By Celestine Okafor (Editor-in-Chief)
At the height of the monstrous and Portuguese imperial regime in South Africa in the 1980s, several talents, mostly musical stars emerged on the global music scene, from the oppressed black people of South Arica. Among them, is Yvonne Machaka (a.k.a Yvonne Chaka Chaka). The evils of the racist Apartheid government in Pretoria, in which millions of black South Africans were hounded, jailed, exiled, maimed, and killed, however, brought inspiration to Yvonne, to make her mark in music.
Then, she was a strident young voice against the Apartheid era. She deployed her talent to decry the persistent inequalities, not only in her country but across the continent of Africa. Her motivation for agitation was indeed strong. Yvonne once admitted that the African continent was buffeted by many problems. According to her, Africa is bogged down by the fact that women and children, particularly, are always made to bear a large chunk of the burdens of the African problems.
As one of Africa's most identifiable cultural figures in the last thirty-five years, Yvonne Chaka Chaka has remained hugely popular, gracing the cover of more newspapers and magazines than many African icons. These images represent a life of tribulations, trials, and accomplishments. She has remained a very passionate advocate of women's rights and an activist working across a broad range of development issues. In 1981, the song Princess became a prominent item to the South African public. She was the first black child to appear on South African television on a talent show called "Sugar Shack". Four years later, at age 19, in 1985, she began her singing career proper.
Yvonne was then spotted by Phil Hollis of Dephon Records in Johannesburg. Her first album was "I'm in Love with a DJ". That album alone sold 35,000 copies. With her second album called "Umqombothi (African Beer)", she automatically became a South African star of Mbaqanga music. Since then, she released hit after hit songs. Her award-winning albums include "Burning Up", "Sangoma", "Who's the Boss", "Motherland", "Be Proud to be African", "Thank you Mr. DJ", "Back on my Feet", "Rhythm of Life", "Who's Got the Power", "Bombani (Tiko Rahini)", "Power of Afrika", "Yvonne and Friends", "I Cry for Freedom", "I'm Winning (My Dear Love)", "Second Hand Love", "Umqombothi (Remix)", "Caught Breaking the Law", "Take my Love, it's Free", "From Me to You", "Let Him Go" and "Kwenzenjani".
However, apart from some of these iconic songs, Yvonne, last year, in 2020, despite the intensity of the scourge of coronavirus pandemic, went back to the studio ostensibly to do a remake of her 1980s hit LP, Umqombothi, which is a celebration of her brand of African liquor (Beer). She also collaborated with Afro-pop songstress, Amanda Black, and on King Korn to encourage young people to embrace and be proud of their tradition and culture, and to teach young South African people how to brew Umqombothi in their households. King Korn, however, is a traditional sorghum homebrew brand that has been a part of South African’s cultural and traditional celebrations. According to Yvonne Chaka Chaka, working with Amanda was amazing, and the cherry on top, she said, was working with a young producer, Christer Kobedi, who added his twist and a youthful feel to the song.
"Wow! Amanda is talented", Yvonne began with great elation. "When we were in the studio, I envied her just by looking at her sing because of her soulful and incredible voice. Umqombothi is still a big song, mntanami. In 1989 people from London, Britain and Germany were dancing to the song in nightclubs. Although the recreation of the song was not commercialized last year, I am grateful for the feedback we received from the fans. I am glad it is still receiving airplay to this day", Yvonne stated.
However, after years of Apartheid and the post-apartheid era in South Africa, Yvonne's current appraisal of the music sector in her country was that music has evolved and is in fact growing in South Africa. She said she blamed the person who named their music genre bubblegum. Amidst laughter, she quipped that "probably a man was mad with a woman when he considered our music to be bubblegum. Remember, with chewing gum, you chew it while it’s still sweet; once it loses its flavor, you throw it away. I disagree that our music is classified as bubblegum. Its sweetness doesn’t fade away. Our music still has relevance and uniqueness because people are still jamming to songs like Weekend Special, Makoti, and Vulindlela (late Brenda Fassie's wedding day hit song) at their wedding ceremonies to this day.
