Naledi Masilo is a 25-year-old Johannesburg born and Boston based vocalist, teacher, and founder of Dreaming Girls Arts Foundation who is deeply committed to the principles of Ubuntu.  From childhood, she had always been a very busy person, full of ideas and dreams.  “Many of my neighbours have stories of me starting a new business every week, trying to make enough money to catch the ice cream truck and spoil my friends when it drives down the road”, she told Jazz It Out.  She has always had passion for life and art.  “I did ballet for 13 years and was always the singer of our family”, she added.

In the first quarter of her life, her father was around and had deep love for music.  He taught himself classical guitar and would take Naledi to jazz concerts around Johannesburg.  She recalls many nights at The Orbit as well as Joy of Jazz Festivals.  “In fact, we would often stay around for the late sessions and I would be this 7-year-old on his shoulders watching greats such as Earl Klugh and Ntate Sipho Hotstix Mabuse”, with fond memories.  Her father would host jam sessions in their backyard where she would be the session vocalist, singing music from Brenda Fassie to Diana Ross.

She also spent a lot of time at Anglican Church.  “The hymns and traditional South African hymns played a significant role”, she said.  Her mom would play the likes of Lusanda and Amadodana ase Weseli on their way to and from school.  This young and curious girl was just 7 when her parents bought her a classical guitar which she tried to learn but quit because it ‘hurt her fingers’.  Her dad would let Naledi buy books when she didn’t know to read music at the time, but would pretend to read along with the lyrics on the scores.  At 9 years old, she concluded that she would be the next Alicia Keys.  “I had my parents buying me a keyboard.  I would play it every day for hours and the rest is history”, looking back to those years as a child.  

Naledi Masilo. Picture by Paul Mardy

At school she did everything from sports, to academics and arts.  “Looking back, I am not sure where I found the time to do all of those things”, she said.  Her typical school day would be academics from 7-3, sports from 3-5, ballet from 5-7, public speaking rehearsals from 7-8 then homework or research for Model UN.  “I really loved doing Model UN, which is a simulation of the United Nations”, she added.  Being part of the work at Youth@SAIIA was a big factor in her leadership journey.  It fueled her interest in International Relations and policy.  She also played touch rugby at provincial level and spent a lot of time touring around the country.  Naledi took piano lessons on and off.  Her piano supported her musical journey.

As a child, Naledi sang at weddings and funerals.  Although she became reluctant as she got older, singing was always something she had been associated with.  “For myself, I knew from childhood that I wanted to perform.  It was probably around Grade 8 that I decided for myself that I would go into music”, she told Jazz It Out.  However, the reluctance from her immediate family to step into a career with no set prospects guided her away.  They felt she should opt for a ‘more professional career’.  The more she did work with Youth@SAIIA, the more she was drawn into International Relations.  At 17, she enrolled for a Bachelor of Social Sciences at the University of Cape Town (UCT).  Deep inside her heart, she knew that this was not the career she wanted to pursue after matriculating.

While at UCT Naledi began building her singing career through performing around the city and attending festivals and residencies.  She attended the National Youth Jazz Festival for three years and in 2018, after her first audition, was chosen for the National Youth Jazz Band.  Naledi was also part of the Artscape Youth Jazz Festival.  She performed around South Africa at venues such as The Crypt, StraightnoChaser, The Orbit and Grandwest Arena.  Clearly her passion was singing and she found herself in several stages doing what she loved which she thoroughly enjoyed.  She was second runner up of the Grandwest Open Mic Jazz Competition which motivated her to continue singing.

Growing up as young girl, Naledi had dreams to study in the US.  In her final year at UCT, she made the choice to follow her dream and applied for programmes in the USA.  She applied to the top jazz conservatories (The New School, University of North Texas, Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory).  She was accepted to all of the schools, with high honours.  Never having taken a single singing lesson in her life, the adjudicators were in awe of the proficiency in her style and strong ear.  She chose to attend the New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, where she was awarded a Dean’s Scholarship

Proud of her roots. Picture by Ye Huang

Naledi was quite excited to receive the Dean’s Scholarship.  “I was so excited and surprised.  I did my NEC auditions two days after my 21st birthday, and as soon as I took a step on the campus, I fell in love with the institution and knew that this is the place I wanted to call home”, she said.  How did the young woman from Johannesburg adjust to the life in Boston? “Life in Boston has been wonderful.  There are obviously things I would have loved to be different such as the socio-political environment”, she added.  In her first year, she spent Christmas in Boston and the temperature dropped to -17 degrees, which made her doubt if this was a place where she could survive.

The academic programme at NEC was very intense.  “The programme was quite challenging, especially in my first year where I did not have half the experience most my peers did”, she told Jazz It Out.  NEC brings in some of the best musicians from around the world, some of whom have been playing at a highly competitive level.  As a jazz major, she had 3 semesters of classical theory, ear training and sight singing (solfege), as well as the corresponding jazz courses including arranging and composition.  There was also an expectation to perform at a very high level, which included spending a lot of time practicing and playing in ensembles. 

