Category Archives: The Interview



Adze Ugah is one of Africa’s finest filmmakers whose artistic vision is responsible for some of the most widely followed productions in South Africa and indeed across Africa. What separates the grain from the proverbial chaff as pertains  Ugah is his growing repertoire of television and film helming productions such as Society II and III, Zone 14, Tshisa II, Skwizas II, My Perfect Family II, Isibaya, Room 9 within the context of an environment that is generally hostile to African immigrants. A past Best Achievement in Directing – TV Soap winner for Isibaya in the South African Film and Television Awards, Ugah is a pioneering Nigerian creative plying his trade in South Africa.    His critically acclaimed pan African television series Jacob’s Cross is perhaps his crowning achievement in a glittering film career in terms of forging pan African relations. The 2008 documentary The Burning Man garnered international notice and earned several awards.His first feature film Gog’Helen was released in late 2012 and he is currently involved in various stages of production of other film and television projects. This creative visionary is a little lauded articulate giant of African film. Culture Beat Africa editor Addy Kudita manages to prise him away from his busy schedule for an insightful one on one.

CBA: How did you get your break in the cut throat world of television, it’s cut throat isn’t it?

ADZE UGAH: Every industry is cut throat, but for one to make it in TV and film, I feel one must always start with believing that one has something to offer.So it is not about entering the industry with the notion of what one can get out of it. I lived, breathed and ‘slept’ film and TV.Everyone around me could see it.So after film school in Nigeria, I sought to increase my knowledge base, and that’s what led me to do my honours in SA. After graduating, I sought more knowledge by volunteering to be a trainee for little or no pay on the film and TV sets.As long as it meant I could learn more about making TV and film from a practical perspective without having to pay for it.It was very hard considering that I had no support system in SA and relied on just the kindness of God and others for survival. And those who allowed me to work as a trainee could see my potential in even the most menial of film and TV functions and just saw it fit to assign bigger responsibilities to me.When the time came, that’s what happened and that’s how I started. It all began with Home affairs and the producer of Home affairs, Roberta Durant, for seeing that potential and giving me that opportunity.

CBA: Can you recall for me some of the projects you have worked on aside from famous ones such as Zone 14 and others such as Society which I enjoyed thoroughly?

ADZE UGAH: My first work experience in SA Television was on a SABC 1 show called Home affairs, as a trainee assistant director. I recall being nervous when it was time to apply for a work permit to work on that show because I thought the department of Home affairs might think we were making a show about them and be worried about being shown in a negative light on TV and maybe refuse the permit. But the show had nothing to do with the department.In a way; it was like Society, just about the four disparate lives of women living in SA. I then went to work as an assistant director on an SABC 2 show called Heartlines that was where I met Angus Gibson, the creator/director of Yizo Yizo. He also directed the Oscar nominated documentary on Mandela and he has since been my mentor. He was intrigued by my passion for movies and TV. He then invited me to meet his business partner and producer Desiree Markgraaf. At the time they were creating a pan African series for MNET, and they invited me to contribute to the project. It went on to become the acclaimed pan-African series that we know today as Jacob’s Cross, and I became one of the anchor directors of the show. Since then I have done Tshisa season three, some episodes of Room 9, the supernatural detective series set in a future dystopian South Africa. I have done some episodes of the sitcom, My Perfect Family and Skwizas. Also directed an anti xenophobia Mfolozi Street and have directed feature films for SA cinema such as Gog Helen, Mrs Right Guy, and 10 Days in Sun City.

CBA: As a migrant, what obstacles did you have to overcome to get to a place where you could “eat” from the craft?

ADZE UGAH: Firstly for me, it wasn’t about what and where I could “eat”, I was about what I could give others to “eat”, even though at the time I virtually had nothing, but I had my ideas, my point of view on things, my creativity, i had my vision and my passion and that’s what I believe created the opportunities for me

CBA: Did you train in S.A. or Nigeria and how did you cut your teeth in the business?

ADZE UGAH: My first degree in film was from Nigeria, at the National Film Institute, in Jos. I was able to make one film after I graduated with money from my parents and I used my family as the cast.The film went on to win some awards in Nigeria at that time but didn’t really make me any money.But it was a great learning curve that led to the desire to seek more knowledge in making films.

CBA: What kind of a premium do you think as Africans are placing on our own narratives?

ADZE UGAH: Not nearly enough as we should, other countries like Asia, Europe and the Americas see their narratives as a commodity.For them their art and culture and entertainment is not just a government mandate, it is big business. It is something to invest in and to export to other nations. It grows their economy and shapes their identities -the best of both worlds as far as I am concerned. It’s about time Africans saw it as more than just stories told round a fire place or under a tree or just a novelty. It is big business.

