Zahara, born Bulelwa Mkutukana, started singing in her school and church choir when she was only six-years-old. Today, Zahara is a multi-award winning musician whose debut album, ‘Loliwe’ has sold over 100 000 copies in South Africa alone and went double-platinum in only 17 days. On this week’s episode of The Insider SA, Zahara takes fans back to where it all began, Phumlani in the East Cape.
Zahara is known for her smoky alto voice and her Afrosoul music. She’s regarded as South Africa’s shining star and is a reminder that no matter the circumstances, anyone can achieve success. Now back visiting Phumlani, Zahara shares, “Growing up here was such an amazing feeling. It got me to where I am at today,” Zahara says on The Insider SA.
Although her life is now in Johannesburg, Zahara’s heart is still at home. “I love coming to my village because when I get here, my spirit gets freed and I get love because I know I’m coming to my Mama’s house. This was where I was born and bred and buttered”.
Zahara is the sixth of seven children. As a child, her family nicknamed her ‘Spinach’ after her love for the vegetable her mother cultivated in their garden. Her parents both worked hard to provide for their big family, but as Zahara explains, “They couldn’t raise money for me to go to tertiary. I was left at home, but lucky enough for me, there was a guitar”.
“I was never taught how to play the guitar, it just comes from the heart”, Zahara tells The Insider SA. “For me, the guitar is a symbol of hope. When everybody is gone, when all my friends are gone, I’ll still have my guitar. When I saw no light, I knew, something will happen”.
And with a natural talent and voice like hers, it was inevitable that something would happen. It was while busking on the streets of East London that Zahara was offered a record deal.
When starting in the industry, she chose the stage-name ‘Zahara’, which appropriately means ‘blooming flower’ in Arabic. “A zahara is a flower and it only blooms in the dessert”, Zahara explains on The Insider SA. “It doesn’t need to be watered. It just blooms and blooms every time and any time”.
Her breakout single, ‘Loliwe’, was inspired by her mother’s stories of the migrant labourers who would leave on the train to Johannesburg. “Some came back and some never came back. For me, it was a metaphor for life. Don’t worry about what other people are doing and if they’re meeting their destination now. You’re going to meet yours too when the time comes”.
Today, Zahara has won over 40 awards, including 8 SAMAs when her album ‘Loliwe’ was released. She’s been awarded Best Female Artist and even Album of the Year.
But despite her stardom, Zahara’s family remarks on how she’s never forgotten about them. It’s her family who she turns to for support and has as a place of sanctuary. “When we were all born, my mom and dad only had a two-roomed shacked house which we all stayed in together. They taught us, each and every night, we have to sing together, stay together, and pray together”.
To connect back to her roots as a country child, Zahara takes The Insider SA horseback riding for a trip down memory lane along the Wild Coast. Zahara shares, “I’m a country girl! I’ve been riding horses since I was a kid”. This time away connecting back with nature is exactly what Zahara needs after the long hours spent creating her latest album. “I’m so excited that sometimes I don’t even sleep!” Zahara shares. “People don’t know I sometimes write till 5am because I need to tell my story. I’m here because I want to bring hope”.
A memory Zahara will never forget is in 2013 when Nelson Mandela personally invited her to sing in his home. When she finished, Madiba applauded and told her, “Zahara, you are a very special girl and South Africa is blessed to have you. The stars upon you, may they shine where ever you go”.
Zahara ends off with this: “There’s one thing I love about me, I never wanted to be called only a dreamer, I wanted to be called an achiever. But, I’ll forever be a village girl. The soul will always be within me”.