Tools For Turbulence: Inside The Ascension’s Maiden Voyage

Charisse C and Koek Sista in conversation...

For our conversation about their first musical project as a duo, The Ascension’s Charisse C and Koek Sista meet me at a cafe that sells green juice, fair trade coffee, has a black-and-white logo and a bicycle hanging on a wall behind the barista. It could be anywhere in the world, but it is in Johannesburg, South Africa. That matters, to both musicians.

Koek Sista was born Ulungile Magubane in South Africa and raised in the United States, while Charisse C was born in neighbouring Zimbabwe, raised in the UK and frequents South Africa. Their eponymous debut project with UK record label Don’t Sleep uses South African dance music styles as the vehicle with which to guide the listener through the most turbulent parts of an ascension. The EP’s opener, ‘Kushuvira’ – a Shona word which roughly translates as “to wish” – is led by mbira- an instrument indigenous to Southern Africa and releases a sound associated with the ancestors. The song is a launchpad for the amapiano, gqom and electronica that follows. 

The Ascension does what it says, it transports and mounts the listener. There does not seem to be a particular place or specific position intended for this ascension; but instead, the tools are provided for the listener to do with as they deem necessary or fit for their act of ascending. Between them, there are layers to the descriptions and a palette of roles blending into each other that DJ/producer/promoter/podcaster Charisse C and vocalist/interdisciplinary artist/academic Koek Sista which would allow them to usher the listener to destinations or ranks of their choosing. The listener must trust, then, that this project’s brevity is intentional, however frustratingly demanding it is of them. 

Who is your music and the accompanying visuals for?

Koek Sista: Women and girls like us! Over many decades, Black women have been at the centre of everything that moves culturally around the world, on the continent, in specific genres. We are the pulse and the heart of everything but unfortunately are exploited in certain ways that don’t reflect how important we are in all of these scenes and spaces. There are so many of us with brilliant ideas and talents that have very small, fleeting, flickering moments to shine and then it’s done.

Charisse C: I think it is daring to take ownership of the power that we already have but always give over. We give it over and then get discarded and then so many artists, Black women that you know, spend their whole lives trying to get back into a place of the thing that they created to begin with. What happens if we dare enough to say “No”, to be willing to sacrifice stability for that moment in time? To be willing to sacrifice or to move with fear, I don’t know what is going to happen to me when I say “No”, but I’m going to say “No” anyway and get to a place where I can actually be the main player in this thing.

There’s something about believing enough to say “No”. If you’re not going to give me what it is I deserve, you’re not seeing me as an equal, if you’re not respecting me, “No, I will be fine, I will have more ideas”? But you are relying on this essence that I have in order to make this thing that you have. that’s also what the Ascension represents, that actually, we can ascend in a way that is not at the mercy of, but that we do have the power within ourselves and to be able to have the power to bring other people with us and shift things.

The work could act as a blueprint for what can happen when living that kind of intention, does your audience need to come to this project with this understanding?

Koek Sista: I think you’ll hear it in the music by default of the fact that it’s not necessarily overly feminine but the way that it’s been made, the way that it’s been written, that the studio sessions for one are run by us. This is our space, so it’s going to sound like what we move like.

There’s elements of heartbreak in there, there’s elements of grunge and darkness, euphoria, all of the things we experience when we’re in the night space, but also the tender bits of what it’s like to just be a Black woman day-to-day. And also when we’re being osisi bendawo, sometimes when we’re at a place trying to be ratchet.

When you’re presenting the sound, are the intellectual bits planned beforehand are they deliberate?

Charisse C: Everything happens organically because it’s a direct reflection and representation of exactly who we are. I think another part that we both connected on as people that are similar, in the sense that we both like to be outside, we both like to be in the very depth of the party, the core of the music and like to drink and have a good time and experience a very visceral experience of pleasure and enjoyment. But also a very intellectual people. Just that full spectrum, there’s no limit to how you can be and express yourself. I don’t think we can separate each thing as it becomes.

When it comes to performance, the performance is an amalgamation of all of those things, that conversation we had before, that album we were both listening to before, that idea that maybe we should try out, the things that happen by accident, it just is, it becomes because of who we are.

When did you make the connection between art and spirituality?

Koek Sista: Probably very recently. I had been at odds with religion and how we experience higher beings for a very long time. I grew up Catholic, I find it quite boring and quite monotonous. I don’t understand this idea of God as being so big. My uncle has been very adamant in practicing African spirituality. I was always more drawn to that. One thing I’ve always believed in is people. I am not here if there is not a person who brought me here, and if there is not a person who brought that person here.

The very basic concept of an ancestor is somebody who has walked and experienced this plane that I exist in now who is no longer here. That felt like a more direct thing to believe in and understand. I’ve always known that I wanted to sing, I’ve always sung. That clicked when I was a teenager. A lot of the time when I perform, some people cry and I can’t understand why because I’m not really singing sad stuff, alot of it is quite melodic.

I understand that there are entities that enter the room when I sing. When I sing, that world comes together. Whatever it is that I’m supposed to do as a human being, my essence, makes sense. That blissful state, or nirvana I guess, where you’re actually just OK with your existence on earth, that comes together when I’m on stage. I figured that it has to be a gift from somewhere beyond me, a realm that’s around all the time but also has a very specific way of tapping in.

When did music come into the fold of sense making for you?

Charisse C: It was always a bit all over the place. I never even knew I was going to be a DJ. I always loved music and was obsessed with it. My uncle used to burn CDs for me. I always used to pay attention to lyrics and all of these things. I thought I wanted to be a singer, I used to sing in church, I used to sing in school, I had a notebook where I would write songs and I would perform them to my parents. That was another way that I would tell stories.

Maybe music and writing is where the thing connects. I started writing and I decided that I wanted to be a music journalist, but there were limitations that came with that too. Then I met that woman Lauren that I was talking about, and I discovered that actually there’s this thing called DJing. I never even imagined that that was something that I would do or could do, I had never seen anybody like me doing that. I still don’t have a concrete way of being able to explain the thing other than it’s inherently the way I’ve always moved through life and I don’t really know any other way of being.

I just always knew that when I tried to force my way out of that, that I was very much at odds with my existence. I would be miserable, very depressed, confused about life and I’d always end up quitting the thing and just going again with this free flowing thing which sometimes from the outside could look very chaotic. One thing I always had was a clear vision.

‘The Ascension’ EP is out now.

Words: Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi
Photo Credit: Tatenda Chidora

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