An Honest Man

Multi-talented Silas Miami is a professional musician, film student, and photographer who left his native Kenya to attend the AFDA film school in Cape Town and expand his fan base. The honesty in his music reflects his approach to life. Singing primarily in English and Swahili, his songs appeal to a diverse audience in Cape Town and beyond. Ayiba’s Rara Reines recently spoke to Silas about his musical influences, his songwriting process, and the challenges he faces being a musician in South Africa.

How would you describe your genre of music?

“Experimental.” I’ve mixed and matched a lot of things — some of it sounds pop and some of it sounds very Afro-centric.

What were some of the influences early in your life that have contributed to the way you make music today?

My mom made me listen to old music. I only started listening to pop music in 2001, so I have influences from Elton John as well as a lot of African influences. I used to listen to old Congolese-infused music that a lot of Kenyans love. More recently, anyone who is doing pop with good lyrical content really gets my attention.

How has your sound evolved over time? Did your move from Kenya to South Africa change your sound in any significant way?

I think it’s become more refined. Lyrically, I think we’re opening up more boxes. Compositionally, we’re working with more experienced musicians. I just want to make good, long-lasting content that will influence young African men to do whatever they want to do and to do it well.

Why did you move to South Africa? Do you plan on staying for the long term?

It was a dare. I started law school and then during orientation week I left. And then I took some time off and traveled the world a little. I was lucky enough to join a cabaret show that traveled Europe for a bit, telling a European version of a Kenyan story. It was a good couple of months and then I came back home and started doing a bit of music, television, and film. And then a friend asked me why I wasn’t going back to school and I thought, why haven’t I? And then on his dare I didn’t go back. I was looking for a performance school in Kenya and couldn’t find one. If I’m going to do something I want to do it on the highest level. And the first school I spotted was AFDA in Cape Town. I applied and six months later I was on a plane.

As for staying for the long term: I still recognize home as home. If they made the immigration process a bit simpler…we’ll see what happens.

You speak other languages besides English and Swahili. Do you plan to include other languages in your future music?

Maybe, maybe. I haven’t spoken them in such a long time since I’ve been far away from home so I’m extremely rusty. I personally think Swahili is one of the most beautiful languages ever — it’s just amazing. I might actually sing all in Swahili at some point, just purely for a little while and maybe incorporate my ethnic languages as well.

Have you had any challenges producing music on the continent and in South Africa in particular?

Definitely. There aren’t very many producers available to freelance artists — good producers with very clean ears. The first discussion you have to have with yourself as an artist is are you going to be one of those pop kids who produce generic stuff, possibly a bit mediocre—I was very clear with myself in the beginning that I can’t produce it. This is why my EP has been sitting in the house for months! If it’s not good I’m not going to do it. It doesn’t have to be brilliant all the time but you have to give yourself the best shot. So for me the biggest challenge has been getting a good producer.

A good producer would alleviate a lot of my issues. The few who are really, really good are bloody expensive. And I appreciate that, if you’re good at your craft then you charge a pretty penny for it. That’s fair. But I can’t afford it! Your average singer/songwriter who’s coming up won’t be able to afford the rates, naturally. And that’s the cycle of life. So just navigating that space and finding the ones who are not brilliant but who are good enough, and then pushing together with them to get the best work. The best producers are in South Africa I just can’t afford them yet.

You are a film student as well as a professional musician. What have been your challenges in feeding more than one dream?

It’s challenging, but it’s fun. There are some days I think I’m not going to make it… I’m not going to make it but the next day it’s better. I do try to distance myself from the video component of my music. I find myself relying heavily on my manager who’s also a filmmaker and so he directs most of my music videos. I do have a specific look that I want but he generally comes up with ideas. I’m also working on other projects. Right now I’m working on a graduation film about an escort who is offered a Cinderella story only to realize she likes being an escort.

You are also a gifted photographer! Has there been any challenge in balancing the art forms of film and photography?

It’s very synesthetic and the different mediums mesh sometimes and I often tell people my music influences my editing techniques when we’re cutting together a film. I like cutting on the fourth beat so there’s a rhythm to it. It’s not that difficult. My photography influences the lens choices for my films when I’m shooting. And then my storytelling influences my music so it’s all linked. It makes it easier to do all three, because when I was growing up you were told to do one thing and be great at it. No, you can do many things and see what happens.

Silas Miami: The Honest Man

Silas Miami: The Honest Man

Film and photography are completely different but the framing is the same. I always tell people, “A frame is a frame. It’s what you put into it that makes a difference.” It all depends on what you do with the frame.

Back to music: what is your songwriting process like and what subjects are you drawn to most often?

It involves a shower. There’s a lot of showering that’s involved—I start thinking and singing the melody in the shower. If I sing it four, five, or six times and it sticks and I can’t forget it I jump out of the shower and record it. I write the lyrics down and record the melody and then send it to my pianist who always comes up with different ideas. Then we pick a date and we sit down and we write the whole thing. All my music comes from the shower, every single piece.

I’m a fairly private person in real life. But when it comes to music, I release everything. I feel like good music only comes from a place of honesty. If it’s not honest then the audience can tell. Honesty comes from deciding to love yourself in spite of everything else. I just started to love myself and am ok with that being messy. When you love who you are in spite of everything it becomes very easy to be honest with yourself. Be respectful, respect others, and who and what you are becoming.

Could you walk us through the process of putting an album together?

It’s very difficult to get an album. An EP is different—it’s a short project with a couple of songs and so that’s fairly easy for me. Getting to an honest space is tough. Taking some time off and then writing. It’s difficult because I think, what if they don’t like my stuff? When you decide to write for yourself, if you like it then it’s good enough. If one other person likes it, then you’ve succeeded. It’s really, really difficult when you’re juggling more than one thing. And then there’s Imposter Syndrome, when you’re afraid one day someone will wake up and realize that you’re not talented and tell everyone. And then you can’t give yourself too much of an inner boost because what happens is that you get comfortable. I recently screened my latest film and the reception was amazing—there were tears involved, it was great, it was fantastic. I remember going home, and I was in the shower, and then I left the shower and was drying my hair and was like, wait—what if the next one isn’t great? What if they discover that something is wrong with it? Getting out of that place, the beauty of it is that there is nothing else I’d rather be doing and so I can naturally get out of it. I think to myself, all you can do is sing, take photos, and shoot films. This is all you have so do it. And then I just wake up in the morning and keep doing it!