Wanjiku Mungai catches up with singer and music producer Kagwe Mungai to talk about his surprise at finding a male fan base in Nakuru, getting booed at a gig in England, and embracing his African roots.
When was the last time you were on the stage?
I was just in Machakos, as part of my tour to seven cities in two months. It’s exhausting but I was glad because otherwise I wouldn’t have had the time to go out there. People in Nairobi are ‘cool;’ they love you but they don’t want to show it too much because you’ll get bigheaded. Outside Nairobi it’s like: people screaming, chasing. It is a little scary – you’re seeing flashes and it’s dark. There was a time I had to run into a car [because] my hair was being pulled. The love is overwhelming, which is great. I love it.
Are there things that have surprised you during this tour?
Yes, Nakuru had a huge male fan base, so it was surprising to see all these guys getting rowdy to my music. Sometimes you go with specific expectations and the place doesn’t meet them or exceeds them. Kisumu was very impressive. People in Nairobi assume that people living upcountry are not informed, but they’re very switched on, especially the Uni students when it comes to the elections. Nairobi is a bubble, and it’s very different from any city in Africa that I’ve travelled to. We’re very isolated in some ways and it’s easy to forget you’re in Africa. You have Muthaiga and the country clubs, and not too far off you have Githurai, two extremes, but both Nairobi. And neither of those [sections of] Nairobi understands the other fully.
Where do you identify with?
I don’t know. My upbringing was all over the place. My Mum had a job that forced us to travel quite a bit. I lived in Johannesburg, went to university in Southampton. Before that we lived in Jamhuri, which in the 1990s was a bit run down. We moved to South Africa when I was 10. I hated it. All my friends and family were in Nairobi and they took me a year back in school because of my age. I was also one of three black people in the entire school, which was very jarring. Later on, I looked back and I understood conversations I didn’t understand at the time. I also encountered this later on in Uni: your blackness makes you either feared or cool, sometimes a mixture of both. Like, “Oh My God I can’t mess with that guy and I’m kinda scared of him but he’s so cool!” My accent also changed very quickly, it became a little more South African, a lot of “yahs” and “shame.” I’d go to school and that’s how I’d talk and then I’d come home and talk to my family in a Kenyan accent. So then when I had my friends sleep over, I would get so confused.
How did music happen?
My Mum says I used to sing myself to sleep. At the end of 2009, I went to Southampton to study Music Production and Operations Management. In High School, I had been a bit of a rock star, and then I went there and was the bottom of the barrel and met people who were so much better than me. I had to reinvent, grow, start again, and that forced me to hone in on my production. By the second year, I was tutoring; the third year I was in production and I found my group of friends that were from all over the world, which was such an amazing experience and the main reason I wanted to study abroad. I did a lot of growing in those three and a half years, travelled to a lot of open mics and tested my material. I got booed at a Kenyan event in Coventry. I was the last one to perform and people had eaten nyama choma and started chanting “Go home!” over and over again. My Mum taught me a long time ago you can’t ever run away from a fight, whatever that fight is, especially if the fight is brought to you. So I just told the DJ to keep going and kept singing.
What has been your most memorable travel destination?
New Orleans was art everyday. It was beautiful, the food was so rich – so much seafood, jambalaya. And the culture – you leave your room and there’s a guy playing a tambourine with a baby strapped to his chest. It really made me feel African. Outside of the French quarter, you’re so aware that you’re different, and that just reminded me that I’m African and that I should always embrace it. That’s not to say that I am just African, I am the culmination of my experiences. It means celebrating our culture in everything that it is, with its flaws and all, and understanding that these flaws may not even be flaws, just things we’ve been told are flaws.
PHOTO: TATIANA KARANJA Nomad Vol. 5