“All my inspiration comes from the fact that I am able to wake up every morning. The gift of going to sleep at night and rising in the morning is all I need to help me write of the goodness of life. Life itself is my inspiration and in every new breath lies a new story.” – Kwame Rīgīi
Kwame is a talented creative artist who uses song to tell captivating stories of love, spirituality and tradition. His describes his style of music as “Urban Folk”, which is a form of music that combines modern and traditional styles. His lyrics are compelling as they are inspiring. He continues to bring back the beauty of the Gīkūyū language while inspiring an entire generation to find their identity and embrace it.
We sat with Kwame and spoke about his childhood, losing his father, education, his exit from the church and rediscovering his purpose.
Tell us about yourself
My name is Kwame Rīgīi. I am gīkūyū man, a husband, a father and a singer. I consider myself a creative artist. I write songs and plays which I incorporate into music to become musicals, poetry. i also offer teachings and counsel on the issues of the Gikūyū culture and traditions.
Have you always been creative or was it something you picked up as you got older?
Being creative is a gift that one is born with, so I have always been creative since I was little. Being a very upbeat kind of person, I have always felt a certain joy in being able to create and work with my hands, combining that with my love for singing I discovered very early in life that I liked to explore things and be adventurous.
What memories do you have from your childhood days?
I had a wonderful childhood, we moved a lot and lived in different places, but my story started at a hospital called “Kwa Mūmbi” in Kawangware which was where I was born though we lived in Dandora at the time. We lived there till I was six then moved to a more village-like setting in a place called Sagana. It was there in Sagana that my name was changed to Kwame. Though I was seven years old at the time, I started taking interest in the gūkūyū language and wanting to learn more about the culture.
Did the village environment play a role in influencing these interests?
Not so much the environment, most of my curiosity for wanting to understand culture and tradition came from my father. He was a fine art artist and a sculptor as well. His art pieces resonated a lot with the theme of how the gìkūyū people struggled in the early days of MAUMAU. Though he didn’t actually explain his artwork, we could see and interpret its deeper meaning and the underlying message in all he created was to emphasize the relevance and beauty of the culture. As I grew up in Sagana I also learnt to speak the language as it was being spoken by those who surrounded me.
Looking back, how significant was it for you to grow up in a family that understood and encouraged creativity?
My parents hold a lot of significance in the man I have become today and, in my craft, as well. From my father being the artist, he was to my mother being the wife and teaching us the ways of our tradition. I draw from my father’s artistry and express it through my mother tongue. Each aspect is just as important to me because I feel that together, the things I learnt from my father and mother compliment the kind of art that I do today.
With your family moving frequently, how did you balance your education?
It was tough because as I said, we moved around a lot from Sagano we went to Ukambani, then Kiambu, from Kiambu we moved again so it was hard to find a good balance. I went to high school in Thogoto, I struggled with Chemistry, I didn’t like it at all. I preferred literature and history mainly because I liked to write and read about the things that happened in the past. I ended up doing my KCSE as a private candidate because all the moving had led to me falling behind, my father had also passed on around the same time. It was a difficult time, but I still managed to finish despite everything.
From there I went to college where I did a course in Community development. Afterwards, I enrolled in the Martin Luther King Institute for International Peace where I did a course in Corporate Communication Development and Non-Violent Communication.
Had you started singing at this point?
I had been singing through it all, through school, my father’s passing…I have always been involved in music in one way or another. I sang mostly in church, but I was still going to the studio to record music from time to time.
You mention your father’s passing a lot even in your music, how significant was his loss to you?
The loss of my father was mostly eye-opening because it was only after he was gone that I noticed that life as we knew it was just an illusion. The energy around us changed significantly because the larger family went into conflict because of land and issues of inheritance.
While still alive my father protected us from so many things, and it was only when he left that we were able to see things as they really were and people for whom they truly were. We were not in good terms with the extended family at the time, it was a trying moment and as an artist, I like to use my experiences in music to enlighten my listeners so that they can know that there is a better way to handle such situations. I also understood that losing people close to you is the nature of life and therefore life shouldn’t cease to go on just because they are gone.
Going back to music, were you drawn towards a particular type of music earlier on?
As I said, I was mostly singing in the church so at the time I took interest in spiritual songs, most of them were from the black American community. Though I enjoyed that kind of music, I felt that something was missing, they didn’t resonate with me on the level that they were supposed to. I still sang in church and performed love songs at weddings which was how I earned a living then. I had always felt that the songs that were in my mother tongue of gīkūyū were closer to me than those in English, in fact, I once performed a traditional song in the PCEA church choir competitions and my name is still recognized in their records till today. At this point, my relationship with the church was quite strong and I wasn’t too concerned with the issues of tradition. Looking back, that was a very important time in my life because everything I learnt influenced the decisions I have made later on.
