Born and raised in Kijabe, a little town an hour and a half from Nairobi, Naomi Wachira grew up in a Christian family. She moved to the States right after high school to attend school in Chicago, and then moved to Seattle. Music was always a part of Naomi’s life but she kept it on the backburner in favor of education. It wasn’t until she had her daughter in 2009 that music came back with a force. Unable to ignore it anymore, she began playing around Seattle. Things quickly progressed: in 2013, she was heralded as the Best Folk Singer in Seattle by Seattle Weekly. Joy Mwaniki spoke with Naomi to find out more about her Kenyan heritage, her music, and her inspiration.
How did you get into music?
My first musical experience was definitely in the church. When I was five years old, my parents were part of a group called the Brethren — a bunch of families that would come together and sing. They would meet every Friday night at someone’s house for dinner and they would sing. It was the most beautiful thing in the world. I would love it when they would come to our house. When I was upstairs, I would hear these gorgeous voices singing in harmony and a capella. At one point, when I was five, they asked me to be part of the choir, so I got to travel with them for a little bit and I got to sing with them. That was my first introduction to music. It was the most amazing feeling. It literally felt like home.
In high school, I did choir and poetry and singing competitions. I would obviously listen to the radio; there were a lot of Western influences and all those things definitely influenced my music.
Has your heritage played any role in your music?
Absolutely! When I first moved to the US — everybody goes through this — you feel like you have to assimilate in order to survive. Part of that always means that you sidestep where you come from. You’re focusing on a new country with new people and how to blend in and you end up putting aside your heritage. I did that for a long time. When I seriously started writing music, I was always conscious about the idea that I am African and that I want to represent where I come from. The way I started playing guitar, things tended to reflect the African percussive style (though “Africa” feels like such a general term). But it has a very specific style of rhythm that you wouldn’t find in Western music. So I carried that heritage. My father was a very revered and influential man, so much so that I wanted to write music that had a positive message on self-love and how to envision a society that does better for its citizens. Those are the ways that I think I’ve tried to honor my heritage.
Which of your songs do you feel the most connected to?
That’s a good question! [Laughs] I feel connected to every song and for very different reasons, because each song is a representation of something in my life, whether it’s a struggle that I’ve been through, or whether it’s something I just figured out, or whether it’s the hope that I have. So, each one of those represents something that is deeply connected to who I am. I think if I were to categorize the songs, “African Girl” would be at the top of the list because the song really became a definition of who I wanted to be in the world — remembering where I come from, honoring where I am right now, and projecting where I want to be in the future. I think it’s one of those songs that transcend time. I’ve been astounded by how people from all over the world have connected with this song. It was a very personal song for me when I wrote it, and I never thought people would run with it the way they have. I think that speaks to the power of music; that you can write a song that comes from a very personal space, and yet carries a universal message that a man in Albania or a woman in Chile will write me and say, “Oh my God, this song tells my story!” The song is about an African girl, and here’s a man from a whole different country who has had some connection with it. That just blows my mind away.
What are the subjects you find yourself most drawn to?
I definitely gravitate towards personal relationships, not even romantic relationships, but how we, as human beings, treat one another. I think that’s been a big theme in a lot of my music. I also look at my own life, and the things that I’ve learned, the mistakes that I’ve made and how I have tried to correct those mistakes. I do have, what I guess I can call, a love album, but that won’t be out for another two to three years.
What has been the most memorable moment of your music career so far?
I think it would have to be in 2013. A local newspaper does a “Best Of Series” every year. Unbeknownst to me, they had named me the Best Folk Singer in Seattle and it was a complete surprise. I had no idea that this was coming. I remember waking up that morning and my phone was blowing up. I went on Instagram, and I was so confused because I saw a picture of myself on the paper! Everything began unfolding and everyone kept calling to ask if I had seen it. It was huge for me because I had barely done anything and it was such an incredible honor to be named the Best Folk Singer in Seattle. It’s a memory that is very dear to my heart.
