Every other Thursday we interview a musician for our Mics And Beats Segment. This week it’s Juliani. Juliani describes himself in our interview as a guy trying to make it, a guy trying to explore all the possibilities. He says he is a hip-hop artist. Juliani tells me he wants to leave a legacy, he wants to live a life of value. He says I want to do it all, to be of value in art, music and in the community.
When and why did you start singing?
I started performing in 2000 and started writing in 2002. I used to do hip-hop with Kalamashaka. It was the only safe thing to do as a young person in the slums. Music and hip-hop especially gave us an identity.
I wasn’t good at anything but I got a sense of belonging from music and poetry. It was my foundation. Ukoo Flani taught us how to package our stories of what was happening.
No, I don’t. My instrument is my voice. I haven’t tried to play instruments.
You have so much energy when you are on stage. One could say that your performance is electrifying and high energy. Where do you get that energy from?
(laughs) The energy comes from imagining where the money will from. When I started performing it was at F2. Everybody performed the same and I wanted to be different. So I started moving around. Then people refer to your energy and they remember you. Now it is calculated. Everything is calculated. I want to evoke some emotions with what I am doing with my head and movement. I become one with my music and the beat.
Related to that do you ever get hairlash from your dreads or joint pains from all that jumping?
The way I move my head and shake my dreads is calculated so no. but this one time I was performing in Eldoret and it rained. I don’t remember what kind of wax I had in my dreads. When I was whipping my dreads it got into my eyes and my eyes were burning. I had to perform with closed eyes for 15 mins.
I stretch and prepare my body before a performance. This makes you get fewer injuries. As I said my routine is calculated and deliberate so you have to practice to get it right.
Yes from Mau Mau University and Kalamashaka. We would sit around and Kama would give us information and teach us how to tell a story. Our conversations would come out in our songs. Wabeberu School of life. We learnt how to package information, to learn to describe our situations through music and poetry. We learnt how to tell our stories in a way in which people would listen.
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 dad used to listen to Lingala and Rhumba akina Tabu Ley. For me, my journey started when I got my first cassette of DMX rapping.
What musical influences did you have as a child?
I listened to DMX, Wu Tan Clan and Biggie Smalls. As I grew older Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, Kalamashaka influenced my music.
Biggie smalls actually changed the way I wrote music. I loved how he said things – he was a guy of mchongoano. I liked him because he was funny. I talk like I know him (laughs). I like how he told hood stories.
I am not a storyteller like Rabbit. I am not direct in telling stories. My songs are twisted and philosophical. I like to give a certain perspective. Telling my thoughts in a story.
How is the music different from what you listen to now?
I don’t listen to new stuff although I am keen on what’s new. I listen to music to learn something, not for enjoyment per se. I like to analyze music.
So you don’t have a favourite genre like reggae?
Bob Marley is the only reggae artist I listen to. I listen to rock and listen to how they arrange the words. Local music as well.
So who is your favourite Kenyan Musician?
I like Kwame the gospel musician. I also like Mr V who is a songwriter. I am analytical about music so I listen to the melody, the words, etc. I like music that’s different, I don’t like kawaida music.
What made you first realize that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
I didn’t want to do music but I found a sense of identity in it. It was an outlet. Growing up I had many questions and I was troubled. Why is the world like that? Music was an outlet for me to ask my questions and to belong.
My grades wouldn’t allow me to dream. Growing up we were taught you cannot be something without good grades which was a pity.In the hood books ni something to do to pass exams. The youth are good at many things but the things they were good at were condemned.
Who are your favourite musicians now? Groups? CDs?
Camp Mulla. They had a different sound. They were themselves which I think is very important.
How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
You go on. It’s never a mistake it’s a performance.
What advice would you give to beginners who are nervous?
Dawa ya moto ni moto. You will get nervous when you start because you depend on others. You ask yourself “will they love me?” The key thing to have is confidence. The more you do it the better you get. Performing is a high and sometimes musicians try to make the high last after the performance by taking drugs to maintain the high.
When you have the mic you are the king. You can tell people to shut up. You carry people’s emotions.
How often and for how long do you practice?
It depends on how close the event is and whether it is new material. You have to practice but it depends on when you are performing. My writing is what I do all the time. I am always writing.
Before artists used to be able to meet and just jam. I enjoyed that when we were starting out. Now you can’t just jam. People want to be paid just for turning up so you can’t just meet to freestyle which I think is sad.
Do you mentor any musicians?
Yes, I do. Dandora hip hop city is a project that I am doing to mentor young artists. It is an environment where young people can be equipped and grow their talents, and look for opportunities. It is a three-story building. There are 40 people based there who hang out, do interviews and practice.
Since this is part of your legacy do you worry about young people taking alcohol and drugs there and maybe giving the place a bad name?
