In the background is the buzz from the café, which I find loud and distracting, but for Yvonne Chaka Chaka it seems to simply mimic the soundtrack of her full life. She moves to a quieter spot and we begin the interview, chatting like old friends meeting to catch up over coffee after years of not seeing each other. And we don’t miss a beat…
Could you share with us a bit about your journey from humble beginnings to becoming an iconic singer, songwriter, entrepreneur, humanitarian and teacher?
I was born during apartheid, in 1965. We were a family of three girls. My mom worked as a domestic worker. Dad worked as a driver; he died when I was 11. And obviously, growing up in Soweto during apartheid meant there was absolutely nothing special. What was special was that we were a close-knit family, and you could go to the neighbour’s house and ask for food. You could go to the neighbour’s house and say, “Mom said we could bring you bread in exchange for tomatoes or onions.” There was no shame in asking for food from neighbours. That’s just how we grew up.
My mother wanted me to be a lawyer, but I wanted to be a chartered accountant; I loved numbers. She insisted that I go to school, even though she didn’t have the money. I think my mother was ahead of her time, even though she was not very educated. She always said to me and my two sisters: “I don’t want you to turn out to be like me. I want you to study. I don’t want you to depend on any man, I don’t want you to be a burden to anybody. If you acquire knowledge, you are able to decide when to fall pregnant, you’re able to decide where you’re going to work, you are able to decide when to travel.” I used to hear her say all those things, but I couldn’t understand what she was talking about at the time.
Unfortunately, when I finished my matric year, I fell pregnant. It was like I was the disaster of the community, to my family. But I’ll always say that was like luck for me, because while I was pregnant, looking for a job, I was discovered by Phil Hollis. So, my pregnancy actually brought me this life. I often think to myself that if I had not fallen pregnant and, instead, went to university to study law or accounting, nobody would have known who Yvonne Chaka Chaka was – the whole transition would not have happened. Everything happens for a reason.
What does it mean to you to be the “Princess of Africa”?
When Phil Hollis found me, and I started singing, he changed my name from Yvonne Machaka to Yvonne Chaka Chaka, and I didn’t understand why. I would say to him, “Why did you change my name?” And you know, Phil would always respond, “I want to make you a big superstar.” But, I was young, naïve, coming fresh out of school. I had no clue what he meant.
I think it also means hard work to me, because when I started in the music industry, I didn’t believe in myself. Looking back to 35 years ago, if somebody had told me then that I would be in New York one day, be a famous singer, be a UN goodwill ambassador, sit in a room with Bill Gates, I would have told them they’re talking nonsense, because it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel as a black child.
My mother still insisted that I go to school and study. So, while I was singing, I had to study too. I tried studying law because my mother wanted me to be a lawyer, but I only passed English at university. Fortunately, I started elocution lessons with an amazing teacher, who introduced me to the idea of enrolling with Trinity College, in London, to study speech and drama and public speaking.
Nothing good is easy – you have to put in a lot of effort, hard work, and you have to prioritise. I used to perform my show and then, when my friends and the other musicians went to after parties, I had to go back to my room and do assignments. I had to keep in my mind that I could be successful on stage and work hard too.
Congratulations on your new album, Keep Looking at Me. What are some of the issues close to your heart that inspired this album?
My music has always been inspired by everything that I see. By things that I come across, whether I’m in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, or anywhere else. By things that happen to me. My son – who is also my co-producer – said to me one day, “Mom you are so lucky that your friends love you, we love you, dad loves you, so just sing a song to all the people that help you, tell them to keep looking at you.” And so, we did the song, Keep Looking at Me, and it became an album. Partially it’s dedicated to my husband and all the people that I work with, to say, you know what, I’m not as young as I used to be – I’m 63 now – but the support and the love that you gave me allowed me to do all the things that I love doing – just keep looking at me.
For the track, Pardon Me, I was sitting, I think I must have been in LA or Canada, at the time when the little Syrian boy was washed up on the beach. It was just so sad. And the song came to me. It talks about the road being long, trying to find love, peace and happiness. About children dying; mothers fighting. Why, in this day and age, should our people be dying, wanting to cross the ocean to get to safety? It’s just not right. What have we done as human beings? What are we not doing correctly? This Africa that is supposed to be for everyone – I just think it’s poorly managed. People are not supposed to be dying or fleeing their country. And so, my music gets inspired by all these things.
