Nonku Phiri's never traded on her famous dad's name to get ahead

This musician says she's always had to work harder to achieve success. But now it's finally happening - and on her own terms, writes Tseliso Monaheng

17 September 2017 - 00:00 By Tseliso Monaheng
Nonku Phiri is the daughter of legend Ray Phiri - but she won't tell you that.
Nonku Phiri is the daughter of legend Ray Phiri - but she won't tell you that.
Image: Gabriella Achadinha

Nonku Phiri and I discuss many things during the hour or so we spend together, chatting about her career, but none of them involve her famous father, the late Ray Phiri.

"I don't go into KFC and ask somebody whether their mother is employee of the month, so for me it's always a weird thing," says the composer and singer/songwriter.

"I've always found that I had to work twice as hard. I never got a leg up, I never asked for any favours. Nobody really knew what I did until I was out in the public," she says.


Phiri spent her come-up years collaborating with everyone in Cape Town creative circles and beyond before her work with house-music duo Crazy White Boy made her famous in her own right.

Since then she has collaborated with producers (Eric Lau, Branko, PHFAT), taken part in campaigns for big-name brands, and contributed to a movie music score (Sifiso and Tshego Khanyile's documentary Uprize!).

The focus is on herself and her fledgling Albino Black label at the moment. "I envision it as being a through-the-line agency that caters to the independent artist," says Phiri.

She would like to cultivate a culture that is purely creative, relieving artists of everyday anxieties and leaving them to focus on their music.

"I've been using myself as a case study for the last couple of years, [and] it'd be quite interesting to see whether what works for me, works for other people," Phiri says.


WATCH the music video for The Sirens Call, Phiri's collaboration with Jumping Back Slash 


Born in Johannesburg, she moved at the age of 13 to Cape Town, where she lived for 13 years before moving back to Joburg three years ago. Phiri says she found herself at a point where, if she had been willing to make compromises, she could have reaped big commercial returns.

"I think the only thing that saved me was, if it felt like it had an agenda, then I knew it wouldn't end well," she says.

"I didn't find any of this appealing. I have a different kind of understanding of these things. You either ride on a bandwagon or you kind of see what's wrong with it and ... maybe that's what spared me actually.

"I would've been everywhere - TV shows, every corporate gig. I don't know, just wasn't for me. When I started going in that direction, I decided that this is not what I want to do."

Phiri was excited to present the music she's been working on at the Fak'ugesi Beats Party, part of the Fak'ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival earlier this month that featured artists like Petite Noir and Zaki Ibrahim.

Nonku Phiri's dad, the late Ray Phiri.
Nonku Phiri's dad, the late Ray Phiri.
Image: Thuli Dlamini

"I'm producing my own stuff now. I'm playing a set that I never thought I could ever play, and I'm just in charge of my shit," she says.

"It's quite nice looking back; I could've easily gotten burnt. It's just been nicer growing in lightness, but also just understanding that it's OK to be serious. I'm serious in my own little weird way. It's for the better."

Phiri says she wants to play with people she respects. "I don't have time to play in a jiggy line-up and seem like the odd one out. I want to get to the point where if you book me, I come with the full line-up for the night."