Wambui - Kenya
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COLORS x EDITORIAL | ARTIST INTERVIEWS
Discussing community, communication, and service with Maryland-based artist, rapper, and poet KAMAUU
Brought up in a household full of food, music, and film, KAMAUU attended the Pratt Institute for film before pursuing a career in music. From writing poetry and developing his unique vocal style on GarageBand to learning from Brooklyn’s BiGCiTYBiGCiTY brotherhood and founding the DoloBhana collective, KAMAUU has had a myriad of experiences that have contributed to the development of his storytelling and communication-focused musical style.
In line with his A COLORS SHOW performance of ‘the vibe’, and ahead of the release of his long-awaited debut studio album, ‘Lacuna in The House Of Mirrors’, we spoke to KAMAUU about his passion for storytelling in music and film, the need for mutual support in the Black community, and his preference for communication over expression.
Where does your artist name, KAMAUU, come from?
I was born with a slave name. When my father realized, we had a naming ceremony and rebuked the slave names to take ones that more closely matched our actual ancestors. My name was a gift, so I started making music under it. Later, I changed it to brother KAMAU, because I wanted to separate myself from other artists using that name. I changed it back to just KAMAU at one point, but Google started mixing up all of our information, so I added an extra U to make things clearer. Being someone who likes to make sense of things, I retroactively came up with a deeper meaning for the addition, which you can find out more about in this video.
What is your first musical memory?
My mother used to sing, so I think my introduction to music was hearing the vibrations of her voice while forming my body in her belly. Both of my parents were very big music appreciators. My father was the DJ of the house. On Saturday or Sunday mornings, I remember waking up and smelling fried apples and tofu, and hearing my father playing this song called ‘Jali’. It’s by a Senegalese artist called Vieux Diop and it’s just beautiful music. I would come downstairs for breakfast, my father would be at the table reading, it would be very sunny, and there’d be striped sunlight across the kitchen, table, and the food.
What gave you the confidence to listen to music that felt true to you?
It wasn’t really confidence or bravery—these artists were just too irresistible to resist. I just really liked them, that was it. I think the first time I really experienced that deep feeling was when ‘The Whole World’ by Outkast and featuring Killer Mike played on the radio. I kept missing the name of the track. Every time I was in the car, I wanted to hear that song so I could figure out what it was called. We have a certain attraction to things that we feel relate to us, and this includes music. That’s what I felt when I discovered Outkast and artists like them.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
The music my father and mother used to play really influenced me. I was never reluctant to listen. When I started to go digging through music stores myself, I mainly looked through the CDs to find interesting artwork. That was how I came across work from Digable Planets and Gift of Gab.
In middle school, I went through a phase of really trying to fit in because I got made fun of a lot. I tried to give what other people were listening to—artists like Lloyd Banks, 50 Cent, Lil Scrappy, and Bone Crusher—a chance. Later, I found music that felt more true to myself, by artists like N.E.R.D., Digable Planets, and Outkast. Outkast was the first duo that deeply resonated with me. There were other artists I enjoyed, but I could see myself in Outkast. Lupe Fiasco, and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) were also an important part of this very pivotal turning point in my musical journey. Lupe in particular was the catalyst for me to start merging my poetry and rapping.
You studied traditional African instruments, history, and culture as a child…
The first school I ever went to was Ujamaa Shule—it’s the oldest independent African school in America, and the founder is Dr. El Senzengakulu Zulu. He is one of the original founding members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a very powerful, beautiful, and pivotal human being. A lot of people who passed through the school are greatly influential. For example, Frances Cress Welsing wrote the Isis Papers, and Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, who was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. The school even had a relationship with Dr Martin Luther King.
For the boys, our rites of passage at the school were learning how to fight, drum, march, and operate as a team and community. We did capoeira, military commands, and learned how to play the djembe. Rapping is percussive in nature, so the djembe really helped me develop my approach there. Later, at public school, I learned to play the clarinet, which is more melodic. Both these instruments also helped me when I started to sing.
