It begins with clapping, and then the feet tap to the beat: four times on each side, followed by a quick jump. As the tune rises, dancers dip low and spin.
It’s a pretty easy dance for anyone to learn, and people all over the world have done it, with everyone from a town dance troupe in Angola to Franciscan nuns in Europe. showing his movements on social media.
The “Jerusalem” dance, named after the South African hit that inspired it, provided a moment of global joy during the pandemic lockdowna welcome distraction from the isolation and collective sadness.
But it was the chorus, a lament over a heavy bass beat, that was a balm for millions. Sung with a low alto in isiZulu, one of the official languages of South Africa, audiences did not need to understand the song to be moved by it.
Singer Nomcebo Nkwanyana, who professionally goes by Nomcebo Zikode, drew on her own intense pain when she wrote it.
“Jerusalem is my home,” she sang. “Watch me. walk with me Don’t leave me here.”
After more than a decade as an overlooked backing singer, and with her faith in music faltering, Ms. Zikode, 37, was in a dark place in 2019 when she penned those words.
Her manager, who is also her husband, insisted that she write the lyrics to help her banish the voices in her head that were telling her to give up music, and herself.
“It’s like there’s a voice that says you have to kill yourself,” she said, describing her depression at the time. “I remember talking to myself saying, ‘No, I can’t kill myself. I have my children to raise. I can’t, I can’t do that.’”
She didn’t listen to the recording of the song until a day after it was made. When the bass started reverberating through her car, everything went dark, she said, and she almost lost control of the vehicle. She stopped, tears streaming down her face.
“Even if you don’t believe it, this is my story,” she said. “I heard the voice saying to me: ‘Nomcebo, this will be a great song in all the world.’
And that prediction soon proved true.
In February 2020, a group of dancers in Angola uploaded video showing their choreography to the song, and challenge others to surpass them. As lockdowns were enforced just weeks later, the song was shared around the world.
The worldwide success of “Jerusalem” took Ms. Zikode on tour to Europe, the Caribbean and the United States. It also led to her being featured in the song “Bayethe,” which would to win the Grammy award for Best Global Musical Performance earlier this year.
But while “Jerusalem” brought her worldwide fame, she had to fight to earn any financial reward from it and to be recognized as part of its creative force.
She sued her record label, and a settlement in December called for her to receive a percentage of the song’s royalties and be allowed to audit the books of the label, Open Mic Productions, which owns the song.
At least as important, the agreement also states that Ms. Zikode is to be cited as the “lead artist” of the song alongside Kgaogelo Moagi, more commonly known as Master KG, the producer behind the instrumental track in “Jerusalem.”
But even this victory in South Africa’s male-dominated music industry comes with significant caveats: First, Maestro KG receives a higher percentage of royalties. And Mrs. Zikode said she has not seen payment yet. “I’m still waiting for my money,” she said.
Open Mic did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in a statement released after her Grammy win, the label said: “She is a very talented artist and we welcome this agreement as a progressive resolution.”
Struggles with money are nothing new to her.
The youngest of four children born in a polygamous marriage, Mrs. Zikode’s father died when she was young and her mother, the third wife, was left destitute. Desperate, her mother left a church outside Hammarsdale, a small town in South Africa’s eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, to take her daughter for four years.
There she slept on bunk beds between rows of other children. She sewed her own clothes and helped clean the dormitories. The church choir was a comfort, but she missed home terribly until she was able to return in the 10th grade.
Her mother sold corn or traded what vegetables she could grow for used clothes. The neighbors who would ask young Ms. Zikode to sing for them would feed her and take her in for a few nights while her mother struggled.
When she was old enough, Ms. Zikode learned to braid other people’s hair to earn a little money, but remembers self-consciously pressing her elbows to her side, for fear that her customers would smell that she couldn’t afford deodorant.
But what she really wanted was to sing, and she got her break at an open audition. She spent years singing backup for gospel stars, sharing packed apartments with other backup singers. When gigs dried up, she took computer classes as a career backup plan.
Ms. Zikode’s first major South African hit came in 2017 when she sang vocals on the song “Emazulwini” for well-known house music producer and DJ, Frederick Ganyani Tshabalala. But what seemed like a long-awaited break turned into a setback when DJ Ganyani, as he is known, did everything he could, she said, to prevent her from performing the song live on her own.
“They are trying by all means to suppress the singers,” Ms Zikode said of the DJs and producers who hold most of the power in South Africa’s music industry.
DJ Ganyani did not respond to requests for comment.
Hoping a record label would better protect her rights, Ms. Zikode signed with Open Mic, but after the deal was signed, the label went silent, she said, and she was left to record her debut album.
Feeling abandoned by the record company, her husband and manager, Selwyn Fraser, sent messages to other artists, masquerading as his wife on Instagram and Twitter, trying to get bigger names to work with her.
This campaign connected Mrs. Zikode with Master KG and resulted in “Jerusalem”.
It’s not just the song that made her a household name in South Africa, but also her very public fight for her royalties and recognition, in the courts and on social media, said Kgopolo Mphela, a South African entertainment commentator.
“She comes across as the hero or the underdog who takes on Goliath,” Mr Mphela said.
For all her struggles to reap the monetary benefits of ‘Jerusalem’, Ms Zikode’s music career has made her financially comfortable and she now has a music publishing deal with a division of Sony Music.
Her 17-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son don’t want anything, she said. She and her husband renovated their home, adding an indoor studio.
Ms. Zikode can also enjoy the accolades that came with her Grammy win for “Bayethe”.
On a chilly April night in Johannesburg, in the afterglow of the Grammys, Ms. Zikode stepped out of a borrowed Bentley at an event to celebrate South Africans who have achieved international success.
As she walked the red carpet, determined to own the moment, she accepted every interview, whether from the national broadcaster or a TikTok influencer. Later that night, she accepted two checks, one for herself and one for a charity she founded that helps poor young women.
When she took the stage to perform the song that made her famous, she lifted her dress to dance the “Jerusalem”.