SYSSI MANANGA Global Rockstar United: Representing Africa

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Originally published on the Global Rockstar Magazine on 06.09.2015 


Instrument: Lead vocals, composing
Genre: World music
Hometown: Born in Kinshasa (DRC), grew up between Kinshasa, Brazzaville (Congo), and Brussels (Belgium). Currently living in Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire)

We invited world music singer and composer Syssi Mananga, from Congo, to represent Africa. Her mixed heritage makes her a perfect fit for Global Rockstar United. Last year she won the pre-selection of Global Rockstar 2014 in her home country and landed a respectable 41st place overall.

Syssi made her first steps on stage as a singer in clubs around the world – USA, Italy – and released her first album Retour aux Sources back in Congo in 2013. Her debut album, a melting pot of styles and languages, won her praise both from the public and critics. In 2015, she released her new single Juste Un Peu…, a sensual and fresh take on her eclectic style.

Syssi is convinced that music has both personal growth value, as well as a therapeutic effect. That’s why in 2012 she founded the social project Artistes en Herbe, with the aim to provide underprivileged children in Congo with a measure of personal development.

Syssi is a true cosmopolitan girl, born and raised between two continents. She’s fluent in English, Spanish and Italian, while French and Lingala are her mother tongues. Still, she lives in Africa and identifies herself as an African musician and also an ambassador for African music abroad. After meeting her I must add that Syssi also has a heart as big as Africa. She is constantly aware of the people around her and instinctively takes care and makes sure that everybody feels at ease. Global Rockstar United would have been very different without Syssi, and not in a good way.

When and why did you start making music?
When I was 5 or 6 years old I used to lock myself in the bathroom and made-up songs that I sang for hours. I really liked the echo I heard in the bathroom, even before I learned it is called the “sound” of a room. At Christmas time, I would perform a concert for my family and play my best “songs”. With my younger sister we invented a game called le jeu des chansons (the songs game) where one would give the other a genre and a word, then the other would say – go! – and would have to start singing immediately. The swing set in the garden was the jury area and the stage was right in front of it. It’s strange but if I close my eyes I still see the swing set and the “stage” in my parent’s old garden.
It was very clear from the beginning that singing is my second nature… people tell me I hum music all the time. I don’t really notice.

What was your first ever job?
At 17 my mom got me a summer job at the institute for disabled people she worked for. I did it five years in a row.

How did you earn your first money as a musician?
After watching the movie Sister Act I decided I wanted to be in a choir and joined the one in my city. I was a back vocal at first but eventually my voice got noticed and they gave me solo parts too. A couple heard me and offered me 200 USD to sing at their wedding. This was big money so I immediately accepted and told them I could sing all the covers they were requesting, although I had never sung any one of them! I ran home and started practicing.

Live or studio, what suits you best?
Live! It’s an adrenaline rush and I love it.

Your favorite part of music production?
Composing. My favorite task is finding the melody, something new, fresh and unique. Sometimes it takes 10 minutes, sometimes two weeks, sometimes even after months the melody still doesn’t feel right so it’s better to discard the song and forget it completely.

The lowest moment of your career
Last year around this time. My band got invited to play at a festival in the USA – a huge opportunity for us. It took a lot of effort to convince the US embassy to emit visas for everybody, but they eventually relented. Three days before the scheduled departure the band members left for the USA alone and disappeared. I somehow understand why they did it, but still we were getting big and I really felt let down.
After that I had a big personal crisis, asking myself whether I should continue pursuing a music career at all. The invitation to represent Africa in Global Rockstar United was a sign for me that I must keep singing. God heard my questions and answered.

The highest moment of your career so far
In 2013, singing in front of five African Presidents (of Congo, South Africa, Senegal, Burkina Faso and DRC) and Kofi Annan at the Forbes African Forum.

Where would you like to live, musically speaking?
Paris. I think I would have more opportunities there and also find a more professional environment.

Where would you like to play a gig?
At the Stade de France in Paris, the biggest stage in town. We Francophones have a thing with Paris!

Your idea of a perfect gig
When my voice is perfect – no cracks – from the beginning til the end and everybody sings along and has fun. I love to have the audience in my hands!

Your idea of a disastrous gig
Basically the opposite, when nobody cares. That’s why I hate playing in bars, I want people to come for me, not for drinks.

Your favorite outfit for a gig
I have my personal style that reflects my heritage and I follow it both on stage and in everyday life: western style mixed with African elements. I always make a point of wearing something made out of pagne, the traditional cloth and patterns of West and Central Africa. I also love jumpsuits.

Which works are you most proud of?
Retour aux Sources, of course! My first professional album.
I am also proud that I received awards both at home – Tam Tam d’Or – and abroad at Radio France International’s – Couleurs Talent Award.

What is the most important skill required, besides talent, to become a successful musician?
Work hard, keep learning and constantly improve yourself. And of course you must do it for yourself, for the passion, not for the fame or the money. Otherwise you’ll end up disappointed, hurt and bitter.

What keeps you up at night with regard to your music career?
The realization that if I want to bring my music career to the next level I must leave Africa. I would do it under the right conditions, but still sometimes I ask myself if it all does make sense – so much time, energy and self questioning…

The best concert you’ve seen in the audience
Stromae, two months ago in Abidjan.

The last track you listened to?
Chandelier, by Sia.

The last single/EP/album you bought?
The album Nkolo, by DRC singer-songwriter Lokua Kanza.

Describe your music
My music is strongly rooted in Africa. I always start with a rumba then add other influences, jazz, reggae, pop.
I define myself as an artivist, a portmanteau word combining artist and activist. My lyrics always share a strong message about environment protection, the absurdity of war, or citizen engagement. But I also talk about more personal situations like grief or family relationships.