CBA: What in your opinion is the importance of story telling from a developmental point of view?

ADZE UGAH: Story telling shapes emotions, identity and consciousness.America has used it to colonize the world, advance its notions and ingrained itself into the global psyche. We have the same opportunity to do like wise.

CBA: What stories do you believe need to be told more insistently about Africa?

ADZE UGAH: Historical ones for starters and even contemporary ones.

CBA: How do you view issues around xenophobia?

ADZE UGAH: Just like any other malady, you can’t endorse something that every one agrees it is a social ill. Even those who are xenophobic know that it is a negative attitude, and just like any other social ill, it is mostly fueled by ignorance and the only way to counter ignorance is to inform and educate.That’s why platforms like film and TV become very important.  I meant,  I directed an anti-xenophobia documentary called The Burning Man, and feature films for SA cinema such as Gog helen, Mrs Right Guy, 10 days in Sun City.

CBA: The work of yours that I have seen tends to have a gritty realism to it. The characters tend to be the most interesting ones and a good example are the Zone 14 ones such as Spinach…Do you deliberately seek out scripts with strong memorable characters?

ADZE UGAH: I think i have just been lucky to work with people who are also drawn to the same issues as I am. That’s what it’s really all about at the end of the day.

CBA: What are currently working on?

ADZE UGAH:  I am working on Isibaya at the moment and working towards releasing a feature film in 2018

CBA: Are you eating from this?

ADZE UGAH: I think it’s more important that I know others can eat from the projects I am work on first and foremost.That is the only thing that guarantees that I can also eat from it eventually.

CBA: What inspires you personally?

ADZE UGAH: Good films, good books and good television series, but most of all the human experience in all its permutations mostly inspire me.

Rising African comic Keith Nkosi

keith nkosi – photo by Multimedia Box

Keith Nkosi has starred at the Live & Fluid a Culture Beat Africa Multimedia multi-genre arts showcase in Zimbabwe in 2015 amongst many other national and regional platforms.He gave an inspired performance that had audiences tickled by the sardonic wit of the Namibian University performing arts major. Keith is funny to a fault..the thinking man’s comic in the mould of a David Chappelle or a Trevor Noah. In this interview with CBA he talks about his journey to date:

CBA: Keith your journey in comedy begins when ?

Keith Nkosi: It begun in 2010 in Namibia when I did a comedy show Think out loud for my 4year drama project at the University of Namibia.

CBA : As an African comic what do find is the role of Comedy in Africa?

Keith Nkosi: The role of comedy in Africa is a   transformation ,social and political, and marketing  tool..we transforming Africa from the dark continent into a black conscious continent.

CBA: What are some of you most memorable comedy highlights?

Keith Nkosi: My memorable comedy night is when  is when I did a show dubbed ZimAssets2million jokes…I felt I was using the power of spoken word to push the edge  cause a lot of Zim comics are scared to touch on political subjects.

CBA: What’s funny right now?

Keith Nkosi: Whats  funny right now is we still believe in politicians

CBA: Do you think therefore that when it comes to politicians they are fair game for your material?

Keith Nkosi: I have always worshipped satirical comedy and politics  and satire comedy  it’s a gold mine for any comedian any day.

CBA: What are your thoughts bout Africa?

Keith Nkosi: Africa is work in progress , the sooner we realise our worth the better.

On the business of comedy

CBA: Are you monetized?

Keith Nkosi: Currently am still tryna figure out my value in figures

CBA: Why is that the case ?

Keith Nkosi: It’s because am still teaching people about the product called Keith ..early adopters  have received pretty well now my target is to reach the late adopters

CBA: Can you eat from comedy and how is the African comedy sector?

Keith Nkosi: Comedy is taking over Africa. Once one is in the right space and time the bank balance will tell the story.

CBA: Your thoughts on Trey noah’s cross border hustle?

Keith Nkosi: Noah has set the bar high for African comedians and made us believe we can penetrate mature comedy markets.

CBA: You left Zim..why ? Were your reasons social , economic or political?

Keith Nkosi: I left Zim because of I wanted to explore  beyond Zim comedy Culture.

CBA: Where are you at right now ?

Keith Nkosi: I’m in SA pushing keeping my eye on Zim..When I was the first comedian to perform on live and fluid ..I was used to performing with other comedians in a safe comedy environment.

CBA: Yes you held your own and thrilled the audience that night.

On inspiration

CBA: Your top inspiration ? In terms of comics who inspired or still inspires you?

