Nirvana Nokwe On ‘Nirvous Love’, Sonic Cinema, & Music Business

January 11, 2023

As a new year approaches, we can’t help but to look back – reflect. Where music is concerned, we’re thinking about our favorite releases of the year, debating which artist had the better year. Apple Music Replay or Spotify Wrapped playlists and statistics are a good indicator of where someone’s loyalties lie. Interestingly, after less than three months in my library, all six tracks of Nirvana Nokwe’s NIRVOUS LOVE EP featured in my end of year playlist. 

Johannesburg born, Durban native, Nirvana Nokwe is a multidisciplinary creative artist with music and film disciplines. NIRVOUS LOVE marks her official debut in the South African music scene after years of single releases, features, and developing an engaged audience. An unequivocal inspiration for her music is her skill and passion for film and cinematography in addition to her Zulu heritage. 

Creating ‘sonic cinema’

Nirvana’s production palette draws on retro, indie, rock, gqom, amapiano, and traditional Zulu soundscapes. In the spaces between lyrics, this EP plays like a film score. In curating this mood through music, she describes the EP’s soundscape as “sonic cinema.”  

“I think because I’m a filmmaker…when choosing what works to make the moment real, music is definitely a part of that. I’ve always gotten the sense that my music belongs in a really good series, like Shaka Zulu (the original one) because I have an affinity for that movie. Not just because my family (my grandfather and my mom) were in the series, but because I— like the director shares a birthday with me, and so I don’t know, it just feels like me,” Nirvana explains. 

She hopes to create an audio/visual experience wherein people aren’t just listening to music, but experiencing a film screening of musical concepts. While print-to-screen film and TV adaptations are the norm, Nirvana created NIRVOUS LOVE believing music can and should be translated into film. Nirvana doesn’t believe what she’s suggesting is revolutionary, as it’s been done before. Take for example Kid Cudi’s Entergalactic album and animated film. For Nirvana, a song equally worthy of a cinematic treatment was Frank Ocean’s “Nights” off his sophomore album, Blonde. “The way he was able to kind of place us in his world is just so amazing. It’s not just a vibe, it’s an actual something that you wanna see in a film.”

Navigating professional relationships in music


As an independent artist, Nirvana has the freedom of choice and self discovery without major label oversight. In 2018, she founded The Optical Order, a media company for film and videography services. By 2021, the organization expanded to serve as a record label to which she signed herself.

“I think sometimes as an artist, especially coming up, you wanna align with the biggest labels. You wanna align with the most well-known managers. Or, you know, the most relevant institutions, you wanna be a part of because you feel as though that’s what’s gonna make you pop. And yeah, there is some truth to that and sometimes that’s just not the case. There’s just so many things on a legal standpoint that I’m learning pertaining to having my own label.”

To understand music business and its politics, Nirvana leans into her community by networking across. For instance, she found her managers through mutual friends and family. In nurturing personal relationships, she was able to build rapport with each member of her team. Cultivating a personal relationship based on their interests in non-music related activity, made real chemistry and synergy possible. “All of the stuff that I’ve been looking for outside, I already have with my team,” she says.  

Gender and music business

Navigating working relationships to make NIRVOUS LOVE was an equally challenging learning curve. It took about 2 – 3 years to complete the EP. While she produced the lion’s share of the record, Lordjazz and Wichi 1080 contributed additional production. On top of composing, Wichi 1080 mixed and mastered the EP. 

Collaboration is no small task. Much like finding synergy with her management team, it was important for Nirvana to find level ground with the people she worked with musically. “It was a lot of learning and unlearning – on an interpersonal level and a working level. Something that I’m learning right now is that genuine love for people can’t absolve the biases in our society. It takes work to unlearn certain things, like certain ways in which you treat certain people.”

As a woman working in the music industry, it’s fair to say that the way the industry is set up doesn’t immediately create equality between the genders. When anyone walks into a studio, they often walk in with their personal experiences and biases. This can make finding professional equity and equality a challenge. 

Making NIRVOUS LOVE, Nirvana describes the process as “liberating,” going on to say, “I tend to be very experimental.” At the same time, working with Wichi 1080 added a necessary finish to the project. Thinking about how artists advocate for the sound they believe in, Erykah Badu’s “I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my s***” comes to mind. “We did fight, it was not cute, but we got there,” Nirvana expresses.

A ‘nirvous’ love features repetitive conversations

Unsurprisingly, navigating professional relationships to make music so often mirrors the romantic relationships referenced in music. Interrogating why you’re with someone, why you haven’t left them, and how you’re plan to stay away from when you do are pillars of NIRVOUS LOVE. The track that best describes this is opening track, “HP 83.” Closer to the sound that Nirvana looks to explore and develop, this record plays like a meditation. Nirvana believes, “The more you repeat something, you begin to understand the meat of that thing.”

This record sounds like the beginning and end of a relationship, the sentiments felt and considered during the process. “With HP 83 I’m repeating the same phrases because I want people to think about the lyrics that I’m saying to this man…When you’re speaking to men, it feels like your words are going in one ear and out the other…I chose to write my music in the same way [I talk to men]; which is communicating the same thing over and over again until they’re like ‘Oh my gosh! I finally get it’.” Referring to the I Ching, “an ancient Chinese divination text”, Nirvana explains, “In order for you to understand and embody the characteristics you want to have, you need to think about that thing consistently.” 

Core elements of NIRVOUS LOVE

In addition to divinations and meditations, paying attention to astrology positively contributed to Nirvana’s creative process. Nirvana shares astrologer, Amber Khan, “helped me with the language to articulate some of the experiences that I was going through with myself and other people.” So much so, in fact that she featured a reading from Khan’s channel, The Quietest Revolution, as the outro of “Badside”. 

While there aren’t visuals just yet, it’s obvious that Nirvana Nokwe is looks forward to them. The soundscapes and lyricism she’s woven to create NIRVOUS LOVE narrate the human conditions in romantic settings that aren’t always as benevolent as they should be. Equally, Nirvana’s EP debut speaks to more than her musical interests, but to her considerations around the relationships we maintain in love, at work, and with ourselves.