Photo: Recording Academy
Victoria Kimani Talks New Album, Repping Kenya, Dream Collabs With Lauryn Hill & Rihanna | Up Close & Personal
Kenyan-American singer/songwriter Victoria Kimani grew up in a very few different places, moving with her parents from Los Angeles to Tulsa, Okla., to Benin City, Nigeria and finally to Nairobi, Kenya when she was 16. She spent her first sessions in the recording studio not long after moving to Kenya, and as she found her calling in music she also began to find her voice as a young woman.
In 2012, the R&B/Afropop singer began releasing her first singles and, in 2016, dropped her first album, Safari. After parting ways with initial label, she released the Afropolotian EP last year. Now, with the forthcoming release of her sophomore album, dance floor-ready music, killer style and an inspirational sense of self, she is ready for global takeover.
The "Swalalala" singer recently stopped by the Recording Academy headquarters for our latest episode of Up Close & Personal, and shared what fans can expect on her next album—more of her—and explained the empowering backstory behind "Swalalala." She also talked dream collabs, biggest musical influences and becoming an independent artist. You can watch a portion of the conversation above and read the full interview below. You can also visit on our YouTube page for a longer version of the video, as well as for other recent episodes.
So, you're working on your next album. What can fans expect?
On my next album, fans can expect a lot more of me actually being myself in the music. I think the first project I was still trying to figure out how I fit into African music because I'd come from an R&B/pop background, so I didn't really understand how I can ride the rhythms and really still fit in that same space, even if I don't speak Swahili or sing in a different dialect.
And you can kind of hear that, "This artist is good, but they're still trying to figure out their sound." But I think with this project, well I know for a fact, I've definitely figured it out. I feel a lot more comfortable in my space. So just good music. It's still very much African music, but it's also very much Victoria. It's in my lane and I think it tells my story a lot more, especially with the instrumentation that we used this time around.
My story is a bit different than like a typical person from where I come from in Kenya. I was born in Los Angeles, so L.A. still very much defined my sound and who I am right now. So I don't know, I'm looking forward to it. I think it's totally different. It's still very Afro-fusion, but it's very L.A. at the same time.
And then what are you most excited about when you finally get to share the album?
I think the most exciting part is hearing the reaction from the fans. When you release something new, as an artist, it's still a surprise. Whatever you end up coming up with can be a surprise to your fans.
And I think that's what I'm looking forward to most from releasing the project is hearing my fans reaction and what they think of me as, not a new artist, but as someone who has figured out their lane. So I think I'm just looking forward to seeing how my fans think about it.
Let's talk about one of your recent releases, "Swalalala." The music video was filmed in Kenya, right?
And the video and the song feel so uplifting and positive; can you tell us a bit about it?
"Swalalala," shout out to Masterkraft, he produced it for me. It was very much like a spur-of-the-moment type of record. It is uplifting. It was something I put out to kind of uplift myself. I received a bit of a backlash at a particular time, because a lot of times back home as a woman, you don't really have a voice. It's like "You're female, keep quiet, sit in this corner, don't say anything." And I had said something about a particular subject and it was taken—it went crazy on the internet back home.
And so when I released this song, it was very much like, hey, I do have this voice. I can say whatever it is that I feel like I need to say, especially through my music. And even though we're in this space where we're not supposed to have a voice, I'm still going to use it.
And so for me it was like the ultimate—I don't think I can say it on camera, but it was the ultimate like "F you" moment. For me that's kind of what that record meant to me, just I'm in my lane, I'm elevating. You shine, I'm going to be able to shine just in my own right as well. So it was very empowering for me and I hope for other people it was too.
So when I was watching some of your videos and looking through your Instagram, one of the first things I noticed was just how dope and fun your fashion sense is. I think you're starting a fashion line too, right?
Thank you. Yes. I just started a little one, a little baby project.
Do you style yourself in your music videos?
Yes, I do. Sometimes I work with other stylists, but for the most part, I style myself. If I can't go out and buy an item, I literally have things made. There's a lot of that culture back home in Africa. Inevitably, I think, a lot of people end up being designers just because it's in the culture to make your own traditional wear, to go out and get the fabric, get your measurements, take it to a tailor and make it based on the event. So when I was going to the stores and I didn't find what I wanted, I would have it made. I've done a lot of that over the years for my music videos.
And then I started making other things like boots and jackets. I wanted to see thigh-high African print boots, but there's nowhere I can buy that. So I was like, you know what? We're going to make it. We're going to take the print and we're going to put it all over the boots and we're going to try and create this urban look that still very much ties into African culture.
And that's what I did with my first line, Kimani Couture. I came up with African-inspired bubble jackets. I love bubble jackets, but I haven't seen any, that really represent my culture fully. So that's really what fashion meant to me; it started off with my music videos and then performances and now, it's like this is a great way to really show and define who I am. Yes, I'm African, but I'm still very much in an urban setting and this is the next generation.
