On: Unathi

Ahead of her national tour, Unathi takes Helen Herimbi through an exercise of how music helped her become courageous, correct and capable.

“I tell people all the time,” Unathi says after we’ve run 1.5km and are back at the first step of the steep Westcliff Stairs. “The key to the stairs is: don’t look up. Look down because you have to take it one step at a time. If you look up, it looks like you’ll never get there, and you’ll give up.”

It’s a few weeks before the Idols judge is to embark on a seven-date Brave, True and Strong Tour around the country in support of her newest album. She will perform a retrospective of her career, including songs from this new album – three of which she’ll perform with the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls choir.

While Unathi has been a posterchild for consistent physical fitness, it’s clear that in the years since she released her Alive album, she has been working on her heart and on her mind too. It’s most obvious in how the Brave, True and Strong album is semi-biographical.

“Mondli Ngcobo wrote 40% of my album,” the Show Me Love co-host says. “It was a beautiful experience because it meant I had to fly back and forth to Durban so I was living in two cities for nine months last year while recording this album.”

What was born was 10 soul tracks with tinges of reggae and isichathamiya. They carry the common themes of love, surrender and authenticity featuring only two artists: Ngcobo on the sad ballad, Hlala Nami and rapper and Idols presenter, Proverb on Isidima, which was inspired by Zulaikha Patel.

In a similar way to how Patel led the charge of authenticity to be allowed to wear the hair that comes out of her head in its natural state at school, Unathi wears her own authenticity now like a second skin. She is the most brave and most true to herself when it comes to her heart.

She explains: “There were two songs Mondli wrote that were hard for me. The one was Hlala Nami – because he didn’t know I was divorcing. No one knew. It’s a song that makes a couple look at each other and say: ‘Are we staying together?’”

“It’s at that moment when you’ve lost all ego, all defence. And having to be earnest and emotional and to show that vulnerability was hard for me because I’d already made my decisions. That was the most difficult song for me to record.”

The other hard song for her to record was Hallo Sana, which found her navigating a new place: single motherhood.

Having started her career on YFM and becoming a natural on television through shows like Castle Loud, Unathi was a household name by the time she left her long-running breakfast show on Metro FM. She put some of the trials that came with that on My Prayer – a song requested by her mom.

“These songs have come to me through the last three years,” she explains. “I wrote My Prayer in 2015. I was at Sun City, at The Palace (hotel) and I remember being in the bubble bath and those were just my conversations with God.”

She continues: “2015 was a tough year for me. I got suspended (from Metro FM) indefinitely. I suffered public humiliation over Twitter. I was literally in the bath, saying to God: ‘I’m listening. Show me the way. Remind me of my purpose.’”

Unathi found her path back to music.

“I’ve been doing radio for 20 years and I knew if I were to have the courage to stop making music my hobby, I had to quit radio. This is the first project that had a pre-prod. I had time to be a musician for the first time in my life and accept it. I have accepted myself.”

She named this album after Bongo Maffin’s evergreen song.

“It’s one of my favourite songs in the world,” Unathi exclaims. “Bongo Maffin is my favourite group of all time. I listen to that song, probably five times a week. In the morning of my life, I shall look to the sunrise/At a moment in my life, when the world is new/And the lesson I shall ask, only God can grant me: to be brave, to be strong, to be true. Those are the first words Thandiswa says in that song!”

“My album was definitely inspired by the song,” Unathi smiles. “I love the fact that they acknowledge and affirm that to have your greatest life, you have to be brave enough to take steps.”

“You have to be true to yourself and true to the situation to make sure you succeed and you have to be strong to overcome the challenges that will come while you try to get there. It’s my anthem. Even when I do the stairs, when I need it, it’s one of my mantra songs.”

After a reinvigorating workout with Unathi, I have to ask her if she’s ever inspired to write music while she’s exercising.

“Run came to me while I was working out,” she remembers. “I was on the treadmill and I just started hearing dum-dum-dum-dada,” she bops her head back and forth as she mimicks the ditty’s drums.

“I was thinking about the year I failed Grade 8. I was thinking of my dad when I was like: ‘Daddy, I have learned my lesson. It’s new beginnings so let’s start afresh.’ He was like: ‘Of course! So what do you think?’ I was like: ‘Take me to a new school.’ “My dad was like: ‘No. When you start running, you’ll never stop. So you must always make sure you run towards something and not away from something.’ I’ve never forgotten that. Just run towards your dreams.”

Unathi has been taking life a step at a time and when she starts her tour next week, she’ll be running straight to her longtime music dream.

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