Bonga Kwana, affectionately known as Stargyal, is a SAMA-nominated, independent and self-managed multifaceted singer, songwriter, creative artist, activist and entrepreneur. Bonga’s music career took off in 2019 when they released “Ungazilibali” alongside Msaki, Zolani Mahola and Ami Faku.
In October 2021, Stargyal released their debut album, “New faces to old Problems”, an album which achieved the biggest nod any artist can wish for at such an early stage in their career – the South African Music Awards nomination for “best afro pop album”. In their short time as an independent musician the 24-year old multitalented artist, and graduate of the Bridges for Music Academy has achieved some incredibly impressive milestones, while also holding the torch for the LGBTQIA+ community to shine.
1. Tell us a little bit about your career and how you started?
My name is Bonga Kwana. I’m a SAMA nominated singer, songwriter, multifaceted artist, queer activist and creative entrepreneur. My love for performance art began as early as I can remember; from grade R I was a ballerina, who, at the age of 5 years in grade 2, had their first taste of the big stage at an inter school’s talent competition in 2005. Oh, it was delicious. I also sang in the Sunday school choir and on the odd day when my mother felt like showing off, she’d ask me to sing with her at church. Truly, it was a bit cringe, but I loved it because it brought us together. In grade 8 I joined Ubuntu Society; we were a collective of African music & art lovers – we sang, we danced, wrote and recited poetry, hosted inter-school “Cultural evenings” in celebration of our culture and heritage. We performed in assemblies, at other schools, during open days etc but Cultural evenings were where the magic was at. It wasn’t long after having joined the school choir that I was elected the Head of the choir, and was later approached by the teacher Head of the jazz band to join the band. Obviously I said yes. Then I joined the vocal ensemble. Every day was a working day and I absolutely enjoyed juggling my school books and my passion for music and performance. Joining the jazz band changed my life, because for the first time I was backed by a full live band and it felt spectacular. We performed all over Cape Town; from Artscape Theatre to V&A Waterfront, to Grand West, Baxter, you name it! Our repertoire ranged from Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive” to Brenda Fassie’s “Weekend Special” to Beyonce, “Love on Top”. It was such a thrill and I excelled, with my hands full; navigating my Matric studies and my passion for music. I passed my Matric with 3 distinctions, ranked 2nd place in the Western Cape for IsiXhosa FAL and received an honorary award for encouraging cultural diversity in the school. That year was a testament to the fact that I can do anything that I set my mind and heart to. And so it began. . .
2. What projects are you currently working on?
At the moment, I am working on two very exciting projects! I’m in the planning process of a national “New Faces To Old Problems” album tour. I’m hoping to kick it off closer to the end of the year, into 2023. Details tbc. I’m also in the writing process of my next body of work which, simply put, it’s a compilation of stories of growing up queer and navigating life, sexuality, spirituality, mental health. I always write/create from an honest place – that’s exactly what I have done and intend to keep doing with this album. It’s “coming out” next year and it’s titled “James, The Narrative”.
3. What is your favourite thing about what you do?
I get to be me everyday and people pay to watch me do it. People pay to watch me sing and empty my mind & soul on the stage – it’s surreal. I get to express myself fully, do what I love wholly and I have full autonomy over myself, my product and my brand. Imagine getting paid to just be. . . you? Yes, please & thank you.
4. What is your best career highlight so far?
My South African Music Awards nomination for “Best Afro Pop Album”. I’m still in shock, even today, a month later.
5. What and who inspires you?
Black women inspire me. From all walks of this world, black women and black people inspire me – particularly black Xhosa women. These women’s stories are all the same, yet are extraordinarily different. The stories of the women who came before me, the ones who dreamed only as far as they could see, inspire me. We come from the same red soil, “umhlaba obumvu”. “Amaqaba”, the resolute ones who held onto their indigenous ways with every inch of their skins, and “amagqobhoka”, the ones who danced to the rhythm of the wind, adapting to a strange, yet inevitably changing world. The people on the margin, the people on the ground, people of colour, queer people. The ones who came out, the ones who have died in the closet, the ones killing themselves to stay alive. Their resilience, their gentle strength, their vulnerability, the clicking of their tongues, their bravery; migrating from the comfort of their homelands to the brutality of the city, to seek “greener grass”. Their lives and stories inspire me. The love in their hearts and the pain in their voices. The love that keeps the house warm and sets the nation on fire. The heart to forgive and love. As a people, we have walked to the ends of the earth and back, the cracks on our feet are testament to our strength. We did not break. Our resilience is what inspires me.
6. What do you think FAME Week Africa can offer the Pan-African Market?
FAME Week Africa can offer the Pan-African Market a legitimate platform for authentic representation. I believe that by co-creating the space for African artists to showcase their crafts, you will be contributing to the growth of the African creative economy at a grassroots level. By collaborating with networks such as Bridges For Music, you are directly changing the lives of people in on the ground, where the real change needs to happen. People need to feel inspired, they need to see change happen right before their eyes and in their lifetime. It is no secret that Africa is where the gold is. We have the talent, the skills and export-worthy content, we need the large networks of stakeholders to open the doors and keep them open. We need platforms such as FAME Week to not only see us, but invest in our crafts, our ideas, and business ventures. The time to tokenise and appropriate African content is long over, it’s time now to invest in the people and the organic talent they offer. Africans should be telling their own stories, as FAME Week I believe that your responsibility is to open up the platform and make it more accessible to the people who need it most.
7. How do you think we can grow the creative industry and bring African content to the world?
Money, money, money! People don’t want to pay artists; they want the entertainment but are not willing to pay for it. Some expect export-ready products from people who don’t own or have access to the means of production. We need investors, people who are going to put their money where their mouths are. Take the talent from its homeground and show them the world. I believe there are many artists out there who just need the money to make things happen, because they have everything else on lockdown – the content, the work ethic, education and sheer dedication. It’s not enough to host once-off events where you “expose” the artists on the nights, and then go back to business as usual. Artists need support, a network of people who not only believe in them, but display that through action. Put them on your database for international conferences/gigs, create cultural exchanges between 1st & 3rd world countries, create bridges that enable African artists to tap into the international market safely. Invest in their education, go the extra mile and nurture the talent that is growing. We need more than exposure, we need consistent support backed by the funds to execute these ideas at a high standard.
8. What tips can you give an artist who wants to build a reputation and a career that is going to keep them relevant in the industry.
Be authentic and stay true to who you are behind the curtains. Take the time to get to know yourself, spend time with yourself and take good care of your mental health, because you cannot create sustainably when you are not in a good mental space. Be consistent, show up as your best self and don’t be ashamed to ask for guidance. Take time out when it gets too loud; know and understand your limits. Read. Read carefully, research, ask questions, read again and take calculated risks. Most importantly, you are your best investment.
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