Ode to Growth: Interview with Moonga K.

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When Frank Ocean first burst upon the shores of mainstream music, he brought nostalgia — quite literally. At the time of mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra’s release, a young boy on the cusp of 15, submerged in the angst and mis-belonging of puberty, listened to the track “American Wedding” from his room in Gaborone, Botswana.
“‘American Wedding’ really affected me. I discovered nostalgia. It made me realize I just wanted to tell stories,” says MOONGA K., now an indie-soul singer based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

What was the nostalgia for, at such a young age? For MOONGA, it was the memories of his reggae-head dad, soaking in the offbeats and lazy happiness of the genre. And then there was his mother’s gospel. It was the TV blaring vh1 and ITV, where MOONGA learnt the blueprints of soul and RnB, as well as the zigzag emotions and ego that come with a celebrity musician’s lifestyle.

“I thank my parents for their freeness with music,” he states, reminiscing on the varying influences he absorbed throughout childhood. “I got obsessed with Robin Thicke. Then there was Aaliyah, Usher, Beyonce of course…Bilal was a big one. I watched him on Def Jam poetry and his voice was something I came to aspire to. What else? Erykah Badu. Her records were always playing. Gavin Degraw.” The slew of such powerhouse artists remain as beautiful stains on MOONGA’s own style. The blues and black soul are important characteristics of his music, which are vehicles or mirrors of the same grit, pain and passion once encapsulated by these artists and genres.

MOONGA describes his musical career so far as admittedly tumultuous. He started writing songs at just seven years old. “My dad had a garage band that practised everyday and so I was kind of inspired by that. It was difficult for me to find authenticity in my music at first. I would end up just unknowingly copying stuff I’d already heard.” But his talent was recognized frighteningly fast. A group of young men ran a recording studio across the street and soon became like big brothers to MOONGA. They taught him basic skills about recording and writing. “I was always writing poetry when I was young. Singing it was a difficult transition. But I learnt along the way.”

A self-described “ambitious kid”, at 14 MOONGA found himself failing biology. High school was a tumultuous and terrible time. But literature class was the one place of solace for him, amid the hellishness of grades and greed to fit in. Although students knew him as the “singer,” doing local shows often in the city, he was also a prolific writer. Teachers lent him books that continue to shape his way of thinking and molding stories — James Baldwin, Maya Angelou.

“My dad always made me aware of my blackness and the beauty of that blackness. In a very western-influenced environment, I was always reminded of my place as a black man. Reading Baldwin made me feel like i could be a figure like that,” he shares. A figure who used the mode of narrative, whether on the page or in music, to parse out his own identity and sense of place in the various habitats he found himself in.

Although born in Zambia, which remains the source of his ethnic roots, MOONGA traces the trajectory of his growth to his time in Botswana, a small, calm country that sits above South Africa. He lived here from the age of 3, before moving to Joburg for university. Botswana is a majority-black country but has a robust expat community. A former British protectorate, the country, like most, retains the faint stink of aspirations to whiteness and a Western lifestyle. MOONGA attended an international school, which exposed him to multicultural communities and mindsets. Even in a society that exerted pressure upon his beliefs and identity, he gained a strong sense of empathy, the kind that sought to transcend racial and cultural impositions and boundaries. Moving to South Africa as a young adult was an even more beautiful experience; it further opened up his attitudes and gave him new perspectives with which to approach different people and situations.

“I’m very opinionated and vocal,” he shares, his voice hardening with raised conviction. After graduating high school, he did a part-time teaching job at a local high school, where he found a lack of conversation surrounding social issues, especially those that surrounded young children still developing their own set of beliefs. “Mental health wasn’t talked about at all. Depression is still seen as taboo,” he describes. “I used to struggle a lot, and sometimes still do, but I didn’t have anyone to open up to. Now that I’m older, I want to prevent that from happening to others. A lot of the kids I taught were boys and they had a bit of a toxic masculinity thing going on, which was harmful. But they were just fragile children in the end. I tried my best to be a confidante.” It’s this same extension of trust and sharing that MOONGA offers now through his music. His days as a teacher may have ended, but that helping hand is still stretched out, like the metaphorical offering of vulnerability contained in African-American writer Claudia Rankine’s poetry. “There has to be an intersection, always, with my musicality and activism. I haven’t forced that; it’s been organic. I want to make shows that are safe for POC and LGBT communities. As public figures in the arts, we need to be vocal about social issues. We can’t segregate.”

Part of MOONGA’s musical platform is to let not only himself, but his listeners live and speak their own truths. Truth, that kaleidoscopic, slippery thing, is always refracted through everyone’s own differently-colored lenses. One event can have myriad interpretations. “I get messages from people who have had very different experiences of my music. And that’s fine, I want them to interpret things how they want,” he shares. “We’ve suppressed our vulnerabilities too long. Our generation has had enough.” And so, he seeks to be part of the catharsis that art and storytelling offer to people in helping themselves and others be more empathetic and compassionate.

This is partly why MOONGA identifies his target audience as mainly agemates, young people in their teens and 20s, dipping their toes, wide-eyed, into adulthood for the first time. “I make music for people who are trying not to care too much, including me…I’m not trying to be a role model. I want to be a person that young black boys can see and feel comfortable about their actions, and to be carefree while they’re at it. The thing about the arts is that we’re always looking for representation. I once found that in people like Prince. Prince was so free! He just did his thing. I’m still trying to figure that out for me, to exude that kind of confidence with my artistry.” And so, MOONGA makes music for the weird. Those young people who society may deem strange or outsiders, but still make the decision to not care about judgements, and to choose to be unapologetically honest about being themselves, even if they’re not sure of what or who that is.

Over time, the shy, troubled kid from Botswana has quickly matured into a more confident and outgoing artist, with music as his catalyst. “I’m more open to collaboration now, to conversations and input from others,” he explains. “At the same time, I’ve learnt to also be careful.” Ultimately, MOONGA strives to live and grow as his own artist, and is adamant about preserving his self-integrity and vision in an industry that can often morph into an imposing bully, mirroring society’s own troubles and injustices. “I tend to overthink a lot but I’m at a point now where I’ve become more nonchalant. I know my music will get to someone at some point.”

The next year holds possibilities for shows in different continents and the chance to encounter and work with artists from across the world. Close to September, MOONGA’s birthday month, is the release date of his next EP, titled An Ode to Growth, the sophomore to the previous RnB and pop-influenced Wild Solace EP. “I wanted to put out an eclectic work, to show my dynamic abilities. But I needed to decide what kind of artist I wanna be genre-wise. In this industry, you have to show consistent artistry. Wild Solace has helped inform my next project. The last 2 years have been a crazy rollercoaster of trying to show who I am with the music. And I think I’ve reached a point where I’m comfortable with who I am.”

Find Moonga’s music on Spotify: