An Interview With: Tuelo

Fresh off the release of the video for her single, “Saint Margaret,” Tuelo catches up with us about her journey as an artist. The South African musician opens up about the meaning behind “Saint Margaret” and why the video holds many personal connections to her own life.

What drew you to music and artistic life?

We’ve been rehearsing almost every day. Gives me time [to think about] why I am doing this. I got to the US pretty young and I was by myself. No family in the US—now [I have] a family of friends.

I would go out with friends to karaoke, and in South Africa we don’t have that. I went up and sang. The karaoke host came over and said, ‘You’ve got something there,’ and I didn’t like my voice. I still have trouble liking it. I come from a huge singing culture, I’m the last of 7 children but in my house of 17, everyone sings. So I never had the opportunity to stand out and don’t remember hearing my own voice in South Africa. [I remember] a friend who sang in competitions, and it was beautiful. I cried. I didn’t know after that there would be so many events that would open up who I am about a singer and songwriter and tell the specificness about me. I started writing music to write for friends and music circles, but I realized those words needed to be sung in a particular way. I started writing and trying to sing. Maybe God heard me and gave me a voice. I feel very lucky because I didn’t know I had a voice and it just showed up. When [I was] in South Africa and quarantining there, we were recording the EP and I was supposed to be back before New York closed, and a week later everything shut down. My throat closed up in South Africa because of the weather so as a child I couldn’t navigate my voice. I was worried while I quarantined—what if I lose my voice? I am always grateful for New York, which gave me my voice, but it might be the weather.

I am writing about my experiences and things I really believe in, injustice, and finding a way out of a troublesome situation. My mother is a Black woman on a farm, poor, who can’t send me cash, but all I needed was to hear her voice, and everything would be better. She’s a saint. I can talk about her forever. Saint Margaret was how my mother is, not just a saint to me, how she’s taken in others, lived with probably over 30 people who my parents sent to school, cousins, or random people. Go to that house if [you are] looking for help. Before we didn’t understand why our parents did this, but now I appreciate all those lessons. Everybody gets to eat at the table.

What was the story behind the Saint Margaret video?

I spoke to Kevin (co-creator), my brother from another mother. I love performing for a live audience and I am not particularly a video person. I didn’t want to appear in a video. We didn’t know that Saint Margaret was going to be on the record too. Got to Columbia, the second quarantine place. I was working on the record there, and it was really beautiful. We had to do something there. There was a farmhouse with the most gorgeous garden. My mother loves flowers and she lives in a desert. She’s always been trying to grow flowers and they never grow in South Africa. So we needed an element of flowers.

The song is about the strength I get from her. Four days before we shot the video, I redid the whole thing. I wanted elements that are African but that are common to all of us in the world. There is a stick to walk with, and in my culture we get that from our grandparents or great grandparents. You keep it with your wardrobe, and “they have worked it/they have put their magic in it”. So it’s something to hold onto—strength, culture, etc. If you have been on a long journey you can be washed with water, an elder washes you and cleanses you of your journey. Typically you will be fed—your family feeds you for no reason. People who love appreciate and love you, even though they’ve never said that in African culture.

We laughed the whole time, but you wouldn’t know it if you watched it. If you have been grieving, in my culture, you cut your hair completely, and shave it. In other cultures in Africa, you are given new shoes. So Kevin [is shown] putting new shoes on. We wanted to have shrines [in the video], and there are so many in Columbia. We would compete as to who would see the most shrines. We found one and bedazzled it. We wanted to give him the element of a gift—the chain that I give him at the end. That for me is South African, but also what we all share in the world.

What do we have to look forward to from you this year?

