We Want To Inspire Kids – Interview With Ghetto Classics’ Elizabeth Njoroge


Have you heard about the Ghetto Classics Program? The Ghetto Classics is a program that equips underprivileged youth with music skills and it has been supported by proceeds from the Safaricom International Jazz Festival since 2014. The beneficiaries of this programme are currently pre-teens and teens from Korogocho slums. Here, they have been equipped with skills in classical and jazz performance. The Ghetto Classics program was started by Ms. Elizabeth Njoroge and Fr John Webootsa.

I caught up with Elizabeth Njoroge to find out more about the program and the milestones Ghetto Classics has made so far.

Ghetto Classics’ Elizabeth Njoroge, violinist Derrick Onyango and Belgium Ambassador Roxanne de Bilderling. Image from http://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2016/05/13/video-safaricom-hands-sh71-million-to-ghetto-classics_c1350484
  1. Tell us something about yourself?

I am a forty something mother of one. I was a musical child and music has always been part of my life. I was music prefect in high school. I would have loved to be a musician, but my young life took a different path and I ended up a pharmacist working in the UK. Even then I was a musician in the way I could. I was a member of an opera chorus, and sang in a number of semi-professional choirs. It was when I came back home, that music slowly started to take a lead role in my life and now I would say, I am a full time musician. I am proud to say that I love to develop young musicians in whatever way I can.

Ghetto Classics Kids rehearsing for a performance

      1. What is the Ghetto Classics all about?

Ghetto Classics is about changing lives with music. I know what music means to me and I started off by teaching music to the kids in Korogocho because I felt that they too deserved to experience what I had. It was also a gift from the gods and I felt I wanted to share it. Through music the kids learn vital life skills that they might not otherwise learn – discipline, focus and working hard at something. Ghetto Classics also gives them family and a place to get away from the daily struggles they have to endure. By being members of Ghetto Classics, the kids get to go to places and meet people they may never have otherwise got to. This inspires them to achieve more.

US Ambassador to Kenya, Bob Godec has fun with the kids in Korogocho.

By broadening their horizons, their dreams grow. Our kids do better in school than their peers. Ghetto Classics doesn’t primarily focus on making good musicians. It wants to make the kids the best they can. It may sound idealistic, but I want my kids to have a better chance at being who they were meant to be. I believe music will get them there.

      1. What inspired you to start the Ghetto Classics program?

I didn’t know what I was getting myself in to when Fr John Webootsa, the catholic father who worked at St John’s Catholic Church at the time asked me to start teaching some of his kids music. I always say I was young and foolish and believed I could do anything. I know if I knew what I know now, I might never have done it. Now, I’m proud of what we have achieved. It isn’t easy and a lot of the times we are making it up as we go along, but it’s been worth it.

      1. What is the long term vision of the Ghetto Classics?

In an ideal world, I would love to have Ghetto Classics around the country and beyond. That every child who wants to play music, sing, dance, can. That economics doesn’t stand in the way. It really is transformative. I have seen the confidence and courage of some of my students who are ex street boys, gangsters or those who had given up hope. They work so hard to succeed when they find a home in Ghetto Classics.

Don’t get me wrong. We don’t always get it right but we keep trying

      1. What milestones has the Ghetto Classics achieved so far?

I’d say the achievements that I am proud of are the fact that the community that was once so skeptical is so proud of Ghetto Classics. They are proud of their children and the opportunities Ghetto Classics gives them. I’m proud that most of our members are in school and doing well, I am proud that we have grown from 14 kids to 650 and we are set to reach more kids. I’m proud that Ghetto Classics is slowly producing some of the top young musicians around. I’m proud of my kids.

      1. What challenges have you faced?

Our biggest by far was resources. Money, instruments, and staff. That has changed dramatically with the partnership with Safaricom. When they came in, we were able to stabilize our operations, ensuring that each Sunday we had a lesson. That changed everything.

The children’s lives are so hard! The challenges they face are unbelievable and we have to find a way to help them find the strength to make it through. That’s hard.

Security challenges can also get to us. We can’t keep our instruments in Korogocho and our biggest costs are ferrying our instruments in and out for rehearsals.

I could go on and on. The challenges are many. I always say that if the kids can make it through living in Korogocho, we will find a way to overcome our challenges and keep the programme going.

      1. Your partnership with Safaricom Jazz has taken the Ghetto Classics to another level. Tell us about that.

There are the financial benefits of our partnership. We have more instruments, we can pay our teachers, and we can start teaching in new areas.

Beyond that though are the non-tangible ones. By playing in the places the kids do, by meeting the people they do, by being treated so special, the kids believe in themselves and that counts for so much. This is a community that is marginalized and made to believe that they are 3rd class citizens. Having Bob Collymore as their friend, means more to them than you can imagine. Find out more about why Safaricom is supporting Ghetto Classics in this interview with Bob Collymore.

Safaricom CEO, Bob Collymore at a past event giving Brian Mutwiri a lesson on how to play the Saxophone. Brian is a student at Claire’s Community Center and is a member of Ghetto Classics.
      1. How is Ghetto Classics using music to grow Kenyan talent?

Not all our kids will be great musicians. In fact most of them won’t be. But they will be great people. When we do find a talented child, we do what we can to get them the best training that we can. We have 18 members of Ghetto Classics in the Safaricom Youth Orchestra and 3 studying music at University. We are also growing partnerships with international organizations that can help us develop our teaching to produce even better musicians.

We hope our programme also inspires other kids out there from whatever background to work on their musicianship. We want to inspire others.

Teddy from Ghetto Classics. Image from https://twitter.com/GhettoClassicsK/media
      1. How will the Safaricom International Jazz festival/Ghetto Classics impact the music scene in the long term? (legacy)

Isn’t it just amazing to see those first class musicians live in Nairobi?? I believe that Safaricom International Jazz Festival is one of the best things to happen in a long time. It will raise the standard of live music. I hope our local musicians are humble enough to watch and learn so that they too can make it on to the international scene. We are too happy with mediocrity. It’s time we upped our game. We can do it!

      1. What advice would you give young musicians who are just starting out?

Nothing comes easy. You have to work hard. Hours and hours of practice are important no matter who you are. You will also never know everything. As a musician, or any artist for that matter, you must be constantly improving yourself, wanting to know more.

      1. What are the future plans for Ghetto Classics?

We need to continually grow our infrastructure, improve our teaching, create more opportunities for our members. I want us to reach as many young musicians as we possibly can and give them the best musical/life experience we can while we teach them music. A bit ambitious I know.

Kunle Ayo in Korogocho jamming with the kids
      1. Musicians who come to perform at the Safaricom Jazz also come to Korogocho. What has been the impact of this?

We have a fabulous time together. The musicians inspire the kids and we have made some amazing friendships through those visits. A number have come back to teach, we have skype lessons with some, and others continue to support us financially and with musical accessories. You can also see what visiting Korogocho does for the musicians. The benefits are felt both ways.

Kirk Whalum with the Ghetto Classics Kids. Image from https://twitter.com/GhettoClassicsK/media
      1. Looking back is there anything you would have done differently?

So much! But since I can’t change the past, I hope I make less mistakes going forward.

If you would like to find out more about Ghetto Classics check out their website Art of Music. You can also follow them on twitter @GhettoClassicsK.

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Managing editor and blogger at Potentash. Passionate about telling African stories. Find me at [email protected]