Nomcebo, the voice behind Jerusalema, South Africa's global hit

Helen Sullivan
·4-min read

It started in December in South Africa, with a few lines of gospel sung in the deep, raspy voice of Nomcebo Zikode and a music video made by fans in Angola – dancers eating their lunch as they moved to South African DJ Master KG’s disco-house beat.

Jerusalema, produced late one night at Master KG’s studio near Johannesburg, has since become the world’s most Shazammed song and a bonafide viral hit – beloved by Christiano Ronaldo, Janet Jackson and a lot of nuns.

Zikode spoke to the Guardian a month after the release of her solo album, Xola Moya Wam, on which the title track has gone platinum in South Africa. She says that last year, when Master KG called late one evening to ask her to come to his studio in Midrand immediately to listen to beats he had just written, she was close to giving up on her dreams of becoming a solo artist.

“I was like, ‘now?’” she says. But he was insistent. After listening to the beats she asked if she could take them home to work on lyrics. When Master KG refused, she chased him out of the studio so she could think alone.

Zikode listened to the track two or three times before the first words came to her. Speaking to the Guardian over WhatsApp, she starts singing the opening lines in isiZulu, the most widely spoken language in South Africa. Translated, they mean: “Jerusalem is my home/ Guide me / Take me with You / Do not leave me here.”

“All of this happened when I was about to lose hope,” says Zikode. After so many years of being a backing singer, she wanted her voice to be heard. The lyrics are a plea for God to answer this prayer.

That night at the studio, she yelled out to Master KG: “Come back, come back, come back! Something came out.”

They recorded Jerusalema then and there, finishing just after midnight. On the way to gym the next morning, Zikode listened to it in her car. “I had goosebumps all over my body,” she says. She heard a voice saying, “This is going to be a big song.”

She prayed, sitting in her car, that Master KG would love the track, too. Lo and behold, a few days later he called and said: “My sister, you actually need to come back. This song is sounding too nice.”

Related: Jerusalema: dance craze brings hope from Africa to the world amid Covid

Since its release in South Africa at the end of 2019, where it was one of the biggest local songs of the summer, Jerusalema has become a global hit, reaching the top five on music charts in Belgium, France, Hungary, Netherlands and Switzerland. It reached number 4 on Billboard’s world digital song sales chart.

In a year where gatherings with family and friends of the sort shown in Angola have been a rare privilege, the track seems to have taken on a special significance around the world. It has been embraced from PNG to Palestine, Canada to Curacao – where fans have attempted the #jerusalemadancechallenge, many of them complete with food and drink in hand.

In September Jerusalema became the most Shazammed song in history. It has been streamed almost 55m times on Spotify, where MasterKG has amassed 9m monthly listeners. The music video has been watched more than 170m times on YouTube. On TikTok, #Jerusalema has 385m views.

The reference to Jerusalem has made it popular with tech-savvy clergy, too. One video shows friars and sisters in Legnano, Italy dancing for an audience in the church square in habits and sandals.

Another features Catholic Padro Manolo of the Montreal Archdiocese in his vestments, grooving with several choristers. It was also performed by Palestinians in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The dance has been executed with greater precision and orderliness by the Ghanaian army. The Italian Navy launched disciplinary proceedings after cadets filmed themselves learning the dance. Medical workers from Curaçao to Canada have learned the steps to boost morale.

It is still popular in South Africa, too, where President Cyril Ramaphosa recently asked people to celebrate heritage day and the country’s progress against coronavirus by taking up the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge. After highs of over 13,000 daily cases in July, South Africa is now confirming around 2,000 daily infections, according to Johns Hopkins University. This week, it opened its borders to African countries.

The isiZulu song crossed the language barrier because “I wasn’t focussing on being Beyoncé. I was me, Nomcebo. I was singing what I know,” says Zikode.

“You know when you’re singing in your own language you are comfortable.” That feeling resonates with people, she says.

“So many cultures are loving Jerusalema. They’ve made Jerusalema their culture.”

Once travel restrictions are eased, Zikode hopes to be able to perform the song in countries around the world with Master KG. For now, she sometimes performs it for fans over Skype or Whatsapp. Often, they don’t speak the same language and it’s the only thing she can really do to communicate. “They’ll just say, ‘Jerusalema! Jerusalema!’,” says Zikode.