Words by Mercia Tucker
Photography by Philly Mohlala
Styling by Amy Zama for DNA Styling Agency
Make-Up by Caroline Greeff
Art Direction by Justin Kaoma
Sanelisiwe Twisha sits cross-legged on the floor of her apartment, looking up as she speaks to me. While her physical demeanour in the moment is seemingly diminutive and antithetical to the large personality that’s a hallmark of her brand, in that moment, there’s nothing about her that doesn’t exude power.
There’s a joie de vivre underpinning the mood in the apartment; teeming with luggage, books, and shoes filling up the living spaces, a dead giveaway that she had just moved in and still needed to unpack and organise the space. The notifications on her phone rack up, as her agent – among others – try to get hold of her. Her attention, however, is entirely focused on me and telling the story of becoming the artist that is Moonchild Sanelly.
The child of umntu wesingxobo (a person born with a caul; the membrane of the amniotic sac covering, or partly covering, a new-born), many cultures believe this to be the mark of a diviner or a seer. In an interview with the Weekend Post in 2017, she said “The moon and a healer have one word in Xhosa, which is inyanga (moon). I’m the child of a celestially gifted woman.” Her stage name – Moonchild – is in homage of her roots.
“My mama was perfect.” The owner of a jazz club, her mother’s vision for her artistry put her on stage at 6 months old as a child model for big department stores. Encouraging her artistic pursuits, she moved on to ballroom and Latin dancing and began competing nationally. Her mother died in her first year of varsity, when she was 17 years old. “In her death, the family was fighting for all her things. I was like ‘I’m good, guys. She taught me how to hustle. I got this. It’s fine. You can take all the material [possessions].’ And today I’m the only one who can do a tombstone for my mother because the material [possessions] perished, but what she left me with is in me.”
Hanging out with Moonchild, and her three friends who helped with the move, is every bit of fun as you would imagine it to be. Cognitively aware that I was there to interview her for our cover story, at some stage that perception faded and it felt like I was having a conversation with an old friend. I stood up and she quickly gave me a once-over with her eyes and remarked that I have a beautifully shaped body and that I should let her sew something for me. A multi-disciplinary artist, her field of study in Durban was fashion design before she had to drop out in her final year.
“I moved to Joburg with R500, a red suitcase that my mom had bought me, and a sewing machine.” She got a job within three days, but knowing that she has no money for transport for her first month of work, she went back to Durban and called up all her old clients saying that she has a dress for them. “If they say yes, I’ll go buy the fabric, I make the dress, and I deliver. And if they say no, I haven’t lost anything. So that’s how I hustled my money to be able to get to my job for the first month, for me to get paid to be able to pay for everything else. But my [sewing] machine is still my power.”
She ran away to Joburg at 19 to chase her dream. “Coming from a very spoiled family, I had to figure it out. I never fell into drugs, I never fell into anything that had to fuck up with my focus. I grew up very fast. I had moved in with a boyfriend who I didn’t know had a girlfriend at the time and he left his girlfriend, but I didn’t realize she was the one who was paying for everything. So I grew up fast, I feel like that was my tertiary for Joburg.”
“I used to tuck my tummy in at six months [pregnant] and get a job because I had to take care and pay two rents for me and my baby daddy. So I grew; that nigga grew me up. His laziness was my strength because then by the time I got to the next level of lazy, I was strong enough to handle life outside of being sheltered.”
She discusses her sheltered life as a kid interchangeably with the ways in which her family was ignorant to some of her struggles. Her voice cracks slightly as she talks about the anorexia she was plagued with in school. “I had it in front of my family, and my family would talk about it – not as a problem – as a celebration of how I’m so in control. It’s a lack of education, for them they didn’t know it was a mental disease.” Reflecting on her coping mechanisms throughout the years, she says “I realize the most impactful moments of my life I had to be in control. Now I’m constantly in control, in general.”
Speaking about it with her therapist, she feels she needs to relearn how to express certain emotion. “I’m not used to basking in an emotion that’s got to do with sadness, without a solution. So there’s no time for sadness. For me personally, it’s solution [driven]. I can summarize it for the world and then summarize all your pain [in the music]. I can write for all of you and you will feel everything, but I will never be able to write my own pain because I don’t know how to express it. So my [method of] channelling and my psychology is basically writing for people and touching someone else.”
The dream was making music but it took her 12 years to get the success she knew she was capable of. In the vein of the Kanye West lyric ‘everything I’m not made me everything I am’, she says “That’s when you become grateful for 12 years because it’s 12 years only when you talk about it, because everything you did and every song you made was hope for change. And you’re not counting. Every song you’re making is going to change your life.”
On staying the course and not settling into other genres for a quick cheque, she says “I came here to make music. I already had 5000 followers from Facebook in Durban and there was no room for me [in Joburg]. I created my sound “future ghetto funk” in 2007. When I got here I’d gotten deals from different labels. I’d be like ‘I don’t listen to afro-punk, I’m not going to act like an afro-punk artist. I don’t listen to this, I’m not going to act like this.’ In my struggling time, homeless, with the boyfriend; not even hustling alone, I’m hustling with an empty-ego’d boy.”
