In Conversation with The SN Project

From the moment you hear the versing of the words, “I’m just sitting here alone with my thoughts…” on intro to Afrikanization, you are captured. Needless to say by the time this happens, the blend of the paced keys with the bass and drum beat might have already gotten to you. And that is precisely what the music, the voice, and the artistry, of Siphephelo Ndlovu does: it captures.

If brilliance comes in many forms then it definitely comes packaged as The SN Project’s Afrikanization. The composer’s ability to interweave strands of different musical elements and genres, coupled with his warm tone and effortless delivery, are the golden recipe behind the creation of new age classics such as Ingqalabutho, The Seeker, and  Mina Nawe to name a few.

We were fortunate to get a chance to sit down with the eminent musician and unpack his journey back to music and his new single titled Falling. See more below:

It’s been almost three years since you debuted with Afrikanization, how has the journey been for you?

It has been quite the journey. It feels like a lifetime ago actually. So I released my first album in June 2020 and covid-19 was rife at the time so I did what I could to get the music out there. I did one performance in 2020, another one in 2021 and then at the beginning of 2022 I decided I’m stepping away from music and took a hiatus.

What made you decide to take a hiatus?

I felt like I wasn’t cracking the industry, so I wanted to take a step back and revise my formula. In hindsight though I also realize that I was being stupid. And I allow myself some time to be stupid and I appreciate being stupid because there are lessons to be learnt in that phase and I know that at a later stage I won’t be the same kind of stupid.

What were you doing or not doing that was so stupid?

I was being foolish. I wanted to plan everything to the tee and have it executed the way I had planned, so much so that when I experienced the slightest inconvenience I would be so demotivated. I was also encountering challenges like I could not write past a certain point, I couldn’t reach the people I wanted to reach, I couldn’t do this and I couldn’t do that…it was overwhelming. But then, I realized I was being too hard on myself as well, so I decided to take a break from music and explore other creative avenues and just be.

What has brought you back from the hiatus?

Listen, if I didn’t come back to music then I think I would have slowly disintegrated into thin air (laughs).  I believe all of us have a fundamental passion or calling that we have to fulfill and I knew from a very young age that music is mine. So if I put it aside I am doing myself an injustice and I’m doing my Creator who has gifted me this talent an injustice. No matter what hurdles I encounter, no matter what circumstance I am in, no matter what job I need to take to pay the bills, my music has to be there, in the forefront, and that’s my goal now. Funny enough as soon as I stepped out of my hiatus I experienced the very challenges I was afraid of and they are worse now than they were before I took the break, but I am feeling way more resilient now than I ever was. I’m feeling more motivated and determined than ever before and I know that if I keep on going then I will get to where I want to be.

When did you know you could sing?

I grew up in a singing environment so I wasn’t aware there was such a thing called talent. Music was everywhere. Everything was song. Everything was singing. Everything was a performance. Everything was music. So it was as natural as breathing. There isn’t a particular moment where I discovered I could sing because I was always singing, it was a norm.

That’s probably why you do not have a particular sound. To me The SN Project doesn’t have a sound, there’s a common thread but each song is so different. It’s almost like you have lived in many worlds and you have now brought pieces into a common place. There are elements of classical music, jazz, mbaqanga and maskandi. How does your mind navigate through these different musical worlds and carve out Afrikanization?

I worked really hard on Afrikanization and your description accurately encapsulates everything I was intentional about when I was putting the album together. I was essentially paying homage to music that raised me and taught me everything I know about music. My father is one of my biggest influences when  it comes to music and growing up we would take these road trips to Bergville and he would be playing music by the likes of mam’ Busi Mhlongo, Aretha Franklin, Fela Kuti, Al Jarreau, etc., and I took a liking to this kind of music. The older I got, the deeper my appreciation for the music became. It just got more and more prominent in my life and that’s the music I wanted to imitate, honestly imitation was it. I wanted to make music that would sound as great as the music I grew up listening to. So when I was making the album I wanted to emulate all those road trip moments and the sounds I grew up to which were gospel, mbaqanga, jazz, and maskandi into Afrikanization.