Keith Nkosi: Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock

CBA: Life in the hood…?  What got you laughing? What made you say you could do this?

Keith Nkosi: And in the hood what got us laughing was the encounter we had with police, we strived to outsmart police cause that was yardstick.What made think I could do this it’s the ghetto culture that we born to entertain and our ticket out of the ghetto  is perceived  as entertainment than education.

Crazy hood moment

Keith Nkosi: When I was involuntarily  turned into a Jazz man (local slang for drug pusher)  by my friend , when he ran away from the police and left me with weed I didn’t know of….

CBA: Hood living is crazy ain’t it?

CBA: How did you make it out of one of the toughest ghettoes in Zimbabwe anyway ?

Keith Nkosi: I made it out of the toughest ghetto  through education  which demystify the perception that only entertainment can make you in the ghetto.

CBA: But the weed story is funny and you almost went to “college” (prison) because of it…were it not for your grandma. What did she do that got you out ?

Keith Nkosi: My granny brought all my certificates  junior school high school and university. She told police that i am an astute citizen and too cool for weed pushing.  and that with my level of education maybe if they had accused me of fraud she would understand though it was a desperate measure cause a lot of grads in Zim have been reduced to dealers and vendors.

On family support

CBA: What’s the level of family support for your comedic efforts.?

Keith Nkosi: When I went to University  I was supposd to study Economics .I changed programs to Arts because of the influence Amokhosi Cultural Centre and the streets had on me. So for a year my family didn’t know what I was studying and even now some of my family members don’t know what I studied even if I have told them it’s a BA  honors in performing Arts…You know family wanna brag about accountant doctors and lawyers.

CBA: Looking back how do you feel about the decision you made?

Keith Nkosi: It’s a tough decision moving from a place where I was somebody   now I am no one.

CBA: Yah

Keith Nkosi: After appearing on newspapers my family’s support grew cause thy now knew what I’m about and ain’t no doctors or accountants that just make news unless if something gone wrong.

CBA: Lastly, there are reports that Carl Joshua Ncube is relocating to S.A.. What’s your take on the subject?

Keith Nkosi: I think Carl has realised that we are limited as comedians in Zim by things beyond our scope…

CBA:If you were to meet say president Mugabe , what would you say to him?

Keith Nkosi :If I met the President  I will thank him for contributing to my desire to do comedy.


Six questions for African beauty queen

Miss Africa Zim

Miss Africa Zim

Maita Kainga (MK) is a 21 year old feisty economics major with one of Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University.On the 27th of May 2016, her life changed. Standing regal and glamorous on the podium at the end of a closely fought contest,she was crowned the inaugural Miss Africa Zimbabwe in an glittering affair held in the famous city of Kings and Queens (Bulawayo, which happens to be Zimbabwe’s second largeat city) CBA held an interview with the confident and articulate Maita to sound her out.

Was this your first attempt at a pageant?

MK:I have done a couple of pageants. Only mention a few I participated in Miss Word Zimbabwe in 2014 and was crowned people’s choice and also participated in carnival 2014 and made it to the top 8.

You seemed so poised and confident..did you expect to win the contest?

MK: If I said I expected to win that would be very inaccurate lol but i wanted to win and kept picturing myself in the crown. I worked very hard prior the pageant when I was crowned I was more than happy to have accomplished my goal.

What’s your idea of African beauty?

MK: My idea of African beauty is being completely fortied in who we are as Africans and being proud to carry the title of an African, Not ashamed to exude the rich culture nd diversity we have as African.

What do think about the idea that some have that beauty contests demean women?

MK: That idea I would say is quite primitive. Beauty pageants create exposure for women,opportunities get to know yourself as a woman and as an individual. It creates a platform for women to acknowledge themselves as who they truly are and appreciate and love their uniqueness thus building the inner man and over all confidence. Modeling helps a woman brand herself accordingly.Not to mention the lessons learnt on the decorum of a woman. These are all vital lessons that we cannot achieve elsewhere in one package as how modeling does.

What’s the next step for you ?

MK: I have been given the splendid opportunity of going to the international stage as the Zimbabwean representative for Miss Africa where I will compete for the Miss Africa title.

Have you received your prizes ?

Maita Miss Africa Zim: We are awaiting a prize ceremony that will be occurring very soon.

