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On the Rise
Moonchild Sanelly

17 March 2022, 14:00

Moonchild Sanelly breathes in the best of South Africa’s electronic music and spits it back out with wit and woe.

“There was a time I was drunk and I sent my manager a message: let me finish this album. I need to go through this relationship bullshit right now,” Moonchild Sanelly recounts matter-of-factly.

A turbulent backstory behind a breakup album is almost required in music today, but Sanelly takes it one step further. She vouched to only break up with her then-fiancée, Gontse More, until the album was completed. “I'm not going to go through that for nothing! I might as well get products because my stories are from my experiences, so I finished the album and then I finished the relationship too. I'm a single girl now.”

The result is Phases, a double album that details as much heartbreak as it does the hoe life. It plunges into plush, amapiano beats, energetic gqom drumlines, and catchy grime cuts. That chaos is tied together by Sanelly’s trademark voice, which is eerily similar to Doja Cat’s alter ego on her hit single “Go To Town”: a “middle-aged African aunty: she’s very high-pitched, very mature… there’s kind of like, that oomph in there!”

Sanelly has managed to achieve middle-aged aunty status aged 34. She’s willing to dole out advice both in and out of song, and nothing is off-limits. Whether it’s about warning others of a nasty ex in “Demon”, to pleading to party amidst Covid restrictions in “Covivi”, Sanelly delivers her message at a Speedy Gonzalez pace, with a knowing wink in her voice.

Before she was Moonchild Sanelly, she was Sanelisiwe Twisha, raised in Port Elizabeth amongst an intensely musical family. Having a mother as a jazz singer, hip-hop producers for brothers and kwaito dancers for cousins, Sanelisiwe was encouraged to express herself creatively, no matter what. It all culminates in her sound, which she terms: future ghetto funk.

“Ghetto is the kwaito… and then the funk comes from my jazz background,” she explains. “My mother had a jazz tavern at one point. That was just naturally in me, the ghetto funk. But what I was doing next was the future of what has been instilled in me, and also what I've then found in my choosing to listen to the music that I listen to outside of what I was around me. It's never like, I'm gonna make a jazz song now. I've basically cooked what I come from. I'm not serving it as individual ingredients – I'm serving the dish.”

In 2005, Sanelisiwe moved to Durban, enrolling in university to study fashion. A few months after she moved, however, tragedy struck: her mother had passed. Sanelisiwe was only 17. “I remember coming back there, my fine art lecturer was like, oh my god, you're coming back with so much energy like you didn't just lose your mum! I was so detached.”

It was in Durban that Moonchild Sanelly was also born. In Xhosa, inyanga holds three meanings: month, moon, and healer. Although she wasn’t fully practising, Sanelisiwe’s mother was a traditional healer, often dreaming of prophetic visions. It seemed like the perfect tribute. She found herself engrossed in the flourishing South African music scene, writing for reggae bands and freestyling against other local rappers.

In fact, Sanelly’s discography sounds like an interactive Wikipedia entry for South African electronic music, often accompanied by vivid stories plucked from her life. “Bashiri” uses upbeat gqom rhythms to weave the tale of a greedy pastor who scams the narrator into believing he can cure her relationship with a cheating husband (this was partially inspired by Sanelly’s mother-in-law, who hired a Zimbabwean prophet to exorcise her). Meanwhile, traces of amapiano’s pulsing beat can be found amongst the various chants of “Thunda Thighs”. They range from sly and cheeky (“I have a sore throat”), to simple, yet bold (“I have a big ass”).

Sanelly has worked with some of the biggest pioneers of South African music today: DJ Maphorisa, DJ Lag, Rudeboyz. But she quickly found herself feeling frustrated at the difficulties she faced in South Africa. “What I become infamous for is literally my mouth, because you really don't find a lot of trouble. I only get in trouble for my mouth and twerking. That's it, because I'm comfortable. I'm a Black girl in South Africa, talking about sexuality, owning sexuality, doing conferences about being a bad bitch. For them it's a shocker. It's still conservative.”

“I think in every territory though, there's some level of conservatism,” she adds, reeling off a list of other countries that would share those same impulses. “The world will adjust.”

Although Sanelly had achieved success in South Africa, her career started to catapult in 2019. She managed to score a place on Beyoncé’s Lion King soundtrack after meeting her backstage at a Global Citizen concert and helping her team scout South African artists for the project, along with a collaboration with Diplo and DJ Raybel.

Her work with Africa Express also helped connect her with Damon Albarn. An organisation co-founded by the Blur frontman, it seeks to bring exposure to African artists and battle typical Westernised narratives of war, famine, and disease. For their 2019 album, EGOLI, Sanelly impressed with her work ethic, eventually landing a spot on Gorillaz’ Song Machine (2020).

It was with Africa Express where Sanelly’s musicality and attitude convinced Transgressive Records to sign her. “We first heard about Moonchild Sanelly through her manager Lauren Roth De Wolf who is one of the directors of Africa Express,’ label co-founder Tim Dellow tells me. “It became apparent that on their latest release Sanelly had stolen the show in her own inimitable style and brought these incredible toplines to a number of the features.”

"It's not a costume being an advocate for the female orgasm, It's who I am. That's how I speak, my music is my speech."

Being signed to a British label, does Sanelly worry about being exoticised or fetishised as a Black woman from Africa. “I'm not worried,” she proclaims. “If you fetishize, it's fine. I'm gonna do my job because that's how you take me. Take me there, you just don’t want to offend me. I really don't care about a lot of things. I care about my business, really. They'll call me prostitutes and all those things, but I'm just looking at my numbers, because it's inevitable people are gonna think what they want.”

