When Thando Sikwila sings, nothing else in the world exists. Performing in multiple bands, and also recently taking to the stage as Shug Avary in Australia’s first performance of the Broadway musical The Color Purple, Thando’s talents far exceed the everyday singer.
Growing up in Canberra and moving to Melbourne, Thando has seen the ups and downs of putting yourself on the line for your art. Though never finding race a focal point of who she is, Thando continues to push boundaries and take risks, entering national talent contests in order to do what she loves: sing.
THE PIN. Where did you grow up?
THANDO SIKWILA. I grew up in Zimbabwe for the first seven years of my life, and then when we moved to Australia I grew up in Canberra. I was there for about ten years and I have been in Melbourne for like five years.
What was your Australian childhood like in Canberra?
T. It was good. When I first got here I did feel like a complete outsider, though I spoke perfect English (because we were a colonised country, everyone spoke english); but obviously my accent was really heavy. I found I had to find a way to assimilate so I wasn’t the 'weird black kid', because I was the only black kid at my school at the time.
I started to change my accent and the way I dressed. My mum would put me in a checked school dress, but all the other girls would wear the boys uniform - the polo shirts and bottoms - so I would try to do that. I would sneak these things in my bag and change when I got to school, just so I could feel like the other kids had nothing different to point out about me.
In grade six, it was the time when kids started overusing swear words; it was the thing cool kids did. I started to do that as well, saying 'fuck' left, right and centre with no real understanding of what it meant. All I knew was that I had to break down the wall that was making me different from everybody else. Everything became real easy once I settled in. I got attention for being black in a good way. I was the 'token black chick' who everyone wanted to be friends with. That got me to a point where I felt that I fit in, and was happy. Doesn’t turn out that way when you’re older.
Within your household, was there a different culture to the outside?
T. Oh yeah, definitely. I always felt like, when I was at home I was the daughter that my parents had brought up, or expected to be if we were still in Zimbabwe. There are certain expectations, like doing chores and getting good grades and stuff, that’s just kind of a given. It’s not something that I have to argue with my parents about. Going out and hanging with friends was a privilege that I got for meeting their expectations as a daughter, whereas I found it was very different if I was outside of school.
How old were you when you became aware of race?
T. Maybe fifteen or sixteen years old. In Canberra, on Australia Day every year they have this huge event on the lawns of Parliament House. They put on a big concert. One year Jessica Mauboy was there, so me and a couple of friends (who are all from different backgrounds) painted little Australian flags on our cheeks and wore the Australian flag singlets and walked to the event. We were so excited to be there. To me, Australia Day was an opportunity to celebrate diversity and all the things that make Australia what it is. I’d never felt like I was different. I did when I first got here, but I had assimilated so much to the point where I didn’t really see myself as anything but Australian.
There was a group of really drunk men there, and when we walked past they were just screaming, ‘How dare you wear our flag on your brown skin!’, ‘Go back to your own country!’, ‘Go back to where you came from!’, ‘This celebration isn’t for you’. And whether it was how they really felt, or they were just hammered and trying to be in tough in front of their friends, I think it was the first time I realised that I’m not...I wasn’t...what I thought I was.
I went home that day and cried for hours. I started to feel really resentful. Any of my friends who weren’t 'Australian', I distanced myself from. I don’t know if they felt the same way. Then I started noticing things. Whenever I hung out with certain people, they’d play out African-American stereotypes like neck snaps and the ‘gurlll’ stuff. I used to laugh but after the incident I became a lot more aware of how much those things can hurt feelings. I’m not even African-American, and for people to have this assumption of who I am based on how I look on the outside made me question why I should have to tell anyone about who I am.
Race is tricky.
When did you start singing?
T. There was this community church back in Belconnen, they had a church band that was basically a rock band. These three Ghanian girls and I joined the band and the music started getting really upbeat and fun. I think I would’ve been about nine or ten years old at that stage. There was just something about being up in front of people, creating music, that gave me this confidence. That was probably the only time I felt comfortable and like I belonged. I never questioned who I was on stage.
What was the experience like for you to be on a mainstream television show like The Voice?
