Eric Wainaina can easily be called Kenya’s most successful musician. We catch up with him on music, the industry and life in general.

eric wainaina

You were brought up in Nairobi during the early 70s and luckily had quite a healthy foundation in music. What unique highlight or important person can you recall having a great music influence on you?

I loved Jackson 5 as a kid and really wanted to be one of them. My parents also listened to a lot of Country (Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride – one of the very few black country singers) and singers like Jim Reeves, Skeeter Davies and of course Elvis.

You, Victor Seii, David Mageria (replaced by Joe Kiragu), Chris Kamau and Bob Kioko are the men behind 5 Alive – a popular gospel a cappella group that dominated the Kenyan airwaves in the mid-90s. What brought you all together as a group and do you still keep in touch? Do you ever perform together these days?

Victor and I were the founding members. We met at the Kenya Music Festivals of 1991. He was representing Kabarak as a Bass Soloist and I, St. Mary’s as a Tenor Soloist. We were both impressed by each other’s performances. His leadership of the Kabarak Choir also impressed me. Since both of us loved a cappella music and were great fans of Ladysmith Black Mambazo (SA) and Take 6 (USA) we used those two groups to model ours. The idea of male unaccompanied harmony was very intriguing to us. We did our first performances as a trio with Pete Odera and later did a couple of performances with Victor’s sister, Jerotich and their close friend Linda Kazibwe, both of whom went on to do other stuff. Victor brought in Bob (Kabarak) and David (they knew each other from Christian Family Fellowship) and I brought in Chris (known him from nursery school).

The group’s early success brought you quite a few new experiences, even the chance to tour Europe in 1996, the same year your debut album was released. What are some of the challenges the group faced on this first tour?

Our debut album was released in 1996 at the launch of Capital FM at Carnivore. Our preceding time in Europe was characterised by a very warm welcome in Switzerland at the conference we’d gone to perform at and hard knocks in the UK where we went in search of fame and fortune. At times in the UK we were flying high, playing at a theatre on London’s West End earning good money. We then quit while we applied for work permits to then face the hardest seven months of our lives.

While your career has been undeniably successful, there have been some tough times. Did you ever almost throw in the towel and say goodbye to music?

 I never contemplated throwing in the towel. Oprah once said around 1994 that the most successful (both materially and spiritually) people are those who make a career out of their passions because in the bad times passion will keep you going. I’ve lived by that. I pity people who have to work at jobs that they hate.

What advice would you offer artists trying to launch a career in today’s Kenyan music industry?

Go as far as you can with formal education. If primary school is it then finish primary. If it’s college then finish college. If you can get an education in music even better. While there are never any guarantees in life, an education in music is fundamental in influencing longevity. For every one Beyoncé there are 10,000 Jane Smiths who are either teaching, fulfilling lives as musicians.

What is your personal vision of the East African music industry? What concerns and inspires you as you look at it now?

The EA music industry continues to grow. There is space for all of us. There’s no need for petty beefs and rivalries though competition is good and sharpens us all. Media houses are coming into line as far as the payment of royalties to MCSK [Music Copyright Society of Kenya] goes and piracy, while a threat, only serves to popularise an artist and raise their profiles and market value.

It is clear that your music has matured and covered diverse issues and themes over the years. You now have three albums in circulation – Sawa Sawa (2001), Twende Twende (2006) and Love and Protest (2011). Out of all the songs you’ve written, which one in particular is your favourite and what’s the story behind it?

I don’t have a favourite. I do like “Mariana,” “Other People’s Lives” (remix recorded with Nneka), “Twende Twende” (with Oliver Mtukudzi), “Nchi,” “Daima,” “Who is to Blame” and “The Road” (with Baaba Maal). “Mariana” is particularly special as it addresses the issue of lost love because of brokenness.

The Kenyan public clearly recalls one of your powerful messages through the 2001 song, “Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo (Country of Many Bribes)”. Much as the public loved it, the government had a different reaction, and actually refused to air it on the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation – the national broadcaster. What are your thoughts looking back on those times?

Well, you can’t keep a good thing down. I was doing my riding test last week and the cops there all recognised me for that song. It was released 11 years ago and that continues to shock me. Corruption is still a problem and I think we all need to see how bad politics results in bad policies. If you look at the situation with teachers striking right now it has everything to do with the fact that 20 years ago Moi started filling universities with students forced to study education.

Twenty years later you have 40-year-old teachers who hate their jobs (perhaps) and there’s not enough money to pay them (or maybe there is).

