Zahara, Acclaimed South African Singer and Guitarist, Dies at 36

Zahara, the South African singer-songwriter whose soulful voice and heartfelt ballads earned her platinum-selling albums and multiple accolades in her country, died on Monday in a hospital in Johannesburg. She was 36.

Her family confirmed her death on social media but did not cite a cause. Litha Mpondwana, the spokesman for South Africa’s minister of sports, arts and culture, said Zahara had been hospitalized for several weeks.

“My deepest condolences to the Mkutukana family and the South African music industry,” Zizi Kodwa, the minister, said on social media, adding that officials had been “with the family for some time now.” He continued, “Zahara and her guitar made an incredible and lasting impact in South African music.”

She was born Bulelwa Mkutukana on Nov. 9, 1987, in the village of Phumlani in Eastern Cape, South Africa, and grew up listening to songs her mother played on the radio before discovering a love of singing. She became the lead singer of her Sunday school choir at 6.

Zahara began her singing career busking on the streets of her hometown. She said she had never received any formal musical training and had taught herself the guitar.

“There’s a difference between a gift and a talent,” she said in an interview in 2021. “I’m gifted, not talented.”

Her father gave her the stage name Zahara, which means “blooming flower” in Arabic, she said in the same interview.

Beginning with her debut album, “Loliwe,” in 2011, Zahara’s music drew critical acclaim and found success on the music charts. Nelson Mandela invited her to his private residence to perform a bedside concert before his death in 2013. Her most recent album, “Nqaba Yam,” was released in 2021.

Zahara, who sang in both English and Xhosa, her native language, was known for her husky and heartfelt voice, often compared to those of Tracy Chapman and India.Arie, and her acoustic instrumentals. Her collaborations with titans of Africa’s music industry, like the singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the musician Robbie Malinga and the Nigerian singer-songwriter 2Baba, cemented her place in contemporary Afro-soul music. She was named one of BBC’s 100 women of 2020.

Through her lyrics, she spoke of her faith, her struggles and her dreams. She described her songs as stories of her experiences and thoughts.

“I write about my life,” she said in an interview in 2022. “If you want to know mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally where I’m at, where I’m centered, go get my albums.”

Zahara’s younger brother, Mbuyiseli Mkutukana, was murdered in 2014, after which she said she went through a period of depression. In 2021, her older sister, Nomonde Mkutukana, died in a car accident. Over the years, she spoke publicly about her struggle with alcohol addiction.

Zahara campaigned for female victims of violence in South Africa, which she said she experienced when she was in her 20s. “Prayer has kept me going through this difficult time,” she told the BBC. “Nothing can beat prayer.”

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