“When I started making the album, I had to stop writing for other people in order to focus on it. I realized that I hadn’t taken a risk in a really long time,” says Shungudzo. “Even though risks have always led me to the most beautiful moments of my life, I realized that I had sort of fallen into the safety net of writing for other people or more so the perceived safety because it’s not like songwriting is a guaranteed path.
“I decided that in order to feel more fulfilled as an individual, I had to take the risk of doing less of the things that made me money and more of the things that I love,” the singer-songwriter, originally from Zimbabwe, tells American Songwriter. “And I feel really grateful for that. I feel more fulfilled than I have ever been as a person and as a musician. It makes me feel more certain about being myself and doing the things I’m passionate about. It is always the road to internal satisfaction and internal acceptance.
“I feel like I have gained and learned so many things. I could start musically, in that this is the first time in my life that I’ve been a full time artist rather than a full time songwriter,” she continues, “and the first time in my life that I’m releasing a body of work that that I feel truly represents who I am and what I want and why I make music. So, that’s a really wonderful feeling and a dream come true.”
Shungudzo’s debut full-length album, the appropriately titled I’m not a mother, but I have children, a moniker detailing her vow to forge a brighter future for the next generation, draws lines in the sand regarding racism, complicity in silence, and womanhood in America. Split into two acts, not unlike a stage play, she uses three distinctly soul-shattering poems (“Black breath,” “When to stop talking about it,” and “Silence, hate, beat, kill”) as the pillars to her stories, representing the “intro,” “intermission,” and “outro,” respectively.
In between, Shungudzo destroys the walls, and then rebuilds them much stronger and thicker, through razor-sharp lyricism and genre-blending arrangements. She frequently plays with textures, often rhythmic or retooling vocals into riper and more haunted soundscapes, or rips up the floorboards to reveal visceral, stripped vocal performances.
“I started writing for myself, and I didn’t know what I was making─and then I had an album,” she admits with a laugh. “But around the time that I started the album, I had actually made my first spoken word poem ever, and that’s ‘Black Breath.’ I made it before I started working on the album.”
During quarantine, she also stepped into another arena: recording her spoken word poems for the first time. “I’d written so many poems in my lifetime, but I never recorded myself speaking, and I felt this real intimidation about talking,” she says. “I have a great respect for amazing spoken word poets and musicians like Kate Tempest. In the process of recording myself speaking, I realized that the emotions of the words really came out of me, even in unexpected ways. When I spoke them aloud, that inspired me to do more poems.”
Having grown up in Zimbabwe until she was 10, and then living in New York City, Shungudzo never had access to poetry outside of the stray Dr. Seuss book here and there (and everywhere). Her early relationship with and through poetry, later naturally evolving into songwriting, sprung from a deep place within her soul. “A lot of my first year writing, and it’s kind of continued to be that way, has just come through… I wouldn’t call it trial and error, but trial and trial,” she chuckles. “Just continuously writing and evaluating my own writing, and then changing it as I grew as a person and learned to understand myself in the world a little bit differently.
“When I’m writing, I feel I’m not really thinking. I’m sort of channeling my thoughts, experiences, and observations. The only time I step in to think is if I feel something I’ve written isn’t true to who I am. Maybe I’ll write a song about being heartbroken,” she continues, “but in the moment of writing it, I’m in that sort of magical place where I’m not really thinking and just writing and then my mind will step in and say, ‘Actually, you’re not heartbroken anymore.’ These feelings aren’t actually true to who you are anymore. So my mind steps in, in that sense, to edit myself.”
Her songwriting, even now, feels far less “methodical” as it does plainly “natural,” she remarks. “Before I start writing a project, for example with this album, I wrote down a number of feelings and little mini poems. I had them all in the same document, and I knew that I wanted to touch on each of those feelings. So I just used that as a guide as I worked on the album.”
Across the record, from the skittering “Trippin’” to the roaring rhythm-rock anthem “White Parents,” Shungudzo files her lyrics into fangs before fashioning them into harpoons. Her words, rooted in personal and grander-scale traumas, carry great power. “Words are one of the most powerful tools in the world. They have the power to create things, and they have the power to destroy things, whether we’re talking about the way governments or movements use them, or the way that we use them with each other, or how our parents use them with us or our other loved ones. Words are just this magical, powerful thing that can be used for good or evil. And I just tried to use those for good.”
With “it’s a good day (to fight the system),” she plays against expectation, whetting the listener’s eardrums with a sunny disposition─severely contrasting against the lyrics about exhaustion amidst the Black Lives Matter resurgence. Brassy horns “guide the feeling of everything. They felt so joyous to me,” she describes. “The song actually started with me lying down on the couch on a day on which I was a little bummed out. I had been so enthusiastically following everything that was happening in the world when it seemed the protests for Black Lives Matter were happening everywhere. And I sort of wore myself out. By being so enthusiastic, and by checking the news and social media and all of these things so much, I woke up feeling worn out on that day.”