Being so well-read and having such a good education, did you ever think about formal employment?
I was employed for two years at the Martin Luther King Foundation between 2006 – 2008. I had a 9 – 5 job where I put on a suit, boarded a matatu, went to work and came back home in the evening. After the two years, I was tired of working there because I didn’t feel any sense of fulfilment. I am generally a happy person and I didn’t find any joy from my time in formal employment, so I quit. Much later on I was employed briefly as a driver and my job was to drive executives from a particular company to the airport but that job only lasted two days. I saw it best to quit after my employer disrespectfully spoke to me. Personally, employment has never quite worked out for me and neither is it something that I long for.
Take us back to the first song you recorded, what it called and what was it about?
I recorded my first song in 2003. Because I had always sung in the church, it was a gospel song called “Jesus”. It was an English song and I sang about how Jesus was beaten up as he was taken to be crucified. The song was more of telling the story of Jesus and the suffering he underwent for the sake of us.
Did you intend on commercializing the music or were you recording just to perform the songs in church and at weddings?
All the songs I have ever sung from the first time I recorded have hit the airwaves at some point. I had every intention of selling my music and earning a living out of it. My story is very similar to other upcoming artists, I would look for presenters, deejays, producers and hand them my music. It all paid off since I got called to perform in various places and got invited for interviews even though the music was just a side hustle at the time. My main hustle those days was acting, I was a member of an acting group in church, we wrote our own scripts, directed and recorded our drama performances onto discs which we would later sell. That is how I mainly survived.
Having had such a concrete foundation in the church and singing gospel music, how was it that your music came to change so significantly?
I wouldn’t say my music has really changed, it’s mostly my source of inspiration that is different now, the way I write my music has always been the same now as it was back in 2003. I would say that the defining moment of my career was evident when I sang the songs Haraya and Mapenzi. These two songs redefined my craft as an artist. The song “Mapenzi” is basically a love song to ordinary people in life like parents, friends, lovers but also acknowledges the love for God. Writing the song in a way that embodied love as being meant for everyone recalibrated my thoughts and beliefs of what true salvation was. It was after that song that I was no longer afraid of singing about love. In our society, the topic of love can be delicate to express especially when you have ties to the church. So, the release of those songs signified the beginning of my spiritual journey and quest for more knowledge about my identity and how I wanted to relate to God. Overall, I wanted to know more about myself and the things that made me truly happy.
Had you felt unhappy when you were still singing gospel music?
Back then I felt like it was mostly just pretence. I had to conform to what I felt would make the listeners happy so I would keep up with the pace. Music at the time was written a certain way so that it could be played on the radio. Even then, while still in church and singing gospel, there seemed to be a disconnect between my interpretation of life, salvation and the gospel industry’s interpretation. Deejays and producers weren’t too receptive of the kind of content that I brought to the table.
However, I can’t say that it was all bad because through my experiences from that time in my life I was able to take important strides since I was exposed to different things and people that helped me grow.
How different would you say the Kwame of today is from the Kwame of before?
The real change is in how I can now take charge of my life and make the decisions that I feel are the best for me. In the past, I would compromise my values for one reason or another but now I am very clear about who I am and the direction I want to take. I found my God in my culture; this is where I have known the true beauty of life through learning from experiences. The knowledge of God that I have gotten from my culture has brought me such joy and shown me how to live in harmony with the people around me. Before I sang Mwene Nyaga, the perks of that life were simply just knowing and hanging out with well-known people. The struggles, however, have always been there, the frustrations of being an artist in our country have never changed.
Was “Mwene Nyaga” a statement of the new artist you had become?
The song Gīkūyū actually came two years prior to “Mwene Nyaga”. In those two years, I went through a difficult period that pushed me very close to my breaking point. I had to take some time off to rediscover myself. The feeling at the time was like that of a newborn baby who has no friends and has to learn all that he knew all over again.
The hardest thing was that all this was happening when I was thirty years old and this is the age where a young man is supposed to be living a structured life with a family, a good job, close friends. For me to then challenge the norm and want to pave my own path was something that most people couldn’t understand. In their minds, we are born, baptized and marry because that is what we know to be the norm. Though we go through all these stages, we rarely ask ourselves why things happen the way they do and for what purpose….we just go with the flow. I didn’t want to do things just for the sake of it, I wanted to question everything, and it made people uncomfortable because we are not raised as a generation that asks questions.