The Ray Phiri Interview part 1 & 2

RAY PHIRI with AM KUDITA founder of Culture Beat Africa entertainment websitePart 1

With a repertoire forged in apartheid South Africa, Stimela rose through the revolutionary flames and became musical titans who etched their names in world music posterity. Ray Phiri and Stimela are legends. The apogee of their career would undoubtedly have to be the Graceland Tour with Paul Simon during the apartheid days in 1987. The tour was mired in controversy because of the then cultural boycott imposed on apartheid South Africa. But Stimela and other struggle icons in the mould of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba seized the moment to blow the trumpet on the cruel practices of the disgraced fascist regime throughout the entire world. Today, singer/songwriter/guitarist and band leader Ray Phiri now 66 years old, is a respected musician worldwide. His hits such as Whispers in the Deep and albums such as People don’t talk let’s talk dealt the apartheid ogre some serious body blows. Beyond that however, the songs remain the sound track for post-apartheid South Africa besides generating income via royalties for the well preserved legendary band Stimela in their sunset years. In an interview with Culture Beat Africa founder & editor AM Kudita, Ray talks about the business of music in South Africa as part of the country’s Department of Trade and Investment promotion recent trip to Zimbabwe in this first instalment of a lengthy interview .

AK: How did your song Zwakala become the sound track of the much loved Zone 14?

Ray Phiri: Tebogo Mahlatsi (also the originator of the famous Yizo Yizo series based on youth sub-culture in post-apartheid South Africa’s educational system) is the one that came up with the Zone 14 television series where it’s bringing in the life of the township, the clubs, the soccer players, hairdressing saloons, undertakers, the stokvels and including the stories surrounding the township, that there is a different soul to the township. He approached the recording company and requested Zwakala as a soundtrack for the show.

AK: Can we talk about remuneration for that song. How does that work?

Ray Phiri: There is publishing, there is needle time, and there is also the artistic performers’ royalties. So there are three revenue streams. Publishing is for the monitoring and the accounting, performance is for those who will be performing. Then there is composers’ royalties. So I get paid for all three: publishing because I wrote the song, performance because I performed on it and the composers, I get paid for needle time and for how many times we have to bring the series on.

AK: So how much do you get paid for the song in a year off the cuff?

Ray Phiri: Somewhere in the region of R300 000.

AK: What?

Ray Phiri: Yah. They are buying seconds. They bought only one minute of the song and they did what they wanted with it. They dissected it and edited it. They gave the song a new lease of life and all these young people who never knew the song got to be interested in the album. So it’s a win-win situation.

AK: It must be very gratifying for you as a writer as this is your intellectual property. What kind of right did they buy from you?

Ray Phiri: It’s called synching rights, synchronisation rights i.e. when you merge music with motion picture. It’s also one of the reasons why we are here in Zimbabwe. It is to try to add value to the trade and investment aspect of the creative industries here in Zimbabwe because the creative industries always suffer because of no recognition. It should be at the forefront because you look at Hollywood and Hollywood is arts business. Dancing is art, theatre is art, film is art and even sports is part of cultural business that a country can make a living out of.

AK: You have South African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO). What is its role in the industry matrix?

Ray Phiri: It’s a collecting society. I have been a member of SAMRO since 1974 and am up for my pension now from them. All in all, as a collecting society they have upped their game because they are starting now to publish for those who do not have publishing and they have scholarships and bursaries to educate musicians especially songwriters. Because any industry that does not have human capital, that does not invest in human capital will not thrive.

AK: What does SAMRO do for the musicians in South Africa?

Ray Phiri: They are going further than that and collecting for most of Africa and are respected throughout the world as they are also affiliated to SESAC. Through the years of experience they have, they are now in a position to form the Performers Association of Southern Africa which monitors needle time. In South Africa, they now have been monitoring needle time through engaging with Independent Communication Authority of South Africa. In the past, regulation was cumbersome. It never explained what a performer was and what a record company is because once that is ironed out performers can get paid properly for needle time because the lines are drawn. The record company owns only the master (original recording from which CDs are printed) and not the intellectual property vested in the master. The composer’s right is protected in the intellectual property. We are getting our acts together. I don’t know whether it is being done here in Zimbabwe whereby every cd has to have an international standard record code number which helps track CDs anywhere in the world for purposes of remunerating the rights owner wherever it’s played.

AK: To the best of my knowledge it’s mandatory for books. Ray Phiri: It’s a little bit challenging that some of us have the information but we haven’t met some of the people handling the copyright issues or creative industries here in Zimbabwe to exchange information and see where we can help and maybe engage our governments about this important subject of intellectual property rights.

AK: Maybe this can be arranged through the Department of Trade and Investment properly for next year when you can return and have plenary discussions and workshops with artists and industry representatives to share information.

