Rina Mushonga on Parenting in the Pandemic, Her New Single, and the Whiteness of the Music Industry

Rina Mushonga on Parenting in the Pandemic, Her New Single, and the Whiteness of the Music Industry

I really loved Rina Mushonga's 2019 album In a Galaxy, and she recently released a new single "To Be the Birds" as well, so now was as good a time as any to talk to her. She was gracious enough to dial in from her London home; I started talking about my cat, which is why we started talking about pets. Just so you know.

Do you have any pets?

No, I'm a pet-phobe.


I don't want animals in my house. [Laughs]

Did you grow up with pets?

I did. I grew up in Zimbabwe, so pets were for outside. My dad wasn't a big animal lover. We had a few dogs, but he kept referring to them as "rats," so he instilled the pet-phobia at an early age. I have a three-and-a-half year old daughter, though.

How has parenting been for you during the pandemic?

It's been wild. We've been lucky because she's not learning all the intense mathematics stuff that we'd actually have to help with. So we just get to hang out and go for walks, whereas other parents with older children have really been through the war. If we had to do homeschooling stuff, we probably would've died many deaths, but we were spared that. We enjoyed the time that we had. In London last year, we had full-on lockdown, so we were allowed outside, like, once a day for a short stroll. So we really utilized the time we had. In a weird, dystopian, apocalyptic kind of way, it was kind of nice.

What have you lived through in terms of your own pandemic experience?

As an artist, I was quite surprised by myself. I had a resistant attitude in the beginning, when everybody was getting super creative and you couldn't throw a stone without hitting somebody's online concert or something. I was like, "No. I don't want to do that. I don't want to find cheap solutions to this horrible, horrific thing we're all in." I was also resistant to this pressure I felt from all of that productiveness. It felt like a new way of pushing out product, which is maybe a cynical way of looking at it. But I kept thinking, "It's okay to take a beat."

People didn't realize how much they depended on artists to make stuff, and we need to think about how people consume art. I'm not immune to the constant pressure to produce stuff, but I had lots of feelings about it. It also shed a lot of light on how I feel about making my work and sharing it with people who listen to it, as well as how the music industry functions—or dysfunctions. There's nothing wrong with being innovative, and a lot of musicians have already been getting to a place where they take more of their art into their own hands, away from labels and the machine.

What's been your experience as part of the music industry, especially pre-pandemic?

I'd just put out my last album with PIAS, and I'd did a lot of things that I hadn't been able to do before that. Before that, I'd been with a different label. You get a bit wary of labels. When you first sign up, people are excited and enthusiastic, but when it comes to putting in the work and what is asked of you, the balance isn't really there. I felt like I put in so much work on my last album, and it was such a vulnerable experience for me as well. When it did quite well, to not have that immediate support from the label—"Let's capitalize on this!"—I was like, "Ugh, here we go again." It always comes down to the numbers and the capitalism of it all. So that was quite frustrating.

I'd felt like I'd been in a lot of rooms with predominately white middle-class people who had a lot of power over my music and what happened to it. It inspires a sense of disillusionment after a while. I was dancing this little dance with PIAS after a while about whether we'd move forward with another album, but they were like, "Let's get as much product from you that we can without fully committing long-term." I was so tired of that.

So I left PIAS and went into the pandemic label-less, which was quite a big void to step into. It was also the first time in years that I really had to think about whether I wanted to rush around and find another label, or whether I wanted to rethink how to present my music.

Tell me about what goes into your sound.

I try not to think so much about genre, which is always my jumping-off point. When I start writing a song, I don't want to have rules—which makes it difficult for a label, too. "Where do you fit? What are you doing?" The mood that I ultimately want to strike is connective. There's all these different vibes and sounds I grew up with. I lived all over in various continents, and various musical histories sit in me. To what extent do I want them to inform what I make, and what do I want to resist being defined by? I want it to be authentically who I am, and I've been coming to the conclusion that it is gonna be a mix of all these different styles.

What inspires you?

When I was in my teens, I was living in Harare in Zimbabwe, so the mix of music we listened to was a lot of local Zimbabwean music and trends that we were digging with—Zimbabweans that were mixing traditional music with folk or pop. We'd have Thursday night jam sessions at our local venue where we'd just try out stuff together. A lot of that influenced me in learning how to write as well as what I like. It was a horrible mix of everything from Tori Amos, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman—whatever kids in the '90s were listening to. It wasn't just Zimbabwean or South African music. Johnny Clegg was an influence. Even Dave Matthews Band. I was listening back to them recently, and there's an eclecticism to that music that's really stayed with me. I love those kinds of bands where they're mixing it up—like Arcade Fire, I love that about their sound as well.

Tell me about "To Be the Birds."

I wrote it quite soon after George Floyd's murder, as the global uprising was happening. It was a really intense time for me, to say the least, and it was very triggering for many ways as well. George Floyd was obviously one of many brutal murders we've collectively witnessed online. It was the end of a six-week period in which I felt like there was another video every week, and of course, it's continued. I'd been feeling that pressure before, and I was like, "Am I crazy, or is it more now?"

"To Be the Birds" is a reaction to that—about how our bodies are viewed through the lenses of the white gaze. These videos were so dehumanizing, and they're the only thing we keep seeing about being Black, this violence. It was so sad and frustrating, obviously, but also dehumanizing and debilitating, and "To Be the Birds" is about that feeling of not being seen as a whole person. I wrote it really quickly, in less than a day, and there it was. "Everything Is Personal" is a continuation of that, too. Writing music after the album for me, I wasn't thinking, "What is the next logical step?" It's just about writing music, and compiling the vibes that feel the strongest.

After George Floyd's murder, a lot of people within the music industry with positions of power promised to "do better." A year and a half out, do you think anyone has actually done anything?

Everyone's releasing inclusivity policies and making promises and big statements where it's like, "That's totally not who we are. We're anti-racism. We're with you. We're behind you. We're committed and dedicated to changing and doing better." I think if you look closely now at most of those record labels or whatever, the people in power are probably still predominantly white and male. In that sense, very little has changed. Radically, it would involve people having to step aside and give up their positions, but who's gonna be the head of a label making lots of money and think, "Maybe it's time we give me less power and money?"

I started a Masters at the end of last year because I wanted to learn more about social justice and community activism, especially as it relates to the arts. I wanted to have a better understanding myself of where the structural problems come from, and to be better at identifying the bullshit. It's been really helpful to look at history for context, but if I was aware then, I'm even more so now that a lot of those statements made are really quite hollow. There's a real problem in the music industry, and entertainment in general, where when people think of people of color it's a homogenized and monolithic "Black culture." What does that even mean? We wouldn't say "white culture." You've got all these genres and sounds in music, but "Black music" is hip-hop, R&B, grime—that's what we get. If you step out of that, people start getting confused. "What is it then? You're a person of color but you're not making what we identify as Black music."

Those ideas are a creative problem, and if you're sitting in a room of white middle-aged men who have very entrenched ideas of who makes what and where things belong, I'm coming into that room with a huge disadvantage if I can't fit into those boxes.

What gives you hope for the future?

Localized action. I work with a dance theater company, and I do a lot of work with young people. Being in a rehearsal room with young people who are making something beautiful and theirs is one of the most inspiring things. Being able to be a small part in bringing underrepresented stories to a larger stage keeps me going, and it keeps my music going more than my music itself. If they can get on with it and make dope shit, and if there's new voices out there constantly that are really nailing it, that gives me hope.

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Jamie Larson