Determinedly doing things her own way and standing up for what she believes in has long been ingrained in the psyche of trailblazing South African musician Moonchild Sanelly, whose drive to succeed has been fuelled by personal pain and trauma.
Growing up in Port Elizabeth with a hip-hop producer brother and a mum who would put her onstage from a young age to compete in dance competitions, Sanelisiwe Twisha’s music-filled childhood was full of creativity. Whether it was self-choreographing dance routines to Spice Girls tracks, teaching herself to play the piano, singing at church with her family, or starting to write poetry, expression and being artistically free was always encouraged.
Her passion for music became ignited when she moved to Durban in 2005 (initially to study fashion) and she found herself able to turn her hand to any genre. Quickly immersing herself in the local scene there – and in Johannesburg, where she later relocated to – she would write for reggae bands and freestyle against other rappers, often overcoming misogynistic attitudes in the process. “In my writing, I would pay homage to my hard times and the many years that I struggled, because it has shaped me,” she says.
It didn’t take long until she established her own signature sound: self-described as ‘future-ghetto-funk’, it would catapult Moonchild Sanelly to become South Africa’s most unique performer. Having crafted an electrifying live show – and designed flamboyant outfits to perform in – she became a superstar on her home turf. But she soon felt as though she had “reached my ceiling; my style of music was being ostracised – because I wasn’t being understood with what I was doing”.
Instead of limiting her reach, however, she took a commercialised approach to unapologetically spreading her message – one of female sexual empowerment: “liberation for women, in the bedroom, in the boardroom, knowing your power… I needed to be heard by a lot of people”. In line with her manifested vision, she found a global audience that gravitated towards her and began spreading her ethos to women around the world, performing at festivals such as SXSW, Primavera, Glastonbury, Boardmasters,
It’s rare that an alternative artist finds such vast success in a commercial space, without having to dilute anything about them, but Moonchild Sanelly is a true fighter and the antithesis of average: “I fought everything for me to exist as myself and to win as myself,” she says, putting her ambition down to her mum’s passing when she was a teenager. “I was constantly reminded about my magic and my power… that nothing is impossible.”
This mentally-empowered upbringing arguably made her the outspoken artist she would become: since her award-winning first album ‘Rabulpha!’ put her on the global map, she has collaborated with local favourites Maphorisa, Sho Madjozi and Thandiswa Mazwai. In the years that followed, she caught the attention of a host of international superstars, leading to high-profile collaborations with artists including Wizkid and Beyonce (featuring on ‘… MY POWER’, as part of ‘The Lion King: The Gift’ soundtrack, in 2019) and Gorillaz (on ‘With Love To An Ex’, in 2020).
Then, following her statement-making debut and a stream of South African hits, she signed to Transgressive records (partnered with Gallo in South Africa) in 2020, kicking off with diverse mini-LP ‘Nüdes’. Now, she returns to the international label, which has achieved success in multiple genres (Arlo Parks, Mykki Blanco, Flume) with her genre-crossing second album, ‘Phases’. It’s a highly collaborative record, too, with production and guest features from Sad Night Dynamite (their track ‘Demon’ is already a huge hit), Ghetts, Wesley Joseph, Xavier Thomas (Débruit), TOKiMONSTA, HOLLY and Aramboa.
Forming a sonic foundation that veers between Amapiano, Gqom, grime, pop, house and R&B while showcasing her vocal talents on more downtempo songs, its 19 tracks document the varying chapters of a toxic relationship and subsequent freedom. A double album, the first side is a journey through the relationship with production reflecting those different moods and aspects of her personality; the second side, meanwhile, leads into a clubbier amapiano space. “The inspiration came from being in a relationship that got me writing so much; there was a point where I messaged my manager to say ‘I’m sticking with this relationship until I finish the album because I’m getting so much content’!” she remembers.
As planned, when the record was done, she swiftly became single and free. “I only held onto it for my project, because there would be so many stories,” she adds. The tracks on it, she says, are a way of empowering all different types of girls and promoting respect for women: ‘Strip Club’, featuring Ghetts, flips the male-led narrative, instead putting the woman in charge; ‘Over You’ finds strength and power in breaking-up with a cheating ex; ‘Cute’, featuring rapper Tillary Banks, is a straight-up empowerment anthem. “I want people to relate to the stories I’m telling,” she says.
Carrying South Africa along with her has long been important for her, too, and it’s something that’s reflected on ‘Phases’, as she is joined by two of the country’s most exciting rappers: Blxckie on ‘ULi’ and Sir Trill on ‘Soyenza’.
And, while the majority of ‘Phases’ is driven by global beats and unashamedly explicit lyrics, the album’s final track, ‘Bird So Bad’, is surprisingly vulnerable. “It’s about escape, and everybody wants to do that at some time,” she says; “for me, it’s about being free again and like a bird, having escaped the relationship”.
The album’s title, then, takes on a multitude of meanings: via the range of genres covered across its runtime, the different sounds and styles that it encompasses and the personal journey that Sanelisiwe Twisha has taken to get to this point. But, for Moonchild Sanelly, it’s more literal than that: “I think that, with this album, I’ve managed to piece all the different parts of me together, because I’m known for different things in different parts of the world. I think you get to know me better with ‘Phases’ – all the different sides of me.”