Jessica Mbangeni: Gentle Giant Stands Her Ground
Jessica Mbangeni’s indigenous roots take center stage as she oozes her deep and resonant praise poetry, sashaying her way across both local and international platforms.
As a female Imbongi (praise singer) who was born and raised in Nqamakwe, Eastern Cape, she has had to overcome the misanthropy of Xhosa culture where women are very much “a by the way.” Having been subjected to having the microphone being taken out of her hands by those who felt that this was not her place, Mbangeni has always stood up to defend her space.
At the age of 22, Mbangeni gave birth to her son, and, at the age of three months, he was still crying a lot. “I remember that my grandmother said when you give birth to a child out of wedlock, you must introduce your child to your ancestors because that child needs a sense of belonging and wants to identify so you must give your clan names to that son,” she says.
“When I was doing that, I felt the fire gushing out of me, words were rolling out and it was a huge husky voice speaking, rolling, and rolling. It felt like a demonic voice, and I thought I was in a trance. When I came down, my mom said to me, you are a praise poet. And you must use that profoundly.”
At the beginning of her career, she was rejected, and people said that she would never be able to make it, given the genre for which she was aiming. So, instead of looking to others for assistance, she looked to see what others were doing and modeled herself on them.
Mbangeni later registered her own record label and signed herself with the aid of the now late Graham Gilfillan, and from here, she was able to grow herself as a composer, singer, praise poet or griot, storyteller, actor, dancer, fashion designer, and a stylist.
One of her significant performances included the inauguration of Thabo Mbeki as the president of the Republic of South Africa, in 1999. She later performed at his seventieth birthday celebrations and laughs as she relates her efforts at learning and reciting Thabo Mbeki’s “I Am an African,” which was inspired by Pixley Ka Seme.
When she recited the words, ‘At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito,’ she reflects, “I was not confident about the pestilential mosquito because we don’t normally use pestilential. They laughed at me. He laughed aloud. I still want to sit down with him and say Tata what did I do wrong? How did I say it in a way that you and all your friends laughed? What did you think of my pestilential mosquito?”
As well as being an honorary doctor and an ordained bishop, Mbangeni is a praise singer, poet, educator, actor, filmmaker, fashion designer, and muscle builder, in no particular order. In October 2021, she won the Musclemania championship and aspires to be the heavyweight champion across the world.
Whilst championing her own wins, she champions many causes
through her performances. “I am communicating the current social ills, which include gender-based violence, and teenage pregnancy that we are facing in South Africa. Some people are not vocal because they do not know who to talk to. My voice is the voice of the voiceless. Also, people are losing their identity because we are losing Ubuntu (humanity). I am also bringing interventions towards the economic challenges that we are facing as the African continent, including the diaspora. I speak up to the government. I speak truth to power.”
Strongly influenced by her experiences in Jamaica, where she learnt about the ideologies of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, after her initial trip to Jamaica in 2018, she now goes back there every year.
Mbangeni points to the strong need for a role model for our society at this time. “Mandela was able to change the mindset of people, and that is what is needed in South Africa, during this time of misalignment. Even if it’s a woman,” she remarks.
In a climate where the Department of Arts and Culture in South Africa are lacking, she adds: “We need people like Sibongile Mngoma who will challenge the status quo every day.”
Mbangeni feels that it is crucial to be authentic and to find ones unique voice. “Your unique tone that is informed by the passion that you possess, the love that you have for yourself. When you feel uncomfortable about yourself, you must know that you have derailed from the passion and purpose of love. Be excited every day about yourself.”
She draws daily on the lessons she has learned along the way from the likes of Gibson Kente, Victor Ntoni, Sophie Mgcina, Sibongile Khumalo, and Hugh Masekela.
To keep herself in top form, Mbangeni has a strict regimen, which includes doing lymphatic drainage, body massage, body wraps and eating clean.
“For me, every day feels like I have just started. These accolades including the Grammy from the Soweto Gospel Choir feels like I have not done anything. I always look forward to being creative, fresh and producing a new body of work that will inspire people.
“I’m always ready to introduce myself and say here ‘I am. My name is Jessica Mbangeni.’
“Being recognized with these awards including the SAMA (South African Music Awards) – just imagine in the country to win a South African Music Award – but for me, even today, I still work very hard, and hone my craft.”
Mbangeni adds that being rejected is part of the journey and the importance of rising above that. “Sometimes you will be tormented and devastated even by your mentors. They will not always love you when they see you changing and growing. They can resist your growth because they are obsessed with babysitting you.”
She advises: “Jump out of that train and be your own being. That’s not arrogance. That’s self-love. And go back to them and thank them. Show gratitude with a sincere heart. Forgive them.”
While admonishing, she declares: “The law of forgiveness is especially important because the ancients or the muse speak from a true calling. When you are pure, your rivers will never go dry. Your muse will never cease to surprise you because you are delivering clean waters, you will be light, and the light will come to you. There will be no darkness, depression, anger, and agony in your life.”