Ray Phiri: Indeed yes it’s important for those who are new to the industry to know the pitfalls and the opportunities. They don’t have to go through what we went through. Also we should not forget that there is a difference between a record industry and a music industry. A record industry is the business side of the music industry. But then the record industry can only be sustained by the music industry side whose requirements are the social space where the music is going to be played amongst others. We have to have managers, agents, lawyers etc. It’s now business to business and business to consumers cutting out the middle men. Like right now we have new challenges with the digital revolution. We have the telecommunications spectrum and we have to see how we can be part of that as an industry because the way music is consumed is changing. We should keep the arts in party political agendas and not polarise it. For example political parties must have in their manifestoes an arts and culture policy because we are talking about how to shape the soul of a nation and how do we foster the national identity. Ray Phiri is not just a music legend. He is a cultural and social transformation actor whose social conscience continues to animate his life work. He is currently sitting on the board of the National Arts Council in South Africa representing his home province of Mpumalanga and is also establishing the Ray Phiri Arts Institute. Next week he will talk about working with Tuku (helping developing Tuku music), Paul Simon and personal life including the tragic death of his wife).

part. 2

Last week Ray Phiri talked about his take on the business of music in South Africa. This week he talks about his personal and professional life including losing his wife to an accident, raising his children, his inspiration, his collaborative works with Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, Tuku and his band Stimela’s role on Paul Simon’s controversial Graceland Tour.

On musical beginnings

My father, Kanyama Phiri was a guitarist until he lost his fingers. He went into depression. I took up playing after him and I taught myself to play after buying a chord book. When I started, I was an instrumentalist. I played guitar. We had a band called the Cannibals. We backed Mparanyana (a famous vernacular soul singer) until he died and then I took up singing. People were thinking that we were finished but I asked how that could be since the person who had been writing the songs was still alive and that was me. I have also written songs for Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse among others. When we started, music was not about money though. We played out of passion. We never knew about royalties. Maybe what helped us was that the first black record label was called Mavutela Music run by Richard Bopape. We could earn something like 25 rand per concert. Bopape may not have been educated but he was smart and he taught us to save. I think that has kept us going as a group. We have discipline and we have been together as a team for the past 33 years.

On the Graceland Tour Circa 1987 and the controversy

The controversy surrounding Graceland was ‘created’. There was no cultural boycott that was busted. If working with South Africans meant that you had busted the cultural boycott, then he did. I would never have worked with Paul Simon if I thought he wanted to exploit us. We used him. We used each other. It was an opportunity to sensitise the world about the apartheid regime. We managed to bring the world’s attention to the apartheid monster. Simon made the approach after having worked with other South African musicians fruitlessly. I wrote some of the music. Songs are made up of two things: melody and lyrics. But I am credited as an arranger on the album. But we achieved our goals. On the controversy I was telling Dali Tambo (scion of the Tambo family and ANC stalwart) in London, “You are victimising us twice by refusing us the opportunity to speak to the world when the apartheid government is persecuting us.” He then said that Paul Simon should have gone and asked permission from the ANC. The whole thing fizzled out though and we ended up touring the world with Bra Hugh and Miriam Makeba on the tour. Working with Paul Simon (former half of pop duo Simon and Garfunkel and writer of Bridge of Troubled Waters) One thing I can commend him for, is his choice of lyrics and what to talk about. Paul is well read. He reads a lot of medieval books. He is deep like that. Paul is a thinker, a very shrewd person. Before he opens his mouth, he thinks a lot. You never know whether he is arrogant or undermining the other person because he says things in a way he talks about stuff. For example, in a song on Graceland he sings: ‘There is a girl in New York city who calls herself a human trampoline’. The song was caustically about his former wife Carrie Fisher. So maybe it’s his New York sense of humour.

Jamming for West Nkosi and helping to build Tuku Music

I played a role in the creation of Tuku Music. We used to go to Harare where there was Radio One. It had four tracks and West Nkosi would invite me to the sessions in Harare then Salisbury. I spent a lot of time shuttling into this country but did not actually live here. Then producer West Nkosi (of the then Gallo now Gramma) would record the music and we would go back to South Africa and dissect it. If you look at Tuku’s music it has a very South African music influence. It was the session band that would record Tuku’s music in the studio recordings and then West Nkosi would have him down in Joburg to record alone. Bakhithi Khumalo would play bass and Isaac Mtshali would play drums adding an mbaqanga/smanje smanje feel. If you ask him and he is honest, he will confirm this. If you listen to the very first albums of Oliver Mtukudzi you will hear that that was my guitar work but I am not credited because the idea was to build the Black Spirits and we were just sessionists for hire. The Black Spirits of the ‘70s were the very first successful recording group. The Elisha Josamus we also worked with them and would take those guys and record them. Even the Bundu Boys when they went out there, we would assist them.

