Julius Okello McRymboh – but commonly known as Okello Max, is a man who wears many hats. He is a music lover, singer, songwriter, a communication graduate but above all, he identifies himself as a joker who enjoys making people laugh.
“Ucheshi ndo faraja kwangu,” he says.
Born in a small village in Kisumu known as Kanyakwar, Max has grown from being a hustler to working with the best in all of East African and the Kenyan music industry. He is the artist behind the sensational hit song ‘Kiss,’ and as a talented artist, he has captured Sauti Sol among other artistes through his vocals.
From being a hustler to working with renown artistes, Max shares his story and his journey to where he is now is nothing less of an inspiration.
Kindly tell us a bit about yourself and how your journey as a musician began
My name is Julius Mcrymboh Okello but many people call me Max Okello. I come from a small village in Kisumu called Kanyakwar. This is where I grew up and as fate would have it, it is also the first place I fell in love with music at a tender age. I started singing in a choir which was led by my uncle. Since I could always hit the correct notes whenever he put my cousins and me to task, over time I gained his favour. This would shape my perspective towards music because when I joined high school – Homabay high – music had already become a part of me.
You are a communication graduate. How did you make the leap to pursue music as a career?
My life took a different turn after high school when my father retired. Because I had to make ends meet and yet I couldn’t get employed formally, hustling became my resort. From ‘mjengo’ to washing utensils and cooking at a ‘Kibandaski,’ those were my main sources of income. This was until my dad opened up a car wash. I took it up and from then I began washing people’s cars while listening to music.
In between time or whenever I got the chance before another customer arrived, I’d play the guitar. This went on for three months but it was also enough time to learn a few lessons in life. I met good people but I meet the arrogant ones. In all this music was my haven and it became an escape from all the tough times, the roller coasters and the hurdles that I faced.
Months went by and I joined Moi University to study Linguistics, Media and Communication. I joined the school band, Moi University band and this led to my encounter with the band director Mr Ongeri. He saw me, pushed me and championed me to become the better version of myself. From the band, I learnt how to perform, I improved my vocals and also refined my skills in playing the guitar. I would perform at school and within no time I became popular, with many knowing me “Max yule wa band.”
At this point, my confidence had grown solid so I started going for auditions on different singing competitions. But life is a sick joke, isn’t it? At Tusker project fame auditions, just the sight of Judge Ian sent chills down my spine and the result of that experience was me failing terribly.
They say passion beats it all so I dusted myself up and I tried Talanta Mtaani season 2. I emerged second runners up, winning myself a job contract (so they said), but most importantly, I made an acquaintance in the name of Bienime of Sauti Sol.
He asked me to look for him after I had gotten my degree which I did in 2017 and the rest is history. In short, music has been my safe haven since childhood even before I knew I’d hold a degree in Media and communication.
When can you say you experienced your first breakthrough and you were assured that Kenyans are now listening to your music?
I have always considered Dela as my first breakthrough for she gave me a platform to be her background vocalist in two of her events. First was at an event that happened at the Arboretum grounds dubbed “Paint The Run Kenya.” Then in an attempt to catapult my sound, she reached out and I got to be her vocalist once again at the Dela unplugged show in 2017. It all went down at the Alchemist.
Fast forward to 2019, I got featured as a background singer by Sauti Sol on their hit song Extravaganza and in addition to that I had the privilege to release my first single “Kiss.”
So far I can say that Kenyans are listening to my music since the reception of my debut Kiss has been amazing. For that, I am very grateful and humbled by the support of my Kenyan fans.
You have worked with Sauti Sol on hits like Extravaganza among other music ventures done by the group. Kindly tell us what does that mean to you and what milestones have you covered since you started working with the band.
Working with Sol Generation Records has been a blessing. I believe that many young artists out there seek for such an opportunity and that makes it feel like a dream come true. For one, being affiliated with the group has put me on the map since they’ve featured me in some of their songs including Extravaganza and some songs yet to be released. When they mention my name on social media my fan base grows too and this becomes an introduction to a broader network.
Not only have they helped me grow as an artist but they have also been spectacular towards my growth as a person. Bien is constantly reminding me, “Okello Max we ni noma, but wachana na FIFA piga tizi baba.”
Sol Generation has morphed into a family I never knew I needed and the least I can say is that it’s been an honour to be able to learn and continue to do so under their guidance.
I am hoping my works and their efforts will speak louder when I start releasing more music in the near future.
What challenges have you experienced in your journey and what keeps you going?
Everyone faces challenges at some point in life. Needless to say, most challenges have a common denominator which is money. For instance, when I was hustling that wasn’t by choice but by circumstance. A wage of Ksh 150 after a hard day’s work can never be encouraging. In such circumstances music kept me going.
However, I would say that the most discouraging challenges had to do with broken promises and disillusionment. For instance, there were times I would sleep happy and assured that my career would blow. That I was amongst the victors in the singing competitions at Bidii music talent search and Talanta Mtaani.
Only to wake up and my hopes would’ve been crushed when the results stated otherwise.
Nonetheless through all this, I learnt to be patient and to persevere in trying times. I also learnt to take a step back because sometimes one can be so caught up in their ambitions that they forget it is a process. Through betrayal, broken promises, and lack of finances I learnt to trust in the process.
If you could change anything about the industry, what would it be?
I’d change the norm whereby artists only receive support after they’ve made a name for themselves. If only the same attention, buzz and media play was given to up and coming artists who have what it takes, it goes without saying that the music industry would be on another level altogether.
Who is your inspiration and how does that reflect in your music.
Everything around me is my inspiration. From life, family, friends, and experiences. Music is a communication tool that artists can use to express different emotions across the world. Music can be used to educate, entertain, uplift, rectify and so my inspiration sources from different aspects accordingly.
Tell us more about Kiss. It is a very catchy tune. How would you describe it and who is the target audience?
Kiss is an ode to love. The song has a Zouk touch and it targets people who are in love irrespective of their age bracket, race or ethnic background. It talks about the appreciation of love, relationships, significant others and being ready to take an extra mile for them. It is also a tune that stirs up the fire in you and gets you ready to ask for a kiss and a dance.
Is this your official sound?
I aspire to be an Afro-pop artist with some soul. Considering Kiss is my first tune it would be too quick to call it my official sound. I have different genres that I would like to sing and since I also want to gauge what touches my fans most, I will leave it up to them to be the judge.
In the meantime, expect a cocktail of good music and good vibes from Okello Max.
What do you wish to share with your fans and Kenyans at large
In addition to my music, I want to share positivity and good vibes as an up and coming artist. My hope is to always leave footprints in Kenyans’ hearts.
What can we expect from Max in future?
Expect more music and beautiful vibes. I am here for my Kenyan fans and it is my responsibility to keep their playlist blazing.
I am a writer with interest in hair, beauty and fashion. I also like telling stories, but most of all I enjoy listening and reading them. If I'm not doing any of the above, I will be trying to crack a game of chess or monopoly. My biggest fear is being ordinary.