Chasing the dream was not the only reason she came to Joburg. “I ran away because my uncle suddenly saw me as a woman. And I was so scared I knew that the only way to control the fear is I either succeed or I kill him. And I thought I was too cute for prison. So my shallow helped.”
“So I ran away, and I said to him that my biggest motivation from leaving this space is to be so successful and get the biggest magazine so I can name and shame him. Then I got the magazine, and naming and shaming him wasn’t enough; it actually was about the mission of everyone else that doesn’t have the opportunity to speak about the violation they go through. So what do you do after that? You make an example about sex because then you know the difference between satisfaction and violation.”
Her sexually explicit mien is carefully calculated, her unconventional approach the springboard she uses to champion causes close to her hear. The cause? Liberation. “My biggest thing is that the reason I’m at politician’s tables is because I stand for something; it’s not politics, it’s pussy politics.”
On her quest for sexual liberation through her music, she says “Who do you target first for education? Kids. Because they’re the ones that don’t even know it’s molestation, because sex is taboo. That’s how you’re going to end up with a kid nine months pregnant, needing an ambulance, you didn’t even know, she was in the house, because that conversation was never had. But when you have a Moonchild, you know the difference between what she says is pleasure and when you experience something that doesn’t make sense. But they also still have someone to ask.”
She’s cultivated a fan base comprised of people who feel like they’re part of the Moonchild experience. In her broadmindedness, she’s become a refuge of sorts for people who can relate to certain experiences that she speaks on. “Because it’s not about just about me. I can talk about the things that will touch everyone, [to a person] that actually doesn’t have someone to talk to them about those issues, the people that don’t know they have a voice. I had some girl on Facebook say to me, ‘Thank you for speaking because in my family, all my dad and mom’s children get raped and the only escape is getting in a varsity outside of the city.’ So she’s on her last year. ‘We all know, we don’t talk about it, we’ve all gone through it.’”
The conversation takes an unexpected, and extremely personal, turn. “You know I was raped on my bed?”
She had gone out one night with a guy that she had a sexual relationship with. They bumped into his friend’s little brother who didn’t have transport to get home and they decided to leave with him. The next morning they – Moonchild, the guy she was seeing, his friend’s brother, and a few other friends – went to a market where they had breakfast and a few drinks. When she realised she was nearing her limit for alcohol consumption, she decided to leave and go home. She passed out on her bed.
“Next thing, I’m waking up, this dick is coming out of my vagina with a condom.”
Her friends had noticed that her rapist was lingering around her bed and watching her sleep as they passed by to go to the toilet. Another friend said she noticed him preparing a makeshift bed on the floor next to hers. “When I woke up, I was not on the bed where I had slept. But he said – when I woke up, and he woke up, when getting out of my vagina – he said ‘I’m not a rapist.’ Those were his first words. I was like ‘How were you so conscious that you used a condom, in my unconsciousness? And then [redacted name] says you were lingering here the whole time. And then someone else says when they went to the toilet you were making the bed on the floor, meaning you were planning where we were gonna lay. And then you wake up you say ‘I’m not a rapist.’??”
“Do you know what the reaction was with everyone else? ‘We’ll give you a lift home, just go.’ That was the end of the story. And this guy never admitted to this thing until the day – I’ve got that Facebook message – that’s the day he admitted, he was admitting saying ‘I haven’t had sex since I did that to you.’ It came from now me wanting him as a boyfriend after the violation. But then I know the psychology that comes with that as well. Because if you’ve got the violator in your space, then when they come onto you, they’re not violating you anymore, you’ve allowed it. That’s how you protect yourself, it’s psychology.”
“He was that guy, he was a blogger. And everyone knew him as a nice guy, that’s why we ended up giving him a lift home.”
She talks about why she does what she does, and her political stance that is bound to her personal experience. “Strengthen the ones that don’t have a voice. Because the cops are not gonna do anything anyway. So what you’re gonna do? Be the vocal cop for the ones that don’t have a choice, that are gonna go through the shit that you went through. You can be bitter, and feel like you never got help, or you can help the ones that are not gonna get help, just like you. My platform will never be of no substance. It will always be about a voice that doesn’t have a voice that needs to be aware that I have a voice. It’ll never be for nothing, I don’t even care for bullshit. It’s a message, and it’s bigger. Call me president of the female pussy, call me president of difference, you’ll just have to accept things that you’re not used to in general. And that is the only fight I’m willing to groove for; the one I actually stand for. You’ll never find me in drug songs, I don’t take drugs. You’ll never find me in whatever; I don’t give a fuck about the hit, that’s not my mission. My mission is change, my existence is gonna be of change.”
Sanelisiwe is bare-faced and without Moonchild Sanelly’s signature Moon-Mop; her woolly, blue wig, patented in the early stages of her career because she always knew she would be a star and took measures to protect her image. The child of a celestially gifted woman, there is vision in everything she applies herself to. She speaks of the legacy that she wants to leave her kids, that of thriving, and not simply surviving. She is led by her dreams and is precise about the manner in which she wants them enacted.
We end the visit off drinking champagne and eating hot wings but it is here, at home, delicately dancing the line between grandeur and bashfulness, that she reveals the fullness of who she is. I’m reminded of Maya Angelou’s “Oh, but then I had power. Power.”