How would you describe your style, in a few words?
Well, that's a good question. I'd describe my style as edgy. I think it really just depends on my mood. I'm a little bit moody, especially when it comes to my makeup and how I decide to express myself that way.
The other day I went to Beautycon. It was two days, and the first day I was dumbed down. I had sneakers on, I had kind of natural makeup, and then I saw all the drag queens come out and upstage all the girls that were there. So the next day I was like, I need to go several notches up. So I had the leopard gloves and the matching hat with a black lipstick and that was just my mood. I was like, I need to show them that we're peers in this game. So I need to step it up a bit more. I need to have a more bossy, commanding look.
So I guess it just depends on my mood. But overall I definitely would say it's edgy. I think it's fun and there's a tad bit of culture in there. So I'd say it's a little cultural as well.
And then you've also released a few collab tracks this year as well. I think the most recent was "Miracle," with Hakeem Roze.
What's your favorite part about collaborating with different artists?
My favorite part about collaborating is, not only do you get to explore different people's sounds, like it's not just you on the song, you get to join forces with someone else in sharing creative ideas, but also you share your fan base.
I think that's really cool, because for instance, with Hakeem Roze, he's based in Toronto and I actually just came back from Toronto now and I was able to shoot the music video there and meet a whole bunch of people that are part of his team and a few of his fans.
And for me, I've never been to Toronto before. So what the collaboration meant is I'm also broadening my space, and now they've figured out who I am, and now they're listening to my music. And vice versa, and people are like, hey, who's Hakeem? So I just think collaboration really is like, it's the present, it's the future. It's where I see African music growing, is in collaboration.
And do you have your eyes on any future collaborations that you're about to make happen?
Yes, I do. I do have my eyes on some dream collaborations that I would love to—do I need to say them?
Yeah, do you want to share any of them?
Speaking into existence?
Yeah, you got to manifest them.
There are so many great artists that I'd love to work with. Oh my goodness. Just off the top of my head, I've always wanted to work with Kanye [West]. I just feel like he'll understand where we're going with this African music and how we're getting into this global space and people are starting to hear us, and how can we fuse that in with like hip-hop? I'd like to hear that. And not only that; him as a rapper, his perception, I just feel like that would be really dope.
Lauryn Hill, I don't even know how that would sound, but I would love to hear her on one of these very rhythmic type of, it's like instruments and then with her vocal range, I just feel like it would be a really dope fusion. I have a whole long list. I don't know if we have time, but like we can be here all day, literally. But yeah, I love, god I love Lauryn. I grew up listening to her album, Miseducation, but it got stolen like at least 10 times and I just kept buying the CD over and over again and it would keep getting stolen.
Wyclef [Jean]. Wyclef would be amazing. I feel like he's already been dabbling in so many different genres, just on his own, and then the fact that he's from Haiti, he would definitely understand the rhythm. Oh my God, top of my head, it's just hard to come up with. I mean Rihanna, hello! These are people that I can see in the creative space. I could see them fusing really great together with African music. So goals, you never know. Maybe I've spoken it into existence.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences to this day?
I've had several music influences. One of them for me was Brenda Fassie, may she rest in peace. She's from South Africa, but she was one of our first African female pop stars. You know how here you've got your legendary singers, but she, for us, was very legendary, because she spoke out, she would dress wild. She would perform wildly, especially at a time where, again, African women, you're supposed to keep quiet, you're not supposed to have an opinion, you're not supposed to dance too wild, like that type of thing. She came out and just broke that whole thing down.
And when she did her interviews, she was very unapologetic. So she empowered me a lot as an artist, as an African female to see her and the way she came up and she stuck to everything that made her original. I think for me, she's one of them.
Another one is, obviously, Beyoncé. She's just done so much for just female pop. The respect I have for her, just for her craft, the time that she takes into doing things. Even when she's at a point where she could put anything out and people would probably still appreciate it, she doesn't. She's still goes an extra mile. So that's very inspiring.
You know the term, "We all have the same amount of time in a day as Beyoncé"? I've heard this type of thing over and over again. But it's really true. This is someone who pushes themselves beyond, and she shows me, especially as a black woman, that you can. You can, you just have to work really, really hard and sometimes harder than others. And that's two, jeez, I have a whole other list, we can have a whole other interview just for that. There are so many people.
Fela Kuti. I mean, he was revolutionary. He was really, really calling out a lot of people on their stuff through his music, and empowering the people and letting them know that they had a voice. I think that is very important for African music as well. Of course, Lauryn, I said her name earlier, but I just love her so much as a storyteller. She's very powerful with her words and she can really shift a lot of people's minds for the greater good.
I love Lady Gaga. I know that's random, but I love how far she went and continues to go, not only in the aspect of her pop career, but I loved how she transitioned into jazz. I love how she's just stuck true to herself, and what I really love is how she pushes so hard for the fashion. I have so much respect for her because for so many years, every time you saw her, you saw something different.
