I’ve double booked myself. I’ve committed to dinner with a friend, but also promised my editor I would be present for the Nonku Phiri cover shoot. I could possibly excuse myself from the shoot. I’m just a scribe. Of what use could I be at a magazine cover shoot, anyway?
STORY: SANDISO NGUBANE
PHOTOGRAPHY: HAYDEN PHIPPS
Great way of getting out of that one, except I’ve promised Nonku herself that I’d be there. “No problem,” I say, and soon thereafter, I receive a message from a friend. “You’re coming to Thania’s dinner tonight, right?”
I hate flaking, but now how do I solve this? Ah ha! Suggest to Nonku that she and Nonhlanhla, a mutal friend who also happened to be styling the shoot, come with me to Thania’s place for dinner. There, Nonku and I could, somewhere in between, find a quiet room to chat quickly about her work, being an artist and remaining grounded in her artistry despite having already racked up several hits sans a full album. Is Thania okay with me actually bringing a whole party to her dinner? Phone calls. She’s chilled. We’re good!
It’s a rare feat, what Nonku has done, both as a solo artist and collaborator with the likes of Crazy White Boy, PHfat and Card On Spokes, but it soon becomes apparent that this is one artist who is not about to let it all go to her head.
Still performing as an independent artist, even after hits like last year’s “Things We Do on the Weekend”, I remind Nonku about the excitement she shared with me before moving to Johannesburg, having been offered a recording deal by a major.
“Last year was crazy,” she says, having insisted on having the interview at the dinner table, allowing everyone to share in the conversation. “A lot of things that I wanted for myself were coming my way, but it became a case of, like, be careful what you wish for. That notion became very true because right now I could be another artist in the big machine wearing myself out, but not necessarily making the kind of music that I want to make because that’s just how these structures work.”
Some five, six years ago, as a student at Vega, Nonku started experimenting with making music. She didn’t, however, at the time think it could be a viable career path. “The first assignment I did was a mock-up radio spot. They showed us Garage Band and recording stuff, so I started playing with it.”
“There was also this guy I knew – James Alcock. He was really dope, actually. He put me on to, like, beat tapes, and your RJD2s and Flying Lotus and all that. So, I started experimenting with that, singing over that. This was back in the MySpace days.”
On the interwebs, Nonku would make connections with other musicians, including the rap duo Ill Skillz, comprising Uno July and Jimmy Flexx.
She would eventually meet other people and was encouraged by friends and others to share her music online. “I was jamming a lot with different people and I was put on to these guys who were looking for a vocalist. They wanted me to audition, but I declined, told them I don’t do auditions. It was the guys from Crazy White Boy, so they invited me to just jam with them and one day they asked me to lay vocals on a track they were working on.”
The result was “Zoma”, which became the title track of Crazy White Boy’s 2012 album. “I’d just started working in advertising but I was also touring with Crazy White Boy, and more collaborations came as a result of that.”
I recall the first time I saw Nonku on stage at Design Indaba in 2014. I was aware of her, but not so much her music, and the neo-soul sound that defined her vibe at the time drew me in. It did not click that this was the same voice I’d been singing along to on that Crazy White Boy track.
I have subsequently seen several of her performances, and, often, they’ve been without the gimmicks we’ve come to expect from performers, just her beseeching voice that pulls you straight off the couch, and onto your feet, on tracks like the aforementioned “Things We Do on the Weekend”.
Produced by Narchbeats of PHfat fame, I asked Nonku how the track came about. “I got Narch to listen to old school kwaito, tracks like Igagu by MaWillies, and some TKZee. When I played him Mambotjie, he started messing around with beats and I guess that was the spark that inspired what you hear.”
While the hits Nonku has made, both as a solo artist and a collaborator, lean more towards electronic music, it hasn’t always been what she wanted to do, but something she has grown into as an artist. Listening to tracks like Card on Spokes’s On the Low, on which she features alongside Ok Malumkoolkat, I find that her voice feels quite at home within the genre, but this, too, Nonku says, has been a result of growth that the space she has created for herself has allowed her.
“I’ve been able to morph and grow, and become more comfortable with myself and even hearing myself sing,” she says of her journey so far. “I have various other skills and talents that I still want to explore, so labels that are given to me are not something I concern myself too much about. I don’t think of myself as a starlet or the leading lady of electro, or whatever. I simply do what feels right and I challenge myself.”
I ask her why, for example, one hardly sees her on any red, black, yellow, or whatever colour they call those carpet affairs at glitzy events these days. She responds with a straight up: “It’s about the music. I’m not about instant gratification.”
I presume by “instant gratification” she means fame and all its trappings, and at this point the conversation takes an interesting turn. Across from Nonku, at the dinner table, is renowned artist Athi Patra Ruga, who, at that point joins in the conversation. “Once you enter the art world as a professional, there are always expectations to stick around in these environments where, if you play to those expectations, you are going to burn yourself out,” he says. “There’s always that negotiation that artists have to make: Who am I? What am I?”
Nonku responds: “I’m human, I am not a demigod, and I can only do what I can. I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and sing like Beyonce or dance like Manthe (Ribane).”
“I’m not going to set myself up for failure. The most encouraging thing has been the support I’ve had. I’m getting to a point where I can accept when people pay me a compliment. I hate taking photos, for instance, but I must accept that it comes with the territory.”
She adds: “My music has often charted on radio. I don’t even listen to radio, so besides the audience I see where I play, I don’t know that radio audience, which makes it very weird to be exposed to them.”
“Or when they seek intimacy,” Athi offers, adding that it all feels very “bipolar”, the negotiation between expressing oneself as an artist, and creating for an audience.
I get the sense that Nonku has her feet firmly planted on the ground, and remains steadfast in her vision, one she has been honing, gradually, over the few years that she has been making music. “I’m not easily enticed by a lot of things that could perhaps entice most people. I’m not gullible. I’ve been working,” she says. “My priorities are different. I don’t want to be a part of any clique, I don’t want to be seen at every party, I’m not looking for adoration. My sole purpose right now, is to create music, and hopefully give the listener some sort of healing, or maybe be able to inspire someone or to simply get them dancing. Anything beyond that is not my responsibility.”
She notes that there have been instances where she’s felt that her work as an artist is being undermined, but she looks beyond that, and only wants to work with people in instances where there is mutual respect.
“I know my worth. Don’t downplay my shit. Just because I don’t act in certain ways doesn’t mean I don’t know my worth,” she says. “There have been many instances where people will treat you a in certain way, and then after they learn about who you are and what you do, then suddenly it’s like ‘we should do something together’. For me, how you treat me regardless of what I look like or where you see me – that speaks volumes. You can put me on a stage with Bjork, but if I don’t feel there is respect there, then we can both forget about it.”
Currently working to put out an EP, which she says will be coming in the next month or two, Nonku says the next five years of her career are dedicated to building her company Albino Black, through which she will be putting out her music.
“I want to be more professional. I provide a service, my product is music. I invest in it and I only want to work with people who recognize and don’t try to downplay it. Beyond being an artist, I am a person. I shit, eat and breath, and I hurt like everyone else. I chose this for myself and I won’t let anyone put a sell-by date on something that is God-given.”