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Afropop Queen Victoria Kimani Is Kenya's Best Kept Secret

Victoria Kimani

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Afropop Queen Victoria Kimani Is Kenya's Best Kept Secret

The "Wash It" singer tells the Recording Academy about her multinational background, growing up in L.A., Tulsa, Nigeria and Kenya and breaking out of what can sometimes be an isolating music scene

GRAMMYs/Aug 9, 2019 - 11:52 pm

Everyone has an origin story, and R&B/Afropop singer Victoria Kimani's is especially memorable. Born in Los Angeles to Kenyan parents, Kimani moved all over the globe—specifically to Tulsa, Okla., Nigeria and finally Kenya—during her teen years.

These days, she lives full-time in Kenya, where she is one of the nation's most recognizable performers. She makes time to return to L.A., though, where she's recording her sophomore album, which follows last year's Afropolitan EP and 2016's Safari.

For all intents and purposes, Kimani should be better known in the States. Over the course of the last decade, she's been professionally linked to everyone from DJ Whoo Kid to Jadakiss to DJ Green Lantern to Busta Rhymes to Timbaland and beyond. More recently, she joined Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie on the grooving single "Wash It," and she shows up on Afrobeat upstart Hakeem Roze's bouncing June single "Miracle." Later this year, she'll drop her long-awaited sophomore effort. 

Kimani sat down with the Recording Academy to tell us more about her multinational background, coming of age in Kenya and Nigeria and why, as an artist, she's committed to breaking boundaries and pushing beyond Kenya's local music scene.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background? You were born in the States but you moved to Kenya as an adult. How did you get your start in music?

Well, growing up was interesting. I'm first generation Kenyan-American. We listened to a lot of gospel music growing up. I was pretty sheltered, my parents are pastors, so there wasn't too much secular music invited in the home. But we listened to a lot of African music, a lot of jazz, a lot of Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie, lot of the legendary African artists from my parents' generation, and then listened to a lot of gospel music at the same time.

So I think I kind of just taught myself how to sing from listening to gospel artists and trying to match their runs and match their melodies. My dad is a musician and even in the '70s he was singing Elvis Presley covers in Nairobi. Kenya in the '70s with his bell-bottoms and his Afro. He's very deep with the music. As far as good music goes, that definitely came from my dad.

But growing up here was, it was interesting, I was always moving around. Yes, I was born in California, but here we ended up moving to Oklahoma so my parents could further their Bible education in Tulsa. Then we went on our first mission trip when I was 14 and the first African country that I went to was Nigeria. Although we're not Nigerians.

We lived in Nigeria, Benin City to be exact, for two years from 1999 to 2001, and that was my where I got my real introduction to world music and how there's other rhythms and other kinds of music besides what I was familiar with in America, just being around my friends at school. I'd say I got more exposed to African music for sure when I finally went back to the continent.

After we left Nigeria we entered Kenya and my parents said, "Okay, well, we're relocating here now. No more America for you. We're going to live in Kenya." And I'm like, "What!" I think I had like two weeks to say bye to my friends. So straight from Nigeria, moved to Kenya and that's when I started recording. I was 16 when I started recording my first songs in Nairobi, Kenya.

Have you been based in Kenya ever since?

There's been times between then that I moved back to the States. So from 16 to about 18 or 19, I was still in Kenya. I came back to pursue my music and then that's when I got into songwriting where I used to write for a few different artists. But I think when I actually moved back full time, that was towards the end of 2013.

What made you eventually decide to make the move permanent?

Opportunities. Opportunities to build my fan base of people that I felt like were my people.

I felt like, although I was born here, I'm still very much Kenyan. My family, my entire family; mom, dad, brothers, cousins, everyone was still in Kenya. I was approached by a record label that was based in Nigeria, as a matter of fact. And I felt comfortable to go back to Nigeria because I had already lived there as a child. So I knew what I was getting in to. At the time Nigerian music was really starting to create some hype, some waves, globally. So when I had that opportunity I jumped at it because I always just stated myself as not just a Kenyan artists because I sing in English. I don't sing in Swahili. I wanted to be [collaborative].