I would rather they do drugs inside than outside. Then we can have a conversation and I talk to them about it and advise them against it. It’s the same thing with a church. The church is supposed to create an environment where sinners can come in and learn to change when they see love. The church has failed in this by condemning people instead of embracing them and showing them an alternative path.
How would you describe your music to somebody who has never heard you perform before?
I can’t describe it. I would ask them to come and experience it. The beauty of music has to be experienced when they come. My music is not gospel or hip-hop. You have to take a piece of it with you when you leave.
What can people expect to see at your live performance?
My music is an experience. I want them to think about the performance. I want them to hear, smell, taste, and see the music.
What do you think your biggest break or greatest opportunity has been so far in your musical career?
The biggest break I have had was finding myself. Nothing is good enough if you don’t believe in yourself. Being able to do something with my talents has been great. I love not being afraid to be myself because it’s me.
You have to realize that you have something to offer. A different perspective. Many people use others as a ruler to measure themselves instead of trying to be original.
No. I have always written and performed my own music. I have never done a cover of other artists during a performance.
Related to that how much of your music do you write yourself?
I write all my music. I can’t write for others. It will be obvious that it might not be their style. I write songs for campaigns that I am taking part in. Maybe one day I will be able to write for others but not right now. My music is a performance and my writing expresses that. When women in the village sing it is not just a song, they express themselves and perform. It is the same with my music; it is a performance, not just a song.
If you had a chance to change something in the music industry what would it be?
The industry needs to get organized. We need to stop having middlemen and be able to go straight to the market to make our money. The idea of having a middleman who is getting a lot of the money is not right. Don’t depend on other people.
There needs to be financing for music.
But doesn’t that make musicians vulnerable to being exploited?
Artists need to learn how to do business. They need to learn how to negotiate and renegotiate contracts to be more favourable to me.
You have to re-evaluate your value. Are you worth the money you are asking for? It is not a must for you to do everything.
Stick to your lane. People will come if they see your consistency and talent. Don’t be something you are not.
Know your boundaries as well.
When I first started out we used to perform for free. We never asked for money because nobody told us we could make money. It was until somebody offered to pay us Ksh. 3000 that we knew we could charge. Ksh. 3000 was a lot of money at that time. Then somebody else offered us Ksh. 5000. Our fees kept going up. If people experience what you have to offer and like it, they will be willing to pay for it.
You have your own band now. Did you start out as part of a group or you started out on your own?
I started out at Mau Mau camp. Ukoo Camp was in Mombasa. They joined together to form Ukoo Flani Mau Mau.
What lessons did you learn from being in a group?
I learnt that what you think is a disadvantage is an advantage. What’s not working for you is what will work for you. We used our experiences in the slum to tell a story about our culture, our music, matatu culture etc. it attracted people who wanted to be part of it.
Not knowing English was a disadvantage for me. So I had to be myself and it has helped me become who I am now with my music. Agreeing that you don’t know something helps you grow.
David in the bible didn’t have a shot. He grew up disadvantaged but found himself as King. He used what he had to kill Goliath.
I learnt that God is real. God is not in the church; the church is just a place where people meet. God is everywhere. I learnt about my self-worth and learnt to be self-confident. It all had to come from somewhere. I spend time with God to know him and be a mirror of him.
What are your other interests outside of music? What do you do to relax outside of music?
I live for music and making noise. I also spend a lot of time reading. I am also interested in the startup nation.
I am a pretty boring guy. I like to sit in the house watching movies, streaming on YouTube watching performances
What keeps you going as a musician?
I like to create value. I want to make more albums and I am creating everything around me to do that. I want to share more and offer solutions.
Where would you like to see yourself within the next five years?
I am working on msaani.com. I want to be able to finance artists.
Since you spend so much time writing and you don’t use all of it what do you do with the music you don’t use in your albums?
The more you write the more you sharpen your skills. Then you get better at knowing what you need to use. You discard many songs because they don’t go with the beat, or the emotion you are trying to convey. It is not foolish to write a lot. It is necessary to train yourself so as to stay sharp and keep getting better.
If you were to perform with anybody/group in the world, either dead or alive who would it be? (You can name a couple of people)
It would be Jay Z and Eminem. There is something that they have – I can’t explain it. Also Kanye West.
So do you have that something?
I have it. But you are not born with it. You have to learn and practice. You have to accept to learn new things.
What are you looking forward to in the future?
That one phone call that changes everything
What do you mean?
I am looking forward to that one phone call that will take me to the next level. The first time it was Emmanuel Jal who wanted to sign me onto his label. That phone call changed everything. I did one of my best albums. I learnt what money can do and what talent can’t. That phone call I am looking forward to will be big and it will take me to another level
What are your up-to-date performance plans? New releases? Tours? News
I am also working on a new album which is coming out in 3 months.