia’s sample-based production style and breakbeat grooves, played perfectly to these ideas and and gave “In Fragments” that wholeness, that sense of a bigger picture which made the album such a prominent feature in the releases from last year.
Expounding on this is the artistic presence on the record, Nosizwe’s singular voice touching on a raw honesty and openness through empirical experiences that made the album a very “personal project” for the artist. The title of the album, taken from a book called “Life in Fragments” (from her mother’s library), does exactly that and as Nosizwe explains through those opening lines on “Songs of Nosizwe”, it is about the artist at its core and decoding all these different identities through individual songs that will eventually inform the artist’s identity as a whole. Nosizwe pours all of herself into the music of the album, and as I learn through the course of our conversation, and the little I knew of the artist going into the interview, it is a formidable collage of life experiences that inform her very existence.
Born to South African parents who fled the apartheid regime to Norway, Nosizwe makes up yet another fascinating addition to the complex socio-political landscape of a next-generation Diaspora. She might have been born in Norway, but much of who Nosizwe is, is informed by her South African heritage and spending her formative adolescent years in Cape Town. “I was a teenager, doing the whole house party scene, missioning about, being dirty and enjoying it”, she reminisces with a dry chuckle. From her defined Cape Tonian accent to her very open and laid-back approach to a conversation, there’s very little doubt that Nosizwe is a South African.
Moving to South Africa in ‘94, Nosizwe, came to the country after the first democratic election, which saw Nelson Mandela be inaugurated as the first black president and a sense of hope and rebirth envelop the African nation and one of the most culturally explosive eras in the country. Raised on the music of her parents which included Brenda Fassie, Sade and Bob Marley, there was “very little influence of Norwegian or Scandinavian music growing up” for Nosizwe with South African music pouring in the abundance. Through listening to artists that “grew up in pretty tumultuous times” and incorporating all that is them into their music, Nosizwe it seems started to define her own musical identity pretty early on. Her brother, Tshawe Baqwa, who would later go on to form the hugely successful Madcon, would bring “a lot of Hip Hop” to Nosizwe’s formative listening environment alongside her parents’ soundtrack, but a musical career was never prescribed for Nosizwe. “My mother had very clear goals for everyone, and I was going to become president”, says Nosizwe with a laugh. A political science student at the University of Cape Town, Nosizwe “fucked up the natural order of things” when she followed in her brother’s footsteps and a career in music ensued in Norway, first as a guest vocalist and musical collaborator to very many prominent Norwegian musicians, and finally as solo artist with her first single “Do You” in 2012. “I still get to hear, that there is still time, and I can still come around” says Nosizwe about her mother’s political aspirations for her daughter, but as “In Fragments” matures, it only goes further to cement her musical voice and a long career in music, overshadowing the presidential hopeful’s career for now, but who’s to say what the future will bring Mrs. Baqwa…
I fall into conversation with ease as one South African to another in a foreign land, and her sense of humour is very palpable even over the telephone. But as with any South African, politics are always somewhere at the back of one’s mind and even before we breach the subject of music at the start of our conversation, there’s a murky cloud hanging over our heads. The political landscape in South Africa is currently very volatile, with a student uprising in light of proposed national education fee hikes; a presidency fraught with corruption, scandal and abuse of power; and a recent suspicious cabinet reshuffle that plunged South Africa’s credit rating into junk status with Standard and Poor, a 17 year low for the country. These are topics that Nosizwe and I fall into like familiars and while Nosizwe is still trying to form an opinion of the cabinet reshuffle with the little information that’s available to us on the opposite hemisphere, she opines without hesitation, “Jacob Zuma is an ass” and finds solidarity with the student plight. “African people are a very politicised people. Politics happen on many different levels simultaneously, and I think the student protests has its place and it has a value and it needs to be included in a discourse.”
She’s vocal, yet fair on these issues and obviously very conscious of what’s going on in South Africa, and when I ask how much these issues inform her music she offers an example from “In Fragments”, the song Breathe, which she “wrote and dedicated to the student uprising.” The visual accompaniment to the single, a picture of two boys running away from a smoke grenade, which removed out of context looks like two younger men dancing, which Nosizwe brings back to the reality of the situation through her lyrics for Breathe. “I can’t breathe, I can’t see the sun for the light of day”, does not talk of a joyous occasion and after really studying the picture everything falls into its perspective. But as much as that song is about the student uprising, something that “deeply impacted” the artist, it also works in the context of American politics: “That song was definitely a reflection of the politics of SA, but also the United States with all the cop killings and the black lives matter movement.” Political issues are also moments of hope and encouragement for the artist, translated into acknowledgement and a deep seated respect in her music as inspired by the people of South Africa. “Hiya” from the album speaks of feminism and spirituality, not as a “pseudo philosophical” construct, but as a message of an openness that reflects an ingrained history between the people and the earth in South Africa and in the subtext it’s about empowerment. That “song was a thank you to my deeply spiritual and hippy sisterhood” explains Nosizwe. It is a “completely different access and entry to spirituality” for the singer and one that makes it “totally acceptable that you can acknowledge the ancestors on Saturday, go to church on Sunday and smoke weed on top of Devil’s peak on Sunday” with no contradiction between those spiritual elements, much like her album pieces together different, often contrasting things to make a whole.
It’s quite clear that her South African identity is quite a prominent fragment of Nosizwe, but it would be completely amiss to not acknowledge the Norwegian fragment in this extended collage of the artist. Today she finds much of her inspiration in the people she collaborates with, people like Georgia Anne Muldrow and Moe Chakiri, amazing people that “aid in opening the vessels to inspiration” for Nosizwe. Very much a burgeoning community today, Hip-Hop and Nuo Soul in Norway is at a very exciting era and as an album like ”In Fragments” can attest, it “definitely feels very inspiring” not just for an outsider looking in, but for an artist like Nosizwe working in the field. Although she might not have the same cultural connection to Norwegian music than her peers – her only point of reference her mother’s odd appreciation for the music of Arve Tellefsen – a large fragment of her makeup is encapsulated in this Norwegian connection.
She feels much of this relationship is based on the “strong club community” in Oslo and as she’s about to perform at Jæger there is that sense of her music coming home. “Planned improvised moments, trying to capture more fragmented moments in between the song while trying to tell a larger story” is how Nosizwe describes her live show. Using some of that strong imagery from the album, including the cover of Breathe, she intends to paint a fuller picture much like her album achieves, playing mostly material from her new album, but not exclusively. “I find it challenging and exciting that the album is more slow moving than what I’ve normally done”, she says as we wind down the interview. “I can’t rely on the happiness of dancing just to keep the audience going and that’s really interesting to explore and tap into in a very sexy and fun way for a live show.”