For me that means someone that could be from one place, but you're [traveling] around the continent, you're working in East Africa, West Africa, you're collaborating with artists in Central Africa and South Africa as well. So I sort of treated the continent how anyone would treat America. Where you could be from Virginia and move to Los Angeles. You could be from L.A. and move to New York. That's not something that's really done a lot in the continent. Most people in Africa stay in our each individual countries and we literally don't meet. So I really treated it the same way I treated America very early on with even how you move around a lot as a child with my parents. So that was very instrumental for me and I think it definitely sets me apart as an African artist, as a Kenyan artist in the continent who has collaborated so much across the continent.

But initially when I moved back, this was just an opportunity. It was an opportunity for me to reach back to my own roots and to reconnect back into my town and to find myself as an artist. And five years later it definitely accomplished that and still accomplishing more. We're still building on it.

What is the reasoning behind people in different African nations staying more or less put? Are there economic reasons behind that? 

There's so many different factors. I mean for one, like right now people are doing it a lot more. But in 2014, when I moved back, no one was doing that because I didn't know that they needed to. I think a lot of East African artists didn't realize that the door could be open to them in West Africa. I think a lot of people maybe can't afford it. Some people really don't have the means to be able to leave like that. Some people don't have passports, and a lot of artists are also very content in their space. They don't mind being like the local champion, which is great, you know? They're just comfortable. Maybe some people are afraid? Maybe they don't have the connections? There's so many different factors that can kick into that.

But I think for the most part it's just a comfort thing. Right now, a lot Nigerian artists, they don't need to leave Nigeria. In fact, the farthest that they probably would want to go is probably Ghana because they have so many resources locally. They're making enough money. They have this stick-together mentality. Whereas in Kenya we're very different, but at the same time we have a certain level of comfortability. There's only 50 million people in Kenya. There's 200 million people in Nigeria. So if you just think about that alone, some people have just become comfortable with their space, and others feel more pressured to go and leave and go find a greener pastures elsewhere.

Another motive for me getting to go to other places is because our industry is not fully built yet. We don't even really use the good singing platform just like other artists, they're singing globally. We're very much in our own little bubble of not understanding where to place art in general. Even fashion. Politics is very much at the forefront, even in the youth in Kenya. So music is not an industry that's developed. I don't know what I would do if I wasn't able to leave Kenya and explore the continent the way that I did.

You've experienced so much success in Kenya. As someone who goes back and forth to the States, what's your interest level in terms of gaining more attention over here? Is that a priority as you ready your next album?

Definitely. I mean, ultimately I think everyone right now... I don't know if you're too familiar with African music or Afro-beats, but the message is very much Africa to the world. It's very much about sharing our culture and music with the rest of the world. When Lupita's made it globally and in America it just sends so many positive messages back to Kenya and it was like wow, if you do have this international dream or whatever it is and in your capacity or outside of it, it's possible. So, for her success, like it just meant so much to me as well. Ultimately I would like to see my music in a space that it can grow more in especially... Even now that you could just go down into a place that has structured like we still are struggling with collecting our royalties in Kenya.

We still are fighting for our rights as composers in Kenya. We still are, a lot of our music is stolen and we're not able to do anything about it back there. So here we are in this land of global opportunities, but also you have rights, you actually have rights as a creator, you know, so ultimately it would be amazing for that crossover to happen. The producers that I'm working with now they're African producers based in the States. So they also work with some top tier American artists as well. So for me, they understand the rhythm because I do want to stay very true to like my own rhythm, but they also understand the crossover. They know what's palatable more for people in America or Europe or the rest of the world. So for me it's about collaborating and creating more fusion. And so yeah, that's definitely my goal.

Could you tell me a bit about one of your recent singles, "Wash It"? It's a collaboration with Ghanaian artist Sarkodie. How did you guys connect?

Sarkodia is definitely probably the best rapper from West Africa. His flow is just super crazy and Ghanaian people have really showed so much support for anytime we have collaborated. This is actually our third collaboration. He featured me on his last album and then I featured him on my first album and then this is our new project together. Now we've just been working on the next body of work. I think it's time for another album. And so that's literally what I'm finalizing here in Los Angeles right now.

What are you hoping to portray on this album that maybe you hadn't gotten the chance to? How would you word describe the evolution between your first and this one?

Identity. My first, I was still trying to figure out who I am and how I fit in that space. I also felt a little displaced for a while when I first moved back to Kenya because I don't speak Swahili, because I was born an American. Now I'm around people who've never, ever been anywhere but Kenya. So I had to figure out my sound and my space in that capacity. And then you can hear that when you listened to the album.

