Two weeks ago, Motswedi Modiba was a South African singer showing signs of a promising career back home. Now, she has become a breakout star on one of China’s biggest reality TV shows after wowing millions with her performance in Mandarin.
Modiba, reported as The first black and African contestant on “Sing! China” impressed the judges with her cover or the ballad “Love” by Karen Mok.
The competition, which is in its eighth season, has a format similar to “The Voice” in the US, with the first round being judged blind. Two of the four judges chose Modiba to advance to the next round, forcing the singer to choose a mentor for the later stages of the competition (she chose singer, rapper and actor Wilber Pan.)
The female singer caused a stir on Chinese social media: “How can Motswedi sing so well?” Music blogger Radio Utopia wrote to their 11.8 million followers on Weibo, while the hashtag “I can’t compete with Motswedi” tends to be related to a joke by contest judge Joker Xue.
Not bad for what started as a joke on TikTok.
Life in Modiba has come very quickly – but behind the news are years of hard work.
Born in Tshwane, South Africa, the 26-year-old told CNN her parents sent her to Pretoria Chinese School, where she studied Mandarin from the age of 6 to 18. (“They look at world trends and see that China is likely to become an important player in the world economically, so wanting to give us the best opportunities in life, ‘ she explained.)
In high school, Modiba participated in an international language competition called China Bridge Competition and won in the national category. won a scholarship to study Chinese language and literature at Yunnan Normal University in Kunming, China.
As a child, she performed in the recording of the song “Baba Wethu” by South African gospel artist Tebs David, and at university in China she participated in small-scale singing competitions, sing in Mandarin. In 2022, she started her career in South Africa as a MOE. with the single “It Was A Vibe,” which won the Metro FM Music Award.
Until recently, she was studying for a master’s degree in jazz art at the Manhattan School of Music, New York. One night last April, she joked with friends about trying to create a viral hit on Douyin (TikTok’s name in Mainland China) and posted a video of her singing. “It really went viral,” she recalls. “Then I posted another video and it went viral… within about two weeks, I had over a million views.”
Emails began flooding her inbox, including one from the producer “Sing! China.” By June, she was in China to prepare for the audition.
“It wasn’t calculated at first,” she said. “But when I started posting… it made me feel like maybe there was something here – maybe there was space for me in China to try something out.”
Other African artists have made inroads into Mandopop (Mandarin pop music), such as Eli Zaleo, a fellow countryman of Modibe. Modibe insists she doesn’t follow in their footsteps, pointing out the variety of genres, including RnB, ballad and jazz she covers.
But she is not content to limit herself to the Chinese audience. “I want to be a household name all over the world,” she said. “I’m currently in China and performing ‘Sing! China’ but I’m also trying to attract audiences back home in South Africa, Africa and the US.”
Modibe describes her as “Singing! China”, the audition aired on August 11, when life was coming to a “full circle”, after performing the song many years ago at a student competition. With a much larger audience this time, “I was totally nervous,” she said. “There was so much adrenaline that I can’t really remember how I felt during the show.” (Watch her full performance here.)
The singer said she has a few weeks before she begins filming the “fight” rounds, where artists compete head-to-head. She said preparations are underway, including costumes, hairdos, makeup, and song selections, which she is not authorized to discuss.
“I really feel honored,” said Modibe of her breakthrough on the show, “to enter spaces that people outside (of China) wouldn’t think to enter. .”
She now has over 250,000 followers on Douyin, where response to her audition has been overwhelmingly positive. It stands in stark contrast to the anti-black racism on Chinese social media platforms, which a recent report by Human Rights Watch describes as “has become widespread in China”. In recent years, it is often created by netizens for the purpose of attracting traffic and generating profits.
Modiba said she had heard that some people on social media had debated whether she was really South African or black (“I am definitely completely black South African,” she said. .
“Yes, I’m in China singing in Mandarin and I’m speaking in Mandarin, but that doesn’t mean I’m not proud of who I am,” Modibe said.
“I am not trying to escape my African identity. I celebrate and I love being South African,” she added, teasing that she is trying to include pieces of her heritage in upcoming performances, whether it’s costumes or one or two. verses in Sotho, another language she is fluent in.
Will another vocal be disqualified? Audiences in China will soon find out.