Steven Urban is a creative entrepreneur who has over the years not just delved into the art of music but also has an expansive knowledge in technology, fashion and humanitarian work. The avid tea and coffee lover is also a director and project manager at Nairobi’s Tea and Coffee Festival. He has been in TV production for almost nine years now and after the nine-year long journey now has a show on Ebru TV dubbed ‘Café Ngoma’. The show that runs from Monday to Thursday then Saturday is a blend of all genres of music; from R&B Mondays, soul on Tuesdays, acoustic rock on Wednesdays, Jazz on Thursdays and African tunes on Saturday morning. He strives to offer a different playlist each week, as opposed to several local stations that can play songs are over-played, he does say that he does repeat a few songs, but only on request from his viewers.
I caught up with Steven Urban for a Mics and Beats interview to find out more about the different things he does. His musical journey is one that has seen its fair share of ups and downs, including the story where he pitched the idea of ‘Café Ngoma’ to several radio and TV stations, all of which declined his request, until Ebru TV gave him the opportunity to run the show in the first quarter of the year. The show, which now airs for an hour every five times a week, is a fresh alternative where viewers can get to discover untapped talent and also get to reminisce on songs that once hit the charts, but don’t get played as often.
Tell us, who is Steven Urban?
My real name is Stephen Chege, but most people know me as Steven Urban. I am a music junkie with the primary focus of creating soulful, inspiring and conscious music. I’m also a Creative Entrepreneur who has a hand in Music, Technology, Fashion and Humanitarian Work where in all these I have established companies that execute projects towards the goal of living out my dreams & visions.
I have a community based organization called Beautiful Flower Organization which is a non-charitable non-profit making community based organization whose main purpose is to enhance the life of the woman by empowering her. There is a program called Reconstruction through education that helps refugees reignite and rediscover their dreams and giving them skills and knowledge that not just empowers them but helps them go back to their communities to empower them at the grassroots level as well. I was honored to also talk about what we do at Beautiful Flower at TEDx on humanitarian issues in connection with our organization.
I also run a tech firm ‘The Mind Experience’ that creates solutions using innovative approaches based on technology. We recently launched the ‘Ole Sereni app’, Kenya’s first hotel app which allows one to easily reserve accommodation, get offers, check out the hotel’s menus and pay for them using Mpesa, Visa etc.
When and why did you start playing/singing? Which instruments do you play?
I started singing in the year 1998, inspired by my two elder sisters who would sing in church at the time. One Sunday I decided to join them on the pulpit and they loved it to my disbelief. I kept going from that point.
I have substantial knowledge in playing the guitar but I consider my voice as my principle instrument.
Do you have a formal musical education?
Yes. I graduated with a Higher National Diploma in Business & Technology in Music from Brookhouse School (Academy of Performing Arts) in the year 2012. I also studied the guitar at The Kenya Conservatoire of Music between the years 2009 & 2012, went through Voice Training for a couple of weeks in the year 2006, and also landed a Berklee College of music Scholarship to study Music Business in Boston, Massachusetts in 2014.
Thinking back to early childhood what was your first experience with music for the first time like. What song do you remember most as a child?
My first experience was actually vinyl records that my parents would collect and blast through the vinyl player. Interestingly, my aunties also shared similar collections and so when we went visiting, the music experience was the same.
The song I remember most is ‘Higher’ a soul classic by Jackie Wilson. I remember it would make me go mad and I would ask my mum to play it over & over again as I jumped up & down the bed- trying to demonstrate ‘Higher’! (laughs)
What musical influences did you have a child?
The influence was quite vast & diverse I must say. In my earlier years they ranged from; Michael Jackson, George Michael (lots of Soul & Country music) artists like; Bonney M, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Don Williams, Charlie Pride, Donny Parton, Skitter Davis, then loads of R&B from the year 1995- Backstreet, R Kelly, Lost boys, Tupac, Shola Ama, SWV, Fugees, Puff Daddy, Notorious BIG, Tevin Campbell, All 4 One, 3T & from the year 2000- Jagged Edge, Prophet Jones, Ginuwine, Donnel Jones, Tank, Jaheim, Aaliyah, Missy Elliot, Faith Evans, Kelly Price and so many others.
How is the music different from what you listen to now?
Nothing much has really changed since my main genres are still R&B & Soul, but I also took on Neo- Soul, Jazz, African Music, Folk, Acoustic rock & Hip Hop along the way…
What made you first realize that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
This was actually in the year 2005 during a high school talent day performance at Aga Khan High School. Right after the performance I felt so fulfilled that while sitting on the stage, I told God that I want to spend the rest of my life on stage.
Who are your favourite musicians now?
