Ulungile “Koek Sista” Magubane

           by Nkhensani Manabe

The speakers vibrate with a mix of heavy electronic sounds that remind me of Ray Blk and FKA Twigs. Koek Sista’s vocals are clear, strong and soulful. The music is fun and eerie; just strange enough to hold our attention.
On a Saturday evening, in a dimly-lit loft space, a woman takes the stage. On the wall behind her is a projection of multi-coloured psychedelic images and words “Koek Sista”. In a soft voice, she introduces herself as Lungile Anele Nothando Magubane, and then the show begins.

She can definitely sing, and the people in the space show their appreciation with enthusiastic whoops and applause after each song. It feels like the set is over too soon. As she leaves the stage, i make a mental note to find her music on Soundcloud so i can recreate the experience.

Koek Sista’s music is sweet and twisted

When we meet at a café the next week, the first thing i notice is the pants the 25-year-old singer is wearing: they are black, tied at the waist and emblazoned with the words “Koek Sista” all over them. It’s very important to get your branding right from the moment you enter a room, i think to myself.

When i ask her about the origins of her name, she says she needed something that would resonate with her personality. She created Koek Sista not as an alter ego, but as a stage presence. As a young girl, Lungile loved koeksisters, and says the name of the pastry would eventually begin to describe her music, “because it’s sweet and twisted.”

How did Koek Sista start making music?

The journey to becoming Koek Sista picked up momentum when Lungile went to university in the United Kingdom. There, she found herself alone a lot of the time, and she began to focus more on her music: “i spent a lot of time by myself. The weather was depressing, British people were weird… My mom had just bought me a guitar. i spent most of my time indoors, studying or writing music. i also started teaching myself production software such as Logic Pro.”

Lungile reveals that her foray into music production initially stemmed from a frustration with a lack of time and finances needed to formally produce a musical project. As time went by, Lungile came to appreciate the independence that came with producing on her own: “i felt like it could give me a lot of autonomy. The better i get, the more i can command how i want my shit to sound.”

Started from Soundcloud now we’re here

At the insistence of her then-roommate, Lungile uploaded some of the songs onto Soundcloud. That was about four years ago. She says Koek Sista and her music have taken on a life of their own since then: “i am happy to watch that happen. Opportunities come to me more organically that way.”

The music covers themes such as history, societal pressures that young people experience, aspirations, dreams and love. The music is about Lungile’s “very strong desire” to speak about what she sees and experiences. In this way, Koek Sista’s music is similar to that of Bjork, who Lungile says is her “mother in music”, and her biggest influence. Bjork’s music, according to Lungile, is preoccupied with her country’s landscape, biological phenomena, and love that hurts; at the same time, it is also laden with metaphors that belie commentary on the state of the world.

The songs are about serious issues, but they do not confront the listener outright. This style of considered, complex production that delivers meaningful messages is no doubt what drove the production of Koek Sista’s Jacaranda Blues.

From the UK to writing about Joburg

The song incorporates the sounds of summer rain, clips of what is most likely a nature documentary about Jacaranda trees, and a slow, insistent drum beat. The

accompanying lyrics talk about the struggles that people go through while living and surviving in Johannesburg. They are in contrast to the background speech about the beauty of the trees in the suburbs.

Listening to the song is an experience in two parts: one appreciates the music, while also beginning to realise that nothing in the world is as it seems – there is more to the Jacaranda trees than their photogenic purple flowers.

Lungile says the song is also about getting people to think about why it is that they would rather remain distracted by the pretty things in their environments, than to question what these pretty things really say about the state of society.

She left her 9 to 5 to pursue music

Questioning her environment and the value she can add to the world is what led Lungile to leave her 9 to 5 job. Lungile says: “i worked a whole job that i just quit now. And not because i don’t enjoy economics. Economics informs a lot of the stuff i write about and the way i see the world.” But for Lungile, working as a research intern at the University of Johannesburg was stifling her creativity. The work she was doing was not challenging her creatively, and for a while she felt depressed. She was doing relatively well at work, but she could no longer compromise her art in order to stay in a job which would have satisfied her mother.

This attitude also determines where Koek Sista performs and for whom. She insists that every performance should be well planned art, so that she can deliver the best set possible. She does not do gigs based on how much she will get paid: “if i want to get paid to compromise myself, i can go back to the office.”

Koek Sista wants to make memorable performances

Lungile says she is more concerned with making Koek Sista’s music and performance into a memorable, meaningful experience. For her, music is about sharing ideas and energy with a like-minded audience.

Lungile admits that she is a reluctant artist: “i don’t want to put too much of myself out there.” She is interested in protecting her ideas and her art from an industry that can be brutal: [The industry] is a lot of give and take – but mostly take. People take a lot of shit from musicians… and i think that’s also been where a lot of my fear stems from. [i don’t want people to] take pieces and pieces away from me, to a point where i have nothing left.” The work of Koek Sista is something which she feels she has to produce, and put out into the world, but she is also weary of the expectations that the audience and the music industry place on artists.

Why does it cost so much to make videos?

Another aspect of the music industry that is problematic for Lungile is the amount of money it costs to produce a musical project. Lungile has always dreamed of producing an audiovisual project, and believes that there are ways to create visuals and stories that are meaningful, “without the R500 000 camera and the crew that then costs R200 000, and filming for, like, three days for a three minute visual.”

Lungile is fighting to make Koek Sista into a credible, influential music and performance project. In order to do that, she is focusing on coming up with valuable ideas, meeting up with willing collaborators, and finding a way to get her work out to the audience that needs it. She is also mindful of the idea of carving a path for others to follow: “More than anything, i would absolutely adore it if younger black women can look at me and be like ‘oh my god, she did it’.

 

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