Feature

#BehindTheNoise: We shine a spotlight on Helen Herimbi, music journalist and storyteller extraordinaire.

#BehindTheNoise is a campaign we created for Women’s Month to highlight the women across all spheres of the music industry that work behind-the-scenes but more often than not, on the front lines – the photographers, the brand ambassadors, the PR agents, the journalists, the radio presenters etc.

The success of the campaign led to a partnership with Vida Caffe, where they helped us take #BehindTheNoise from a digital space into a physical one, giving these ladies the opportunity to get to know each other better and to, essentially, network.

Sparking up this much-needed conversation again, today we spotlight the fabulous, formidable force that is Helen Herimbi. Her credentials are something of a listicles piece, but she prefers to keep it simple, “I’m a very big fan of minimalism so I am Helen Herimbi, comma, music journalist.”

I’d never interviewed another journo before, so I break the ice with what I’d learnt to be an obsession of hers: sneakers. “I love sneakers, and I like wearing them out, I think I’m mostly in a pair of Jordan Ones.” Her excitement lets me know I’ve hit the sweet spot as she adds, “I’m a big fan of the Reebok brand in general. They are the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn in my life.”

We dive into Helen’s teenage aspirations, “Oh my goodness, so I think from 12 years old, I knew I was gonna be a copywriter. I found the word in a career book and I read up its definition and I was like, ‘This is what I do on the daily, so I should get paid for it’.”

Unfortunately, they didn’t have advertising-school money, so her father sent her to study journalism at the University of Pretoria, “So 18-year-old Helen was sulking, not knowing what she was gonna do with her life, attending journalism class that she hated!”

Feeling like she was wasting her parents’ money studying a degree she had no interest in, she dropped out, “I definitely did not do the whole degree. I do not have a degree. I’m there with old Kanye, you know? We are the success stories of the ol’ dropouts.”

What started out as a holiday job at The Tonight, turned into something more permanent. “The good folk at The Tonight were like, ‘We think you’re talented, why don’t you come here for the year and see what happens?’. Then I started out as an intern, became a junior, became a senior, and so it goes,” she summarizes.

Eventually Helen became a copywriter but that, too, was anticlimactic, “I did that for a while, but I wasn’t really into it. And music kept calling me back.”

She elaborates, “The thing is that I’m a music journalist who works across various platforms, so I’ve done the online thing, I’ve done the radio thing, I do web series, I do podcasts, but it all revolves around music,” her favourite thing about her job. “Music is the only thing I love about the job.”

Storytelling has always been her priority, something she places far more interest in than making herself into a brand, “I guess in hindsight, the hardest thing that I’ve had to learn was that I wasn’t playing the same game as everyone else. If everyone else was playing Chess, I was playing up there with the Tetris geeks.”

She continues, “I was just being a journalist. I was sharing the things I was learning about South African music with other people and that was my priority. And my peers and everyone else was building their brands, building their profiles. I wasn’t thinking about the business, I was thinking about the music and the people behind it and their stories.”

Helen has interviewed every international great from Swizz Beats to Russell Simmons, Corinne Bailey Rae to Sir David Attenborough, but she’d rather talk about her work with local artists, “I enjoy doing international interviews because I enjoy music but I care more about South African music.”

One of her favourite interviews was with legendary South African songstress, Thandiswa Mazwai, on i(m)bali Live, a series she’d turned from a podcast to a monthly live interview series in Joburg, “It was for our season premier for Imbali Live, and the way that she was so open about her story, about her mom beating her when she was a kid, about demanding equal pay when she first joined Bongo Maffin, just about her life, and I don’t think she’s ever given that story to anyone.”  

I ask her to tell me a little bit more about how and why she started i(m)bali Live, “I started Imbali without the live element because I felt like in this country we don’t have too many of our greats being given the platform to tell their stories out of their own mouths. And we weren’t giving them the flowers that they deserve while they were still alive to smell them.”

J&B Hive contacted Helen to expand what had started out as a Soundcloud series, “J&B Hive reached out to me and said, ‘We have this space, whatever you want to do, come and do it here.’ And I was like, ‘You know what would be really cool? If I wasn’t the only person hearing these stories. It would be super dope if anyone else who was interested in South African music could not only hear the stories first hand, but also ask the questions.”

In a day of social media egging on our vanity, it is refreshing to speak to someone with so little interest in telling their own story. I confess to her that unlike any other interview I’d done before, she caught me way off guard, and she knows what I’m talking about, “ I know that the difficulty with interviewing other journalists is that they don’t say what you’d expect from performers. They tell a different story.”

Helen Herimbi, it was an honour to tell your story. I hope I have done you justice.

Photo creds go to Matt Nkofo.