The World Moonchild Sanelly Is Creating Includes Sexual Liberation for Women

The Johannesburg-based artist uses house and gqom to take ownership of her narrative.

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May 7 2018, 4:54pm

Moonchild Sanelly has a gift for inserting the intricacies of life into songs that’d otherwise make you want to do nothing more than dance unconsciously. And it’s likely due to her maturation as an artist over the past decade. She grew up in Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape with her mother, who owned a jazz club. For college, she moved to Durban, where she participated in the city’s poetry and jazz scenes that sparked her artistic journey. The city is also the birthplace of qgom, a style of house music that emerged in the mid 2000s. Her curiosity to explore different mediums is probably why Moonchild has been able to hit a stride in Johannesburg’s electronic and house spaces. If listening to music for the sheer purpose of breaking a sweat is your goal, she fits the bill, but her work also contains so much of poetry’s mission to get through to listeners’ psyche.

Some of Moonchild’s most popular songs deal with the hurdles of being a woman out in the Johannesburg nightlife scene and what women deal with in their intimate relationships. “F Boyz” chronicles her experience digging a guy who claimed to be a high roller, but ended up being a real estate agent who took women to houses he helped sell under the guise of owning them. On DJ Maphorisa’s gqom hit “Midnight Starring,” her modulated-sounding voice backs up house singer Busiswa’s raspy delivery on the song’s hook. Then, over synths and looped screams, Moonchild caps the track with an energized verse about hating when her guy ignores her posts on social media. And much of her mission as an artist is to establish sexual liberation for women in South Africa, who she says are often shamed and targeted by men for free expression.

I saw her perform at a well-hidden venue in Johannesburg called The Tennis Club on New Years Eve. The place was tucked inside of an athletic complex, in a small room on the second floor. Right after she counted down to the start of 2018, Moonchild controlled the champagne-drinking crowd through a number of her most pounding tracks like “Thirsty,” “F Boyz,” and her verse on “Midnight Starring.” Her set lasted about 30 minutes, but her energy suggested that she could have gone the whole night. Gqom tends to give you a jolt in energy from its tempo and whatever additions producers like to add, but something about hearing Busiswa and Moonchild repeatedly yell out “Yebo” (a Zulu expression of affirmation) on the “Midnight Starring” hook spiked the crowd’s confidence. Those elements, paired with bringing in a new year only amplified that sensation. The following night, I met Moonchild at a steakhouse at The Mall of Africa, where we talked about the politics of Johannesburg’s music scene, her artistic evolution, and how she’s using her work to undo the existing perception of sexuality in South Africa.

What was it about Durban that you needed to upgrade [by moving to Johannesburg]? Was it not challenging or stimulating enough?

It got to a point where, my stuff is so different, that it got harder. Everybody is like, we’re the poetry circle and we do this type of poetry. It came to a point where it wasn’t enough. I came from the jazz and hip-hop spaces. Then I was like, how do I make this shit fun? Then that’s when I started doing my own thing in 2007. The producer I was working with at the time was dope because I’d say, "I see robots. I see red beam lights. I see a cop car. I see crazy eyes." So then he’d tried to give me a beat in that space.

How does Joburg cater to your needs right now?

It’s the place. It’s where you make the money. It’s where the gold is at. It’s where you dig for situations. It’s not for the faint-hearted. You come here with direction. If you don’t, you’re fucked. They give you all these things and you can just fall in a trap and forget why they are in your space, which is because of your work. That’s why I stay at home a lot.

It’s crazy but it’s where you make your money. Durban is the university of authenticity. That place will boo you off stage. People jump onto wagons here. Also because everyone is so artistic, nobody has the business sense. So for every ten artists that come here, negative one will stay.

How do you find the climate for women artists in South Africa?

First of all for me, when it comes to my art, there is no sex that comes with it. It’s art. So I feel like one of the biggest problems with the hip-hop artists we have here, if you’re not sexy and you got bars, you’re an L. If you’re sexy without the bars, you’re hot. So you’ll get someone who’s hot and translates American songs to South Africa and that’s the winner. So your sexuality limits your greatness.

If you start adopting that and base your career off of what men think—it needs to get to a space where, we know the realities. Right now I could be raped outside. That’s a reality. That doesn’t mean I’m going to roll around with a knife. But I don’t live scared. Women, we’re so comfortable with the fact that we’ve been violated and abused and we’ve gone through so much, even when we’re great. With boys, you need to reject a pair of dicks first before you get the [music label] offer. It might just take you a little longer, which is the route I chose because I ain’t gon’ fuck you. I got talent. Fuck you.

You kinda touch on that in “F Boyz.”

Yeah, the song is fun but it’s about fuckboys. We are born and our dads are fuckboys. We attract fuckboys. And it takes your being in a space where you understand your situation and you start attracting what you need to attract. But we have to stop using realities for our excuses not to be great. Because men are not gonna die today or tomorrow. What are you gonna do? For me, when you’re an artist, make your art and the sexuality will come after the art. So I don’t get put on a female top ten. Fuck that shit. It starts limiting you without you even knowing because it’s an excuse. For instance, I don’t talk about ifs, I talk about whens. Change your fucking vocab.

Do you feel any duty to have social or political elements in your music?

I’m not that girl. I don’t care about politics. My mission is sexual liberation. We get violated anytime. The least you can do is when you open your legs, open your fucking mouth. Also, be liberated in the boardroom and the bedroom. Because what’s the point? "Oh, they’re gonna call me a hoe because I want it in the ass." No. I have a five-year plan to open a sex club. People are already into the idea of being naked. But with the current situation, you go to these clubs and you still get spanked on and wanked on. I watch live sex. I’ve gotten rejected deals because I’m being provocative. There’s been so many festivals that have dropped me. But fuck that shit. I will make it happen.

Do you feel weird having to play to majority white crowds?

I’m the only black girl and electronic musician in the white spaces that gets respected and gets main stage and headlines. I’m only new to the mainstream people because I just did this gqom song [“Midnight Starring’]. My crowd started there. I waited ten hours at a black show one time. I was like, there is disrespect. The spaces I play, there’s schedules, there’s times, hospitality rider. I’m there to do work. The other show, they gave us water. And if I argue, I feel like I’m fighting for alcohol. It’s not that—it’s the disrespect.

What are some things to look forward to from you?

I’m doing this gqom EP with Red Bull for the South African market and then I’m doing a garage EP with a UK label. I’m going with strategy now. I was on a label where I was doing more work than them and I left. It’s not necessary.