“The moment you start performing in front of an audience, you become a servant to them and communication is mandatory.”
When and why did you start to make your own music?
I started writing poetry in the equivalent of second grade. My first poem was called ‘Africa’. By fifth grade, I had switched from African to public school. There, my cousin got me to write a rap which we called ‘The Spinners on My Truck Go Round and Round’.
At my high school there was a computer lab that had GarageBand. It meant we could make our own beats. My cousin’s father was a DJ, and he had lots of CDs that had instrumental tracks with vocal stacks on them. Subconsciously, I started making connections between these tracks and the African music that my father was playing, which also had stacked vocals. One day, someone messed up the computers, and all of the loops and software instruments disappeared. I started to rap and use my own voice as a placeholder in my compositions, thinking that I would replace it when the instruments came back. But they never did. As a result, vocals became a staple part of my style.
Before focusing on music, you studied film at the Pratt Institute in New York. What interests you in film?
As a child, my father would tell us stories every night. This was one of the first things that made me fall in love with storytelling. It is a key part of both music and movies: both mediums have inciting incidents, obstacles, climaxes, and resolve just like a story. There was a big movie culture in my family which we all bonded over. We’d often have movie nights and I fell in love with this special family time, the smell of popcorn, the characters, and the music. As a result, my love for film is twofold: for narratives, but also musical scores.
During this time, and for a while afterwards, you lived in Brooklyn. Tell us about the creative scene there and how it influenced your artistic development.
When I first got to Brooklyn, the artist Chet Gold took me under his wing. He was part of BiGCiTYBiGCiTY, a brotherhood of intimidating and powerfully advanced rappers. Being around them helped me develop from an encyclopedia rapper to someone who was actually trying to communicate something. They helped me to realize that people didn’t understand what I was saying. Even though you might want to express yourself, communication is more important, as it takes the people in the room into account. The moment you start performing in front of an audience, you become a servant to them and communication is mandatory. I didn’t realize the importance of communication and service through rap at first, because it was a place that I went to for refuge.
Tell us about DoloBhana, the artist collective you founded in Brooklyn.
When I signed with Atlantic Records, I started this art community called the DoloBhana with my DJ friend dashMOON. It was intended as an incubator for creative growth. There were around seven to eleven artists involved, and we all lived together and focused on our respective crafts. Everyone was so talented, and I grew and learned so much from them. Some of the members included Siimbiie Lakew, who I’ve collaborated with numerous times, Michael Excell, who starred in all the music videos for ‘Gorgeous Fortune’, my first project with Atlantic, and my older brother, who’s an amazing musician. They’re such a cool bunch of people, and beautiful friends that I have to this day.
“ Community is an absolute necessity for the survival of the human species.”
To date, you’ve released projects including ‘TheKAMAU-CASSETTE’ (2014), ‘TheKAMAU-CASSETTE: ŭRTH GōLD’ (2017), and ‘TheKAMAUU-CASSETTE: MíXD GRēēNS’ (2019). How did you approach creating these albums? What was your creative process like?
My approach to ‘ŭRTH GōLD’ wasn’t traditional or methodical. After releasing it, I realized that I was, like I mentioned before, expressing myself rather than communicating. On my next project, ‘KAMAU-CASSETTE: MíXD GRēēNS’, I consciously tried to communicate more. There are moments I feel I was communicating effectively in my earlier projects, but it was more purposeful in ‘MíXD GRēēNS’. I had a similar realization when making my latest project that’s coming out, so I tried to focus on communicating more aggressively, to the point where I told the producer that if there were any songs he didn’t understand, I would delete them and start over.
