Popular singer-songwriter Zahara gave fans a glimpse of her humble beginnings in Phumlani village, Eastern Cape, on SABC3’s The Insider SA this week.
Born Bulelwa Mkutukana, Zahara started singing in her school and church choir at the age of six. Today, she is a multi-award winning singer whose debut album, Loliwe, has sold more than 100,000 copies in South Africa alone and went double-platinum in just 17 days.
Zahara has endeared herself to fans with her smoky alto voice and Afrosoul music. It’s inspiring how she has gained fame despite her humble background and challenging circumstances.
“Growing up here was such an amazing feeling. It got me to where I am at today,” Zahara said on The Insider SA.
The star’s heart is still at Phumlani even though she is currently based in Johannesburg. “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,” she explained.
Zahara is the sixth of seven children. Although her parents worked hard to provide for them all, there just wasn’t enough money for her tertiary education.
Guitar ‘a symbol of hope’
“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,” she mused.
“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.”
With such a natural talent and unforgettable voice, it was just a matter of time before Zahara was offered a record deal, but how did she choose her stage name?
“A zahara is a flower [in Arabic] and it only blooms in the desert,” she told The Insider SA. “It doesn’t need to be watered. It just blooms and blooms every time and any time.”
Zahara’s signature hit, 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,” she explained.
Today, the hit singer has won more than 40 awards, including eight SAMAs with her album Loliwe. She has won Best Female Artiste and Album of the Year awards.
Zahara nevertheless maintains close ties with her family despite her tremendous success. “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,” she said.
Zahara has just finished her latest album and the trip back home was a much-needed break. She said, “I’m so excited that sometimes I don’t even sleep! 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.”
An enduring highlight of her career was in 2013 when the late President Nelson Mandela personally invited her to sing in his home.
Zahara capped off her feature on The Insider SA 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.”