After resolving to live this new life I went through many challenges because I had to make new friends that understood the changes I was implementing in my life. I had to cut ties with people who I used to know before because I felt like we no longer had anything in common.
Having gone through that whole experience, what issue would you say affects our society most, one that we must find a solution to?
It is clear and obvious that the real issue we need to solve as a society is restoring the role of the man. All men need to understand their individual responsibilities and what is expected of them. A man should not claim to be a man just because of the physical attributes that define his gender, a man earns his manhood by being true to what God created him to be. Men are meant to be courageous beings and we should feel that courage in everything they do, whether it is in business, employment or in singing as I do. A good example is from the film “The Lion King” where the cub is groomed to be a king right from birth, he doesn’t have to grow into being a king because he was always meant to be a king. Same way with men, we need to play the role that was meant for us and groom our children to become responsible and complete men. This is important because the future of their own families depend on how well they can take up the role of the head of the family. Boys learn to be men by observing their fathers and male influences in their lives, if they are not taught well, they will continue being boys and will get into marriages totally oblivious of their position. Change is effected gradually when a father passes his teachings to the son and the son does the same…over time, an entire generation will have benefited.
How are you helping young men come to this realization?
I want young men to be very proud of themselves, who they are and their individuality. They should not be taught or told who their God is because the God they seek is already in them. You can’t be taught about something that already exists inside you. Young men should aspire to be self-sufficient in all they do because they possess God given tools that are meant to help them prosper in anything, they set out to do. Their source of happiness, strength, encouragement should always come from within, anything more is meant to only reinforce what they already have.
How have your fans responded to the kind of music you now put out?
I get the greatest joy from the people who talk about the impact of my music in their lives. When my listeners say that my music makes them have a different perspective about life, it brings such fulfilment to what I do. The fact that people are starting to freely express themselves in their language and are proclaiming their heritage is a very important thing for me. It’s humbling to know that I have played an active role in facilitating the emancipation of my listeners from the various constraints in their lives. You don’t even have to be a traditionalist; all you need is to rediscover your identity and own it with pride because it isn’t something that you should be ashamed about.
Where do you find your inspiration when writing music?
All my inspiration comes from the fact that I am able to wake up every morning. The gift of going to sleep at night and rising in the morning is all I need to help me write of the goodness of life. Life itself is my inspiration and in every new breath lies a new story.
Take us through your song “Macegera”, what were you thinking when you wrote that song, was it directed to a particular person?
I am very fascinated by the beauty of the African woman and the song Macegera is my journey to understand who a woman is and how to appreciate all her gifts and grace. This goes for all women, whether it is a mother, a sister, a lover, the song essentially, is a collection of words that I use to describe my wife. When I say that her beauty is like the rising sun, the rainbow and the waterfalls, we don’t understand where waterfalls came from, but we just know it’s something that is and will always be beautiful, a beauty that is never-ending. “Macegera” means to be put in cuffs and when someone is cuffed, they receive a sentence of some kind. The sentence of love is for life and it all starts with the cuffs being put on. These are powerful gìkūyū words which are unique in the way they sound, and I use them in my music because they adorn the language attract people to it.
We don’t see you doing a lot of collaborations, why is that?
I will start by asking you a question, is it possible to fit a wheel with four bolts to a car that has five bolts? No, you can’t. I have done a couple of collaborations, but the question is, for what purpose are we collaborating or are we working together just for the sake of it? I don’t turn down collaborations because I don’t want them, but I prefer to align myself with individuals whom I have something in common with in terms of the message we want to share with the world. All my projects must be purposeful and geared towards upholding my truth.
Finally, what can we look forward to in terms of music and concerts as we head into the festive season?
We will be having the “Mwene Nyaga Njamba Cia Ita” Ep series which will include songs like “Gīkūyū”, “Mwene Nyaga”, “Ūrathi” a new song called “Ciana cia Kīrathimo”. This is basically all the songs that have defined my journey of rediscovery and spirituality as a gīkūyū man. Every Saturday and Sunday of December, the “Tūrī a Mūmbi” grounds will be open for everyone for an entrance fee of ksh200. Guests will enjoy the restaurant, get an opportunity to buy various merchandise that will be available in the arts and crafts exhibition. I will display my personal art pieces that I have done in the past, there will be book vendors that will be showcasing their books. It will be a good place to learn, explore and everyone is welcome to attend.