The whole record is coming out at the beginning of next year. It’s stories about me and the journey of a woman trying to leave trouble, trying to be in a peaceful place. The record is about the reckoning and trying to let it be. Very morbid, but it’s not a bad thing. I come from a culture where we have the best protesting in the world in South Africa. [We] tell protestors: you must make it fun or else you will not survive fighting for that thing. My life has been a lot of that, but also happiness. When you go to a refugee camp, people are telling jokes because you have to laugh. [There are] songs I don’t want to talk about and songs I do want to talk about. Botswana I’m from culturally, but they cut the border. Botswanans are known to be not combative in any way, we make poke at you, but not combative. When war comes to us, we run, into the desert where no one wants to go. [We are] one of the richest tribes because we went to the desert—[we] find gems, things happen in the desert. [We] where it’s least expected, go to the desert.

 I did that coming to the US. I didn’t know I would be in a creative field, I [thought I] cannot be this person. I couldn’t do the normal thing. I knew from a young age: I need to get out. I bought a guitar I couldn’t play for years. Newness came to me.

I come from a music space that is ‘drop everything and feel’. In New York,  I got in a group with really amazing guys. Everyone is my cousin so it was called Tuelo and The Cousins. Cross-over afro-beat [music]. I realized we were making the music for the future, but it was a way to pay homage to my roots, especially those who gave me music jobs in the beginning. I had these amazing opportunities, but I hoped that people didn’t think this is it, that I fall in a genre. I needed to make that change. Tuelo and The Cousins was a family band, but what if I want to be sexy in a record one day? What if my voice changes? It’s freeing to be able to do what I do. It’s a mix of rock—elements of easiness and intensity that I really appreciate because I can make complicated music because of my background. I grew up singing without instruments. Small inflections in your voice could make the singing instrumental. I hear things in the universe. I’m grateful for being quiet as a child so I could feel out all the instruments in the room, in the space. In this form of music, I can bring out what’s in my head and not put them all in one record. The way I feel my music, I feel it intensely and it comes out as rock.

What does your mother think of the song?

At the beginning of the year, we recorded and I asked my sisters to do the backing vocals and they were so shocked at hearing me singing. My family has never heard me sing at all. They were sending my parents messages, asking, “How did we not know? Did you know?” My mother just said, “Okay, I like it.” That was the reaction, nothing big. I made her listen to part of the record. We are working on a project of her ancestral land, and we were driving around [listening to the album] and investigating. “This is you, are you kidding? This can’t be you. It sounds like someone like the radio. Oh my God, you’re going to be amazing.” [That was] her mother’s reaction. I tried to remind her of how great she is. She’s one of those people who is unsatisfied and needs to do more—she is a radical woman.

What is it like to write as a Black woman?

[I feel like a] loner. I try not to be in this space and try to be myself and write with freedom, but I do know that alternative rock does not have a lot of Black women. There is no space for us, but Black women started it. I don’t understand how that moved away so quickly. There is space for the music aspect of it to experience something new that is authentic. I don’t think a Black audience has heard me enough but would be there for me. My audience is mostly white who show up for the issues for social justice issues and also see that we are a lot alike. The Tuelo tribe is a specific type of person who I really appreciate. I am encouraged to continue talking about social issues.

I come from an in-your-face racially divided country. In the US everyone is so nice, how did no one tell me? We were not even told growing up that we were Black, even though there was apartheid, we were taught of being different culture. An American from Botswana is an African American. Not trying to prove myself but want nothing here to prove. Music started in Africa but I’m here to enhance this space. Rock is not dead. Open up a space for people like me. The ability for people to recognize this and allow it in our space. It’s up to people’s values and thinking and it has nothing to do with race.  I listen to a lot of men and I appreciate them but open a space for women who are excellent at what they do, who pioneer and move a mark—it’s the man who comes behind her who is pushed forward. And there’s a lot to do. I hope I get to a point where I have influenced something; I don’t want to be a role model, I want to change the world. I want to be groundbreaking which is not comfortable so I know I have to do radical things and be a radical woman.

[I create] songs that can open their spirits, and lead them into a better space, or not. All I can do is tell them about my experience.

Follow Tuelo on Instagram.

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