On Thomas Mapfumo’s music

The music is very safe. I have heard Ndangariro and other albums. The lyrics are very strong and the music is very safe. But it can be be more. One thing I have realised about traditional music is that it’s kept at the folk level. Once you don’t want to experiment then the music doesn’t grow. But there is one Zimbabwean guy who is amazing in my opinion. The one who did Shamwari, Louis Mhlanga. He can be great. There are also other people I think are great. Dorothy Masuka is a legend. She gave so much to her art. She was born a cultural emissary. She wrote some of the songs that made Miriam Makeba. Though she is ailing now but her spirit is still strong.

Losing his religion

I stopped going to church in 1964. I used to go to church. I treat God as infinite. But just because you haven’t experienced my truth doesn’t make it a lie. I was a Catholic and I was punished on Monday after having confessed to the priest on Sunday. I said, ‘how can a human being punish me for what I had confessed to God?’ I have taught my kids to never ask me to go church. But I don’t stop them Losing his wife and raising the babies alone It was bad. My daughter is the one who saved me. She was seven months when we had the accident in 2003. I never went out for three years. I would hear her cry and I would be frantic to know who is hurting her. My daughter saved me because I focused entirely on her. Later on I remarried a widow also who helped me cope with the grief and my mum loved her as well as the kids and so we are still together. Were you angry with God? I was angry with myself to say if I hadn’t taken my wife along she might still be alive. The greatest love is to be alive. I have so much love inside of me that I love another person and the feeling that you feel is great. That is why when I look at a woman and I say I am fond of you, no one cannot take it away from me. I love you for me.

On personal success

I achieved my dreams.(laughing) I bought the speakers similar to the ones that The Who (British rock group) owned and I have a guitar collection worth about a million rands . I also bought my mum a house amongst other things and she is now 107 years old. I didn’t go back to school but I am building one (Ray Phiri Institute of Arts). My children are well off. Three of my daughters have been to university. Two of them are running their own businesses. I think that music has made me a very wealthy person. Maybe not necessarily monetarily but spiritually. My children are better off than me.

An African movie princess on the rise: Profile of a Zimbabwean Hollywood Star

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danai 2
She looks like a young Nina Simone. She is feisty and clearly bright. You sit down with her and you walk away feeling totally blown away. If you are like me, and you like them young, gifted and black, your vision of Africa’s future gets rose tinted. Actors of African origin are beginning to gain traction in the world of movies. Idriss Elba and Thandie Newton come to mind. Not since the late award winning author Dr Yvonne Vera, has a Zimbabwean artist had such a far reaching effect on the global stage. Having graced the covers and pages of major league US magazines such as Vanity Fair, Essence, New York Post, Vogue normally reserved for big time actors such Nicole Kidman, Danai Gurira, actress and award winning playwright is a daughter of the soil and bona fide star. She has hobnobbed with Hollywood glitterati such as Denzel Washington, Spike Lee and a galaxy of others. Currently in Zimbabwe to showcase her award winning play The Convert at Prince Edward School from the 10th to the 24th of December, Danai is the lead actress in the cult U.S. television series called the Walking Dead. The television show has spun off merchandising of figurines made in her character Michonne’s likeness! Danai Gurira, the daughter of Zimbabwean expats in the USA : a chemistry professor Roger Gurira and his wife Josephine, a fellow university graduate. Danai is young, gifted and black. She is a young woman very in touch with her artistry and vigilant to the call of her destiny as a storyteller, whether she is acting or writing her plays. The world is standing in awe with trailers of her show garnering twelve million hits on You Tube. Why did it take us so long to celebrate her? CULTURE BEAT AFRICA’s editor sat down with Danai several days ago to get her story which has many facets. This is the first of a two part interview.

You have done all these great things, what is the most important work you have done as an artist so far? What is the most serious project you have done professionally to date?

I feel like the most important work I have done is help artists of African descent being able to shine through my plays. The thing about this play (The Convert) is that I asked who would I have been if I had been born in the 1890s with all these forces (Christianity, colonialism and culture) converging, what my path would have been. I just wondered why these stories were not being told. I feel the most fulfilled when I see Zimbabwean actors shine through this work that I have written. I have had very joyous experiences actually with American actors trying to learn the vernacular and embody these characters. That sort of cultural ambassadorship is very important to me, when our voices have been heard, to see that other people have absorbed our voices, our culture in America. There is a lot of emotional explanation that has to be invested in that actors have to make with this play and to learn in terms of understanding the nuances of the language. In America, actors in this play have been rewarded with awards. It’s very gratifying for me as a writer.