Now I know exactly who I am. I know where I come from. I know how I was brought up and I know what I like. So now that really translates in the production, in the songwriting. It's very, very much Kimani, very me now. I feel like my first body of work was me trying to find me and yeah. So I feel like I've finally cultivated my own sound.

Can I ask—to what extent do you grapple with your own multinational background as an artist? Do you grapple with it at all? I only ask because I imagine it can be an interesting experience performing for more closed-off communities when you yourself like to cross borders.

That's an interesting question. There's two different ways that I can answer it. One of them is in the literal way where because I know that I'm 100% Kenyan tracing back to all my ancestors, but my mother told me that my tribe, which is Kĩkũyũ. My tribe allegedly migrated from Cameroon back in the day, which is West Africa. So if that's true, then you know, where are we really from?

You know, a lot of Kenyans are actually nomadic. Especially the Masai are known to go travel from different parts, but even now, they don't have a place they really settle. They take their cattle and they move. They just walk from country to country. So I don't know if I really trace all the way back, but at the same time, because my story is so different than a typical Kenyan, because I was born [in L.A.], I do feel like I can't ignore where I was brought up. I cannot ignore how my accent sounds.

Yeah, I can't really detect an accent. If anything, it's just a very soft lilt. 

I don't think I have an accident at all, but I definitely know I have one at home because Swahili's the first language, so I'm sounding like this. It's like, "Where are you from?" I had to remind people that there's something called Kenyan-American. It's like people don't realize that Kenyans left and there's a lot of Kenyans that have left the country and live in so many different parts of the world. I think a lot of Kenyans don't don't that. And so having to go back and explain this is the reason why I don't speak Swahili. This is the reason why I identify so much with West Africa because they are an English-speaking country. This is the reason why I was able to drive when I go to South Africa, when I go to these different places, because I'm literally speaking a common language. I had to explain these things.

I'm also very naturally rebellious. Nothing is really how it's supposed to be. And so I had to just stop apologizing for the fact that my parents didn't raise me speaking Swahili. I think really it's just about other people educating themselves about diversity in Africa and also with diversity of Africans. 

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Judah & The Lion On Choosing Hope In Tough Times: "Just Talk About It, And You'll Feel Less Alone"

Judah & The Lion

Photo by Daniel Mendoza / The Recording Academy

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Judah & The Lion On Choosing Hope In Tough Times: "Just Talk About It, And You'll Feel Less Alone"

"Choosing hope and choosing a way forward is something that we all have the power to do," the Nashville trio told the Recording Academy at Lollapalooza 2019

GRAMMYs/Aug 7, 2019 - 10:23 pm

Nashville trio Judah & The Lion, a.k.a. singer/guitarist Judah Akers, singer/mandolinist Brian Macdonald and banjoist/singer Nate Zuercher, recently released a powerful third LP called Pep Talks.

Dealing with tough themes like death and divorce, Pep Talks covers some deeply difficult subjects, but it is also the band's way of connecting with audiences, who might be going through their own hard times.

"It's really wild what people are going through in life. People struggle, whether or not they admit it," lead singer Judah Akers tells the Recording Academy at Lollapalooza 2019. "People are going through stuff. And I think that music is such a beautiful way for us to express that. What we like to share is, 'You're not alone in this.'" 

Akers went on, describing the way fans approach him to tell him how the band's music has helped them get through some difficult times: 

"We had somebody the other day who came up to us and say, 'Your song really helped me out. I was wanting to commit suicide, and I listened to it, and I didn't want to anymore.' And I'm like, 'Oh no, dude, it's OK that you're having those thoughts, but go and talk to someone. Express the way that you feel. Somebody that you trust. If you can go to counseling, talk to a friend, talk to a sibling, someone that you love and trust.'

"Nine times out of 10, or 10 times out of 10, in my experience, that person is going to meet you with so much empathy and solidarity. And then you can just talk about it, and you feel less alone in the world. That's what we're trying to do as humans, is figure this sh*t out. Nobody's got it all together. Nobody's perfect. We're just going for it. Choosing hope and choosing a way foward is something that we all have the power to do."

Check out Judah & The Lion's interview in full above. 

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage

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Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

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