Growing up in Korogocho Slum, life was hard for Simon Kariuki and it made him turn to crime at a young age. But Simon was able to turn around his life and his story is an inspiring one, as he has gone from grass to grace. Meet Simon Kariuki, the Ghetto Classics Manager who is a testament that music can change lives. The 30-year-old musician was born and raised in Korogocho, and he is the 5th born in a family of 8 siblings. Korogocho is the 3rd largest slum based in the Eastern part of Nairobi. Simon was involved in criminal activities from an early age due to peer pressure and domestic violence. His late father was an alcoholic while his older brothers were criminals. He was influenced by his older brothers and he turned into a criminal and a school dropout. Getting into Ghetto Classics after high school changed his life for the better.
In 2007, Simon joined St John Catholic Choir in Korogocho. Here he developed a very strong passion for playing musical instruments, especially the djembe (African drum), and guitar. His passion and need to play the instruments were further nurtured by his involvement in the Ghetto Classics Orchestra; a project based in Korogocho that was set up by the Art of Music Foundation. Through his involvement in Ghetto classics and St John’s Catholic Choir, he was able to develop his skills in playing musical instruments and gained a good foundation in music theory and performance. Simon completed his secondary school education in 2007 and joined The Technical University of Kenya in 2013.
Since 2008, he has actively been involved in Ghetto Classics; a musical program in his community. He specializes in the mobilization of youth within Korogocho and its neighbourhoods to participate in the arts and culture. The aim of Ghetto Classics is to empower the children socially, economically, and culturally and also enhance their awareness of the role they play in building a harmonious and cohesive community.
One of his greatest achievements to date has been teaching music in his community and in schools, St. John’s Primary School and St. Clare primary school. It has been a way of giving back to the community and using music as a tool to rehabilitate the youth and change their behaviour and attitude towards life. Many of his students who had been shunned by the community due to their toxic behaviour and lifestyle, were able to be rehabilitated and were re-integrated back into their families and rejoined school. Some have gone on to be great musicians and role models in the community.
Simon completed his degree in Music at The Technical University of Kenya with an aim of enhancing his music career. His main motivation for studying music was the urge to get better and more equipped to give much more back to his community. He wants to empower the youth of Kenya to rise above their current situations in life through music. He has seen firsthand what profound change can occur in one’s life when one is empowered. Music can heal and create harmony in a community and most importantly give hope for a brighter future.
Simon says “I believe if equipped with more knowledge I can create the change I so desperately desire for my fellow youths in Korogocho.”
Ghetto Classics is a program based at the heart of Korogocho that aims to transform the lives of the children there through music. It caters to the children of Huruma, Dandora, and Mukuru wa Reuben as well. The program which was started in 2009 by Elizabeth Njoroge, involves sections where children interact with tutors as they learn how to play different instruments ranging from violins, saxophones, guitars, pianos, recorders, trumpets, trombones, etc. Meet Some of The Upcoming Young Musicians At Ghetto Classics
The program has been of great benefit to various children. It has helped them discover their talents and also given them some sense of direction. However, just like everything else, even this program had its start. We talked to 30-year-old Simon Kariuki who is one of the pioneers of this program and also stuck around to see the vision of the program come to pass.
1. Please tell us a little about yourself?
I was born and raised in Korogocho in Nairobi. I grew up in a family of 8 siblings; 6 brothers, and 2 sisters. I went to primary school at St. Johns Primary School here in Korogocho then later joined Our Lady of Fatima High School which was right there next to my primary school. After I cleared my high school education I was fortunate enough to find someone to sponsor my campus education. I went ahead to pursue a certificate and then a diploma in Public Relations at The University of Nairobi. Later in life, I joined The Technical University of Kenya to study music where I just recently completed my studies.
How was life before you joined Ghetto Classics?
Since I had just finished high school I was a teenager. I remember struggling to really find any direction in life. Often while in the ghetto, you may not have someone to guide you and that is how most youth end up in a life of crime and drugs. I did not know what I wanted for my future. Life at home did not help either. Growing up in such a large family is hard enough but the fact that some of my siblings engaged in crime made life even worse. Unfortunately the only of my brothers who had tried to make it out of that life of crime had passed away. My parents had even tried to protect me by sending me away to the countryside but that did not last long.
How did you learn about Ghetto Classics and what inspired you to join?
My former primary school was a place where many of us would hang out when we had nothing to do. In a bid to run away from the violence or problems at home, we would find ourselves gathered there just to try and enjoy each other’s company. Especially for those of us who were considered outsiders for trying to avoid getting into gangs. So that’s where Elizabeth found us. She talked to us and tried to get us to sing with her. It was not a very formal start.
You were among the pioneers of the program, how was it at the beginning?