What comes first your being a performer or your being a creator?

It’s all the same. With me it’s about story telling whether as a writer or an actor.So at the core there is a storyteller. When I am embodying another character’s experience I am telling a story teller.

At the core of you is a story teller?

Yes at the core is a story teller.

When was the epiphany about your work?

I was at university in the US studying psychology for my bachelors. But I decided to take a semester of study abroad and I chose South Africa because this country was just next door to me all those years growing up in the eighties and I couldn’t even go there. When I went to South Africa then I realized that I could use Art to help people release their voices because of the legacies of people like John Kani who I met on a later visit. Plays like Woza Albert (by Mbongemi Ngema) made me realize that sort of cultural ambassadorship was possible. I learnt something about myself. It was new (independence in South Africa). People still had some scars, they still remembered and it was recent. I decided then that I wanted to tell stories. I also met this Zimbabwean photographer Mthethwa who was going about in the shanties and townships photographing people in the way that they wanted to be photographed giving them dignity. When I went back I decided to flip it and then did the MFA for my post graduate studies.

You had not considered studying drama?

I started with psychology because it was all about being an academic like my father and live a comfortable life. Psychology is about studying the dynamics of the human mind. It’s actually aided my work, to know how trauma works and that helps in developing character. How am I going to be able to help other people’s voices to be heard, the injustices to be heard through Art ? Giving voice to those issues.

Most people in my generation grew up with some sort of American dream. How did you find yourself there ?

My parents went abroad through churches. My mother went through the United Method Church and also my father Roger Gurira went through the Quaker church . They were at Goromonzi together though, and they met up together again in the USA. I was five when my dad decided to move back in 1983. My father was at the U.Z. and my mom librarian. He is one of the unsung heroes who came back home. I have gained a lot more respect for my father now when I think about it that he was one of those who made sacrifices and came back home for the reconstruction of Zimbabwe after the war of independence. He was very loved by his students. He loved to teach, he loved to nourish the minds of students. His students would come back later bringing him things like olivine oil and mazoe like that. He was one of those people who didn’t have to come back because he was a tenured professor at Grinnell University in Iowa, which means you couldn’t be fired, but he chose to come back.

You seem to have a strong desire to teach. What are you doing about it ?

I started Almasi Theatre Project with Patience Tawengwa (incidentally the daughter of late Harare mayor Solomon Tawengwa). When Patience and I created Almasi we were thinking about how we can teach, how we can pass skills. We need to keep the presence of theatre in our society. Look at the humanization that it brings. Look at the sort of leverage the Brits have with Shakespeare. The theatre reflects the human heart back to us . Even the Holy Scriptures use stories to bring messages to the fore. The story and the experience of human beings go through is powerful. If I didn’t think that there was a lot of talent in Zimbabwe why would I invest my time and money?

How many artists are in this Almasi project and how much are you paying them?

30 actors but it’s indelicate to talk about money(she says laughing).

Is it an either or proposition for an artist as regards getting formal education? Is being an artist and going to school mutually exclusive?

Training is very important. That’s what Almasi Collaborative Arts (diamond in Swahili …the idea of something that stays forever) It was Patience’s name. It’s all about the dream to have something like The Market Theatre in South Africa churning out high professional Zimbabwean art that can be exported to bring our own stories to the fore. It’s about how do you grow as an artist ? I have had a lot of training as an artist. So training for an artist is an absolute necessity through Almasi. When I teach, I find that it’s thrilling when the artists make a shift and make a leap. I have been trained and I know how to pass it on.
What is the importance of theatre or the arts in general ?

Look at how much leverage the British have gained with Shakespeare (at a psychic level). Look at Chekhov, at Shaw. It’s part of the humanization process. The theatre is healing. Story is powerful. There is such cultural ambassadorship in storytelling. It does enhance our psyche as a nation. The Europeans believe that they produce brilliance, they believe in their own greatness. They are getting leverage off of something that was created a long time, 450 years ago they have a very high sense of self because of that. We need to invest in the arts and our artists need to push themselves in excellence.

What conditions make for such a society ?

It means you invest.

What do you mean “ invest”?

Invest means you come to watch a play. Investment means that you commission a playwright.

What are you saying to a corporate head, what are you selling them in return for the investment?

