Tuelo Minah has lived many lives to get to The Life of Margaret Cornelius, her debut full-length album. She was born in South Africa and lives in New York City. Writing in Ireland, composing in Turkey & Germany, and heading back to NYC & South Africa near the start of the pandemic to finish the record and then filming music videos in Colombia.
Tuelo has a unique style that is Afropunk, soul, jazz, and rock. It is influenced by protest music around the world and a punk manifesto. Filming the videos for the album became a story. Watch the beginning with “Saint Margaret.”
FEMMUSIC: Can you describe your songwriting technique?
TM: My best and most efficient writing method is to have a theme. I can be machine-like if I have a theme – I can chug out song after song. My brain goes on overdrive.
Also I am constantly writing music. Either I have a melody or something triggers a melody, or I have a word, words, or a phrase I want to explore. In general I have a ton of songs laying around that I haven’t found a home for or they have not been fully realized until I have decided on a theme or have met with the band to explore.
FEMMUSIC: What was the biggest challenge making The Life of Margaret Cornelius?
TM: Greatest challenge was what to choose from my song bank for this record – songs that would relay the pain and remedy of injustice. I have many songs written and I can’t wait for all of them to find a home in my album or other peoples albums. We chose these ones for this journey because we have a vision and felt that it is important for the story to start here.
FEMMUSIC: The song “Killer” intrigued me. This is not a new song. You recorded in 2020. Can you tell me how the song developed and how you took on re-doing for The Life of Margaret Cornelius?
TM: Yes, it is the only song that’s not new, yet it is new in performance and recording (it sat dormant for years). It was the first full song that I ever wrote on guitar and it wrote itself. In composition, it predates Saint Margaret, and predates my singing at all. It was before I found a voice. It was the voice of what I stood for, and it became a driving force in me actually learning how to sing my own songs because I needed to tell someone about this. At that time only I could sing it, and thus began my music career.
This song has always been fully developed, fully grown up. It came to me that way. It’s always lived in the rock universe. In 2020 I just got a band in a room and orchestrated what it would be.
FEMMUSIC: Who is Margaret Cornelius? Tell me about her hopes and dreams?
TM: I can’t even say she is an alter-ego, more of a spirit I had to take on to visualize the record. It is a spirit and her name is a combination of both my mother and father’s – outstanding figures in my life. There are stories I needed to tell and let go of as Margaret Cornelius. Her dreams are of ultimate peace, not peace in heaven or whatever, but peace on earth – to have some agency when the world can’t afford to give you grace.
Her story is this: My tribe is said to have stopped warring with other tribes thousands of years ago; they moved and settled in the desert arid areas where no one wanted to be. And there we found diamonds and all precious stones and metals. The Life of Margaret Cornelius is telling of troublesome situations and that it can be overcome. Her story is that of a person who does not give up, who will go to the ends of the earth to find peace, who will find her own desert.
FEMMUSIC: “Saint Margaret” the video is part of a series of songs from the album to be released as a visual story. It is also one of your oldest songs. Tell me about your goals for video series. What do you want viewers to come away with?
TM: It’s about a boxer who faces the big day of boxing, who goes through the worries of what will come, who reaches the big fight night and experiences a loss, and reaches for all the healing qualities of a mother’s love. Once again, fear, fighting and never giving up in failure, healing and finding peace.
The song “Canary” in the record is about a caged bird, a bird that never stops telling of injustice. It’s really the crux of the entire album – I wanted to make it clear that this is a movement, whether it’s overcoming, seeking and healing – we are here. I want to say that I am here to “rubbish” injustice, to never stop singing protest, to use this voice to speak of not only the injustice I have felt but that many go through.
FEMMUSIC: Your music is influenced by punk and the protest movement and by Apartheid. I’ve heard you describe music as a protest in South Africa. What are the issues that people need to protest in the US, and South Africa? How is that music different for each country?
T: Issues in both countries are different because although the US is young, it is a teenager compared to the baby that a new South Africa is. For South Africa, its fundamental issues are how to restore native African population their land back and bring them to economic equality with the citizens who are the settler community and colonial inheritors of wealth, land, and favorable policy in the past. It is the old issue of reparative reform, fixing injustices that came with colonization – brutal and barbaric systems to oppress. It creates a situation where perpetrators feel justified, no wrongs are made right and racism is entrenched in society. America suffers from that a lot, reparative reform or reparations as you might call it. To say my ancestors did that to you (therefore I didn’t) is to dismiss that you benefit and have even perpetuated a system that has to oppress one person so that you can enjoy your privilege. One thing I know is that the world will never be equal, but everyone can eat and have some sort of peace. There is enough space for all of us.