The song Jewel of Africa speaks of the self-esteem of young women. How did this song come to you and what is the message you wished to put across?
The song was written by a young girl called Barita. She’s a musician from Zimbabwe. She wrote the song and she said, “I don’t want to sing this song with just anybody – I want to do work with you, mama. Because I believe you are that person who will tell a child to love themselves, to have self-esteem.” So, I listened to the song, and added my bit. And it’s turned out to be one of my favourite tracks.
What has allowed you to survive the challenges of being a woman in the cut-throat world of music and business?
I think believing in myself and knowing what I wanted. From day one, when Phil Hollis came to me and said he wanted to make me a superstar, I knew I wanted to do things my way. And even after 33 years, I still do it my way. I never allowed anybody to take me for granted. I thought, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be: I’m not going to sleep with any man to be a superstar, I’m not going to sell myself cheap, I’m not going to allow anybody to overrun me. If I didn’t know things, if there was a contract I wasn’t sure about, I took it to a lawyer to explain it to me, but I always made the decision. I’ve always been this very assertive girl.
Instead of spending my money on cars and clothes and fancy houses, I invested it. I stayed at home until I got married, even though I was considered a big star. I really think my two sisters and my mom actually kept me on the straight and narrow. When I was home, I still had to live by the rules, do my chores. My sisters often told me, and made me feel, I was still the Yvonne they grew up with.
Having four children on top of being a celebrity, running a business and giving aid to various causes is a lot to juggle. How do you manage to keep all the balls in the air and everyone happy?
I must say that my husband was an incredible partner and an incredible father to his children. He supported me, he encouraged me. When I was working, and then doing my assignments until two in the morning, he never complained. He became my pillar of strength.
My kids travelled with me on tour when they were younger. I breastfed them; I wanted a bond with my children. I didn’t want to be a parent with a remote control. Whether I was performing in Paris or Kenya or Uganda, I would take a nanny, but backstage after a performance, I would go back to our room and breastfeed them.
Mixing family with business can be tricky. How do you negotiate the change in roles between you and your son Themba, being co-producers?
I can say that when Themba and I are in the studio we fight so much! I’ll say to him, “Themba, I’ve been performing for 25 years, or 30 years.” And he’ll say, ”Yes, mom, but I wrote the song, I’m the producer, I don’t want you to sing the line like that. Sing it like this.” Sometimes I think I’m right because I’m the mother and I’ve got more experience, but he’ll tell me that the melody won’t sell, that I should sing it another way. At the end of the day, I have to learn to listen, because I can’t think I have it all or know it all. And I think we make a very good team.
You’ve recently received your second Honorary Doctorate, this time a Doctor of Laws (LLD) from Rhodes University. You’re also applying to do a degree in public health at either Harvard or John Hopkins University – without jinxing it, what has inspired you to study public health?
I just thought that since I’ve been doing work with the UN for the past 14 years, and work with the people from Harvard, and those from John Hopkins who are in public health, it would be very good for me to study. I thought: I go on stage and talk about TB, about malaria, about prophylaxis, about long-lasting meds, about statistics of people having TB, HIV, so wouldn’t it make sense for me to expand my scope in the public health field?
I don’t think it’s going to be easy – it’s one year if I study full time and two or three years part time. But I think it would be satisfying to talk from a more informed position, knowing the field better and feeling empowered by that. I know my limitations and I’d never do anything that would jeopardise or embarrass me. When I don’t know, I say I don’t know, but I’m prepared to learn. I really need to think hard about this decision. I need to be determined and I need to want to do it.
Tell us about your passion for education and how you think the government can improve education.
I get very upset when people think standards must be dropped. For us to compete with the world and be the best in everything that we do, we need to empower all our children – black, white and yellow. My mother always told me that when you have acquired knowledge and been empowered, you become a helper in your society. You become a better person. You’re not just sitting there waiting for somebody to think for you or to tell you what needs to be done. You are able to make your own decisions and do things for yourself. So, for me, education makes you a better person. For me, education has always been the most important thing. Even though I was singing, I always wanted to be educated.
You had a close relationship with Madiba: he called you his “dear daughter” and chose you to be the first ambassador for his children’s fund. Could you share with us a special memory of Madiba?