For my first EP with Atlantic, ‘A Gorgeous Fortune’, I worked with a producer group called ‘No Wyld.’ We pretty much went into their apartment and we stayed there until the project was done. My debut studio album, ‘Lacuna in The House Of Mirrors’, was made using a similar process: I stayed with Mick Schultz, my producer, and we did everything together. So ‘A Gorgeous Fortune’ and ‘Lacuna in The House Of Mirrors’ mirror each other in a way. This said, there’s not a very strong throughline through all of my projects. There are consistencies, but they are more unconscious, habitual things that are a part of my personality rather than an actual method. For my next project, which will be a musical, I’d like to experiment with coming up with the story I want to tell before I actually start working on it.
In 2018, you performed at the Thrift Social installation in Nairobi. What interested you in visiting and playing in Kenya?
I really want to go back to Kenya this year! Going there to perform was my first time in Africa. It was really healing and beautiful. Regardless of any opinion or perspective, I am an African person. My name is Kenyan, but I’m not of Kenyan heritage. When I was part of DoloBhana, I discovered the promotional tool on Instagram. I started using it to promote my music in places that I didn’t think a lot of people were promoting. It worked, especially in Kenya because of my name. On Kenyan Twitter, there was a huge positive reaction. The country was claiming me! I clarified that I wasn’t Kenyan, expecting the support to die down, but that didn’t happen. They were like: “You’re Kenyan now, you’re one of us now!” After my show I stayed to meet anyone who wanted to talk. My experience was filled with a lot of love and emotion.
Tell us about, ‘the vibe,’ which you performed for your debut A COLORS SHOW.
‘the vibe’ is short for vibration—an essential component of harmony. On one level, the song is about mood and treatment. On another, it’s about financial harmony and the circulation of the dollar in the Black community. In the song I say: “I got the goods, stack with me, don’t come through with bad energy,” which is another way of saying “let’s not disrupt each other’s vibrations.” The song is also about community. Community is an absolute necessity for the survival of the human species. Family’s really important as the first form of community, only second to the community with yourself, which is sanity. That’s part of the reason I enjoyed my experience in Kenya so much.
“Listen to yourself, not your programming, and not your feelings.”
Is there one lyric in the song which is particularly meaningful to you?
In the second verse I say: “I could teach you how to get a lot of cheese, I got the dialect of dairy in my diary, I’m from a lactose intolerant community.” It means that the actions we perform demonstrate that we are not able to tolerate or handle ‘cheese’ or money. Then I say: “But I want to circulate the units in the unity, the continuity of opportunity, stacking bands, opportunities that configure with your family, I can show you how to get the figures in advance, I don’t see nobody else but us giving a damn.” That last line sounds very simple, but I think it’s easily the most important lyric in the song. There’s not one group of people on the planet that are so benevolent that they will actually go out of their way to help Black people. When we take charge of ourselves and the people closest to us, whether they’re immediate relatives, cousins or people we live with, our actions can become contagious locally. Right now, be a hero for yourself: “Because I don’t see nobody else but us giving a damn.”
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What are your ambitions for the future?
In 5 years time I will be closer to being a father. I’ll be healthier, I’ll be more focused, I’ll be less disruptive of myself. In two years time, I’ll be a better son, a better brother, and better member of my community. Music and career goals are great, but the most important thing is health. The only worthy goal is to be healthy and to be of good service to the planet. That’s the purpose of everything, then you get to decide how you achieve that purpose.
If you could send one message to your fans right now what would it be?
Listen to yourself, not your programming, and not your feelings. Do your best to remember how to be healthy, challenge yourself, learn how to feed yourself, nourish yourself, and protect yourself. Learn how to protect your mind and nourish it, and how to protect your focus and nourish it. Repairing the quality of your focus will help you become a better musician, a better engineer, a better cook, a better sibling, a better person, a better yogi, whatever you choose.
KAMAUU is a Maryland-based artist whose debut A COLORS SHOW dropped on 24th April 2023. You can watch the full performance on our YouTube channel.
Text: Emily May and Maryam Tuggar
Photography: Megan Courtis
Videography: Lucie Leichsering
Video editing: Katia Fisenko
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