"These are the songs you can still remake. It does not matter how long ago the songs were released, society can still relate to the lyrics. These are what we call “staying power’ songs. Although I still don’t have words to classify our music genres, my music was influenced by Brenda Fassie. I love how young people express themselves in their lyrics and how wise they are in picking who they want to collaborate with. I hope that since everything is digital now, they will receive the royalties they deserve. Back then, we used to sell cassettes and so received our music royalties".
But a major demoralizing factor to Yvonne Chaka Chaka presently is the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has tremendously made it impossible that South African musicians like her and their fans will no longer be attending any gigs since mass gatherings were banned due to the pandemic. She confessed that she misses singing and watching live performances. "Unfortunately, these are tough times we live in; we have to adhere to the protocols and take the necessary precautions. Artists are indeed struggling in these times. If we as artists are struggling, what about the backing vocalists and musical ensemble? As a result, this has led to artists losing their homes, cars, and livelihoods. Sadly, most of them are suffering from stress, anxiety, and depression because the relief fund that the department of sports, arts, and culture is providing is not sufficient", Yvonne divulged.
She said she's been trying to find innovative ideas to create a business model for South African music where they can display live performances even during lockdown via streaming platforms. "I think we can achieve this by adopting steaming services such as Showmax and Netflix. If people are able to watch movies from these platforms in the comfort of their homes, I am convinced that they could do the same with music. This means as artists we can work and earn a living. I have been trying to pitch my idea to different potential government departments and private sectors, but I am hitting a stumbling block. Unfortunately, we need to come up with solutions immediately. Otherwise, we are still going to read more about artists dying as paupers", she stated.
In the past 36 years of her music career, Mrs. Yvonne Chaka Chaka has predominantly devoted her life to just music. Though she confessed recently that she's not about to hang up her microphone anytime soon in retirement. According to her, this is because music is her way of staying in touch with herself. "Music is love and l live and breathe music. Maybe one or two collabs (a musical collaboration with fellow artistes) before I retire".
The continent's Princess of song has however performed all over Africa. She has performed for luminary world figures such as Dr. Nelson Mandela, HRM Queen Elizabeth 11 of England, Oprah Winfrey, former US President Bill Clinton, ex-President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, and a host of other world leaders. She was once a guest of the former US First Lady, Mrs. Bush at the White House in Washington. At the musical stage, the performing Diva has shared space with notable megastars such as Bono, Yousson N'Dour (the classic rock band singer), and South Africa's Johnny Clegg, Mirian Makeba (late Mama Africa who once described Yvonne as "my baby") and Hugh Masekela (who also described the singer as "my mad niece").
Realizing the transient nature of fame quite early in her career, Yvonne decided to create her own company in 1989 called Chaka Chaka Promotions. In 1995, she also set up a music label known as Chaka Chaka Music. Since then, every album released by Yvonne has been on her label. In addition, she and her husband, Dr. Mandlalele Mhinga (a Medical Doctor), also owns a Limousine Company. Her business interests span through various sectors of the South African economy, such as the Information Communication Technology (ICT) sector, Energy and Minerals, Human Resources Development (specializing in adult training), and Sandown Motors, a luxury motor vehicle retail business.
