African Made: Jonathan Stephen Simons
Jonathan is a Capetonian musician, producer and sound engineer, independently climbing his way up the shaky ladder that is the South African music industry.
Jonathan, tell us about yourself.
I am from Cape Town, South Africa. I am the head of and the music producer for an independent record label called Mountainside Studios. And I’m a musician obviously, but that seems like such a part of me that it doesn’t feel like it’s what I do, it’s just kind of something that happens.
What do you appreciate about your upbringing?
I was very privileged. I had a very hard-working single mom and a very supporting father. One thing about my upbringing that is weird to me is that I wasn’t really exposed to all that much music growing up. I kind of had to go looking for it and find it myself. But I’m grateful to have been in such a privileged situation where I had internet and a computer and I could learn how to start using music production software, because a lot of people don’t even get that chance.
What helped to shape the person you are today?
Hah! That is too long of a list. The top three things that shaped me… My mom always taught me to be as kind as I could to whomever I met, and I drew my own meaning from it, and that meaning is that you don’t know what anyone else is going through. You don’t know because you aren’t them. You can think you know everything about a person but you won’t truly know because you aren’t them. So one of the most important things about my upbringing was being raised to be decent, no matter what, because for all you know the person you’re interacting with might have just had one of their worst days ever. So that’s number one. Things that shaped me… Music, obviously. I kind of attached myself to this dream and vision straight away and committed really hard and decided that if it wasn’t music then what else would I want from life? So I’m very grateful that I can still be pursuing music and that things can look so bright in the near future. And then, just a lot of unconditional support from my father. Although he isn’t the most emotional man, and my music is quite emotional, he has always believed in me. I know a lot of musicians struggle with getting their parents on board, and they just supported me. The only things my parents would ask me were; “Are you okay?”, “Do you need help?” It was never a question of “You shouldn’t do that”. There was always belief.
What excites you about being African?
We are very, very lucky to live where we live. We are so lucky. There is no place, especially like South Africa, there is no place anywhere. And I have friends who come from all over the world who come and visit and no one can ever compare anything to South Africa. We have so much cultural diversity. Think about how much is going on all over the place. African music is infectious, African art is out of this world. So to be able to be surrounded by such a culturally rich environment has definitely helped me be creative. So my favourite thing about being African is our art.
What does being “African Made” mean to you?
I think it goes kind of hand in hand with what I answered earlier. I think what being African Made is supposed to mean is that we are neighbourly and brotherly with one another. If you picture a little African village like 200 years ago, there’s a little community. Being African Made for me is all about community, and I’ve recently found MY community now where I feel very at home. So ja, being African Made is just about being genuine and being good to those around you.
What do you love about Africa as a place?
The weather, the beaches, the people, the clouds, the sunsets, the long days, the cold winters, the drives, the hikes, everything. I love everything.
What is your favourite African food?
I’m not much of a foodie. I’m going to be cheeky and say Taystee Wheat because they don’t have it anywhere else in the world. I used to eat a lot of Taystee Wheat growing up.
What clothing style do you feel most comfortable in?
Wataka socks. That’s a good question because it asks what I feel more comfortable in. So I’ve never really cared about what people think about what I’m wearing. You know, if the clothes have worked, I’ve worn them. But lately I’ve really started to find a sense of style that I’m comfortable in and it’s more of a self love thing than anything. I LOVE wearing the socks, straight up. They give me confidence because, look at them! I like wearing nice patterns. I wear some shweshwe stuff as well. Pretty patterns. That’s my answer. Food and clothes are not my vibe haha.
Why do you like Wataka socks?
They’re loud and proud. I didn’t have a very cultural upbringing, so for me it’s a very cool connection to African culture and it’s a very cool way for me to feel like I’m actually connecting with the culture around me in a non appropriative manner. And they’re comfy. I’ve got big feet and they actually fit me.
What are your hopes or plans for your future?
My hopes and plans for the future are to keep playing music for people who want to listen, and that group of people seems to be growing more and more. I’m going to release my solo album this year (as Jonathan Stephen Simons). I’m going to release another album with my other band, Fractals. And I’m starting to collaborate with people again this year. Because I found that for a long time, my writing went so inward that I wasn’t comfortable sharing it with people. And I think that only very recently have I found the confidence to just own that openness. It is what it is, people feel things. So ja, I want to play songs for people and connect with them and hear how a song affects them and how it makes them feel, because that’s what music is about. It’s about a shared emotion. It doesn't have to be exactly the same emotion but if we can all sit in a room and I can play a song and we can all feel something at the same time, I think that’s literally the definition of magic. So I just want to keep having magical moments that hopefully get bigger and bigger, and hopefully they start happening in cooler and cooler places that I’ve never been to.
Who has supported you in your journey to becoming who you are?
My family has supported me for the longest time. They’ve always given me nothing but love. I have an older brother, Michael, who was living in Grahamstown for like six years, but whenever he came to visit he would always ask me “Where’s the music? I want to hear it. Show me, show me, show me.” So I’ve always had a lot of support from my family. And I've had a lot of family disappear so the ones who have stuck around have supported for the long and the hardest. Two of my biggest supporters have been my band mates. But I think that's a different kind of support, it’s kind of a ‘there for each other’ thing. It’s not just like ‘I support you’ and then ‘I support you’, it’s more like ‘we support each other in this thing that we’re doing together’. And Kommetjie of course. Kommetjie has been my biggest support system. Having all the lovely music lovers appreciating me has been crazy.
What is your favourite African word? And what does it mean?
My favourite African phrase is something an old friend of mine used to say. “Somelele kunye”. It’s an isiXhosa phrase meaning “We are strong together”. I also love the word *“Ubuntu” and the philosophy of ubuntu, that we are all bound together, and that goes in line with all of the answers I was giving, the way I feel about that sense of neighbourhood connection and decency duty to one another. I think that ubuntu is one of the things that defines Africa the most.
*Ubuntu is an isiXhosa and isiZulu word often translated to “humanity” or “I am, because we are”.