Getting to Know Nqontsonqa

“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep.”

Salman Rushdie

Siphelo Dyongman, better known as Nqontsonqa, is a multi-award-winning poet who has captured the hearts of many with his vivid prose and rhythmic flows. Over the years he has healed broken hearts and uplifted wounded souls through his gift of spoken word. He is one poet that I revere and it was an honour to have this moment to sit down with the ultimate wordsmith and get to know him beyond his craft.

Here’s a glimpse of imbongi yakwaNtu:

Let’s start from the beginning, where are you from?

I’m a son of the Eastern Cape soil, born and bred in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown).

I suppose that is where you discovered your gift as a praise poet; do you remember when and how you got into poetry?

I would say it all started in primary school. I was fortunate in that when I started school, I attended a rather traditional and cultured school. The knowledge and appreciation of traditional music and dance was cultivated through events and exhibitions at the school. I could say that my love for isiXhosa was nurtured at Fikizolo Primary School. However, my interest in these traditional events only went as far as being a spectator. I enjoyed watching the other kids sing and dance but my focus was more on sports; in fact I was captain of the school soccer team.

How did you then move from spectator to performer?

The move was instantaneous.

How so?

I first got on stage when I was in standard 3 (grade 5). There was an occasion where we had an interschool developmental program running at school which focused on enhancing and showcasing our artistic talents. Generally, I would observe the program and I did until something came over me and I just got up, went on stage, and started praise singing. I can’t remember what I said, but I do remember the reaction of the audience as they rose to their feet in applause.

From that point onwards, I performed at almost every school event. Word got out and before I knew it I was being invited to perform at community events and competitions.

You went to two primary schools, did the cultivation of your gift as imbongi happen at one school or did both schools contribute in birthing your gift?

In my time we had a lower primary which went up to standard 4 and a higher primary which picked up at standard 3/4 up to standard 5. I started school at Fikizolo Primary, where my interest for culture and tradition was sparked. I would say that is where the foundation was laid. I then transferred to Andrew Moyake Primary in standard 3 and that is where I took to the stage for the first time. Both schools contributed to the person and poet that I am because they provided a conducive environment for the exploration of culture and language alike.

Your birth name is Siphelo right, how did Nqontsonqa come about?

I used to participate in open mics a lot. This is how I would test out my material. After discovering that I could write, that’s all I wanted to do. I spent hours writing verses and open mics were essentially my sounding board. Oftentimes praise poets are known for their extensive use of metaphors and parables and I used those too but in a manner that was more clear-cut and straight to the point. That was the one trait that stood out, apart from my complexion [laughs] and that’s how I got the name Nqontsonqa; meaning the one who gets to the crux of the matter.

You dabbled in rap in your high school days, did you find any distinct differences or similaries between rap and poetry?

Both artforms use language to express a cause or emotion. However, with hip-hop there more fluidity in one’s expression relative to praise poetry.

What do you mean by fluidity?

In hip-hop I can cuss and that would not be shunned upon because the origins/set-up of hip-hop allows for such expressions. As imbongi (praise poet) my expressions have to be sensitive and respectful so they can be palatable, albeit effective. As a custodian of indigenous wisdom I have to be respectful to the spirits who walk with me and use me as a vessel to deliver messages to their children.

Do you think there is room for praise poetry in SA mass media?

Right now poetry doesn’t have room in mass media. There’s no radio show that has a segment dedicated to poetry or have a top 10 chart like they do for music genres. But then one has to consider whether such exposure is necessary, particularly for praise poetry. Iimbongi zomthonyama are born, not made and so if we are to chase fame we risk opening up a sacred practice to anyone and everyone which would then dilute the essence of the craft. You see, a significant component is improvisation and it’s a component which comes at will and not command, and that makes the craft both sacred and impactful. There are times where I will recite a poem spontaneously and have no recall of the words I’ve uttered. In that moment, Spirit takes over, using my body to speak to her children. I can’t switch that on and off and so if we are to overexpose the practice of ukubonga, we may lose its essence. At times scarcity breeds appreciation and I think that’s the case with praise poetry.

Praise poets are people who commune with Spirit and use the medium of language to communicate the messages encrypted by Spirit to those who need to receive it. It is both personal and sacred and so if we are to put emphasis on getting vast media exposure then perhaps we may be trading the sacredness of the craft for fame and I’m not sure whether that is a fair or necessary trade.

Earlier you mentioned that poetry is aimed at healing and communicating both things seen and unseen. As people we go through different seasons, all of which require a level of healing and insight from the visible and invisible. Did you start recording your poems as a means to bottle the fountain of healing and insight for others to drink from at their own leisure?

I wish I had but no, recording came by chance or rather request. I had been performing in the Cape for some time and at each gig people would ask me where they could get my work because they wanted to listen to it at their own leisure or share it with their circles. Initially, I didn’t give much thought to it but eventually I figured I should give the people what they wanted. A friend of mine and I partnered up and created a backroom studio, now known as Shizzo Manizo Productions. That’s the pot that cooked the first offering titled Nantso Into Yakho that went on to get multiple plays on Umhlobo Wenene. We literally learnt everything about recording , mixing, and mastering on the go and we have been progressing in our understanding of music production ever since.

You have been in the industry for over a decade, how would you have evolved over the years?

In my earlier years I would spend hours writing poems. That’s pretty much all I did. Even in class, I would be scribbling verses instead of focusing on the prescribed material. Besides the excitement of expression, poetry was and still is who I am. I can spend every second of every day immersed in it but there is more to life and so over the years I have had to re-learn how to participate in other activities and enjoy them. Now I can attend events as a guest and thoroughly enjoy it and not feel the urge to get on stage. I am now at a point where I understand that I do not need to add my voice to every discussion, but when I do speak, it lingers in the hearts and minds of the people. I am now at a place where I say only what needs to be said, no more and no less; and that has brought me peace.

Let’s touch on your latest album Ukuhamba Lichiza, what inspired it’s title and contents?

It’s two-fold. In Xhosa folk, it is often said that a healer or prophet is not revered by his people or homeland. To some degree, this was true for me. Although my gift was discovered and developed in Makanda, it wasn’t honoured as much as it was in other parts of the country. I think that had a lot to do with familiarity and proximity. Only when I started getting recognition outside my hometown, did they finally understand the importance and value of my work. It’s similar to how we only make a fuss about our local talent when they get recognition abroad.  Sometimes one has to travel far to discover what’s near and that was the case with me.

The other part of it is more personal I suppose. Before I started working on this album I had just joined a local hiking club in Makhanda. There’s something so refreshing about being within nature and so during these hikes I would have a lot of time to think and reflect. In addition to that I would epiphanies about me, my people, and life in general, which I then transcribed into poems. Ukuhamba Lichiza is basically a collection of those reflections and epiphanies.

Are you working on another album?

I will but now I’m giving Ukuhamba Lichiza time to breathe. There is a lot I still want to do with the album. I want to create visuals for a select number of songs from the album. I would also like for it to get airplay because the art is not only for those who have the means to stream and buy the album.

What is your wish for the African folk?

I wish that we would love ourselves a bit more.

I wish we would be curious about our history and heritage so we can become more grounded in our being.

I wish we would nurture one another because a healthy community is important for our advancement as a people.

I wish we could come face to face with the reality of our being, beyond the physical, so we may gain the courage to pursue all that’s meant for us.

How would you like to be documented in history?

I would like to be known as a man who used his words to reflect reality and bring healing to his people.