At a personal level, Yvonne Chaka Chaka is essentially down-to-earth. She, at all times, exhibits an exhilarating sense of humor and appears truly focused in her quest for perfection in her appearance, career, and personal life. Yvonne is abysmally a people's person, a cross-racial fan's favorite. This was however evident in one of her chance encounters with this writer (Nigerian NewsLeader Editor-in-Chief) a couple of years ago at the Entebbe International Airport in Kampala, Uganda (one of East Africa's Great Lake Countries), and also at the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, in her home country, South Africa. In each of her arrival and departure at these airports, a heavy throng of excited fans swam Chaka Chaka like bees, striving to touch, shake her hands, hug her or pose for a memorial selfie with this Africa's Princess of Song. The ever-plump-looking entrepreneur and humanitarian exudes so much happiness and confidence that reflects a thing of value she has to offer. Her energy and enthusiasm are boundless. Yvonne is also highly principled, essentially because of her strict upbringing. After the death of the legendary Mama Africa (Mirian Makeba), South Africans, especially the youths, began to look up to Chaka Chaka as a symbolic national mother figure. She became a heroine and a mentor to others, a willing warrior and agent for change in enormous spheres.
Born in Dobsonville, Soweto, in 1965, Princess Yvonne Chaka Chaka grew up in a humble family. Her father, a local musician who could not achieve fame like his daughter through his vocation, died when Yvonne was just eleven years old. Her mother, Sophie Machaka, was a country domestic worker whose monthly salary was no more than 40 South African Rand. With this meager income, she fed and trained her three daughters including Yvonne. "It was no easy task", Yvonne reminisced with emotive pain. She confessed that her mom desperately wanted her to become a lawyer "to have a solid qualification and to be able to support myself". She continued: "I went to the University of South Africa, but after failing Afrikaans three times, and knowing l could sing, my life took another course. But my mother's wish (of Yvonne becoming a lawyer) was on my mind. So eventually l studied Adult Education, Local Government and Administration as well as obtained a Certificate in Speech and Drama from the Trinity College in London".
The singer who confessed to inheriting the gift of song from both parents said thus of her mother: "My mother was my pillar and she was always there for me. I admired her sense of fortitude, and that was one attribute l strove to covet while growing up". Yvonne, a highly personable and gracious woman with a warm, inimitable, and distinctive alto voice, revealed how, as a little girl back in her native homeland Soweto, she would strum an empty tin and blow into a broomstick pretending it was a microphone. "I sang in church choirs. I loved singing. I am blessed that l achieved my destiny, and been able to accomplish what my father could not". She however paid glowing tribute to one Mrs. Rateba, an old lady she described as "wonderful who live across the road from us". "Each week", Yvonne recalled, "she'd round up all the kids in my area and March us off to her church to read, sing, dance and most importantly debate. Above all, this woman taught us to love ourselves and how to go on with our lives".
On the marital and family sphere, Yvonne Chaka Chaka has been a huge success story unlike most of her ilk on the continent of Africa and elsewhere. The robust beautiful singer is happily married now for over forty years to a medical physician, Dr Mandlalele Mhinga. The couple has four boys - Ningi 40, Themba 37, Mfumu 32, and Mandla 28. The boys are however doing well in their fields of endeavor. Two or three of her sons are responsibly married and Yvonne is now a proud grandmother of three. "Nothing gives me more joy than spending time with my three grandchildren. I just enjoy being with them — they complete me. But you know they are at the stage where they can express themselves, like back-chatting. But I put them in order because I am a very strict gogo. Being a granny is the best thing that has ever happened to me", Chaka Chaka reveals. Yvonne also confessed that being a mom to four boys was the hardest job in the world. "It's harder than being a performer", She quipped, adding that, "there's no script. But one thing we knew for sure, my husband Tiny (Mhinga) and I, was that the boys must follow their own dreams. Only Themba, thank goodness, want to be in the music industry and he's already doing well".
Outside the music studio and performing platforms, Yvonne Chaka Chaka has a peculiar way with which relaxes or unwinds. Besides sleeping a lot, she relishes and loves cooking uphutu, fresh milk, and inkomazi, native South Africa's indigenous delicacies. She also enjoys hiking every Sunday. "Thank you to my sister, Nonhlanhla, and my niece, Thuli Thabethe, for introducing me to hiking. It’s my new hobby, and it’s a natural exercise that promotes physical fitness; at the same time, it challenges you both physically and mentally", said Chaka Chaka.
