Man Around Nairobi: Julius Owino Aka Juliani


You may know him for his wild energy on stage and how he shakes those dreadlocks as he performs on stage. One of our favourite artists Juliani is our Man Around Nairobi today. Juliani, who goes by the government names Julius Owino, is a rapper, songwriter and social activist. He is the Country Director of Turning Tables Organization an organization that empowers marginalized youth.  He is also the Team Leader of Dandora Hiphop City (DHC) which is an organization with a resource centre in Dandora Phase IV (where he grew up) with the intention of creating an alternative way of life and source of livelihood for the youth in Dandora using art. The centre offer space for practice for upcoming hip-hop artists and space to engage in other forms of art that will add value to the community. The office comes in to get opportunities of growth for the artists and a market for whatever products that the community makes while at the space. Find out more about his musical journey in this interview Mics and Beats: Juliani.

  1. Did you grow up in Nairobi?

Yes I did. I grew up in Dandora. We had different experiences and interactions, and there were class issues, some could afford bikes and others couldn’t, the same with meals, some survived on a meal a day and for others it was not an issue at all.

We played different games like tapo, marbles and roundas and we did duff mpararo – at that time Nairobi River wasn’t dirty the way it is now. For the guys we were always fighting, that is how you proved your manhood in Dandora. There was always a first body. You had to prove how tough you were. There were two ways of doing this, you either had to be a guy who fought well, or you had to have the perception of being a tough guy meaning your elder brother or a protector was tough so you could not be touched. I was a skinny guy so I would not win fights, but I fought anyway. There is one fight I remember, with a guy I fought with in high school. He was called Maniolo, he was bowlegged but he could fight. He was black with brown hair, and we exchanged punches. But now we are good friends. Fighting was a rite of passage for us. It also meant that you would get the girls, we had girlfriends from a pretty young age.

There was a lot going on in the Dandora, there was the dumpsite, gangsters who worked elsewhere who lived in Dandora and we saw the Saba Saba riots happening. But there were also positive things in Dandora, like Ukoo Flani Mau Mau who brought out a different ideology for the youth. We would hang out, and rap. Look at how far they went, telling our stories.

I spent a lot of time at my mother’s kiosk selling mandazis so I did not get into a lot of trouble. My mother had a kiosk in the plot where she would sell githeri, samosas etc. From the time we were young we would also wash our clothes, the house and dishes. We would be given chores according to how old we were, and I loved washing the dishes. What made it fun we would sing together as we worked. I still love washing dishes.

I was shy, so I used to stay alone a lot. I would sit and see things not seen, I would dream about things that are now coming to pass. People would say that my dreams were too big, but it is important to dream, to see things because if you believe in them and work towards them it will come to pass.  I wouldn’t change anything I have gone through, it made me who I am.

2. What do you love about Nairobi?

I love the colourful personalities, the variety of people that exist, Nairobi is truly a melting pot, and there are the chai and the mandazis who spice up the city. I love that I can meet different people from all over the country and the world, and that we can share stories and conversations. That if I go to another town or abroad because of what we have talked about, I understand the place a little bit. New York, Congo, India, they feel at home because of the people I have met in Nairobi. I appreciate the people in Nairobi.

The possibilities of the people and what they can make Nairobi to become. Nairobi is not the skyscrapers or buildings, Nairobi is the people.  Nairobi is the best of each county of Kenya. People come in and bring something from their counties to Nairobi, and they take back knowledge and experience from here to their countries. The one thing I am sad about is that we are taught not to connect, because of our tribes or economic status. If we were to put aside our differences, fears and perceptions and listen, dig deep into other cultures and get to know people and work together we could go very far.

Nairobi is the source of everything. Anything that you dream of possible here. If you can do anything here it is possible to do it everywhere else. Look at me, and how far I have come, Nairobi allows you to create your own opportunities.

In terms of music, I love the possibilities that exist. What can you do with beans? You can mix it with maize, potatoes etc. to make something different. Same thing with Nairobi, what can you do to make it exciting, not just mboga na ugali every day, to make it different, to make it have nyama. We have the opportunity to take what we have and create something new, something people will love.

3. What would you change about Nairobi?

I would remove the yellow lines on matatus. One colour does not make a rainbow. I know that we need to streamline the industry and we will get there, but we don’t have to mess with what makes our matatus unique to do that. The matatus are about identity, and they are pretty cool, there is chaos in there but chaos is not necessary a bad thing.