To have a well-rounded experience, she took part in many extracurricular activities such as heading the Black Students Union where she played a monumental role in bringing forward Black voices.  She cemented the legacy of alumna Coretta Scott-King through 3 annual concerts in her honour, served on the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee and earned various fellowship and grants from the conservatory.  Naledi has been a resident at the Kennedy Center through Betty Carter’s Jazz Program, where she was mentored by the likes of Dee Dee Bridgewater and Jason Moran.  “That was such a surreal experience for me as I never thought that within my first year I would be meeting some of my jazz icons”, describing her experience at the center.

She got to play with some of the most phenomenal people from around the world at the Kennedy Centre.  For two weeks straight they listened, wrote and played.  “It was everything I dreamt this journey would be like.  To perform my music at the presidential center was also a huge honour”, she said.  That experience validated her journey to a large extent and allowed her to connect to people who have helped carve the opportunities and pathways toward the career she imagined for herself.  Some of the places she has performed at in the US include Jordan Hall in Boston, The Lily Pad, The Museum of African American History (CA) and many venues around Boston.

Ready to conquer the world. Picture by Paul Mardy

Naledi is glad the American audience enjoys her music from South Africa as it is different to what they are used to.  They think its wonderful hearing something rich in history and sound that brings something different to the space.  Being a teaching artist has played a central role in her journey.  She cultivated a strong relationship with Boston City Singers (BCS), where she was their premier tour choir conductor and taught electives on vocal technique and South African music. “I teach a choir and we work on a lot of South African repertoire which has been a great experience for me”, proud of taking SA music to a global level.  Getting to arrange choral music was something she never did before, but having the opportunity to step into that role has now taught her so much about herself and her country’s rich choral history.

This zesty vocalist, composer and teacher was a program director at the YMCA youth center for music and social justice program.  She also teaches at Savannah Music Festival Jazz Academy (SMFJA) and runs her own workshops on jazz, voice techniques, history and music of South Africa.  “At SMFJA I teach jazz in its purest sense”, she told Jazz It Out.  Naledi teaches melodica and vocal lessons to instrumentalists.  “It has been a tough year learning virtually, but I have had a wonderful time introducing students to the art and having them interact with music in fun ways”, she added.  There is no doubt about the positive impact she is making in the lives of music students.

The Dreaming Girls Arts Foundation is a South African based non-profit organization that Naledi founded.  It is a manifestation of a long-held dream to empower and connect young women musicians beyond the world of entertainment.  It was largely inspired by her own experience of wanting to pursue music as a career while at school and the immediate family seeing it as just a hobby.  At some stage she gave in to the pressure of neglecting her childhood dream only to find herself singing at various stages while doing a qualification which was not her choice and finally studying Jazz Performance at NEC and getting to do what she always wanted to from a tender age.  She also roped in Bokang Ramatlapeng through Her Own skin podcast series which yielded positive results.

Ska Fela Pelo – Naledi Masilo

Naledi recently presented “Lesakeng: In the Kraal” in May, a project that formed part of her recital towards her degree at NEC to a global audience.  It was a performance film presenting legendary songs from a South African jazz selection, her originals and jazz standards.  She was quite happy with the responses received.  Many people back home were very familiar with her style of performing.  Her mother was very excited because some of the songs she performed at the recital were songs she had been begging her to sing for years.  The American audience really enjoyed listening to music that was different to what they are always hearing on social media and on the radio.

She is now a graduate in Jazz Performance from the NEC.  Through her interactions with the Americans over the years, she has noticed that some of the South African jazz artists they know are Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Abdullah Ibrahim.  She is also teaching the US audiences about some of the young jazz musicians such as Thandi Ntuli, Siya Makuzeni, Benjamin Jephta, Sisonke Xonti and Zoë Modiga.  When she is missing church, she plays Lusanda or Joyous Celebration.  When she is missing her household, she will play some Judith Sephuma, Hotstix Mabuse or Selaelo Selota.  When she is missing her friends, she will usually play Langa Mavuso or Ndumiso Manana and when she misses making music, she will play Bheki Mseleku, Thandi Ntuli and Siya Makuzeni.

After graduating, she has decided to remain in Boston and continue to work with BCS while growing her career.  She will continue to lead the Dreaming Girls Arts Foundation and facilitate its global impact.  Ideally, she would like to be a performing artist who occupies spaces in the social policy and development world.  “I have cultivated myself to be a vocalist, composer, educator and activist that is deeply committed to the principles of Ubuntu, what is mine is ours”, she told Jazz It Out.  Her focus for the next few years is developing her brand and artistry, developing curriculums and systems for workshops where she teaches jazz, vocal techniques and South African music and history, recording and performing her music internationally.

Naledi favourite jazz musicians are Siya Makuzeni, Somi, Abbey Lincoln, Sarah Vaughan, Jazzmeia Horn, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Billy Childs, Cécile McLorin Salvant.  Her hobbies include baking, playing The Sims, going to the gym, watching documentaries, biking and wine tasting.  Like her Facebook Page Naledi “Ledi” Masilo.  Connect with her on LinkedIn. Follow her @ledi_musiq on Twitter and Instagram. Visit the website of Dreaming Girls Foundation  Like the page Dreaming Girls Foundation on Facebook.  Follow Dreaming Girls Art Foundation on Instagram @dreaminggirlsartfoundation