The Kenyan music industry has struggled to grow into the continental, let alone global market. You are perhaps Kenya’s most successful artist and still, you have not recognised the financial success of an equal in America, Canada or the UK. Do you think that Kenyans will ever be willing to invest in Kenyan artists?

Who told you I haven’t reached the financial success of my equals in America? :-) Anyway, I guess that’s the case across all sectors. The most successful bankers in Kenya are not as wealthy as their counterparts in America. It’s a function of the size of our economies. The UK Department of Arts and Culture reserved GBP £5 billion for arts. And that was in 2006! GBP £5 billion is what the Kenya Revenue Authority collected last year. It’s all relative I guess.

For me the challenge is not to wait to be invested in. My wife and I run a company whose purpose is to maximise the commercial potential of my creative output. We’re not sitting around waiting for that angel investor. But in addition to our activities here in Kenya our business seeks opportunities for growth outside Kenya, both regionally and wider.

You got a chance to study at the world class Berklee College of Music, and you graduated with honours. What was your experience as a student living abroad and what made you come back to Kenya? Would you recommend Berklee to other aspiring artists?

Berklee was great! I owe a significant debt of gratitude to Berklee for the musician I am today. Berklee is about training musicians for a career in music, not only about raising superstars. Like I said earlier there’s more to being in the industry than being on the frontline. I was trained in areas that I am using extensively today. I took a dual major in Music Production Engineering and Song writing. Now I do both extensively, though I’m a pretty bad engineer. That’s not Berklee’s fault. It’s mine. I also took classes in scoring and I’ve scored some films, some documentaries and the 52-episode Tinga Tinga Tales which plays weekly here in Kenya but daily in the UK, continental Europe and on Disney Junior in the US. I also took conducting classes which help when I lead my band or teach a group of singers for my musical theatre work. Oh that’s another thing – I also took classes in Musical Theatre which have greatly informed the musical play I’m working on now.

As a student at Berklee I was continually inspired by the environment. We’re talking about a place where students live, breathe, eat and smoke music. It’s very charged. You can only improve. I guess you can also be intimidated, which happened to me too, but why get intimidated and not do something about it? In life we are always meeting people better than ourselves.

I also benefitted greatly from the financial support of my parents, Berklee and friends from my church in Boston. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers it’s all about interventions that happen in our lives that make us the people that we are. No one is ever independently successful. Not even Bill Gates. I mention this because my church, 12th Baptist Church, housed me for at least three of the years I spent in Boston, saving me at least USD $1,000 per month in rent and food. That’s USD $12,000 (KSH 1 Million) per year. My parents paid my tuition despite the Kenya Shilling losing to the US Dollar continually up until the point I was offered a full scholarship. Berklee gave me more funding as time went on.

Right now I’m encouraging Berklee, 12th Baptist and the larger Boston community to consider non-financial ways to assist with the burden of tuition payments. Take the accommodation example. If more African students got the support I got (and pushed for), a lot more would be able to attend Berklee or other great colleges and finish.

Which new and authentic music talents currently have your attention in East Africa?

What do you mean by authentic? If you mean African, that’s a misnomer. Camp Mulla wouldn’t necessarily be considered ‘authentic’ but they are Africans. Ask them! And I think they are exceptional. Mejja, Atemi, Chris Adwar, Just a Band, Sauti Sol, Ma3 are all great. And they redefine what we understand East African music to be.

What are some of your latest music projects and are there any surprises for us?

I continue to push Love and Protest into people’s awareness. It’s an important record and I’m saying something which I believe to be important. I’m also completing a draft of a musical that I hope will speak to our struggles as people who are trying to understand this democracy thing and live and love at the same time.

In 2008, you were forced to go through a very public media frenzy after having an extramaritial affair with co-performer Valerie Kimani. Can you tell us a little bit about life at this time and what lessons you may have learned from the experience?

Sheba stood by me and we worked it out. We walked together through a very turbulent time and our marriage has survived and grown. Fortunately, things worked out as they did. If Sheba had chosen to leave me I’d have lost my best friend, my lover and my closest confidant.

Do you have aspirations to be more involved in the business side of the Kenyan music industry?

I am involved in the business side. Every day. I do try to strike a balance though. My work is to create and while I think sorting out the legal issues surrounding the music business is important, for instance, I think that putting out creative material, adding to the whole, is more important. There are very talented lawyers right now running the producers’ association and MCSK. We’ll be alright.

Do you listen to your own music?

Only when I can’t avoid it.

If you were running for a political office today in Kenya, what is the one thing you would advocate for?

Better policies and institutional structure. If people are healthier, more educated and feel respected by the authorities they are happier. It doesn’t really matter who the president is if you can’t get justice when you go to the cop station, for example.