Unathi being true to her music, self

Unathi Mkayi
Image: Veli Nhlapo

From being one of our favourite morning radio personalities, Idols SA judge, television host and songstress Unathi Nkayi has undoubtedly carved her colourful name in the SA entertainment industry and is not stopping any time soon.

Her musical journey spans over 15 years with the first song she ever wrote back in 2003 which won song of the year at the Metro FM Music Awards.

She is in the throes of her first music tour titled Brave, True and Strong, named after her latest album, which is themed at celebrating women, perseverance and the beauty of life.

"I can't believe this week is finally here, I thought I would be more stressed but I'm actually quite relaxed so it's okay, it's a good week," she says after wrapping up rehearsals. "My biggest anxiety is if we have covered the 15 years' journey properly enough."

She credits being supported by a great team constantly calming her nerves and anxieties.

"I am free to just share and give my energy and go down a 15-year journey with friends, family, music lovers and some of the musicians I featured along the way or who have featured me."

The tour will also see Nkayi share the stage with artists she has never had the chance to perform with.

She has had a long journey where she was often criticised for her musical talents, with many believing she was not talented enough to criticise aspiring artists on Idols.

"Music found me. As I said, the first song I ever wrote won song of the year so I just found myself in a space that was new and extremely scary and you know navigating that space publicly was very challenging for me.

"I go to places vocally that I never ever thought or dreamed of, so it's vast, profound and a different world for me," she says of her current album.

The album is her most emotional and vulnerable yet as it tackles themes such as loss in a relationship, a mother's love and sacrifice, things she personally understands.

"I think because I was off radio I could be a true artist for the first time in my life, I didn't have to think of myself as anything but me recording music.

"I didn't have to think about how I'll probably need to answer about this on air during an interview."

Although Nkayi rose to fame through radio, having done it for 21 years, she does not see herself going back to it any time soon and enjoys being a listener.

"I like not having to read that much, I don't miss having to be involved and do research," she laughs.

"I don't have to be so knowledgeable and so smart and my brain doesn't need to think 24/7."

Although hosting Show Me Love, her show on Moja Love, requires her to still do research and understand topics, it's less stressful than radio plus the show lasts only an hour and the work is shared among her four co-hosts.

Taking up her position as an Idols judge is also keeping her busy although she reflects on how it made her stagnant at some point.

"Being a judge made me very comfortable and to be honest with you, the reason I am going on tour is because a musician friend of mine was telling me how comfortable and lazy I was," she says.

"He wished I had the same energy in my music as I did on Idols and that was a reality check for me. Idols is my home and I'm privileged to be part of such an institution but I needed to stop taking my own talent for granted."

She reflects on her body transformation and how fellow artist Kabelo Mabalane inspired her.

"We know this is a superficial industry, let's be grown up and mature about it, and I remember Kabelo telling me that I will call him once I start getting more gigs because I am looking healthier.

"When I weighed 98kg I wasn't getting any gigs to MC, perform or do public speaking but as soon as I started losing the weight and started on my transformation, things changed."

With a new body, booming career and being a present parent to her children, Nkayi maintains that she is still not ready to mingle.

"I feel like that 22-year-old that first moved to Johannesburg in 2001.

"Being single is fantastic because I am getting to know myself and what I genuinely like and it's a wonderful place to be. I'm going to stay single for a very long time."

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