I was very lucky to have been born during Madiba’s time. We South Africans are very lucky to have been born during a time of such great leaders: your Steve Biko’s. When Steve Biko died in 1977, I think I was about 10 or 11 years old. And I was very fortunate when Madiba came out of jail. I think Madiba wanted to make everybody feel good, and so, he went to visit many different people. I don’t know how I cracked it, but he came to visit me. He called the house and said, “I’m coming to visit you.” And I said, ”No sir, I’ll come to your house.” But he wouldn’t accept that, so he came to visit me in my home, before he became a president. You can imagine how happy I was. He sat and ate with us; he asked me all sorts of questions about myself. The man just gave everybody time. And he made you feel like you were the most important thing in his life at that moment. Subsequent to that, he came to my house several more times. We even had Miriam Makeba’s 60th birthday at my house, and he was our guest.
I remember when he asked me, just before the elections, whether I would campaign for the ANC. I told him I’d do it, even though I was upset with him, because we all thought he would come out of jail and drive all the white people away – he just laughed and laughed. He was this amazing man, and we could talk to him about anything. He was just so selfless. He gave us back our dignity. We as South Africans are extremely privileged to have had a man like him as our leader.
And Ma Sisulu’s centenary? Do you have a favourite memory of her?
We are very lucky to have had her too. She was just such a different woman; a strong, strong woman, who was so unassuming. I am fortunate to have met Mama Sisulu several times. She was so honest with me. And she was such a great leader.
We didn’t know much about the struggle, but Mama Sisulu and Mama Winnie would be there to talk to us and tell us what was right, what was not right, and how to conduct ourselves. Whether you were a musician or an artist, or whatever – they were there for us when we had no other role models to look up to.
Your mother has been a positive role model in your life. What good advice did she give you growing up that would benefit aspiring young women today?
As I said, my mom was not very educated; she was a domestic worker. But I think she was ahead of her time. She always wanted to see the positive in us. She wanted us to stand up for ourselves, and not be deterred by where we were born, where we came from. I think what she really instilled in me and my two sisters was that we should never depend on anybody else, not even a man. On my birthday, I never expect a present from the people I invite. If I’m given a present, I’m happy and excited to see the present. I always say their presence is my present. My mother taught me never to be attached to things. It’s all about the experience, learning from one another, loving one another. My mother used to tell us to never expect to be loved by anybody, that you had to love yourself first. Know who you are, then people will love you.
So what can we look forward to from you? Are you still raring to go?
I really want to promote my album, Keep Looking at Me – I think there are a couple of good tracks. Two days ago I was appointed by SADC to be a goodwill ambassador (which is quite humbling). I also want to keep going with my UN work, to do something constructive with my fame. We can’t just sit there and talk about making the world a better place and moan about how it’s not. I believe once you see something that needs to be done, you need to be part of doing something good about it. That’s why I go out and do all the work I do.
I worked with young dyslexic kids from Namibia, when I went there in 2016 as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. The kids came to entertain us – they sang so well and they loved the music. I ended up recording a song with them. The kids were so happy. When they saw the cameras, they were like, “We’re gonna be superstars”, and they were dancing. It was so fun doing that video. It showed me that even if you’re disabled, you can still have some talent hidden somewhere there, and it just needs one or two people to help unleash it.
People still appreciate what I do. I’m not sick. I don’t have pain anywhere. I can still go to the gym. So, I’m just going to continue performing, empowering others, being the voice of the voiceless. Go out there, use my priviledge to do this advocacy. You have to do it not for accolades or money – you don’t get paid for this work – but because you want to do it and you believe you can change peoples’ lives. I get paid for my performances, I get paid for my public speaking, so why should I get paid to give back something positive to people who have nothing. I think once you differentiate some of these things and you find the balance, you become happy and content.
Do you have times when you just want to escape from the paparazzi and recoup?
I do. I don’t go to a lot of functions. Sometimes you just have to excuse yourself, otherwise you burn out. And the tabloids are always there, watching, writing about you – about what you’re saying, what you look like. I’m a very sensitive person, so I hate reading anything negative about myself. But you develop a thick skin, because you can never please everybody. And you shouldn’t want to. We’re like flowers in the garden; we can’t all be the same.
This article was written by Olivia Main and originally appeared in the 14th edition of Top Women Leaders under the headline ‘Princess of Africa’.