T. In the moment it was great. I am really glad I had that experience, but it definitely made it very apparent to me that it’s not about the music; it’s about what people can see at face value. Which is why there was a big focus on what my story was, you know coming to Australia and migrating from a third-world country. It wasn’t a third-world country when I moved here. Everything was sweet when we left. We came here because my mum got a job, we weren’t running away from anything. They kept trying to paint this picture of a struggle. In a sense I can understand why they were doing that, so they could appeal to another demographic of people who felt like they could relate to that story, so that they could get their ratings [laughs]. Whether it was good intentions or for personal gain, to be used as a vessel for that made me realise I could do these things and be hugely successful, but people would only care about what they see on the surface. I’ve been working to get away from that.
Do you think that through the show you were represented accurately?
T. Absolutely not. My parents really did their best to raise me with Zimbabwean traditions, but they realised as well that they were raising their kids in a different culture and that we would absorb the new culture and grow up as Australians.
I realised there was this big focus on my background and my story, but I wasn’t able to recall anything that they wanted to hear. They wanted me to talk about the struggle and how difficult it was to learn English. I already knew English; it’s my first language. I just wanted to go there and sing. I just wanted to be a singer and have people like me based on that, not my background.
What was it like being mentored through that show?
T. It was Kylie [Minogue] to start with, in the early stages they’re just moving you through the motions, so not so much [mentoring]. Then I ended up with Ricky Martin. I felt like it was genuine, but I don’t know if that was because of his eyes….[laughs]. Totally joking.
I honestly felt like it was genuine. We talked a lot about how I struggled introducing my partner to my parents. The relationship I have with my dad, we love each other, but it’s very much don’t ask/don’t tell. I’ve been with my partner for nearly four years now, and they just met early last year, which is good. We never really talk about things candidly though.
When I was on the show Ricky said it would be great to have my partner in the audience. I wasn’t sure how I felt about having my boyfriend on the show, and then having to talk to my dad about it. My dad would question who this man is. Ricky said, ‘Obviously you are happy in this relationship with him, but you are being very cautious and making sure he is the right guy before bringing him home to your dad. You respect your father enough to not just bring home any guy, you want to make sure he’s right and special enough. Your dad is going to appreciate that no matter what’. This whole conversation happened when cameras were off, it was off the record and no one saw it. It meant a lot to me that he took the time to get to know me and find out how I was feeling about things. So my partner was on the show, me and my dad talked about it, and then ... I got eliminated next week. That’s what happens [laughs].
What’s it like now, going from performing in a group, to being a solo performer in your own right?
T. It’s fun but there is a lot of pressure. I play with a backing band but I do a lot of solo stuff as well. There’s a lot of pressure to be able to deliver. For me, it’s not so much pressure from the industry, the pressures that I have are internal and with my band. I work with seven other people, I have to try and keep them happy. I have had lineup changes for the last three and a half years. I’ve gone through five drummers. They’re the hardest to hold onto! When you’ve got a good one you’ve got to hold on! Also, not taking for granted everyone else in the band. It’s full on. I do everything for the band myself. Book gigs, get posters distributed, organise itineraries for eight people, organise accommodation, make sure there is enough money in the kitty for petrol. We got stuck in a lift in Sydney on our last tour! I had to manage people’s anxieties.
I’m a very emotional person, and when things happen I take a lot of it on. I like to just have my tantrum, have that outburst, and let it go. I can’t show any sign of weakness in those situations, I have to be the leader they need me to be. It’s so worth it, when you get on stage and play, and celebrate everything we’ve worked for.
It’s definitely a lot easier working in a group. You get to share the fear, and you’re all in it for the same thing.
What’s it like to be in the Australian music industry as a woman of colour?
T. It’s very difficult to break people's perceptions of what kind of artist I am supposed to be. There’s always this expectation that I’ll be a big soul singer. When I first started, I appreciated it. People were putting me on the same level as the Aretha’s and Whitney Houstons, which was great for my self-esteem...but if you ever try and take a risk and do something different, it’s either not very well received or people don’t understand it. It’s a risk you have to take for yourself though. With my new EP, it’s a different direction to what people expect of me. Stylistically, I’m a soul singer, but this new EP is anything but. My publicist is calling it future soul. It’s really electronic, focused on production, lyrics, and layering the harmonies. I wanted to do something totally different to start that conversation. Not every person of colour is doing the same music.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
THANDO SIKWILA. Don’t change yourself to fit in, because when you’re older and you have the platform to make a difference, you’re going to wish that you owned every part of your blackness...to let the next little girl know that it’s okay to be brown.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Gail Hislop