PJ Powers is a true South African musical icon, human rights activist and humanitarian. Nicknamed “Thandeka” — “the loved one”, her musical career has spanned over 3 decades and she is one of the few entertainers that cross cultural boundaries to find resonance with black and white audiences.
Born Penelope Jane Dunlop in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal in 1960, PJ Powers formative years were influenced by her grandmother who would take her to the townships to feed hungry children.
In 1979, Powers debuted as a vocalist with and all-girl band called Pantha. A year later she joined a band called Jimslip, who changed their name to Hotline.
The rock outfit, Hotline, released their first album Burnout in 1980. PJ’s powerful voice combined with the soaring chorus in ‘You’re So Good To Me’ to propel the song to number 8 on the Springbok Radio Top 20.
Hotline started incorporating African rhythms and sounds into their music and the success promoted them to change their style to Afro-rock in 1983.
Powers recorded 7 albums with hotline that included hits like Feel So Strong, Jabulani, Home to Africa and There is an Answer, many of which strongly reflect her patriotism, before the band split in 1987.
Powers preformed at a charity concert for war orphans in Zimbabwe with Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte in 1988. The apartheid government’s response was to ban her from radio and TV for a year. Nelson Mandela sent PJ Powers a letter to encourage her to keep singing.
However, like most things in life, PJ’s career had ups and downs and she went from playing the packed Jabulani stadium to singing in furniture stores.
An insomniac, Powers started drinking at the age of 26 to fall asleep and quickly descended into a pattern of alcohol abuse. The next four years saw her in and out of five rehabs before she joined Alcoholics Anonymous and managed to kick the habit using the 12 step program.
Her floundering career was resurrected in the early 1990s when her evolving Afro-pop sound found a receptive audience in the black market.
In 1994, powers sang at Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration. A year later she collaborated with Ladysmith Black Mambazo to record, and preformed the official Rugby World Cup song, “World in Union”, live at the opening of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Cape Town. The song reached no. 47 on the UK Singles Chart.
Other career highlights include singing for royalty such as Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom, King Juan Carlos of Spain and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.
Powers has shared the stage with Joan Armatrading, Hugh Masekela, Divine Divas, Lord Richard Attenborough, Richard E. Grant, Sibongile Khumalo, Janet Suzman and other big names. In 1987, PJ played in Mozambique, where she was immensely popular, with Brenda Fassie and Eric Clapton. A local newspaper reported Powers had stolen the show from Clapton.
She collaborated with Vicky Sampson, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and M’du Masilela for the music video flighted at the United Nations Assembly in Washington, D.C. and in Greece.
In 2003, PJ wrote an 85th birthday song for Mandela, which she performed for him and guests including Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
The same year, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation honoured her with their prestigious annual award, promoting reconciliation by “singing people together”.
Tandeka is involved with charities such as Reach For a Dream Foundation, the Hamlet Foundation and others.
In 2004 she was voted 93rd in the Top 100 Great South Africans.
PJ Powers continues to make music having recorded 15 albums that span music lovers of all generations, languages and social classes.