Simphiwe Dana Renegade by Pumla Dineo Gqola

Zukiswa Wanner reviews A Renegade Called Simphiwe by Pumla Dineo Gqola

Book: A Renegade Called Simphiwe
Author: Pumla Dineo Gqola
Publisher: Jacana Media
Number of pages: 180
Year of Publication: 2013

Simphiwe Dana is perhaps one of the better known musicians from South Africa under 40. Often compared to musicians like Ringo Madlingozi and the late Miriam Makeba, the young artist has won many awards with her three albums as well as come up with some interesting views on her public profile on Twitter. In A Renegade Called Simphiwe, feminist scholar and fellow South African Pumla Gqola explores Dana in eight essays comprising eight chapters.
Renegade begins by exploring the existence of Dana in contemporary South Africa alongside her fellow genius contemporaries in different artistic fields in South Africa. Put alongside a musician who Kenyans may be familiar with (Thandiswa Mazwai, the only female and arguably the most successful of the band Bongo Maffin), two poets, a visual artist, a filmmaker, and a novelist – all female, all black, all working against the grain- Dana seems to hold her own in the first essay No paradox: A renegade’s community. Her contemporaries are explained as is she and the way their works have left an indelible mark on the South African (and sometimes world outside South Africa) scene. The next essay focuses on the politics of her music. Its ability to get the audience pondering deeply or in the very next track, its flirty playfulness yet always beautifully arranged because this is an artist who cares about her work immensely.
Chapter three and four will resonate with many Kenyan women as they explore both Dana as a sexual being as well as a woman. A ‘soft feminist’ as Gqola states that Dana describes herself. Both entitled Desiring Simphiwe 1 and 2, the former chapter starts with anecdotes of two seemingly intelligent men doing that most juvenile of actions – making allegations of having had some form of relations with Dana to the writer. Gqola places the actions of these men in the broader world of gender relations on the continent and how patriarchy feels it is okay to police women’s bodies. This is perhaps something that Kenyan women can relate to in view of the minimal criticism given to a certain senator who questioned the behaviour of a grown woman presenter on live radio last week. The latter chapter explores the artist Dana, her femininity as well as her feminist stance. Subtitled ‘soft feminist’ Gqola states that this is a phrase that Dana has used to describe herself.  As an explanation Gqola states “although she was blatantly opposed to patriarchy, she still desired a strong man. I am not sure what she meant by a strong man…”
In subsequent essays, Gqola goes on to interrogate Dana’s stance on the politics of language and race vis-a-vis Dana’s famous tweefs with the leader of South Africa’s official opposition Helen Zille then finally concludes with a focus on her as an artist.
In one of the earlier introductory chapters, Gqola denies that A Renegade called Simphiwe is NOT a biography of the musician Simphiwe Dana. But this reader begs to differ. The book reads like a biography. A biography of thoughts by Simphiwe as well as an autobiography of thoughts by the writer. And despite it being written by someone in academia, it is fortunately, for the reader, as painless and enjoyable as it is a profound read.


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