Nonku Phiri Doesn’t Have To Try Be Anything - Photography by  - Jamal Nxedlana
Photography by Jamal Nxedlana

Nonku Phiri Doesn’t Have To Try Be Anything

I assume everyone reading this website knows who Nonku Phiri is. Well, you know her work, at least. The multi-talented creative has featured on a handful of hits, both as rapper Jung Freud and as ‘herself’, has collabed with some of the most respected names in the game, and put out two vastly different singles, in the few years she’s been putting out music. She’s also an illustrator who has done work for other local musicians. Oh, and she has her own record label, Albino Black. It’s all been so multifaceted that while she’s shown her range of skills it’s hard to say that any of us really know who Nonku Phiri is from her work so far. This year though, we’ll all be getting to know Nonku a lot better.

I had the pleasure of getting to know the songbird a little bit better and get a feel for what she’s got going on this year via a short Skype call a few days after her New Year’s weekend Afropunk and Smoking Dragon sets. She was a bit tired but still lively, “It’s just been a long year so I’m feeling a bit in need of a break. Nothing too hectic”.

Since it’s the new year, I opened by asking her if she was the resolution type, “Nope. I do think one does need to have a plan for each year but I like to leave room to expand. I have plans for what I want and plans to achieve through the year and then everything else that falls in between is like leaving room for surprise and seeing what the world has to offer.”

Her plans for this year include kicking off the year by putting out a fresh single and finishing off the EP she’s planning to release around June. “There’s a new single coming out soon,” she tells me and wryly follows up with, “I’m not gonna give you dates but it’s coming out soon.” Nonku plays her cards close to her chest, she wouldn’t even tell me who she was working with on the project. “You’ll find out when it comes out. I’m just working with someone I’ve been working with for a while.”

“I plan on putting out a lot of music this year. I’ve been producing as well so…” I interrupt her by asking her what it’s like moving from just being a vocalist to producing as well. She corrects me by saying “I’ve never just been a vocalist,” and goes on to answer the question,“I’ve been solo for the last 3 years, been travelling and kind of have a different approach in terms of the live set. A lot has been learnt in terms of, as you said, being more of a vocalist and using the voice as an instrument, versus standing there and having backing tracks. It’s been fun to explore that side of being more hands-on with how the music gets done versus stepping into a booth and just writing.”

Because of how much she’s collaborated, I ask if she’s looking forward to having more control over the music. “I’ve had control over my music the whole time, I just think the collaborative part of, I guess, the formative years was just based on kind of challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone.”

Nonku then gets into what about collaboration she thinks is so dope. “It’s being able to create something that can’t ever be duplicated with any other individual. Being a musician or being a creative will always have a collaborative element to it. I think for me it was being young and, you know, not necessarily having one thing that you’re solely focusing on genre-wise. Going from boom-bap, experimental hip-hop beats, to then doing house music, then having a stint, like, rapping, and then getting back to just making music.”

Circling back to the question of control, the musician continues, “I think the only thing that I would say is that it’s not about having control, it’s about finally being able to have people understand me outside of the collaborative part. Featuring on a track doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s just a featuring artist. I just feel like there’s a contribution, or a story, that can only be told by specific people or when you work with specific people.”

“Everything I’ve worked on has always had a touch of me. Nothing else I’ve created through collaborations has been the same.” If you’ve heard her music, you know this is true. We get into the growth that comes with working with talented people across so many different genres. “The sonic side is something I’ve always been exploring and I guess you always learn or get influenced by the different genres or whatever. I’m using my voice and being able to come in and not just have to sing words, you know? Vocalists are kinda underrated in that sense. They are producers in their own way,” she says in reference to the earlier vocalist versus producer comments.

Nonku sees the last three years since she’s moved back to Joburg as an incubation period. “I think it’s been a stage of incubation, a stage of exploring myself. I mean, before this I wasn’t really travelling overseas or playing to different audiences so I think It’s been a very beautiful growth period and, I don’t know… I just think Joburg always has all these negative connotations attached to it, but it’s home for me. This is where I was born.” Although she grew up in Cape Town, she was born in Jozi and moving back gave her “time to just figure out who I was at this particular phase as an adult.”

“It’s just been a really great mirror in terms of what you surround yourself with. I don’t think the influences have necessarily come from the city, but I think it’s been a space that’s allowed me to just be… “ she briefly pauses and then lets out, “without having to try be anything.”

And I guess that’s the thing with Nonku, why it’s so hard to pin her down – it doesn’t feel like Nonku is really trying to be anything, she just is. She’s a creative spirit expressing herself, and she plans to do so in a myriad of ways this year. She’s keeping things hush for now, but she’s clearly excited about putting everything she’s learned up to this point into a definitive release that encompasses all her talents. Look out for Nonku’s name, voice and visuals in 2018. You’ll be glad you did. 

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