Palesa Nomthandazo Phumelele Modiga’s ID book already contains enough names but if she could add one more, it would surely be Audacious. Her wardrobe could be described as bold – so, too, the album sleeve for her debut album, Yellow: The Novel. But bold is too bland an adjective to describe this young star in the making.
Ours is a country blessed with boundless talents, yet in the music industry, even ingenuity is not always enough. It demands everything of those who dare call themselves musicians, with no promise of any rewards. It can provide musicians with the highest of highs and lowest of lows. It can chew you up and spit you out. Zoë Modiga can list plenty of examples of some of her idols who have witnessed their zenith and soon plummeted to the nadir of their careers.
Yet, this 23-year-old Durban-born seems more assured in her voice (and image) than most newcomers we’ve witnessed in the past. Something about her suggests she will be just fine. To use a line from her epic 11-minute song, ‘Shake the World’, “there would be blood on my hands if it didn’t shake the world that I was here.”
She jokes that she wants to perform on the moon, or the planet Saturn, one day. “Okay, that might be far-fetched. I just want to stay level-headed, and I know that I am going to soar because I haven’t given myself any option not to,” she says.
Modiga, winner of SAMRO’s 2015 Overseas Scholarships Competition for jazz singers, began her long journey to Yellow: The Novel by attending the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg, where she trained in classical piano, clarinet and singing. Following that, she enrolled at one of the country’s best music schools, the University of Cape Town’s South African College of Music, specialising in jazz vocals. However, for undisclosed reasons, she was unable to complete her degree.
That’s when, as she puts it, “the album wrote itself”.
“I got inspired because us musicians often get inspiration from the darkest things. It was supposed to be the saddest time of my life, but ended up being inspiring. In that sense, the album crafted itself. The material floated out. I definitely owe that to something a lot bigger than myself,” she reflects.
She describes how she works and how she learns as “unorthodox”, but this only serves to strengthen her nonconformist identity.
Modiga picked herself up and auditioned for SAMRO’s Overseas Scholarships Competition in 2015, only to win it. The competition, which boasts successful alums including pianist Bokani Dyer and bassist Benjamin Jephta (incidentally, both contributed to her 23-track album), has been held for more than 50 years.
As one of the SAMRO Foundation’s flagship music education awards, the competition rotates on a four-yearly cycle, alternately rewarding vocalists, instrumentalists, keyboard players (pianists and organists) and composers.
But Modiga chose not to take up her scholarship immediately (she’s yet to), because she wanted to audition for reality TV singing competition The Voice on M-Net. She felt it would help “set up a few things career-wise”. There, she was mentored by multiplatinum-selling and award-winning singer Lira, who helped see her “protégée” into the top eight of the competition.
Several record labels tried to snap her up, but eventually she decided that if she was to soar like an eagle, she would have to fly solo. Yellow: The Novel was then released independently.
“When I look at Yellow, I don’t think I could align it to any label, certainly not locally,” she says. “I really did want to bet on myself with this work. I wanted my debut to be me introducing myself to the world as I am without feeling like I needed to compromise myself – be it my image, sound or aesthetic. I write songs, I sing them, I produce them, I work with amazing musicians and I believe in being seen in this light.”
She continues: “Even the things I stand for at this point in my life, I feel like it would be difficult for any corporate company to attach itself to that. I really want to change the spaces I exist in. I have enough to do it alone. It’s a lot of work but I have enough in me to go it by myself.”
One thing is for sure: there are many who are rooting for her to succeed. What does it mean to the young Modiga to have the endorsement of some of the biggest names in the industry? “It’s more than heart-warming! I grew up listening to these people. As much as I grew up listening and watching Beyoncé, I also had national examples like Thandiswa, Lira, Simphiwe Dana and Boom Shaka.
“So, having someone who has opened a lot of doors for me without even knowing that, and having them receive my work like this, is a big deal. Anybody would want to be attached to their kind of brilliance.”