In her native South Africa, and now on the world stage, Moonchild Sanelly has established herself as a force of nature, beguiling crowds with her dynamic live performances, empowering lyrics, and a hybrid sound that blends the homegrown genres, such as amapiano and gqom, with international flavors. Oh—and there’s her signature blue coif. But on her upcoming album, “Phases,” the singer dials down the bravado, and embraces her inner vulnerability. Geralda Cela discovers the woman behind the persona.
Moonchild Sanelly beams into the Zoom window. Bouncing into frame on a dark teal-blue sofa that matches the color of her signature braids, the Johannesburg-based artist’s warm, illuminating energy is tangible enough to be felt through the screen. She tells me she’s doing “Awesome!” before swinging into song, singing my name.
Sanelly—real name Sanelisiwe Twisha—was singing before she could speak. “And that’s why you’ll never hear me slipping. I write how I speak,” she says.
Her South African cadence, anecdote-packed lyricisms, and direct-yet-intricately-layered delivery are all at play on her imminent second album, “Phases,” a 19-track, genre-melding, double-sided record made during lockdown. It serves as a kaleidoscopic reveal of the many facets of the artist’s identity, while also waving the flag for the South African amapiano and gqom music movements that, as she puts it, “the world has woken up to.”
A radical figure in South Africa’s electronic music scene, Sanelly has made a name for herself over the last 15 years by blending homegrown genres with the international sounds of punk, hip-hop, and jazz to create what she calls “future ghetto funk.” The sonic elixir plucks and combines defining experiences from the artist’s early days coming up in Durban poetry circles to her present as a global artist. “I could never be boxed,” Sanelly says. “I’m a storyteller. Anytime I hear a beat, there’s a mood I see in my head and there is a story I can tell. There is no limit. I can write about anything and absolutely nothing.”
Sanelly’s sound, coupled with her electric performances, has seen her collaborate with local legends, such as DJ Maphorisa and Rude Boyz, and land “bucket list features” on tracks by Beyoncé, Gorillaz, and Die Antwoord. Enriching each song with a distinctly South African flavor, Sanelly represents a wave of local musicians who’ve tapped into an international audience while keeping their culture at the fore.
A self-described “freedom demon” on stage, Sanelly’s live shows have become legendary, both at home and abroad. “I love it when people say, ‘Oh, this is a tough crowd.’ I’m like, ‘They haven’t been on the moon yet.’ I love that challenge; give it to me.”
Sanelly grew up in a musical household in Gqebera, with a mother who actively encouraged self-expression and brothers who produced hip-hop from their home studio. “One of my first musical memories is being aged four or five and being in a singing competition, singing Brenda Fassie’s song, ‘Street Girl,’” she says with a smile. She describes a childhood soundtracked by kwaito, jazz, and gospel—“So much gospel!”
“The Church wouldn’t claim me now. But gospel music you could never run from on Sundays,” Sanelly says. “It’s so funny. When I was with my ex, alongside the pop stuff that I would make, I would make some melodies, and she’d be like, ‘That’s so church!’ And it always reminds me, oh shit! I do come from church. I was raised with that music.”
After moving to Durban in 2005 to study fashion, Sanelly came up in the city’s poetry circles, often turning up to open mics, not knowing what the vibe was. “I’d have to say, ‘Oh yeah, I do that too’…My thing was just like, get in, I’ll figure it out,” she says. And so Moonchild Sanelly the rapper, Moonchild Sanelly the singer, Moonchild Sanelly the poet, and Moonchild Sanelly the dancer were born.
Sanelly recalls her first-ever open mic performance in 2006 leaving people visibly shook. Down the line, she was offered a poetry slot on Gagasi FM from acclaimed DJ King Sfiso, and found herself booked for 30-minute live shows without having put out an album. “That’s become my biggest magic. I write so quickly because I’ve never had the privilege of sitting down in the studio and having time,” Sanelly says. “All of that was practice for now. Now we make EPs in a day.”
It wasn’t long before Sanelly found herself moving into Durban’s hip-hop spaces. “It was a boys’ club,” she recalls. But though she was often the only woman or the only hyper-feminine person present, she always felt welcomed. “I would just take the mic and win,” Sanelly says. “I’m not scared of anything.”
Sanelly’s creative ambitions soon hit a ceiling in Durban (“There was no space for doing what I was doing, if I wasn’t doing it for myself,” she says) and in 2011, she made the decision to move to Johannesburg. It was a move that also signified a shift from poetry to a new musical direction. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be dealing with poetry and poverty. I wanted to be in my money,” Sanelly says, though she’s still grateful for all the poetry scene taught her. “The poetry is now in my storytelling and lyrics.”
All of the genres, characters, and experiences that make up Moonchild Sanelly are tied together by one universal message: women’s empowerment. Whether she’s speaking on sex workers, women’s hustle, liberation, or pleasure (Sanelly has dubbed herself the president of the female orgasm), she has never shied away, on or off the mic, from speaking up for women and sex positivity. “It hasn’t been difficult to talk about,” Sanelly explains, “because it is who I am. I think and speak women’s empowerment. ButI’ve definitely paid for my mouth, and getting on live radio, because they’re scared of what I’m going to say.
“There was a time when I had to live in a hotel for a year because I couldn’t get a lease. They thought I was going to throw sex parties because I spoke openly about opening a sex party for the Black community because they’re not exposed to that level of freedom and [the parties are] only white people. It goes back to privilege and it being a white space. Black people are screened. It’s only the unthreatening Blacks. I’m the unthreatening Black, and now I’m in there, I’m like, there are so many things that I need to bring to my community.”
Sanelly has always used music to channel messages with a rawness people weren’t always ready for. “I fight by making music, by making hits, and then people demand my presence. I speak to the people, speak for the people, and the people speak for me, and then I play,” she says, as if reciting a magic formula.
For all of its liberated, bad bitch energy, “Phases”also endows Sanelly with a new vulnerability—one that is “a little scary,” she says, shying away from the camera as we speak about the softer, more exposing moments on the record. On closing track “Bird So Bad,” for example, Sanelly longs for freedom from the toxic relationship that ignites a lot of the earlier empowered tracks. Baring her experience over hushed piano tones, Sanelly releases her heartbreak as the track fades lightly into a dance melody.
“It never ends in tears,” she says. “If it starts in tears, it doesn’t end that way. It ends in hope, faith, and change.”
It’s only now, nearly two decades since Sanelly started speaking out about issues affecting women that she feels she’s being properly listened to and supported. “It’s so crazy because it’s all coming together,” she says. “Now I’m executively producing a film about getting the license for sex workers in South Africa, and I’m recording a song for that movie after this. It’s bigger than someone saying I’m a prostitute or whatever, because it actually translates to doing campaigns, doing campaigns with condoms, and doing these things that have got to do with liberation.
“What I get booked for now are the same brands that rejected me prior, like years ago. It’s now, ‘Come in, we need the edge. We get it now,’” Sanelly adds. “To pioneer, you just need patience.”