Another memorable moment has been when I played a few shows in Kenya. That always blows my mind away. I was just there this spring and I played two shows, and I was completely overwhelmed by how Kenyans have received my music. I was always a little worried because I don’t sound like a Kenyan artist, and I know Kenyans can be pretty critical. But, I played one show and it was so packed that I couldn’t believe it was happening. So that is definitely something that I hold dear to my heart.
How would you describe the music scene in Seattle? How does it compare to the music scene in Kenya?
Seattle has been incredible for me because it’s always been a big city from way back when. You had so many of the great musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones, bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and Macklemore. They’re all from Seattle, so it’s got a lot of heavyweights. So, there’s a very lively music scene. For me, it’s been the perfect place for me to build my career and have a really good foundation. The thing I love about Seattle is that you can do anything and everything and as long as you sound good, people will embrace it and will support you. People have been incredibly receptive to what I’m doing, for which I am thankful.
I haven’t had that much experience with the Kenyan music scene, only because I only come home once a year. When I do, I get to play only one or two shows, and that’s about it. But I have a curiosity about it because I know there are some really good musicians there that I’d love to work with, and I hope I get to do that one of these days.
Speaking of which, which Kenyan musician would you love to work with?
I would love to work with Wangeci, the hip hop artist. She’s incredible. Sara Mitaru is another one who I’ve really admired for a long time. I absolutely love her voice. Fena Gitu is another one that I’d love to work with.
Do you face any challenges being a female Kenyan musician in the US?
I face challenges as I think every musician would. If there were challenges, I think they were my own challenges, like deciding how I wanted to sound. When I began, there was this fear of sounding too different and people having no idea what to do with it. But I realized that the moment I stopped struggling with sounding different and embraced it, people would feel that energy. People would like that it sounded different. Most of the challenges were my own; my own fears and insecurities that I had to overcome. After that, doors just kept opening. I did it at the right time to do it. I feel like when you do something at the right time, there might be challenges but there wouldn’t be walls, just the normal hurdles of trying to get more shows. But I wouldn’t say that I had major challenges because I come from a different part of the world.
What music do you listen to? Who is currently on your personal playlist?
[Laughs] That’s a good question! It’s funny because I go through seasons where I don’t listen to music at all. The only time I listen to music then is when I’m driving and I’ll turn on the radio and listen to the Top Forty or whatever. I’m in that season right now.
I started listening to Asa, I love her. I listened to her music for quite a while, but her new album is on my wait list. I listened to Sam Smith for a really long time and I literally stopped that a few months ago. James Blake is a British RnB singer/songwriter and I just love his music. I’ve been listening to him for about a year. I love Dolly Parton because my mum loved her a lot [Laughs] and her music made me feel really reminiscent. I always try to go back in time and listen; someone like Miriam Makeba has so much work out there that I’ve never really gotten a chance to listen to her music. So, I’ve been trying to familiarize myself with as much of her work as I can, because she is one of those women I still look up to in terms of the kind of artist that I would love to be someday.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I get nervous a lot and I’ve noticed that the more I perform, the more crazy my anxiety gets. Lately, I’ve been meditating; by meditating I mean trying to have some quiet space, and think about what it is I’m trying to accomplish, an intention for what I would hope for. I think for me it’s that people come alive in who they are and feel that energy and that I’d be able to create that space for them to be whatever they want to be in that moment. I also want to offer a lot of gratitude because I always say that it is a privilege to get to do what I do. It’s something I don’t take for granted; that I get to travel the world, and sing to people. I spend a lot of time giving thanks to God for granting me this.
You mentioned a love album. What other projects are you working on right now?
I’m working on a new album, it’s called Song of Lament. I wrote it in the spring when I was in Germany and it’s pretty somber. It talks about the things that I’ve seen and the things that I hope humanity could do better. It will, God willing, come out in the spring of 2016.