Penelope Jane Dunloppopularly known as PJ Powers was born in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, on July 16, 1960. In 1979 she formed the group Gymslip, along with her brother, prior to joining an all-girl group called Pantha as the lead singer. She left Pantha in 1981 to join Hotline band.
She describes her music as Afro-rock, and has recorded 15 albums — The Best of PJ Powers and Hotline, Jabulani, Help, There Is an Answer, Wozani, Music for Africa, Current, We Are Growing, Burnout and Destiny, among others.
Her bestselling singles to date are, Feel So Strong (a 1983 duet with Steve Kekana), Jabulani, Made in Africa, You’re So Good to Me, Shosholoza, Bette Davis Eyes, Home to Africa, Jiva Pantsula, We Have no Choice, Wozani, Dance Mama, and There is an Answer.
In 1988, Powers was banned from radio and television for a year by the apartheid government for her performance alongside Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte at a charity concert for war orphans in Zimbabwe.
“It was very difficult, because being banned causes you all sorts of problems. They would not play my music on radio, which basically nearly ended my career,” she recalls.
Following the ban, Powers was encouraged to continue singing by Nelson Mandela, who sent her an encouraging letter from his Victor Verster prison cell in Cape Town where he was incarcerated.
“You have made a tremendous impact both on and off the stage, and you are one of those young people on whom the country pins so much hope,” Mandela wrote in 1989.
“It was unbelievable. It was like winning an award. It really was,” she recalls.
This famous letter was the beginning of what would become a close relationship between the songstress and the future president.
Her latest new singles Stay and Destiny have received good air play on the South African airwaves.
In the 1990s, her music took on a more Afro-pop focus, finding a receptive audience with black fans.
She is grateful that her music has been well received in Uganda and other parts of Africa. “I couldn’t have asked for a better response. I came here very many years ago but the support has been never ending and I am extremely grateful for that,” she said.
“The White Zulu”
Nicknamed “The White Zulu” for her fight against apartheid, South African musician-cum-social activist Penelope Jane Dunlop.
Better known by her stage name PJ Powers aka Thandeka (the loved one in siZulu), recently held a benefit concert dubbed the Jabulani Charity Concert at the Kampala Serena Hotel in aid of a programme for adolescent girls in the slums of Kampala.
The concert was organised by Kampala-based Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU), a non-profit organisation formed in December 2012, to provide young women and girls with opportunities to succeed and thrive as leaders in their communities through holistic education and economic empowerment.
PJ Powers performed alongside Ugandan duo Radio and Weasel.
“We work with adolescent girls in the slums of Kampala, equipping them with social and economic skills.
In the past four years we have reached over 1,200 girls,” GUIU executive director and co-founder Monica Nyiraguhabwa said.
Just a day before travelling to Uganda, on June 23 Powers’s mother, aged 93, died. The musician however decided to go ahead with the concert.
“One thing my mother taught me, is to honour my word. And I think she would have been horrified if I had cancelled this concert that everybody has tried for years to get going,” she told journalists in Kampala.
As a social activist, PJ Powers came into the limelight in 1982 when she and her all-white rock band Hotline performed at the Jabulani Amphitheatre, in Soweto on May 31, 1982.
The day was significant because it was Republic Day, a holiday taken seriously by white South Africans, who celebrated the country’s Independence from the Commonwealth.
Naturally, the day was treated with disdain by the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress, and the band chose this day to perform in solidarity with the people of Soweto after becoming the first all-white band to cross-over in a segregated South Africa with their song You’re So Good to Me getting massive airplay on Radio Zulu.
It was the Soweto performance that inspired the hit song Jabulani.
Powers has no intention of retiring soon even after 36 years of being a musician, author, writer, storyteller, philanthropist, speaker and goodwill ambassador.
She said: “If people are still buying my music and I still feel fit enough to perform and I am still writing songs, why would I want to retire? What I am doing is bringing other stuff on board.”
In an interview with The EastAfrican, Powers said that it was worth breaking ranks with her white community in the fight against apartheid.
“And if it ever happens again, I will do it again. If there is one thing that I hate more than anything, is injustice. The system that we were living in was unjust” she added.
Commenting on the current troubled political leadership in South Africa who are accused of corruption and kleptocracy, she observed: “We don’t have leadership, and I am not going to say that it is a good or a bad thing. I am going to say we don’t have it.”
Powers argues that corruption is not only a problem in Africa but a global menace.
“I think people tend to think that corruption is an African thing. It is not. Washington is one of the most corrupt places on the planet. So is the Vatican. So I think we’d better be careful before we put corruption at the door of Africa. It is a worldwide political trait.”
Social scientists have described South Africa as one of the most unequal societies in the world because of the wide wealth gap between the rich white and the poor black African community.
But Powers is of a contrary opinion, saying: “I don’t believe that South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world anymore. We have an emerging middle class which has happened over a period of 20 years and which is one of the fastest growing middle class in the world. So you cannot call that unequal.”
Powers’ major career highlights happened in the mid-90s. In 1994, she performed at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela.
“It is still one of the best days of my life. He is the man that I respected most next to my own mother and father. There isn’t anyone that I respected more than I respected Mandela,” she said.
Later, Mandela asked PJ Powers to perform at the 1995 Rugby World Cup opening ceremony in Cape Town.
She performed the tournament’s official song, World in Union, with multiple Grammy award winning traditional folk group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
It remains one of South Africa’s proudest post-apartheid moments and befitted the country’s new tag as a Rainbow Nation. In 2009, her rendition of World in Union was featured in the Academy Award-nominated film, Invictus.