As part of our annual Creative Women series we caught up with multi-talented, super stylish Nonku Phiri. Until recently Nonku was making music on the side while working as a graphic designer, illustrator and art director, but she has since decided to focus all her time and energy on music, and she hasn’t looked back since. She still makes time for doodling, but it’s through her music and performance that she has found a way to truly express herself creatively.
She says that her alter-egos (yes, she has three at the moment) allow her to explore the various aspects of her personality on stage. Nonku’s voice is just as versatile and varied as her performances, and she can comfortably master a range of different genres to suit each of her personas – everything from hip hop to alternative and even rap. Nonku regularly performs with artists like PHFat, Okmalumkoolkat, Crazy White Boy and Bra Sol and her collaboration with Jack Parow titled ‘Ode to You’ was released earlier this month. She’s currently working on her solo career while hoping to eventually compile her doodles into a children’s book and possibly even explore tattooing.
“Great creative work is a round the clock thing,” she explains. So we asked her about her creative outlets, her recent shift to focussing on music and her plans for the future:
What did you want to be growing up?
I thought about being a teacher, a lawyer or a ballerina.
What was the first song you ever made and how has your style evolved since then?
My first song was called ‘You Got Me’, recorded at Jazz Work Studios in Randburg, Johannesburg with a friend from High School. My style has evolved a lot since then! I’ve enjoyed being able to explore different genres and try different things. I was never into house music, yet I have worked a lot in that realm lately and I definitely never saw myself rapping. It’s been an interesting evolution.
Tell us about your alter egos JungFreud and Cleopatra. How did these come about and what do they tell us about you and your music?
Mike (Mike Zietsman, of PHFat) and I came up with JungFreud during a conversation about the subconscious tactics behind marketing. At the time, I was reading up a lot on Freud and one of Mike’s psychology textbooks was lying open on a page on Jung. The two psychologists had a huge influence on each other’s work but quite different theories. The name just sort of came to us. JungFreud is an amalgamation – the brainchild of Mike and I, and we come together on stage and say bad things.
Cleopatra is the complete opposite of JungFreud and is what I would describe as a fierce disco queen straight out the studio54 era. She’s elegant, larger than life and usually comes out when I perform with Crazy White Boy. She definitely adds a bit of sass to the set.
Which genres do you enjoy exploring most and why?
I like exploring hip hop and alternative music the most. This type of music is layered and complex. I like to keep the delivery of my vocals as simple as possible, so keeping that balance is what makes these genres the most challenging vocally.
What inspires you to make music and how do you manage to keep creating authentic sounds?
Everyday life inspires me. I find inspiration in everything – the way someone looks at me, a conversation, bouncing ideas off of the amazing people that I work and hang with. It’s usually a spontaneous creative process of developing on fun little ideas or sounds that no one expects to turn into anything. Those are definitely the moments that lead to the most authentic sounds.
How does your music reflect your personality?
I’m an extroverted introvert, so I usually find it hard to articulate how I feel in everyday life. Music is a channel through which I communicate and express myself. Evolving as an artist and continuing to perform has made me more confident and helped me to develop and come out of my shell a bit more.
Working with different genres helps me to tap into different parts of myself and get to know myself better. I have three alter egoes that come through in my music. Nonku as a solo artist is vulnerable, super shy, stripped down and personal. Cleopatra is the fun loving disco queen and JungFreud is loud, in your face and cheeky as hell. She’s every girl’s hidden bad girl come to life.
Are there any underlying messages you’d like to send through your music?
That every single story is relevant. We can all relate to heartache, sadness and happiness. We all feel these things. My message is that there’s always a silver lining. Love hard, play hard and just be the best you that you can be. The sky is no longer the limit!
What have been some of your career highlights so far?
I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to tick things off my bucket list through my work. Performing at Rocking the Daisies and Oppikoppi were definitely highlights.
Please tell us about the creative outlets, apart from music, you’re exploring at the moment.
Having recently (reads: finally!!!) graduated with my honours from Vega, I would like to explore the branding side of things in the near future. I’ve also been enjoying my current illustration and doodling phase and would love to explore textile design and print making soon.
You’ve also become known as a fashion icon. Describe your personal style and tell us what influences it?
I don’t think of myself as that, as I just wear what I like. I collect a lot of kitsch items and like to really mix it up for performances. That has definitely filtered down to my everyday style – now everyday is dress-up day!
What do you do when you’re not working and how does this inspire you to keep producing work?
I spend a lot of time catching up with friends, reading and drawing. Doodling really helps me focus and inspires my music. It all links as a creative process. I also spend a lot of time alone to clear my head and develop ideas.
What do you enjoy most about your career?
I enjoy being able to travel and meet inspiring people. I also love having the opportunity to collaborate with incredibly talented artists. Being on stage with my craft is the greatest high I could ever imagine.
What are the challenges of being a creative women in your field?
Creative work is always challenging regardless of your gender. Luckily everyone has been fairly supportive. I’ve always felt like one of the boys so this may have made working mostly with guys a bit easier.
I’d like to see a lot more camaraderie amongst female artists. I’d also like to see more girls kicking ass in the music industry and being bold, whilst still owning their femininity. It’s a powerful thing.
Which creative women do you look up to and why?
Bjork – she’s a real artist. I’m fascinated by how she puts her work together. She’s constantly pushing boundaries through everything from her music to her style and videos.
Faith 47 and Dominique Soma from We Heartbeat Collective also hold it down.
Manuela Grey is a female kicking ass in the pretty male-dominated field of tattoo artistry.
I’ve always admired Urban Mosadi’s creative work, largely influenced by street culture. She’s a real tastemaker.
My best friend Nonhlanhla Mditshwa is a super talented stylist, fashionista extraordinaire and just a crazy ass girl. I love what she does with It’s A Textile.
Lastly, I admire Boogy Maboi as a stylist, presenter, basically a jack of all trades who is killing it creatively. You can really see that she puts her whole heart into her work.
What are you planning to do next?
Take over the world. Other than that, I’d like to focus more on my solo career, develop my drawing into eventually illustrating for a kids’ book or even doing some tattooing. I also want to do some more outreach work with exciting initiatives like the Ubuntu Academy and continue collaborating with amazing artists around the world.
All photographs by Amber Rose Cowie