For a long time, singer-songwriter Tusekah – whose given name is Tuseka Njoko – had her heart set on becoming a doctor, but she's now found her true passion in music.
The R&B and neo-soul artist, who recently released her third single I Ain't Waiting Around and is also studying audiology at the University of Canterbury, credits her late older brother Tusane with inspiring her music.
Tragically Tusane passed away at 19 from rare blood condition aplastic anaemia, which occurs when bone marrow cannot make enough new blood cells for the body to work normally. The family was living in Durban, South Africa, and Tusekah was seven when Tusane died in 2007.
"He was the life of the party," she remembers. "He was really good at football. He was also an amazing singer. He put me on to some of the albums that are my favourites to this day – Confessions by Usher and The College Dropout by Kanye West."
The 23-year-old says her brother started showing signs of being sick about a year before he died and declined rapidly in his last six months.
"He was lethargic and his stamina in football was not what it used to be, but he brushed it off. He was first taken to the doctor by my mum because he was struggling to pick up a heavy box. He had to get frequent blood transfusions, which would help his energy levels for a little bit and then he'd need another. There were two options for treatment – either a bone marrow transplant or a drug. The medical team ended up deciding to go for the drug. It didn't work and he passed away.
"I have such respect for him, even to this day," Tusekah says. "Growing up, I didn't realise how much he would do for my mum to help out. He started working at 16. When he passed away, I decided to become a doctor because I saw how much his death impacted our family."
Music and prayer helped the family in their grief. "We pray together now as a family and sing harmonies, and we did that when I was growing up. My mum taught us that music is a huge part of Zulu culture – to be able to share music with people and sing in harmony."
Tusekah's mum Bongie secured work as a nurse at Greymouth Hospital and the family moved to New Zealand in 2009.
"Greymouth was a huge culture shock," she tells. "Moving from a city with several million people to a place with 100 kids from years one to seven... I went to Blaketown School and I have such fond memories of it. We moved back to South Africa in 2011, then back to New Zealand in 2014 and I finished high school in Dunedin."
At high school, Tusekah excelled and became dux of the school now known as Trinity Catholic College. "I was still super in love with music and singing," she recalls.
"I did first-year uni at Otago with the hope of being accepted into medicine for my second year, but I didn't make it. I then studied biochemistry and microbiology in the hopes of being accepted once I graduated. I didn't get into medicine in my second attempt. I remember sobbing and thinking, 'Man, I put so much effort into getting in. I've given up time where I could have been doing music and I still didn't make it'.
"I did a lot of reflecting and I realised I only ever wanted to be a doctor because part of me hoped I would feel better about losing my brother by saving the family members of other people," muses Tusekah. "But the thing that actually makes me happy is music. I've followed that happiness ever since."
Tusekah did her first gig in Dunedin in 2021 and the following week, she recorded her first single, Childhood Friends. That was followed by Say Enough, released with drum and bass artist Azifm last year.
She recorded new single I Ain't Waiting Around in Christchurch. "It's really funny because its producer, Marley Sola, sang one of my most-played songs, Lift Your Head High."
"I had been listening to that song, not really paying attention to who was singing it. I was asking people who would be appropriate to produce for me. The name that came up was Marley Sola, so I sent him an Instagram DM. Then I listened to Lift Your Head High, but this time I checked the artist's name and it was him! So when we first met, there was already that excitement for me. He's just been on The Voice Australia, which was super-cool."
Tusekah is excited about what the future holds. "I'm the happiest I've ever been. I still want to help people, so I'm studying audiology and I enjoy it, but I hope I can do music full-time in the near future."
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