Singer, songwriter, Holly has been performing since she was a teen and at 21, the Durban artist has emerged with a unique sound that is homegrown and proudly Mzanzi. Over the past eight Holly has made waves in a flourishing House music scene, becoming a fixture at major live events and earning herself a place in the hearts of music lovers across the country. Recently, The Weekly Gazette caught up with Holly to talk about music, unity and cultural assymilation with the talented muso.
WG: When did you start your music career- was it always a dream to be a singer?
H: My first studio recording was at the age of 13. I have never thought of myself as a singer, in fact I did not think I could sing. I started out by writing songs with my guitar and then people wanted to record my songs and it was through the recording process and the encouragement from producers that I began to sing. I always thought that singers had to have huge range and do all that fancy bending of notes and vocal tricks but the producers I worked with taught me that it is so much easier to work with a singer who just sings “straight.” And so that is what I have stuck to throughout my career so far. I have never thought of myself as the greatest singer but producers always comment on how I deliver a good straight vocal which makes their jobs easier. It is still not my dream to be a singer, for me it is the sum of all parts. It’s the writing, the creating, the music and playing an active part in the production of the song that completes me as a singer, songwriter and musician.
WG: What drew you to House music?
H: I was exposed to House music through the musicians I was working with early on in my career. They would bring music to listen to in the car on the road to gigs and the more I heard the more I wanted to hear. I got hooked on the more tribal, afro sounds in Deep House and was listening to more Black Coffee, Cuebur, Culou, Shimza, EmEx. More recently I am listening to alot of Kwaito and Gqom because I am loving how these genres are influencing the evolution of House Music.
WG: What makes your music unique?
H: It is always difficult for an artists to define themselves which is why I get an independent writer to write or update my biography. I think Diane Coetzee put it best in my recent biography: “Holly set her sights on making music that is pivoted off her deep love for the country of her birth – and her determination not to be a passive observer and consumer of the cultural context in which she lives.” I am not in tourist in the House Music market. I live, eat and breathe tribal house music. I write and sing songs in Zulu, not as a gimmick, but because I love the metaphorical beauty of the language, it is perfect for House Music, you can communicate an entire concept with one word.
WG: Do you identify strongly with Zulu culture- tell us a bit about how you arrived at this mzansi sound?
H: Totally. How can you live in Kwazulu Natal and not identify with and respect Zulu culture. As a young musician I was strongly influenced by the musicians and the people who surrounded me. I have been venturing in and out of the outer suburbs in search of new sounds and collaborations since I was 15 years old. My first recordings were done with a Mozambican producer who introduced me to allot of Afro Jazz musicians. For most of my performing life I worked with a Mozambican guitarist, Aristides Manhique. Aristides has mastered the sounds of Maskandi and Batanga guitar. I worked with a Mozambican percussionist and a bass player from Umlazi. All of these musicians have had a profound effect on how my sound has evolved. When it came to my ventures into House Music, I was working with a range of producers, from well known producers like Mondli Ngcobo to some of the underground producers from Umlazi to Malukazi to Folweni to Kwamashu. Many of the producers I have grown up with have created the biggest hits in the country and they are the true pioneers behind the fresh sounds in Kwaito and Gqom. These producers are the guys I consider to be my musical brothers and uncles, the guys who have molded me into who I am as an artist today. There are artists who jump on the next big sound coming out of the streets and fair game to them but I am sticking to evolving my own distinct sound of House. I may feature broken beats but it would include Maskandi guitar lines with a tribal undertone as opposed to being a straight up Gqom track.
WG: You often incorporate isiZulu lyrics into your music- do you think that language plays a key role in promoting unity in South Africa?
H: Absolutely, more people should try to learn African languages. Music is also key in promoting African languages, if lyrics in popular music can teach somebody a few words in an African language then let’s keep pushing the boundaries to a greater understanding of one another.
WG: What is your ultimate goal as a musician?
H:To blur the lines and create greater cultural tolerance.
WG: Do you think that music is a vehicle for social commentary and change?
H: Yes, nothing annoys me more than when a fellow artist tells me that I must never speak about politics or get involved in sensitive issues. Not talking about politics and difficult subjects is what is dumbing down music and preventing us from having necessary conversations about things. Alot of my songs are about having the courage to make better choices. I don’t believe that the revolution for women needs to be about sex, it can also be about just having courage and promoting the desire for a better world for all women to live in. Education for young women is my core social cause. Music has given me the opportunity to connect with so many young women, at a grassroots level, who are dealing with the inequalities and social issues that impact their ability to complete school and continue onto tertiary education. I continue to look for ways to connect with young women through music and inspire them to ‘keep on keeping on.’ But I also try to do this in a way that is not “Buka Mina.”
WG: What differentiates cultural assimilation and cultural appropriation in your opinion?
H: Cultural assimilation is when people become a product of their environment. The experiences and connections in a world which has created who they are and is expressed through their creativity. Cultural appropriation is when you blatantly borrow from a culture you have absolutely no connection to and you create something of absolutely no benefit to anyone but yourself. You steal a cultural identity for self promotion.
WG: How do you think Durban culture veers off the mainstream? What influenced has this had on your music?
H: For some reason Durban culture has always been the bravest. Artist have to work that much harder to achieve relevance away from the media hub that is Joburg. This has been key in challenging Durban artists to work harder, be more creative and pioneer new frontiers. This has always been my motivation.
WG: The music industry is often glamourised- what has your experience been?
H: Often the people who seem as though they have everything sorted out and are on the top of their game, are actually the ones with the deepest insecurities. Learning this has really helped me chill the hell out and find a balance between wanting all the pie in the sky and allowing myself the time to grow organically into who I am meant to be.
WG:. At 16 you were already performing- do you have an tips for other aspiring musicians both young and old?
H: Know when to step back. Never involve yourself in negative bullsh*t. Rather spend your thousands of hours driving tangible results by focussing on your craft. When you do that your work will speak for itself.
WG: You have collaborated with a few local artists- do you feel that collaborations enrich or develop your sound?
H: Honestly, yes and no. I have had some of my greatest collaborations with musicians and some of my worst collaborations with artists. Collaboration only works when both parties are willing to bring something to the table as well as take something from the table. There is nothing worse than collaborating with someone or a group of people who absolutely refuse to collaborate. All music is a collaboration, so when you work with musicians who give generously to the process the result is always growth.
WG: Are you a full time musician? Any other projects on the sidelines?
H:I am a full time musician and a full time student. I am working towards obtaining a PHD in Cultural Studies.
Complete the sentence
The best venue for a party is…in your head
My ideal getaway would be…the bush
If I had a superpower it would be…to be a one take wonder
Kicks or Slides …. If I have to choose one then Kicks.
Club or pub? Club
Beach or Berg? Berg