In an extraordinary display of live performance, autistic composer, singer and pianist, JR Nkosi, 17, will be taking a stage on the Fringe at the National Arts Festival.
From Tuesday, July 2, to Saturday, July 6th, the Eastern Cape, East London sensation will step up onto the platform at the Graham Hotel in High Street, Makhanda, and give his all.
His mother, motivational speaker and Buffalo City Metro employee, Yolande, who will join him to sing, says she has no idea what song he will play, or what will happen. This will be the ultimate live performance, because JR, who suffers from autism spectrum disorder, is a fabulous pianist and performer who plays it his way. Also, don’t expect his interpretations of songs to be repeated: they never are. If you enjoyed it one way once, that’s it – never to be repeated. Next time it will be different, and that is the joy of JR’s unique live performance.
The youth comes to fest with the full backing of his dad, ECDC official Jabulani Nkosi, JR’s sister Amanda, and cousin Yanga, both 26. JR will never play to an audience of one. This is unlikely since this youth comes with a strong following from the Eastern Cape where he is in demand at weddings, funerals and church and community functions.
So what can we expect? JR communicates with us sometimes on our frequency, but other times on his own, say his parents. But his mom, who has fought by his side since the early days of misdiagnosis and anxiety, knows him better than any other. But before we delve into that, she tells the hipster-looking JR, who is wearing styling jeans, top and a scarf to “do your chores”. JR gets up and starts closing the curtains as night falls here in their comfortable Dorchester Heights, East London home.
The show list features songs from Ringo, Letta Mbuli , Freshly Ground, Nathi, Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuza’s Burnout, Hugh Masekela’s popular Thuma Mina, the late pop sensation Michael Jackson and Stompie Mavi. It is Michael Jackson who takes centrestage for JR after he first fell in love with the late star at a presentation at the Rand Show. He was so passionate about a Tee featuring Jackson, that when told they were all sold out, the stallholder was so mortified at little boy JR’s disappointment that he gave the kid the oversized shirt off his back!
Is JR good? The boy started playing at age 9. He was silent for years, causing his parents angst until the right specialist explained it all. It was when the family were singing him “Happy birthday”, that his musical genius shone through. JR went to his toy piano and played it straight up.
That was a revelation and from there it was buying him an electric piano and booking him in with a tutor. That did not work workout since JR plays to his own beat, and if it’s not piano, it is drums, though his parents have yet to find a way to get him a silent set.
“He plays it as he feels it,” says his mom, who has changed her life to fit in with his improvisation – and is now a sought after speaker on air and at public events where she tries to reach out to other parents of autistic kids and explains how it goes, and too often does not go, for autistic kids.
There is confusion, taboo, ignorance, even cruelty, but this family has taken them all on, and now they are in the groove.
JR’s story is beautiful. And it is not told in word. It is told through his creativity. In his music is his story, and the family’s story. How together they drove the process, and how people, who were unclouded by prejudice and open to communication, got his vibe and moved with him.
One such person is Gary Ndlovu at Legends music venue and school in East London who, upon hearing about JR’s talents, immediately set him up in front of the school’s drums. JR was a natural.
JR’s first public show at Legends started with Gary asking the audience for a song suggestion. It was nail-biting. “A woman came up with a complicated song. You could have heard a pin drop. Then he just played it. That woman was in tears.”
JR regularly wows worshippers at Mr G’s Eternity Gospel Ministries Church in Cambridge, East London, and has performed with Simplicity Band as well as Moubie Dee & Friends.
The underlying message of JR’s historic performance, says his mom, will be spelt out in her self-created meaning of the word “autism”.
Here are a few: “A is for acceptance, U is for understanding, T is for talk about it – and for tantrums, get used to them and you will be fine. I is for inspire others with your story and S for See the light in our M for miracle.” It is more often a tough journey, but an enlightening one for all.
With JR there are stories within stories, but one thing is guaranteed, the audience will be attending a show like no other.
Venue: Graham Hotel, High Street.
Dates and times: Tuesday July 2 at 1pm, Wednesday July 3 at 3pm, Thursday July 4 at 7pm, Friday July 5 at 5pm and Saturday 6 at 11am