Sometimes they (corporate heads) don’t have that exposure. But once you have exposure to great art you will not be the same. Over there in the U.S. they have boards that have been there for 30 years running the arts. Those are non-profits. They have people who love the arts and make donations which are tax deductable. So it’s important to have these non- profits taking an active role in the arts. I like the idea of a place where is a lot of employment for young people where there is stratification of roles. Someone is responsible for development, someone for the budget and so on. The artist can then concentrate on his art without worrying about the other stuff.

What kind of folk run these joints and do they go to school for it ?

The head of Macarthur is a Princeton graduate! These are highly educated people. Most of these people are degreed most often. But I believe there are many paths to getting an education and training in the arts.

How did you get to Hollywood?

When you are talking about Hollywood what are you talking about? It was never my goal to get to Hollywood. It was a matter of being true to my calling. But my agent got me there. They do work on a commission basis. But my now manager saw me first in the Continuum, a play that I wrote.

Is this agent a guy who gets up every morning to look for his showbiz clients?

And the work too.

What training does he have?

He started as an agent. He went to a good college Oberlin. But the thing about America is that you have to start at the bottom. You have to pay your dues. Everyone has to have the humility and pay their dues with a humble heart. Show yourself as someone who is dedicated to the craft. Just telling people that you are good doesn’t cut it.

It is also noteworthy that U.S. President Barack Obama was quoted by a foreign news agency after a visit to the DreamWorks Animation studio in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale in November last year as saying, “I’ve come here today, because this is one of America’s economic engines, not just DreamWorks, but this whole cluster of companies that generations have grown up knowing, Disney and Warner and Universal and others. The entertainment industry had also served as an important diplomatic tool. It’s part of what makes us exceptional, part of what makes us such a world power,” he said. “You can go anywhere on the planet and you’ll see a kid wearing a Madagascar T-shirt,” he said. “You can say, ‘May the Force be with you,’ they know what you’re talking about,” he said in reference to a famous line from “Star Wars.” This came after a guided tour of the studios responsible for producing runaway box office hits such as “Shrek”, “Madagascar” and “Kung Fu Panda”.

What’s Hollywood like ?
What do you mean ?

The big letters on Hollywood hill and the palm trees that place we see in the movies! Do they have exclusive places where the Hollywooders eat and play for example ?

You mean Los Angeles. It’s just a normal place. There are a lot of places with offices for the big film studios and film sets. So maybe that is Hollywood and yes they do have these fancy places.

Talking about your role in Walking Dead, do you get conflicted about that movie playing a Zombie slayer?

This story, when I first read it, is something very metaphorical. Like who are we? Are you walking around as a zombie not engaged spiritually or emotionally ? It’s about a post-apocalyptic world and who we become in a war zone.

Let’s talk about your other motion picture role

I did “Mother of George” where I play this Nigerian woman. Nigerians were not too amused with my accent. But it was so embraced at Sundance Film Festival. I experienced Western audiences getting absorbed in a clearly African story.

Why did you think that happened?

That’s what I always say, that if you tell a story with truth and excellence, it will transfer into the hearts of men. Story transcends culture. So I am just starting. I have so many ideas about how to bring these ideas to the screen.
Are there teaching moments in the play you brought to Zimbabwe?
You can’t be didactic as an artist. You have to have faith that you are presenting something that people will respond to. You can’t control the responses. Otherwise you are trying to control too much.

Is there anything you have learnt in your acting journey you want to share ?

One of your best assets in life is the specifics of who you are as a person and just speaking from that place. That hard work is very key. If your work comes from a place of truth and authenticity then you will succeed. The Americans work hard in this industry. They work hard to make it look simple.

What book has made an impact on you?

I still want to play Hamlet. I like the ending in Things Fall Apart. I think that book is a ground breaking book.

What are you reading at the moment ?

Half of the yellow sun by Chimamanda.

You talked about cultural ambassadorship, what’s your idea of Zimbabweaness?

I think we are very resilient people, full of wit and innovativeness. I think there is something very invigorating about being Zimbabwean.

Finally, we lost one of our famous daughters who was also in your age group musician Chiwoniso Maraire and also a cultural ambassador. How did you feel about her death ?

Her parents and mine were friends in the U.S. She was incidentally named after my elder sister. I am very connected to Chiwoniso as we did Chipawo together in our childhood. So her death wasn’t an easy thing to handle.

Danai Gurira list of other achievements :
The Convert is the winner of the 2012 Stavis Award, The 2012 Whiting Award, the 2013 Los Angeles Drama Circle Award, The Edgerton Award for New American plays and Six Los Angeles Ovation Awards. Her current play “The Convert” was commissioned by Center Theater Group in Los Angeles and premiered at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey. After five highly successful productions across the United States, it has now, finally been staged in the country that inspired it.