Every other Thursday we interview a musician for our Mics And Beats Segment. Today’s Mics And Beats artist is Atemi Oyungu. Reading her long bio I was surprised that there is so much I don’t know about Atemi. Hopefully this interview will help you get to know her better.
Let’s start by finding out about her background.
Atemi started singing at an early age, and she was part of a number of musical projects. At the age of 10 she began singing in the Junior Choir at Nairobi Baptist Church. After High School she and her friends formed a Christian accapella group called Thrown Together By Christ (TTBC). While at university at USIU she formed the singing and dance group Karisma. In 2003 Atemi joined Eric Wainaina’s band. She also played a major role in Eric Wainaina’s musical production Luanda.
Atemi’s debut release was “Happy” in 2004 which quickly become a favourite song for many. She has been described as Kenya’s Miriam Makeba as she lights up the stage with her music. Her debut album “Hatimaye: was launched in May 2008 and is a mix of Neo Soul and Afro Fusion. Atemi’s sophomore album “Manzili -State of Life” was launched in March 2013. She is currently working on her 3rd album scheduled to be released this year. Last year she released a song “Bebi Bebi” which was well received.
Atemi is currently the General Manager for Pine Creek Records and is also an independent events Manager. Atemi has been an events manager for different organizations in the past. Atemi has acted in “Mo Faya” which was staged off Broadway in New York and then in Nairobi. She has also hosted an Africa wide talk show, Africa Rising. Atemi is also the creator, producer and director of the Kenyan Christmas musical Festival “Tis the Season”.
Who said you can’t have your cake and eat it? Atemi proves that you can do many great things at the same time so be inspired to pursue your dreams.
So now the interview
When did you start singing?
I have been singing from the age of 8 or 9 with my family. I was involved with all musical activities in primary and high school, but began singing professionally in university.
Do you play any instruments?
I play basic piano.
Do you have a formal musical education?
I have no formal training other than piano classes, but my mother was a choir mistress and trained us at home.
Thinking back to early childhood what was your first experience with music? What song do you remember most as a child?
I don’t really have a first memory of music because it has been a part of my life for as long as I remember. My mom would teach us songs and harmony every evening. We would sing songs with my dad playing guitar almost everyday. But I remember the first solo song that my mom taught me was “My Hand Belong to You’ on the Bullfrogs & Butterflies children’s praise CD. I would sing that song everywhere any opportunity I got…in fact aunts and uncles would identify me by the name of the song.
How has your family supported your talent and your career as a musician?
My dad passed away before I settled in to music professionally, but he always felt that I should take it up. My siblings and mother have not lived in Kenya for a while until my sister moved here in 2014, so while they supported me from a far, they all got to hear me sing/perform after my first CD had come out. They are all really proud of me though. Also, any of my siblings could have taken up a musical career as they are both pretty good singers themselves.
What musical influences did you have a child?
Mostly gospel. My father was a Reverend and my mom taught choir in church. My dad also liked country music, but we were introduced to R&B and rap in school.
How is the music different from what you listen to now?
I still listen to a lot of gospel. In fact, I listen to gospel most of the time. I also like specific jazz musicians and old school R&B, and African classics. I keep tabs on current music and find something I really like every now and then.
What made you first realize that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
I don’t know if it was a conscious decision. It was something that I did all the time in every phase of my life. One day, I just stopped doing the other things I was doing and focused on music.
Who are your favourite musicians now? Groups?
Kirk Franklin, Anita Wilson, Kim Burrell, Lalah Hathaway, Beyonce, Flavor, Sauti Sol, Eric Wainaina, Tiwa Savage, VaShawn Mitchell, Boys 2 Men, Busta Rhymes…I’m still in love with Whitney Houston and old Mariah Carey music. My preferences are clearly eclectic and vast!
How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
I move on! You can’t get stuck on what you did wrong or what the band forgot on stage. Note it, address it later if you need to, but move on! Dwelling on a mistake can take all the joy out of the rest of the performance.
What advice would you give to beginners who are nervous?
Lol! I still get nervous sometimes and that’s ok…just don’t let it control you.
How often and for how long do you practice?
That depends. Sometimes I rehearse because I have shows coming up and I want to add new music to the set, sometimes I rehearse just to change things up in the set. But when the season is busy, we rehearse less because every show is a bit of a rehearsal. But I will rehearse a lot with the band during low season so we can stay ready.
How would you describe your music to somebody who has never heard you perform before?
That’s a hard one…people always say that it’s Jill Scott meets Miriam Makeba, but I think it has moved a little beyond that now.
What can people expect to see at your live performance?
I have been changing things around…I did a preview of what my new set looks like at Koroga last year…that is the direction I’m heading in.
What do you think your biggest break or greatest opportunity has been so far in your musical career?
Headlining at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2014. For those who don’t know what is it is, The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an international exposition of living cultural heritage annually produced outdoors on the National Mall of the United States in Washington, D.C., by the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
Every year the festival features one country and gives this country the opportunity to showcase their culture, cuisine, traditions music…basically everything they have to offer and are proud of. The African counties that have been featured since the festival begun in 1967 are Mail (2003), South Africa (1999), Senegal (1990) and a West African diaspora feature in 1976. Kenya is the first East African country to have taken part in this very prestigious festival and the opportunity will probably not come back to Kenya in my lifetime. It was a great honor to be among the few artiste invited to represent Kenya and the festival and the experience was overwhelming…100,000 people is probably the biggest audience I have ever had! But it was generally a wonderful experience!
How much creative control do you have over what you perform?
I would say 100%, but I take advise from the band and a small trusted group of advisors.
Do you write your own music?
Yes I do!
If you had a chance to change something in the music industry what would it be?
I would get rid of the hateration that is so prevalent in Kenya right now. We really are haters of so many things in the industry and lovers of so little.
Were you in another band/s before you started performing for yourself? How was it?
I played with Hotrod for a while. I also had my own band for a short time and performed for many years with Eric Wainaina.
What are the lessons you have learnt being part of a band?
Democracy in a band in overrated…
Also how is it being the main singer in the band?
It’s definitely heavier. The energy and direction of the show rest on you. You have to make decisions on stage…is this song too long? Should we extend the session? Should we skip the next song? How do we introduce new material? All while signing and not forgetting your lyrics.
What are the challenges of being a female musician?
You have to find the balance between ‘bitch’ and ‘pushover’. Men are considered ‘strong’ or ‘nice’, but women get the other more derogatory labels for the same behaviour. You really have to watch yourself with all professional interactions to be taken seriously.
What is your favourite type of music and is it different from what you play now?
I love God, so I love gospel! My music isn’t gospel, but it’s clean and uplifting…I’m sure it’s what I’m supposed to do!
What are your other interests outside of music? What do you do to relax outside of music?
I can sum this up in 1 word…TV! I’m a movie/series buff!
What keeps you going as a musician?
The assurance that I’m doing what I‘m supposed to be doing, and that even though I’m not where I’d like to be, I’m not where I used to be! Yup, stole that right out of church!
Also, when people write to me and tell me how my song changed their day or helped them through a hard time, it’s such an encouragement!
Where would you like to see yourself within the next five years as an artist? What are your long term career goals?
LOL! I don’t know if we have enough space for this…but I want the music industry in Kenya to be at the point where a Kenyan artiste can fill a stadium because those are the plans I’m working on for the future!
If you were to perform with anybody/group in the world, either dead, alive who would it be?
Miriam Makeba, Kirk Frankin and Flavor!
What are your up to date performance plans? New releases? Tours? News
I have a new single coming out this month, so watch out for that! I also hope to finish my 3rd album this year.