At the mention of his name, the song Daima Mkenya immediately comes to mind. Eric wainaina continues to be an inspiration to many as his messages in his songs have in Kenya’s recent past been used to unify people and reinstate the sense of brotherhood and patriotism.
I reached out to him and had a wonderful conversation about his music, what patriotism means to him and his message to the youth of this country. Have a look:
Who is Eric Wainaina? How would you introduce yourself?
EW “I am a singer, song writer, producer, parent, husband, son, brother, cat lover and dog tolerator.”
When did you start your music career and what keeps you at it?
EW “I started my music career professionally in 1992 when we founded a music group called Five Alive. But unofficially my music career begun in school. I took part in the Kenya music festivals, I took part in all the musical theater productions in school, produced most of them. My friends and I dreamt about being musicians as early as when we were 10-11 years old, sort of inspired by the likes of New Edition at the time, and the boy groups that were coming up at the time.”
Your kind of music is different from the rest of the artists we have today, why so?
EW “I guess anywhere there are different genres of music. My music is very similar to a couple of other artists who have similar tastes to myself like Chris Adwar or Atemi Oyungu. I would hope that some elements of the record also be compared to groups like Just a Band but I mean there’re different styles, there’re a lot of club music, lots of genge, a lot of rap, a lot of more music that borrows a lot from all traditional elements and I think they are all fantastic, they all serve a different purpose. Maybe some of my influences might differ from other people as theirs may differ from mine.”
“I think like this new record we are putting out has a lot of elements from music that I grew up with and so you’ll find some RnB, on stage we’d actually play some of those songs with reggae derivatives. I also take a lot of the musicians who I play with as excellent musicians and I use a lot of their ideas in the work that we produce so maybe one might say that the final product is a bit of curated, and so the best idea wins.”
Your all-time hit song, Daima Mkenya, what was the inspiration behind it?
EW “Strictly speaking, someone suggested it to me in a bar in a karaoke night. At that time Harambee Stars was doing really well in the qualification series for the African Cup of Nations in 1997. I think we had beaten some of our neighbors and were into some smaller pool. Someone said hey, write a song for Harambee Stars and I went and started writing what I hoped would aspire to be an anthem for Harambee Stars. But as I went on writing, what the political mood at the time begun to weigh in heavily on the direction the song was taking. I came of age in the 80’s and 90’s living under a particularly repressive Moi regime and then when Kenya became a multiparty state again I think in 1990-91 I was turning 18. So we were very aware of what was happening around us politically. In 1992 we had our first multiparty elections then there was the tribal clashes in the rift. In 1994 there was the genocide and I witnessed how that affected the Rwandese students in Daystar University where I was a student at the time.In 1997 the tribal clashes in Kenya had spread down to the coast so it looked like it had become a national thing.”
“When I wrote Daima, it started off as a song called Kenya Only, and sort of the desire to want to talk to Kenyans about not letting ourselves be divided along tribal lines so that a few people could benefit politically, that was the idea behind the song. Originally it was in English and then it was translated into Kiswahili by a lady called Amina Nurdin Kamau and I, she’s now called Amina Nurdin; long sad story. That translation happened and then we put Daima onto a record in 2001 which we released. The album was called Sawa Sawa and had songs like Ritwa Riaku and Nchi ya kitu kidogo in it. Daima has gone through several crests and falls, it has tended to be used whenever there was a time of national crisis. Kenya Only was adopted by radio stations at the time of the bomb last in 1998, there were a couple of independent videos made by people like Jeff Koinange at the time I think he was with either CNN or Reuters which built on the back of what Jimmy Gathu had done with the original Kenya Only video which we filmed at national theatre when he worked with KTN. The song has become of interest to the public at different times in Kenya’s recent history most notably in 2007-08 during the post-election violence. It really seemed to speak to people at the time.”
About the topic of patriotism, what would be your comment about it? Do we have patriots now? What has changed over the years?
EW “I think we have patriots now, we always have had, and we’ll continue to have patriots. In every single way, I think everyone of us is championing a particular course; whether you’re doing it on social media, at our places of work, in our churches or at school. I would like to say that majority of Kenyans want Kenya to be better. I think that it’s the fear of not knowing what support for another ethnicity would mean, though I don’t believe it nullifies their patriotism. I think the academics were a lot more of the intellectual thought on patriotism coming from the universities in the 1980s that was quashed violently in Moi’s time but I think there is a resurgence. There’s a whole new crop of academics now teaching at the universities who want to see a better Kenya. We are seeing a lot more of bloggers, v-loggers, people who have control of their own output making very strident statements about where Kenya needs to go. So I don’t know whether patriotism on the largest scale has floundered so much as maybe the channels over the course of the last years have been constricted but that is changing daily and continues to give me hope.”
If given an opportunity to address the president today, what would you ask him to do for Kenya/Kenyans?
EW “Huh! Resign. But, I think it is wrong to stand up in front of a nation and say your hands are tired so you cannot do anything about corruption. You see, unlike the rest of us, none of us has stood up and said we want to be the president, none of us has taken an oath of office and said that we will to the best of our abilities protect the constitution et cetera and we will protect the rights of every Kenyan, and so when he does stand up and says that he cannot do anything about corruption, then that is a major failing on his part.”
“If there is one cancer that will continue to hinder Kenya’s progress is the fact that our resources are not being spent in the way that they are supposed to be spent. So if I did have an opportunity to address the president I would say zero tolerance to any form of corruption.”
What are you working on at the moment? What should we expect?
EW “I am working on releasing a record called Brand New Day. It is a 12-song record and on the 18th of January 2018 I’ll be releasing it. It is a very personal album and has no political theme. It is an album that addresses things that I have been through as a man maturing in love, deepening my relationship with my significant other and my children. So it is a love record. I guess you can expect the record with everything that comes with it, good showmanship, and great musicianship.”
What do you do apart from music?
EW “I teach one day a week at Brookhouse, I teach a song writing class to post 0-level students who are considering going to university to pursue a music degree. I also play golf. I take part in different neighborhood activities including the way we live, our security and stopping land from being grabbed. I like to read, take road trips and also gardening.”
What would be your message to the youth of this country, having the events surrounding the 2017 elections as the backdrop?
EW “I am continually astounded by how the youth of this country allow themselves to take such hardline positions supporting particular presidential candidates for instance who are not part of a party that has an agenda. And we keep on saying it’s not our generation it’s going to be the next one, but even the current youth of this country, I find them totally intransigent as far as if you come from a particular part of the country then you are going to vote for the candidate who comes from that area at least for president. Then when you come to the county level, the people will be homogeneous, but then the candidate who does not come on the flagship party’s ticket stands no chance and that is shameful. Because so many of us meet so many different leaders be they community based organization leaders, a teacher here or a farmer there who are always trying to mobilize the community and get people to do the right thing for the community and as long as they do not get party nominations they stand no chance, then that is a crying shame for the future of Kenya and Kenyan politics.”
PS: The photos were acquired from EW’s Facebook page with his permission.