It was hard, that I can tell you. Most people barely gave it much thought. The only reason most even stuck around was that she would often give us soda when she came. Additionally, if you have not lived in the ghetto, it can be very hard to relate to the people who have. Integrating her way of life into ours was an issue at the beginning. She, however, stuck through it and found a way to get through to us amidst our very many differences.
When you started, what did the program entail?
That is just it, there was not much happening especially if you compare it to what we have now. Elizabeth started by bringing us some guitars just to pique our interest. However, this also posed a problem. In our eyes, those instruments looked complicated and expensive. Some of us were even afraid to use them lest we break them. So Elizabeth found a way to get us acquainted with the instruments a little more. She would invite us to festivals and events like Blankets and Wine. This allowed us to get to interact with people who have mastered the use of these instruments. It really helped us.
Which instruments did you play?
My main instrument of choice is the saxophone. I, however, play the guitar, piano, and recorder. Often you find as a tutor you need to learn to play a couple of instruments so you can give the child you are teaching various options. So it is best to understand a few basics.
What challenges did you face while there and how were you able to overcome them?
For the pioneers such as us, there really was not much going on. The classes were not systematic and since instruments are not cheap to procure, we rarely used them. Many of us actually gave up on the journey since there was not much consistency with the classes. However, I decided to stick around since I actually realized I had a passion for music. I decided that taking a step back would only bring me right back to where I had started. Using the music basics I had learnt I became a teacher at a primary school and taught a music class. Here I was actually able to learn a little more from those who had taught music for a longer time.
How did life change for you and your family because of the program?
Eventually, when Elizabeth saw what I was doing, she took me to The Technical University of Kenya to study for a diploma in music. That took a load off my parents’ back when it came to financing my school. They saw it as a blessing seeing that even my first degree had been sponsored by a well-wisher.
Having been there at the start of the program, what can you say is the difference between then and now?
Right now we are doing way better. Having joined the program around 2009, I had to wait for about 5 years to finally use instruments of our own. This was facilitated by the then Ambassador of Germany to Kenya who donated a number of instruments to our program. That I believe was a huge turning point for us. During our time we were about 30 children, and many dropped out, and others were not consistent. We met at least once a week for practice. However, these days it’s more interactive. We have more students, about 700 now. We are with them every day. It goes beyond the music. It is about connecting with these children completely so that they have somewhere to turn to. We take care of their health and even ensure they are fed. It is about giving each and every child here hope and direction so that they can make something of themselves and even help their families.
The community is also more supportive. Before most people thought we were a joke, that we would probably crumble and fall. However, there is more trust in us now. Now parents encourage their children to join the program.
What lessons did you learn while in the program?
I am not sure if this counts as a lesson but I learnt the duty that comes with carrying the weight of responsibility. Even when I wanted to quit especially when things did not seem like they were going anywhere, I felt responsible for the younger ones than myself. I was among the eldest in the group and excluding Elizabeth, I felt I needed to take charge so the younger ones would follow. I also learnt how to persevere. When the odds are stacked against you is when you fight harder. It is not easy but it is eventually worth it. Nothing in this life will be handed to you no matter how bad your circumstances are. Another important is the value of social capital, making connections with everyone you can.
Did joining the Ghetto Classics Program open up any opportunities for you?
Ghetto Classics gave me the platform to express myself. Not only did it give me the chance to study music but I was able to be confident about playing my music. And just like that, doors began to open. I began handling other programs and events in the community. The knowledge I acquired at Ghetto Classics allowed me to start working part-time in various organizations even as a consultant. I started earning money which in turn also helped me take care of my family. I got so much credibility from working with Ghetto Classics that I was amazed. People are more likely to trust you if they know you have worked with a similar program before.
Since you are no longer a student at Ghetto Classics, what is your role?
For now, I am the Project Manager. I also work as a tutor so I do teach the children how to use the various instruments I play. I follow up with some of the children to ensure that they are doing okay and are not dragged into gangs or vices. The thing about my job as well as for most of us working here, our jobs do not end at 5 pm like most jobs do. You can be called any time of the day to help out a child somewhere. It becomes your duty to ensure those children have the best environment possible for their development.
As one of the beneficiaries of the program, do you think anything can be done to make the program even better?
As of now, we rely solely on donations from wellwishers such as The Safaricom Foundation. This, however, is not sufficient. Another issue with donations is that they may not always be there. For a program like this to survive and stand the test of time, there is a need to find another source of income to fund our activities and ensure that the program continues.
Do you plan on pursuing music as a career?
As of now, I am just trying to find a balance in my life. However, if I ever do get into music it will not be as a performer. My dream is to get into music development. Understanding music is a social construct to enable one to use it to implement change in society.
Given a chance, what musicians would you like to work with?
I am more of a jazz fan. I feel like jazz is a great expression of what you are feeling all the time. I would love to meet and work with Soweto Kinch. I like listening to his music since I love his sound.