The US is in a better state than most countries. I am glad that Americans are complainers much like South Africans, they want things to get better. The US can afford to repair and admit to many mistakes and actually repair a society from the inside. As an immigrant, I love the US, New York in its diversity in particular. I do think issues of homelessness (the unhoused), expensive higher education systems, racial injustice, and the two party system stand out to me the most as spaces to really tackle. I do think fear mongering is a huge part of politics, unnecessary fears when in fact Americans should see and know that what you drink, eat, breathe, live, travel to are all politics; not for presidents to deal with, but you should advocate for now and in the future.
Musicians will always experience a push back from the government when protesting, however one cannot stop. Protest song in movements is the glue to South African protests. In the US protest music is recorded, it’s by specific artists, usually in the middle of a crisis or after disaster has struck. It is a talking, a call and response on the picket line. In SA it is outright singing, harmonies and dancing and all and this could be thousands of people in motion. There is a pattern of South African protest singing, it is a call and response song like much of our traditional chants, as well as songs that must be lead by a specific voice who sets the tone, the words, and teaches words to those who may not know where the song is going or gives them an opportunity to fill in words. It’s the same voice singing “they say” on my song Canary.
I find that singing is a way more effective way of keeping movements going. Even when you are sitting on lawns or pavements a song can be sung, when your arms are tired of carrying placards. It is intimidating at times, it evokes strong emotions, it never lets the oppressor rest at the same time it can impact the oppressor by rhythm and harmony alone.
South African protest music keeps a movement going, because as much as the issues of protest are urgent and difficult, there has to be a fun side, a relief of sorts that speaks to the hearts of gatherers. Music makes protest fun, and does not let you forget the bigger picture.
FEMMUSIC: You were quarantined in Columbia & South Africa during COVID. You were recording in Columbia. How did quarantining affect your songwriting and production?
T: Quarantine and music made me feel like I was writing school exams that never ended. It’s like I was writing and rewriting some subjects and turning in a new paper every few weeks. This process, the many facets of it is never easy, it is simply a question of are we getting things right? Is my soul happy? Is my spirit in tune?
There was some resistance from male counterparts to understand me in Colombia, but there was an openness and innate rock roots recording in South Africa from Mr.Vic (lead guitarist) and our 18 year old amazing drummer who come from the remote desert like me.
The gist is that quarantine was all music, all preparation that I would’ve not had until now. We now have three records recorded of which I am sure will change the game. And so many more songs living in a song bank.
FEMMUSIC: As a woman in the music industry how have you been discriminated against, and how do you overcome it?
TM: Firstly, let me tell you that I am surrounded by amazing men, have always been really protected by men, as well as I think having a good male fan base. However I find that this industry is so male-dominated that engineers, etc not only want to talk to a man, but do not, at first, believe that I can think, visualize, compose, or that I arrange and compose instrumentation from top to bottom. I am generally sweet in nature – there is no bitchy side, just a fierce side – so things take a long time to happen, or rather both men and women in this industry are disregarding and condescending towards me, at first.
FEMMUSIC: What one song (not your own) has had the biggest influence on you and why?
TM: A multiverse of songs have influenced me deeply; many are songs no one in the US would know how to reference, research or spell their names. On the other hand I only really cover “Fernando” by Abba. I dreamt about once and had to cover it. The original by Abba is such a happy song, however it is an exploration in intention. It is about the Mexican revolution, I believe. I understand the empath who wrote what so many have experienced in the developing world, as our countries struggled, and failed and won and repeated this. I really appreciate it because someone like me would fully get it.
FEMMUSIC: What one thing would you change about the music industry?
TM: Streaming and its platforms are not favorable to artists. I would change that! We need greater encryption on musical recordings. I think blockchain technology could unlock a way for people to consume, enjoy and support artists in a way artists can sell music and track the movement of their music. The current streaming environment is unfair to artists because music does not make itself, it takes resources and capital and therefore means that artists deserve compensation for a lot of work done. Many of our audiences will pay for music, they just have the option not to. Many of our fans want us to be fantastic, so we can transport them to another world, and that can only be done with money, not free music. I often think of how artists got enriched by simply music alone – radio, shows, cassettes, cds, vinyl – by doing their jobs. It is not so now.