We think we are special but don’t think we are special. We think that as individuals we are special because we are unique individuals but we don’t think we are special enough to do something great. We always want to move from where we are to the next best thing but we are not working to make sure that the place where we are at is the best thing so that we don’t have to move. People will move from the village, end up in a slum, then move to a bigger and bigger place hoping to one day end up in Runda.  We don’t want to go back to where we came from and make it a better place, we need to love what we have and make it better. I always go back to Dandora, I am always trying to make it a better place for the youth. We need to change our perception of who we are and where we are, think positive and change the environment around us for the better.  Where we are does not determine who we are and what we can become – we should not let the place where we grew up determine who we become.

We need to know we are special and we exist for a certain purpose, to make a difference, to bloom into something. Find your purpose and make Nairobi great. I always thought I was special but I didn’t fit, I didn’t stand out. I was not a first body, I didn’t have a bike and I was not the brightest kid. But I saw things other people didn’t see, I was searching for something, and when I found music I found a way to make my difference, to live my purpose.

I would change our history. We have so much hate for others who are different from us. But it sometimes is not the people’s fault, we are what we are given, and if that is what we are taught that is who we become. We are taught to hate other tribes or fear them. I am trying to change that. In Dandora I am creating communities of youth who are not afraid to be with each other, who are growing together to change the community. We do this through working together to create music, films and art. A community of creatives that is creating conversations about what it means to respect others as human beings and what we can do if we join together. The communities are a safe outlet to talk about aspirations, fears etc. and express them in art, music and film.

4. As a professional how is it working in Nairobi?  Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?

Nairobi is a great place to start as I said before because you can create opportunities for yourself. I started out doing music after high school with Ukoo Flani Mau Mau and ten years later I am on my fourth album. I am not rich yet but I started out with no money at all so I am not complaining.

Nairobi is working for me, I love looking for solutions for young people to enable them to create employment for themselves. People may look at the dumpsite for example and say it needs to go, but it is creating employment for many people. Can we look for other solutions, get them jobs elsewhere because if the dumpsite is closed they have nowhere to go, and some may turn to crime or drugs. That is why we need to stop running away from issues and deal with them so that they don’t escalate. That is what I am doing with the communities we have created in Dandora, given the youth an alternative to what they see every day. The projects we are doing give the youth a chance to make their own money and also have a safe space to grow and learn.

In terms of opportunities in Nairobi I say create your own opportunities. Stop waiting for somebody to create jobs or give you ideas. In Nairobi you can do anything if you put your mind to it. If there are no structures for what you want to do create structures. Create your own space – which is what we are doing in Dandora. In Nairobi there is no packed lunch – you will not get anything handed to you. You have to create what you need, you have to go through the process to get to where you need to go. It is only in Nairobi that a chokora can become a radio presenter then become a TV star. Or where an athlete can learn the javelin on YouTube and become a gold medalist. The great thing is now there is social media and it has opened up so many opportunities for people that were not there before.

Getting to where I am has been a long process. I started out in the Ukoo Flani camp, recorded my first album but I wasn’t ready for the market. I had to get to know what people like and learn to perfect my skills. Kanji Mbugua had to teach me to perform with a live band instead of playback. I have worked on myself to build something nobody else has, I have come from grass to grace. I was the first artist to perform hip-hop with a live band. Now people appreciate it. They say nimeiva. My advice to upcoming artists don’t be in a hurry to record your first album, go through the process of refining yourself and have all the ingredients to make a good album, then when you cook up something it will be a good meal. Take advantage of the opportunities to learn and grow and the spaces that are available to help you with that.

The challenge that musicians face is getting somebody to invest in their music. This has made it hard for them to survive. You can’t take your music to the bank and use it as collateral to get a loan. That is something we are working on with HipHop City and MyMsaani.  We are building talents and working to get artists into the marketplace by showing them how to monetize. MyMsaani is teaching artists about finances, brand development, etc.

5. If you had a tourist friend coming in from outside the country what three things would you say or show them to sell them the idea that Nairobi is worth visiting?

I would take them to Dandora. Because of its history and also because it is not where it is supposed to be. So that they can see how it will be the next time they visit. We need to sort out insecurity and with HipHop City we are creating opportunities and Dandora will change.

Kosewe. I love the coconut fish, it is amazing and if it is not there I leave. It’s a great way to try some good food.

I would drive them all over the city at night. That’s one thing I love to do, Nairobi is beautiful by night, and I think they would appreciate it.

Although this is not in Nairobi, I would also take them to Rongai, to Corner Baridi.

If you would like to interact with Juliani check him out on twitter at @julianiKenya and Facebook. His album is coming out on the 22nd of March so watch out for that.

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