Kanja (aka the Afrikan King) is determined to make 2014 his year. While Nigerians and Ghanaians tend to dominate the African music charts, this UK-born Kenyan singer is poised to lead East Africa’s music scene while simultaneously representing the diaspora. A multi-faceted artist, Kanja has travelled the world to craft his unique blend of hip-hop, R&B, reggae, and African rhythms. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to Kanja about his work in the music industry and about the power of perseverance. Make sure to download his recent hit single “Lights Out” and to follow him on social media outlets @KingKanja.
Akinyi: How did you decide you wanted to pursue music?
Kanja: I was born in London, but primarily grew up in DC but spent nearly every summer growing up in Kenya, where my parents are from. Being grounded in that experience of three different continents and feeling that the UK was home to me, America was home to me, and Kenya was home to me, gave me a diverse outlook on life that lead me to strive for something bigger, something different—something hard. In many parts of Africa, there is hardship. When you know you’re coming from that history, it makes you truly reflect on what you can do that will shape the world in some way. If I hadn’t done music, I would have probably been a psychologist or entertainment lawyer, but I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to represent Kenya and Africa. I also wanted to show youth in Africa that it doesn’t matter where you are: you can be anything you want to be if you work hard and dream big, just like you can here in the States. The American Dream doesn’t have to be just American. I have a song called “In God We Sing” with Jason Corder which speaks to that perspective; it addresses what the world gives you and what you give back to the world.
Akinyi: When did you really begin to develop a passion for music?
Kanja: When I was younger, I would always hear my mom playing reggae or old Kikuyu music, but I always knew I had a tone. My first love was basketball. I used to dream of going to the NBA, but I got injured and fell into music towards the beginning of high school. I remember doing my first song and really committing to it and falling in love with the artistic process of creating a song from the music to the lyrics. But in my approach to music, I’ve always thought bigger than music. I want to excel, but I always want to stand for something. I don’t just want to be an African artist; I want to be an artist whose love of music stems from being a humanitarian, being a communicator, and being an ambassador for my continent.
Akinyi: Who are your biggest musical influences?
Kanja: Probably Bob Marley, 2Pac, The Temptations, and the Jackson 5. Definitely Movado and The Beatles, as well.
Akinyi: Those artists run the gamut in genre, but how would you describe the sound that you strive to produce?
Kanja: I definitely think my music is influenced by Afrobeats. It would probably fall in the category of international or world music, but I think that it also borrows from a number of different genres and reflects the fact that I’ve been exposed to such a wide variety of things in my life.
Akinyi: At the moment, how do you divide your time between your work in the US and your work on the continent?
Kanja: I’ve spent enough time in each place to lay down the foundations of my music career. In Kenya, my videos and songs are still playing although I haven’t been there in over a year. Right now, I’m in Atlanta working with a number of different artists and continually creating music because I have so much energy. When I leave, those records should continue to play. Same thing when I’m in London. I’ve done this for such a long time that I’ve really managed to hone my craft and create a cohesive sound that reflects all these places. But that means that there’s never a vacation day. I’m continually absorbing, learning, and making new music.
Akinyi: Which African artists would you like to collaborate with?
Kanja: P-Square, most definitely. They’re my good friends and I look forward to working with them at some point in the future.
Akinyi: Many of our readers are Africans who have grown up with the idea drummed into them that they should be doctors, lawyers, or businessmen. How did you deal with that pressure and how supportive were your parents when you told them you wanted to pursue music?
Kanja: Their main priority is ensuring that I am always secure in life. I held up my end of the bargain which was getting my degree in college. It all boils down to having security and something to fall back on. You can still do music and go to school. College is a fundamentally important part of developing your life and growing as a person. Those four years of college prepared me for friendships, relationships, and work. If you jump straight into working life, you often lack a strong foundation. Because I work hard at what I do, my family has really respected and supported me. They see my work and dedication. I was the face of the Coca Cola commercial “Africa, Let’s Go Crazy” and I won BET 106 and Park’s Wildin’ Out competition a few years back. At the end of the day, no parent can say anything if they see that their child has put their all into their craft.
Akinyi: What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
Kanja: Think with no boundaries and think with no limits. Always work against the grain. Live life creatively.