And you are right, I don’t have a sound and that’s why I struggle to categorize my music into a specific genre. My dream or goal is to make a subgenre of a subgenre of a subgenre with every album. 

At the beginning of your career, let’s date it back to when you were studying music, you felt like you were behind in comparison to your peers. Do you still feel that way?

It was more than just a feeling, it was the truth. When I came in, I was exponentially behind compared to my peers. Here’s a bit of the back story, so I took piano lessons when I was kid but that fell through because I had to focus on school. But I would still fiddle with the piano every now and then and that gave me just enough proficiency to cram a piano piece that could get me noticed by lecturers but even that piece couldn’t qualify me for first year. The lecturers recommended I study voice because I didn’t meet the requirements for piano and in my audition I was like no please let me study piano, I will work harder than everyone else, I really want to study piano. And when I made it into the program, God really came through for me and blessed me with the best teachers. I was taught by the likes of Dave Cousins, Paul Hanmer and to top it off, André Peterson in my final year. André opened up my way of thinking in ways I couldn’t have even imagined. So Afrikanization started while I was being taught by André at Wits and I am glad that I got the chance to tell him while he was alive that his contribution to my comprehension of music birthed this album.

And now you are back and working on new material. How is the experience this time around?

I love making music but it is also a daunting experience. It’s never been easy but I think I forgot how not easy it was. I’m tapping into some stuff and parts of myself that I have never explored before and it’s scary because I’m not sure if I do want to tap in this deep and put it out there. But I’m trying new things and I think that’s the point of it all, to evolve. Evolution is not only inevitable, it is a fundamental aspect of life. 

Let’s talk about your single, what is it called and what’s the story behind it?

My new single is called Falling and it’s about affection.

This is new territory for me because I have never spoken about affection before, I consider myself to be quite conservative so digging into this part of myself was uncomfortable but the song called for it.

As much as I say Afrikanization is not who I am, it is me, it’s a part of me and it always will be. I’ve used some of the music in Afrikanization because in retrospect I realize that I have accomplished what I sought out to accomplish with the album. I reached my personal goals in terms of writing, harmonies, and how I wanted the project to sound. And that makes me really happy and motivates me, therefore, I now double-click on some songs. Meaning I explore those sounds a bit more. Falling is a sequel to Mina Nawe. It sounds different, it sounds evolved, it sounds like it just graduated. I truly believe people are going to love it and I’m excited for them to hear it.

Would you say your sense of touch is the most prominent in your music making process?

Oh yes, most definitely and feeling. I always think about what kind of feeling I want to evoke based on the harmony of the song and then I find the words to evoke that feeling. When I started working on Falling all I kept hearing in the harmony was affection, touch, sensuality, irresistibility, and oh my word I hadn’t written anything like that before. I thought to myself what on earth am I doing? This isn’t who I am, but wait… isn’t it? Then a whole existential crisis erupted. So a whole debate and existential crisis later, I allowed the music to do what it wanted to do. And here we are, with a whole new single!

What are you doing more intentionally in your musical journey this time around?

I am allowing the music to lead. I have learnt that when I try to control it I end up blocking it from doing what it wants and needs to do. Music comes through us but it’s not from us. Once it’s out there it has a life of its own and does its own work which is why people will say ‘your music has done 1 2 3 for me or your music got me through this and that’. The music is doing the work in its own way and I am intentional about not getting in the way of that. One of the most humbling experiences for me is when people tell me what my music has done to and for them, it blows my mind because I had no idea that was even a possibility. I believe I do music to serve a purpose and to that end I am intentional about surrendering to the music and letting it take the lead.

In closing, what would you like your fans to know?

Mmhh…I want my fans to know that I am going to give them so much more.

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