Initially, the title rang in her head as a self-rallying creed before taking on a much bigger meaning. “I said it to myself to cheer myself up and get myself out of my exhaustion. And then I began figuring out how to build a song around that statement,” she says of the song, which features Peter Bunetta, “and I decided that it should be a very joyous song, something that could also help other people realize the beauty of the moment that we’re in ─ in spite of the hardship, the beauty of the fact that so many of us are activists and protesters.”
“There’s only so much a soul can take” plays around in a similar sandbox, presenting deeply probing lyrics against a blindingly bright backdrop. People know my color before they know my name, she sings, a distrustful gleam in her eye.
Written “in a moment of complete frustration,” Shungudzo made sure to keep that emotional thread unwavering throughout the song, even with production that often feels bouncy and warm. “I didn’t want the song to have to have a happy ending. I think so often songwriters feel really pressured to give songs happy endings, or just sort of have it resolved at the end. And I really wanted this one to feel more like those moments in our lives when things feel frustrating or right at the edge of a breaking point.”
In working with producer Spencer Stewart, she continued tinkering around with the groove and the propulsive, forward motion. “It’s actually quite a slow song for how fast that it feels sometimes,” she observes. “There’s an element of joy in the production. I love that contrast between the lyrics being frustrated and the production being sort of joyous and a little bit cheeky. I even use a mouse sound as an instrument. If you listen, you’ll hear like a ‘boop boop.’”
Later, “Where are my friends?” arrives as one of the record’s most splintered moments, finding Shungudzo literally pleading: Where are my friends? / They’re already back on vacation. Such tea-spilling, already prevalent across the entirety of the album, feels electrifyingly earnest─and very personal here.
“I realized that I had a lot of people in my life who would choose their own comfort over acknowledging their privilege or the elements of their personal and professional life that contribute to systemic racism,” she says, outright. “I felt like last year was very much a sort of Get Out of Jail Free pass for anyone who had been ignorant up until that point. It was this moment where I felt like so many people were given the opportunity to acknowledge their privilege, and then, more importantly, to take the steps in their own life to better themselves for the sake of themselves and their communities. I wrote this song about people I no longer see anymore.
“I think that in this time so many of us have had to evaluate and question and reprioritize our relationships. When people do something that is utterly harmful to you or to others, it’s okay to cut them out of your life,” she advises. “But I think that it’s also very important to be willing to sit down and have really honest conversations about our differences and to do our best to listen to each other. Once those conversations are had, then you can decide how to move forward. If someone is unwilling to listen to you or to look within themselves and understand how who they are impacts your life or other people’s lives, then maybe it’s time to move on. But I do think that it’s really important to at least allow for conversation, if it’s a conversation that can be handled safely.”
Shungudzo, whose life story is quite a marvel─going from being the first-ever black female to represent Zimbabwe in the 1999 All-Africa Games to starring in “The Real World: San Diego” to studying at Stanford University and being discovered by acclaimed producer Krucial. Her songwriting has also found its way onto records by Little Mix, Jessie Ware, and The Chainsmokers.
But now, she owns the space on her own. I’m not a mother, but I have children is the year’s most searingly honest release, brittle with centuries-old miseries. Her work as a former journalist in world news, running a company as editor-in-chief, seeps into her understanding of people, their relationships to one another, and trauma as currency.
“My job every day was to wake up very early and look up some of the greatest tragedies that had happened around the world and decide which were most important or most clickable. I found that experience to be so heartbreaking,” she recalls, “and I found myself to be in the business of profiting off of other people’s losses. To have to categorize other people’s pain like that and then sell it was really hard for me.”
Once she quit her job and moved to music-making full-time, she made a choice not to “live in the news anymore,” she says. “Knowing the news, a lot of stories are the same and used over and over again, with very little change occurring. Once one new site picks up one story, the rest of them pick them up. So I found that it was not productive for me to continue checking every news site I used to check when I worked in journalism and to check the news five times a day.
“I understand the importance of the news, but I think that’s still a business. And I would even argue, it’s a form of entertainment for a lot of people─like when you go to someone’s house and the news is on the TV all the time. That is not necessarily healthy, to allow yourself to watch it all the time and to allow yourself to become desensitized.”
I’m not a mother, but I have children, a culmination of all her life experience, personal and professional, is unshakable, speaking truth to power with ravenous energy. As Shunguzdo performs in the scorching outro, “Silence, hate, beat, kill”: And if you’re still indifferent, fuck you / You’re part of the problem, too.