But yeah, there's a lot more, especially the legends that came before Gaga, like you can go into Madonna and Janet [Jackson]. But just off the top of my head, these are the few that really stuck out to me.
Did you watch Lady Gaga's Met Gala carpet walk, when she has a 16-minute costume change?
I saw that. I watched the whole entire thing. This is exactly what we're—just give me life, please give me life. I'm getting chills, just thinking about that. That was iconic. Iconic Gaga.
So you moved to Kenya with your family when you were a teen, and I think it was then when you started recording music for the first time. How and when did you decide that you wanted to start make making music professionally?
I decided that I wanted to make music my profession right after we took a mission trip when I was 14, me and my parents, and we went to Nigeria for the first time. That was actually my first time going to the continent. My first introduction to the continent was Nigeria, even though we're from Kenya. We stayed there for two years and I joined the choir.
I know this is a random story to tie into, but for so many days there was no electricity in the house, but we had like three guitars in the house, and my dad and both of my elder brothers play the guitar. So sometimes when there was no lights, we'd turn the candles on, play guitar and I would sing.
And we would just keep that going. And my dad's like, wow, you really have a good voice. You can do this. And when my older brothers co-signed me too, I was like, well maybe I could, one day, actually record something. It started very organically at home and in the choir.
And after that, when we moved to Kenya finally, that was my first time in the studio. I've always written poetry at home, but I never actually went into a recording studio to actually record anything. So that was my first time and I just never stopped. I think if I wasn't encouraged by my dad, I probably wouldn't have known that I was good at all, because for me I was just naturally singing, because I knew this is how the song goes, this is the melody, like this is it.
I didn't know that I sounded good. My dad was the first one to say, "Wow, you sound nice. You should practice more, maybe you can be really good." So that's how it started.
Was there a moment when you feel like you started to find your voice musically and really feel confident about it?
Yeah, it definitely wasn't the first time. The first time was probably the most depressing song in the world. It was called "How I Feel" and was really sad. But after going to the studio, probably like on the twentieth time, I started to really feel confident.
I still didn't understand how the headphones work, and how can I hear myself when I can't really hear myself? Should I take a headphone off? I was still trying to figure out the technical side of recording or making music, because I was just singing at home. But I was understanding how to stack my vocals and how to arrange things. I didn't know that there was something called vocal production. I didn't know that I should warm up before I record. Like so many different details that I didn't know, but as I continued to record and started to learn those things, I became way more comfortable in the studio.
That's so cool. And then, I read that you're an independent artist and that you were on a label, but then you parted ways after your first album.
Yeah, well five years after that. It's a long time.
I was just curious as to why you chose to be an independent artist and what you feel are the benefits of representing yourself?
Well, I was signed for five years to another, sort of indie label in Nigeria. While I was still on the label I was doing a lot of things myself and I felt like, well I could continue to just do these things that I've already been doing while I was signed and just see how it goes. I won't say I had planned to be independent as the ultimate plan, because there are so many challenges that come with that. And who knows, I may not always be "independent." But overall, I think that how aggressive I was, even when I was on the label, has been the reason why I've been able to get the fan base, I've been able to create and release as much music and visuals as I have. So I felt like, well, let me just continue what I'm doing. It's been good so far. I'm still learning. As I go, there are so many things I still need to learn. But that's the process of growing.
The independent thing is cool, and a lot of artists have been able to be very successful from it. And then I think it's important to be in a space where you're constantly learning and picking up different keys here and there. And I think that's the space that I'm in right now, I'm still picking up things, still learning things. You never know, though. I might not be independent for too long, you know. Although that probably sounds crazy.
"That is the goal ultimately, to be a global artist and to show other girls in Kenya that you can do the same thing locally as well as on an international platform."
Afro-fusion music is really gaining popularity globally, including here in the States. To me, your music feels like such a natural fit with what I'm hearing here now. What is your biggest goal right now, as a global artist?
That's a great question. My biggest goal right now is, not only to get the music out to a bigger platform and to the rest of the world, but also to be in a space where there is musical rights. Where I live, we're still fighting for royalties. We're still fighting against so many different, little thieves in the industry that we still haven't really, all the way, created a positive ecosystem in Kenya for music to thrive. And so, for me, it's very important to leave that space and in every way really represent for my country in a global space.
I always use Lupita [Nyong'o] as an example because she really was like the first person in entertainment from Kenya to get this global appeal. And when she said that "your dreams are valid," I really took that to heart. Like, hey, this is a girl that was an actor right home in Kenya and she was doing local movies, and then she did something so iconic and now it's just up and up and you continue going higher and higher. That's an encouraging story for me. And that is the goal ultimately, to be a global artist and to show other girls in Kenya that you can do the same thing locally as well as on an international platform.