Recently she released a new song called "I Dare To Dream" which she said was a song of hope. This song, Yvonne explained, was to give South Africans and indeed the world hope during what he described as the "trying times" of the covid-19 pandemic. She said the world presently needs to dare to dream if hope must be kept alive. She also revealed that the song can be accessed online on the YouTube channel. Yvonne stated that the covid-19 lockdown happened unexpectedly and therefore took the world unawares which, according to her, provided artists and people in the creative industry especially, like herself, the leverage to unleash their creative musical energy, as more talents happened in the music sphere. However, Yvonne hopes that the coronavirus pandemic era would soon be over and life would get back to normal so that people can attend live music shows and open-air concerts.
Yvonne Chaka Chaka holds two diplomas from the University of South Africa. She taught part-time as a literacy teacher at the same University. As a businesswoman, she sits on the boards of several corporate concerns including the Johannesburg Tourism Company. Besides, she's on the boards of Charity Organizations and NGOs. All over the African Continent, this South African music iconic gazelle is well known and respected. In recent decades, her voice is being heard in other ways. As a Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF, she travels around the world, raising awareness around health issues and the rights of women and children. She's also a UN Envoy for Roll Back Malaria Campaign sponsored by the World Bank, World Health Organization (WHO), and other institutions for Eastern and Southern Africa. What, indeed, would stir her interest on the malaria issue? Yvonne gushed emotively. "Oh!, one of my musicians, a female member of my band, died of Cerebral Malaria and l felt so devastated. Six months after, UNICEF invited me to be their Ambassador. But l gave a condition that l would only accept if l would be allowed to concentrate on malaria, and l am glad that they accepted".
At 56 years old, Yvonne Chaka Chaka known all over the continent as the "Princes of Africa", actively promotes issues regarding the rights of women and the protection of children. In 2016, she discovered that women’s voices were missing on radio across the continent. The singer then came up with a solution of online radio. Its main focus was to advocate for women to share their views and solutions. When Yvonne decided to execute her idea two years after it was conceived, she engaged with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa to get a license, which was a mission. Eventually, the idea was put into action, and that was how the self-funded project WOMan Radio was born. "It's a free online radio app that you can download from your smartphone. But the problem is it needs data, which costs a fortune. Our hosts are young and talented and they engage on different topics such as gender-based violence, mental health, and other issues affecting women. My show, On The Couch, airs every Friday from 12-2 pm. The feedback has been amazing, and the listenership is growing every day; we have listeners as far as the UK, US, Germany, Lesotho, and other countries", said Chaka Chaka.
Yvonne is a Trustee of Tomorrow Trust, a foundation for the educated orphans and vulnerable children. She has a Charity Organization known as the Princess of Africa Foundation, which raises awareness around the fact that malaria ravages millions of Africans annually. Yvonne has pioneered charity crusades against HIV/AIDS. She's a chairperson for the Shoprite Checkers/SABC2 Women of the Year Awards. She is also a beneficiary of so many awards including the World Economic Forum (WEF) Crystal Awards, Grand Prix Pan African de la Chanson, and Ngoma Awards in Zaire, among several others. Yvonne was recently honored by one of South Africa's foremost tertiary institutions, Rhodes University with an honorary doctorate degree in Law (Honorary Causa) for her outstanding role in music as a vehicle for advancing the good cause of South African society.
At his 85th birthday concert where Chaka Chaka performed in his honor, Africa's good man and legendary freedom fighter, Dr. Nelson Mandela, captured her thus: "Yvonne, you are a testament to my belief. You have made all of South Africa proud to claim you as a national icon. You have motivated millions of women and men on our continent. Your generosity has benefitted untold numbers of families and orphans facing the challenges of AIDS, terminal illness, abuses, poverty, and illiteracy. I know you will always make your indelible mark wherever you go. There is no stopping you. You will always be my Princess of Africa". NNL.