Radio personality, TV presenter, producer and singer Unathi Msengana chats to Nikki Temkin about trusting her voice, facing criticism and focusing on what’s important. This is the first in The Media’s series, Women of Substance.
Unathi Msengena’s life philosophy can be summed up in two words: be grateful. And she has a lot to be thankful for. Over the last few years, her career, which was already waxing, suddenly skyrocketed – mainly due to her co-presenting of South African Idols. Msengana cut her teeth as a DJ hosting youth shows on YFM and now forms part of a formidable duo on Metro FM’s breakfast show, The First Avenue, with Glen Lewis. Over the years, she’s garnered a string of accolades including two prizes at the Metro FM Music Awards in 2003, one for Song of the Year. In 2004 and 2005, she was named as one of the Top Ten People in Media by The Star newspaper and the Most Promising Woman in Media at the MTN Media Awards. She’s also been nominated twice at the SAMAs (South African Music Awards) including for Best Urban Pop Album and recently at the Metro FM Awards as South Africa’s Best Female Artist. Fans have come to love her open-mindedness, charm and take no prisoners honesty. She says, “I believe that if you are real and sincere you can reach out and touch the listeners and they will not want to stop listening to your show.” This has certainly proved true for this talented soul.
After acquiring post-grad qualifications in both Journalism and Drama at Rhodes University, Msengana didn’t know exactly how she’d apply it but she luckly didn’t have to languish for too long. Whilst at varsity, she volunteered at the campus radio station RMR as a producer and two months later, she found herself on SABC1 co-hosting the music show Castle Loud. She also had the opportunity to be a content producer on the show. Two months later, YFM Station Manager, Greg Maloka offered to train her – without a guarantee of employment. A few months later she was on air and soon after was given her own show. Thereafter her quick wit was promptly recognised and she was offered a weekday show with Rude Boy Paul on YFM. She says, “I’ve certainly faced challenges. I remember my CEO at Urban Brew Studios asking me to not fall pregnant before the age of 25 if I wanted to be taken seriously in the industry. I was told to focus on my foundation so that I could grow in my career and give my kids a better future.”
After leaving Castle Loud, Msengana began hosting Pop Stars later and then in 2006 Metro FM beckoned. She started on Idols in 2011 and the following year she co-founded Lucky Bean Media. Projects include the documentary series My Story currently showing on M-Net. Msengana says,“South Africans need to tell our stories more. We’re proud because we get to account the trials, tribulations and victories of some inspirational icons. Being part of such a vibrant, present and responsible storytelling family is profound.” Career highlights include receiving a standing ovation from Quincy Jones while performing and interviewing President Thabo Mbeki – calling him by his nickname ‘Bra Tboz’ was “pretty insane” as she describes it.
Opinionated without apology
There have been many women whom Msengana admires and Gwen Gill is one of them. She explains, “She was graceful and respectful in her storytelling – a monumental legacy of South African journalism.” Another woman who Msengana mentions is Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu who taught her that there are always many ways of asking the same question. “Her integrity and in-depth interviewing is unparalleled. She covers all the terrain but understands that it’s all in the way that you draw out your interviewees. People would often open up to her – to me that is the mark of a true professional. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,” she says.
Opera singer Sibongile Mngoma has been a musical inspiration to Msengana. “She taught me to trust in myself, invest in myself and and push myself. As musicians, we need to extend into the business side of our careers. This takes focus,” she says.
In radio, she cites her husband, DJ Thomas Msengana, better known as ‘Bad Boy T’, to whom she has been married since 2009, as someone she looks up to. “He got me into radio and has set an example for me ever since,” she says, adding, “he understands the fundamental basics of radio – that it’s the theatre of the mind. He’s obsessed over the delivery, tightness, creativity and fluidity and that has rubbed off on me. Working with him is a bonus.”
The multi-talented performer firmly believes that one is treated the way that you allow people to treat you. She explains, “We’re still affected by societal stereotypes. Women are objectified, sexualised and restricted to certain representations that are comfortable to our male counterparts who still dominate this industry. I’ve always wanted to be critiqued as a radio host and not a female radio host.” However, Msengana concedes that there are women within the media who are bold, opinionated and doing exciting things. “Unfortunately, they’re targeted because culturally and traditionally it’s believed that ‘a woman should know her place’. It is up to us to shift that mindset. We need more women who are unapologetic about their views to vocalise them,” says Msengana.
She herself has been scrutinised because of her strong opinions as well as targeted on twitter (because of perceived unflattering photographs) but her strong sense of self-worth has served her well. “I’ve learnt to understand the difference between constructive criticism, even if it’s uncomfortable, to help me grow professionally and what is a personal attack. I know I can’t appeal to everyone and I have a lot to learn from my failures. But, if I do what I do with good intent, the rest usually takes care of itself,” she says.
Inspiration in storytelling
Msengana believes that with power in the media comes great responsibility and maintains that women in South Africa need to understand that their voices are powerful. They also need to feel that they are enough in their storytelling, subject matter and presence within the media discipline. “We must understand that we cannot take back our words and should have considered conversations about maintaining the dignity of our gender through these stories,”she affirms. If she could give someone starting out in the media industry some advice it would be to understand that, “It’s not about us. Honour your subject and their story. That way we give respect to the storytelling process.”
Educational initiatives are also close to Msengana’s heart and she’s proud of completing the Dusi Canoe Marathon for this cause. But, what truly inspires Msengana is her family. “I’m extremely strict with my time. I try to be present with whatever I am doing. And I don’t do work at home after 4pm,”she says. During school holidays she avoids doing gigs so she can be with the kids. “Being a mom, my handbag is a mess,” she admits. Msengana enjoys exercising and being out with the family but calls herself a “homebody” who can be loud and energetic when needed but also laid back and attentive. There are no regrets but she says that if she could go back in time, she’d tell her younger self, “Trust yourself baby girl, you’re in for a hell of a ride!”
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This story was first published in the August 2015 issue of The Media magazine.
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