Interview With KUU’s Shungudzo

Words by Liv Toerkell.
Photography // Shungudzo by Yazz Alali.

The air is still hot even though it is long past midnight. Sweat and the ocean breeze leave a whisp of salt on your skin as your body sways to the beats of 90s influenced house – the sound of Ibiza. Between hedonistic indulgence in the sweet moments of life and the Balearic cultural backdrop KUU channel the effortless lifestyle of the island.

The outfit KUU unites the production skills of Alex Metric and Riton joined by Shungudzo Kuyimba. Shungudzo is what you would call one hell of a multidisciplinary artists. Releasing music under her given name as well as collaborating with a range of other musicians, the artist explores various musical styles. But the one constant throughout all of her artistic work, is the power of her words. In her lyrics and her poems, she speaks out against social injustices merging activism and danceable music. As a part of the trio KUU, Shungudzo does what she does best. Together with Alex Metic and Riton, the musician produces tracks so catchy and groovy that you almost do not miss going out anymore. 

Growing together 

The trio is about to release their debut EP amidst of these turbulent times and we caught up with singer and songwriter Shungudzo to chat about her ambitions for this new project. KUU stands for “Knowledge Unlocks (the) Universe” the musician jokes. “No, that’s not what it stands for. I could try to explain what it stands for, but Alex and Riton have greater personal connections to the name, and I don’t wanna speak for them. When they suggested what we call the group, I was all for it because I could tell it meant a lot to them.” Well, however Knowledge Unlocks the Universe would have been a great name as well. The mysterious acronym KUU combines the talent of the three musicians and Shungudzo gives a little insight into the workings of the band.

What makes this collaboration between KUU and you work? How did you find each other?

“I don’t think the story of how we found each other is particularly interesting (unless you wanna hear another musician superficially talk about the music industry). What’s most important is that we were meant to find each other. We were in the same place at the same time, and all open to something new.

I think that any musical project that involves more than one performer will inherently become an expression of everyone involved, which is one of the joys of collaboration, so long as you’re collaborating with people you feel safe, and free to be yourself, around. My favorite collaborations are the ones that make no sense. People with different tastes and perspectives who find a way to converge on something beautiful. If you only collaborate — in music or in life — with people who are just like you, how will you ever grow — how will WE ever grow? Alex, Riton, and I work so well together because we appreciate each other’s differences.”

What parts do Alex Metric, Riton, and you take on when songwriting?

“I think that words are one of the most powerful tools for change that we have. Our words inspire actions, whether they’re good actions or bad actions, and we don’t even have to be in the same rooms as each other in order to do so. I’m a musician because, at this point in my life, it’s the best way for me to use my words in a positive way. 

However, I know a lot of people who have built their lives around speaking the language of music. No matter what element of music you prioritize — as a person who makes music or a person who listens to it — it’s important. There’s no right or wrong thing to zone out on so long as it’s making you feel. In KUU, specifically, I focus on the words while Alex and Riton focus on the tracks. But we also hear each other’s input on everything.”

You write and release songs under your name as well. Do you think you are expressing something different when writing for yourself versus as a part of KUU?

“My own songs are often political in nature, as I’ve always believed in music as a tool for change. Being in KUU has taught me that there is no one genre, or type of person, that is best equipped to help heal people, and that sometimes healing comes in the form of physical release — in this case, dance. Dance alone. Dance with friends. Dance in your head, with a loved one you’ve lost. Dance through tragedy. Cry while you do it. However you do it, dance.”

Optimism and joy are core emotions of KUU’s musical output. How do you stay optimistic during this crazy year?

“Lately I’ve been thinking that even pessimism is optimistic. If you’re pessimistic it’s because you’re certain that life could be better. If you’re certain that life could be better, you’re optimistic — THAT’S optimistic. Somewhere in your mind, everything already is better. The question is, what are you gonna do to get there?

When it comes to 2020, I admire everyone who has taken a stand for equality. What a beautiful time to live in — a time in which people are finally collectively saying, “Enough is enough!” Whatever emotions someone uses to take a stand — love, anger, hope or fear — the place they’re trying to get to is good. And the place it stems from is optimism for a better future.”

In the world of words Shungudzo is incredibly well versed. She shares her thoughts transformed to beautiful arrangements of words not only through her songs but also as bits of poetry. The writer is especially outspoken about the unjust government that torments the people of Zimbabwe. Having grown up there until she got a scholarship to Stanford University at age fifteen, the singer speaks out for those whose voices have been silenced by the oppressive government. Her words are a tool for change and that energy and urgency is transported through her songwriting as well. 

You are sharing a lot of written poetry as well. What is the difference for you between a written poem and turning it into a song? Is it hard to go from one to the other or does it always come naturally?

“I never really intend for the poems I write to become songs, although maybe I have some sort of wall up separating the two. However, when I’m writing song lyrics, it’s important to me that someone else could read them without music and they’d still make sense. I suppose I think of song lyrics as poems too, but poems that I write with the intention of dressing them in music and melody.

I share my poems online because it’s the only way for me to justify existing on a platform that’s known to depress people, and that sometimes also depresses me. You can unknowingly contribute to someone’s bad day simply by talking about what a great day you had. I think it’s important to be sensitive to what other people are going through when sharing our lives online. That’s why I don’t share many photos of vacations or cool places I get to work in that I could never afford to go to if not for work. Sometimes even posting your own good time can hurt you! I used to do that, and it made me sad because it was almost like the memory was heightened or cheapened by how many people “Liked” it. I wasn’t ready to accept my accomplishments as my own. I needed validation. There’s a big difference between posting for validation and posting for connection. I try to use my poems as a way to make deep connections in a shallow place. I don’t want to create this perception that my life is perfect, because it’s not. Nobody’s is.”

“I want to die in a better world than I was born into, and I want to do everything I can to help build that world for future generations. And I’m not just talkin’ human generations.”

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