‘She Poured Her Heart Out On Stage’: South Africa’s Entertainment Industry Reflects On Singer-Songwriter Zahara’s Passing And Lasting Legacy

Published 2 months ago
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(Photo by Gallo images / Sowetan / Veli Nhlapo)

One of South Africa’s most recognized voices with over 12 years in the music industry, 35-year-old multi-award winning singer and songwriter, Bulelwa Mkutukana, also known as Zahara, passed away on Monday.

Zizi Kodwa, the country’s Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture, confirmed the heartbreaking news about Mkutukana on X (formerly Twitter) following multiple reports of her passing.

“My deepest condolences to the Mkutukana family and the South African music industry,” Kodwa said. “The government has been with the family for some time now. Zahara and her guitar made an incredible and lasting impact in South African music.”

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Mkutukana’s family released a statement saying that she was a beacon of hope, a gift, and a blessing to them and countless people around the world. 

“She was a pure light, and an even purer heart,” the statement read. “A legendary figure in the world of music, Zahara remarkably touched millions of people’s lives with her extraordinary gift and passion for music. She leaves behind an indelible mark on the music industry and a legacy that will forever resonate in our hearts and souls.”

At the end of November, her family released a statement that Mkutukana had been admitted into hospital following complaints about “physical pains”. 

Just days ago, political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) Member of Parliament, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi wrote on X: “South Africa, Africa let’s pray for Zahara. My sister Zahara, our prayers are with you. Please fight sisi… fight, fight and fight hard. We are all with you.”

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Born in Phumlani, an informal settlement in East London in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, Mkutukana rose to fame after her debut album Loliwe went double platinum and saw her win multiple South African Music Awards (SAMAs) such as Best Newcomer of the Year, Best Smooth Urban Music Album of the Year, Female Artist of the Year, Best Selling Album of the Year and Album of The Year, all in 2012.

Some in the industry remember her fondly not only for her talent but also for the person she was.

“I’ve known Zahara since 2011,” Jennifer Su, TV host and entertainment reporter, tells FORBES AFRICA. “We met at the South African Music Awards — that year, I was one of the presenters at the SAMAs, and had the opportunity to chat with Zahara on our SAMAs red carpet special on 5FM, when I used to work with Gareth Cliff on The Hollywood Report. Zahara wore the most exquisite red lace long evening dress, and she was feeling a bit shy about having her hair and makeup done, with lashes. She quickly got over her shyness, and poured her heart out on stage. The audience was dead silent listening intently as Zahara sang Loliwe, and then erupted into huge applause.”

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“My fondest memory of Zahara was when I was younger,” says South African singer and songwriter Yamikani Janet Banda, professionally known as Lady Zamar. “I heard Loliwe for the first time with my friends. We’d sing her songs and sometimes for fun change the lyrics but we loved it… I found out later that year that she had released an album full of great African pop hits. I think I abused the whole project and knew almost all her songs by heart. After Brenda Fassie, there hadn’t been a voice quite as moving and quite as powerful as hers.”

In a statement, Warner Music Africa said Mkutukana “leaves a lasting legacy marked by the hauntingly soulful and profoundly emotive tones of her voice”.

“Zahara was a true music icon, a force whose soulful voice and heartfelt lyrics resonated deeply with fans across South Africa and beyond,” said Temi Adeniji, Managing Director at Warner Music Africa. “Her impact on the music industry is immeasurable, and her legacy will forever be etched in the hearts of those who found solace and joy in her music. As we mourn the loss of this extraordinary talent, let us remember Zahara for the indelible mark she left on the world through her artistry and the enduring beauty of her music.”

Both Banda and Su concur that Mkutukana was a star, a monumental figure in the music industry who captivated everyone with her “raw, intense emotion and those deep, resonant vocals”.

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“Hearing about her struggles has been hard for most artists,” Banda adds. “A lot of us looked up to her, especially as women, at least I did. Her success was so inspiring. We admired her talent and grace in the face of so many challenges. It was sad, shattering to hear last night that she had passed on. So young and full of fire, so vibrant as an entertainer… She will always be iconic and she will always be a light that shone bright enough to guide many artists into music.”