Considering the fact that I listen to loads of music, they range from; Babyface (who’s my main guy/ mentor), Tori Kelly, Usher, Cobhams Asuquo, Asa, Bez, Timi Dakolo, Zamajobe, Tribute ‘Birdie’ Mboweni, Tetu Shani, Atlantic Starr, Anita baker, Lira, Ms Karun, B Slade, Mayonde, Lala Hathaway, Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Maxwell, & Waje.
How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
I use the mistake to create a performance within the performance for example by engaging the crowd and making them part of the mistake so that it looks like it’s part of the script. The audience never knows how the flow of your performance has been rehearsed and so you’re the only one who can highlight a mistake.
What advice would you give to beginners who are nervous?
The more they should be out there! Before they know it, they’ll be so comfortable on stage that they’ll be able to express themselves best from a place of being themselves.
How often and for how long do you practice?
I’ve been practicing for at least an hour every morning for 5-6 days a week for the last 10 years.
How would you describe your music to somebody who has never heard you play before?
It’s a fusion of R&B, Soul & jazz- Urban Music that carries social messages based on day to day aspects of life.
What can people expect to see at your live performance?
A lot of smooth sultry soul, passion and emotion, beautiful arrangements & ensembles & ultimately an experience that they can connect with.
Out of the songs you have performed which is your favourite song?
This is a song called ‘You are a giant’ that I wrote for a musical production for the Kenya Conservatoire of Music sometime back. The song became the highlight of the production due to the emotion and message it carried. It caused quite an impact and I also got to perform it on request in other concerts including one where I was backed by a 43 piece Orchestra. The sound of the orchestra playing my song was priceless.
What do you think your biggest break or greatest opportunity has been so far in your musical career?
It was meeting a globally renowned producer and having a session with him where he loved both my music & sound. I look forward to working with him and telling you who he is in due course.
How much creative control do you have over what you play?
I have 100% creative control though I’m constantly battling my mind when writing songs because I sometimes compare myself to what I think people will like to hear. I strive to put together music that’s purely authentic & then I go out there to play it regardless of the outcome and it’s quite the scary experience.
If you had a chance to change something in the music industry what would it be?
Well, this industry has no structures. There are so many talented individuals who should be so advanced in their careers but they don’t have people to package them, produce their music, pitch them forward etc. Also, the kind of air-play given to music only focuses on the so called ‘mainstream music’. Emerging, alternative musicians are ignored and never considered. At least I’m happy to be doing something to turn that around on a 360 through my Music TV show ‘Cafe Ngoma’ on Ebru TV.
Did you sing or play for other bands before you started your own band? How was it?
In my younger years, I was part of a couple of groups from; acapella ensembles, Church youth choirs & school bands where I had a great time and developed my craft. But when I launched out professionally to develop my career, all the bands I tried to join interestingly never gave me a chance. I even tried securing a slot in regular resident hotel units with no success.
What are the lessons you have learnt being part of a band?
- You are all one unit who should strive to strengthen one another not shine as an individual.
- Your general outlook is pegged on each and every individual’s input.
- There should be one vision to be followed by all otherwise growth will be slow & the band will eventually disintegrate.
- Selflessness & patience are key to the success and long-life of any band.
Have you faced any challenges in being the front man of the band as opposed to playing in the background?
It’s scary because it’s all on you! You become the one on the spotlight guiding everyone else. The responsibility is immense since you are the face of the band in all aspects (sound, direction, appearance, confidence, engaging the crowd etc.) but with a supportive band and one where the lead singer has chemistry with, being the front man can be the best experience like a surfer riding on waves and looking great through every tide.
What is your favourite type of music and is it different from what you play now?
Its R&B, Soul & Jazz and its very similar to what I play.
What are your other interests outside of music? What do you do to relax outside of music?
Business. As mentioned earlier, I’m a creative entrepreneur and conceptualizing & developing ideas gives me a rush! I love being in the deep-end establishing dreams & visions. It’s too exciting!
What keeps you going as a musician?
Purpose. Knowing that God is behind it all and that at the end of the day, it’s not just entertainment but fulfilling my assignment on earth through his guidance.
Where would you like to see yourself within the next five years as an artist? What are your long term career goals?
I would like to have established myself as a reputable & respected brand in song writing, composition, arrangement, performance, film scoring, executive production & music business.
On long term goals, I have a feeling that I will have a hand in managing a strong record label‘s department & also pioneer music as a lifestyle globally.
If you were to perform with anybody/group in the world, either dead, alive who would it be?
That would definitely be Babyface, Stevie wonder, Tori Kelly, Boys 2 Men & Ne-yo to name a few.
What are your up to date performance plans? New releases? Tours? News
I’m currently planning-out my debut album recording as my team and I also strategize on the way forward.
If you would like to interact with Steve Urban you can find him on twitter at @Steven_Urban.