When I cheekily ask how her numbers are doing, she lets out a chuckle” “I’m the next big thing after [producer] Black Coffee in South Africa thank you. It’s so crazy – when they looked at Twitter, I was like, how the fuck… it was Black Coffee and me, and then the most celebrated commercial South African artist, he had like, 2.2 million streams, which wasn’t even 10% of our shit."

Sanelly announces Phases today - 24 hours before she’s due to play BEST FIT’s official SXSW party, and ahead of a May appearance at The Great Escape in Brighton. Inspired by her tumultuous relationship, the record stitches together Sanelly’s influences and personalities, all into one juggernaut project.

One side which people may be more familiar with is her sexy side – she’s even labelled herself as “The President of the Female Orgasm.”. It’s something that’s attracted, rather than alienated, a lot of her audience. “The media always expected people to be fearful, but the DMs I get, people are actually curious because there's no one who owns it like me,” says Sanelly. “It's not a costume being an advocate for the female orgasm, It's who I am. That's how I speak, my music is my speech.”

One example of this is on “Strip Club”, which features Ghetts, following Sanelly’s appearance on the Grime MC’s 2021 album Conflict of Interest. Against an atmospheric, ghostly vocal sample, she lets out a wild chuckle, before launching into the chorus: “Come to the strip club / Come watch the girls dance / Come give the girls cash / Come with the racks for ass.” Both Sanelly and Ghetts rap about the club, sharing equal pleasure watching the girls there.

It’s a narrative that Sanelly wanted to spread: “That’s definitely something I'm conscious of… the fact that I'm not just celebrating whatever you think is a successful woman. I'm celebrating all women, the stripper, the one who wants to choose the side chick position, the one who's just proud of whatever they choose to do with their bodies, their lives, and not necessarily successful because they have a car and all that bullshit. Successful being a fucking woman in this world.”

Although there’s some sad spots on Phases, she hasn’t lost her fun streak. One track, “Chicken”, is three minutes of Sanelly as she waxes lyrical on the beauty of chickens against a stabbing, clucking synth. It completely mystified me at first, until Moon explained when she uses Xhosa or English. “When I wrote about the chicken, I know I'm targeting agencies for chicken adverts and stuff like that. I'm very conscious of that move, so you'll have that song there and it's in English since, like, OK, that's my word chicken – check.”

When Moon does use Xhosa, it’s strategic, too. Take “Weh Mameh” from her old EP, Nüdes: “I'm using words like weh mameh. What I also like about having been on the stage is I've seen how come the crowd response right?... I do stuff that is easy on the tongue for the global audience. So the world says where's my man, but I'm just saying weh mameh – which is literally oh my god. I’m not gonna do [starts Xhosa clicking].”

There’s another side of Sanelly which she’s displaying for the first time on Phases, and that’s vulnerability. “I'm not necessarily like a sombre person, so with this one I feel like I allowed myself some vulnerability, but my songs never end in tears,” she says. That’s why it was a surprise to hear the album end on a genuinely sincere note; “Bird So Bad” features watery pianos that accompany her wishes for “no commitments, no being stuck.” But true to her word, the song fades out into a gentle dance, rather than resting on a melancholy note.

Most people would have abandoned their relationship to reflect upon it in their albums, but Sanelly was determined to stick it out. “I think I stayed there longer because there's a thing about me: I love how the mind works, so I'm always trying to figure out why this is happening,” she explains. “It's almost like it becomes a project at some point, because I want to find out the reason once I click it, 'cause I'm very communicative.”

“I think it's just our pasts more than it was about the beautiful person you are now. If you haven't dealt with it, it's still that, right? And then if you're seeing a therapist, for instance, you're still gonna hit a wall because that person is not getting the tools of how to deal better. It's not because you're better, and that's why it always ends up happening.”

Nevertheless, Sanelly is all about connecting with the audience. Although she reflects on the difficult times in her relationship, it’s never too self-indulgent: “I'll have a story that starts with me and ends with everybody for connection of the feeling or an emotion.” Writing, for Sanelly, isn’t just expression – it’s a sign of solidarity for other people, too. “It's almost as if I always write for my future self as well. It's no longer just about people alone. I used to think it's just about people and empowering them a lot, but it's actually all of us.”

Case in point: Sanelly showed “Bird So Bad” to a friend, who upon listening to the track, started to cry. “She always gets into these fucked-up relationships of these guys who don't respect her, and I played her this song. She cried because she wanted to escape, but she didn't want to die. I've got an emotion for so many different things that women go through on their own that it's OK. It's OK, because I say what you're going through and you don't feel judged.”

At the beginning of our conversation – a few weeks before Phases is due to be announced – Sanelly tells me two things: she had just unveiled her mother’s tombstone, and the grandmother of her children had passed. She had married Sanelly’s mother’s cousin, who was abusive, but the pair became close.

“There's something she used to say to me all the time,” Sanelly explains. “When [my] kids came, she just had a stroke and she wasn't supposed to make it. She used to say to me, it’s as if my mum sent my kids for a reason for her to live longer. I feel like she had an extra eight [years] after they already told her that she'd kicked the bucket, y'know? It's a sad, beautiful, thing. That's how I'm looking about it.”

Releasing Phases is an oddly full circle moment for Moonchild Sanelly, one that at times unintentionally acknowledges what Sanelly has lost and gained. “I’ve always said I'll know I've made it when I unveil my mum's tombstone. And literally on my way there, [my kids’ grandmother] was the one who had my back the entire time until that moment until I said I've made it, so it feels like 'OK, I've done my part - continue’.”

Phases is released on 10 June via Transgressive. Moonchild Sanelly plays a London headline show at Village Underground on 10 May.
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