Initially, the big news from this part of the world was the nomination of Nigerian artist Burna Boy for the award of “Best World Music” for his hugely acclaimed album “African Giant”. It is the first-ever Grammy nomination for the singer. As Kenyans however, we have overlooked the achievements of one artist that is more closer to us than Burna Boy will ever be, our very own J.S. Ondara.
Does the name ring any bells? To most Kenyans, probably not. J.S. Ondara is a 27yr old Kenyan singer-songwriter currently residing in Minnesota USA who has been nominated in the Best Americana Album category for his Tales of America album which was released in February 2019. He has made history as the first Kenyan to have an album nomination at the Grammys.
Born in Nairobi, Ondara developed an early interest in American rock music with Radiohead, Nirvana and Bob Dylan being amongst his favourite acts. Ondara has written music and poems since he was young. He felt like the weird kid growing up because he was obsessed with rock music, a genre that is not very popular in Kenya. Once he decide to do music, he knew that he had to go to a place where listening to rock wouldn’t be seen as weird.
At 20 years, Ondara won a green card and relocated to the US where he taught himself to play the guitar. He lived with his aunt at the time. The singer struggled to adjust to life in the states. The cold winters didn’t necessarily inspire him and also, he didn’t know anyone who he could form a band with or share artistic ideas with. Ondara resulted to packaging himself as a solo acoustic artist. He describes his music as “Old troubadour style”.
Early this year, Ondara released his debut album Tales of America which talks about the experiences of an immigrant in the states. Most of the tracks on the album are done in falsetto, the general vibe of his music being mellow and sad. In the album, he creates a reflection of the difference between the expectations people have about going to America and the reality of things. Despite having written over a hundred songs, only eleven tracks made it to the album.
Shortly after the release of his album, Ondara embarked on his first tour to promote his music. 2019 has already been a big year for the singer after he was nominated for Best Emerging Act at the 2019 Americana Music Honors & Awards. Other accolades include his album debuting 37th on the Billboards emerging artists chart.
Ondara is nominated for the Americana award alongside artists like Yola, Maddison Cunningham and Keb “Mo”. A win at the Grammys will definitely be a huge thing for him and Kenya as well. We wish him all the best.
Check out the article J.S. Ondara’s American Dreams in Rollingstone magazine.
Check out this interview from Dan Aceda