Bonga Kwana chats queer identity and making it last as a musician ahead of their FAME Week Africa showcase

Meet Bonga Kwana – SAMA-nominated singer, songwriter, poet, entrepreneur and queer activist, who’s enigmatic sound continues to make waves in the industry, one year on from the release of their debut album.

Titled New faces to old problems, the seven-track record tackled issues of generational trauma whilst capturing the sound and cultural spirit of Xhosa people, reimagined through contemporary tones of R&B, soul, and house. Lead single “Ndifuna Wena” (feat. Ntsika) also claimed #1 spot on the 5FM charts for three consecutive weeks, while the album went on to reach almost 1 million combined streams across streaming platforms.

It’s been a steady rise to fame since then for Kwana, with numerous career highlights, including taking part in Apple Music’s Pride Campaign and being invited to play Montreux Jazz Festival. They’re also set to appear at FAME Week Africa at the end of the month as part of a performance showcase, which Kwana tells me more about over a Zoom call.

“The schedule is jam-packed with amazing events. I can’t wait!” they tell me. “They’ve managed to create a space that will bring all the right people together in the same room, at exactly the right time. Getting this chance to connect with such a vast network of artists is invaluable.”

The three-day event, held at the world-class CTICC (Cape Town International Convention Centre), will comprise a series of panel discussions, conferences, film screenings and live music performances that will ultimately bridge African creators with global investors, making way for long-lasting career opportunities.

“As creators, we don’t just need the exposure, it’s also about how we can gain longevity from our interactions and experiences,” says Kwana, “and how we can form lasting relationships with people that matter in the industry.”

Kwana knows all about the power of creative partnerships. Their career was kickstarted in 2019 when they signed to Platoon Records, and not long after, were invited to collaborate with Zolani Mahola, Ami Faku and Msaki on the single “Ungazilibali (don’t forget yourself)”.

“When Platoon told me about the opportunity I just thought, ‘All right, ya’ll are joking’” Kwana tells me. “It was never actually part of the plan to make a song together,” they continue, “we had all just joined Platoon in our own capacities and we were doing a show two days later where we’d each be performing. The intention was just for us to meet.”

“Zolani was humming the entire time, and eventually the rest of us slowly started joining in. It just made sense. The way the song is produced is literally the order in which we wrote it.” they say.

“One year prior I’d been busking on the streets, singing big Beyonce ballads, and there I was in a room with three of the greatest female artists in the industry. It was actually freaky how it all came together.”

If there’s one thing that defines Kwana’s music, it’s artistic integrity. Everything they’ve released is guided by a relentless and passionate quest for identity, coming to terms with being different from those around you, yet trying to speak your truth despite that.

“Growing up queer in a black, Christian community, I’ve always had to fight to be who I am,” says Kwana. “I spent a long time figuring out exactly what I wanted to put out into the world, and the answer came with an understanding of why I was creating music in the first place.”

They continue, “I had to ask myself, is this a representation of who you are and what you stand for?” You can almost hear Kwana asking themselves that very question in their music, whilst defiantly staking a claim for the black, queer community to be heard.

“I’m not confronting you with it, or at least I don’t think I am,” says Kwana, “I’m simply reminding people that we exist. That we deserve to be seen.”

Kwana has long been an advocate for queer voices, having successfully launched the Ramblings of A Black, Queer Womxn platform whilst still in university – a space for queer folk to come together and speak about the issues affecting them.

Continuing the narrative, Kwana hopes to share more about their experiences on their upcoming album, preemptively titled James, The Narrative, to which they add, “At its core, it’s a compilation of stories about growing up queer. I’m about halfway finished with it.”

Kwana ends off our conversation with a piece of advice for younger artists, suggesting, “If you want to maintain longevity as a musician, you need to be honest about what your intentions are coming into the industry. That and learning to love your creative output. You’ve got to love listening to your own music!”

Catch Kwana and loads more exceptional talent at this year’s FAME Week Africa, 24-26 August. You can learn more about the event, see the full program and register to attend here.