Category: Arts + Culture


DSC_0824It’s been a few weeks since my trip to Sweden. I think it was so cold that my mind has since, still been thawing. But thankfully I now am good to recollect all my thoughts :-)

Last November while in Netherlands, despite having someone to hug me during my entire trip ;-) I found Amsterdam so chilly – winter was kicking just kicking in.

Unbeknownst to me, that was preparation for my arrival in Sweden in a few months (March 2015). These were the last days of winter but they teach me what it really means to be cold. I had never experienced such cold that requires life to only exist with on and a load of clothes on, literally making you feel like you are forever carrying a load on your body. The streets are empty and I am told it’s because of the cold weather.

DSC_0755Interestingly, I receive such a warm welcome for such a cold country. The first people I meet as soon as I arrive at Bromma airport are the usual hungry taxi men. I ask one of them if I can use their phone to call Sylvia (my friend and host). Her phone is on voicemail so I promise the kind taxi man that we will take his taxi if at all I find her and we need one. I end up purchasing a week – long bus ticket that I start to use asap. As we walk out of the airport, I don’t want to glance at the taxi men as I am headed to the bus station. Sylvia tells me that their kindness is unique and unlike most taxi operators. When I finally steal a glance at them as we leave to the bus stop, they are all standing tall, smiling at me and waving goodbye.

I am lucky the sun comes out on my first day, as soon as I arrive. It’s so beautiful to see snow for the first time. Sylvia couldn’t be happier to share my first-snow-moment with me.

DSC_0786As we get into the city centre, I am amazed at Stockholm’s beauty. First, the buildings in Stockholm are located between Lake Malaren and the Baltic Sea. I find something I totally love about Europe’s architecture here – history that dates back to the 13th century, if not earlier. Sweden’s list of islands fantasizes me and sometimes while driving around town, I can’t imagine what a beautiful view those who live on these islands have every morning, especially during summer time. One building even has its top shaped like a ship.

I find the design of some Stockholm buildings quite similar to Dutch architecture. Sylvia tells me that a lot of Swedish architecture has foreign influences. Indeed, during the 1600s and 1700s, foreign architects were recruited to build the city and in recent periods Swedish architects often drew inspiration from their tours to Europe.

DSC_1129On a different day we pass by the eighteenth-built Swedish Royal Palace, one of the largest palaces in Europe. This is were His Majesty the King of Sweden resides. It’s so grand with 600 rooms and the whole shebang. I am wowed by the fact that it’s open to the public. As we walk in and out its lovely court area, Sylvia tells me that national events or announcements are actually made by the King, many times, here. Its Italian Baroque style, coronation carriages and magnificent coaches from the Royal Stable make me feel like I just walked into Disney World. I miss to see the parade of soldiers but indeed there’s that one soldier by the entrance who is so still, she looks like a statue.

Look out for:

Taking stock of Stockholm: Part II (Visiting Old Town)

Taking stock of Stockholm: Part III (Dogs, Music and Cuisine)

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While in Stockholm, I visited the Fotografiska, a Swedish photography museum and centre for contemporary photography opened in 2010. Its location is perfect – just by the Baltic Sea and habour – both providing beautiful scenery.

 

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I was glad to discover the space showcasing an exhibition on Herb Ritts – one of the world’s most sought-after fashion photographers. “In Full Light” (21st Nov 2014 – 15th Mar 2015) was a retrospective exhibition of Herb’s famous, iconic images and pictures that have never before been shown.

 

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At the moment, I didn’t know much of Herb Ritts – the person, mainly because his career’s high point was during 70s and 80s just when I hadn’t entered the world or was too tiny – but when I started viewing his work, especially the portraits, I realized that I had already seen some of them before.

 

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The exhibition’s images were so powerful, it amazed me how in just one image, Herb managed to capture the aura of superstars and personalities created over decades. For instance, there was a Prince image where he is gripping at his black leather cap tied to chains that cover is face – truly representative of Prince’s style and the facade he’s built around him to date. These are iconic images that evoke memories of an era like when King of Pop was alive and when Madonna was Queen of Pop.

 

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There are several nude fashion images but my best is of two male models sensually holding themselves like it’s the last time before the world robs them of their sacred moment. They look like sex gods, something I would only expect to see in sculpture at The Louvre. The museum writes of Herb’s inspirations, “There was an emerging fixation with the body and a fashion world inspired by gay culture.”

 

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Herb, who was good friends with Richard Gere, loved people and looks like he ended up making friends or creating working relationships with many celebrities. It shows in his choice of his images. Seeing an image of Patrick Swayze in such a beautiful portrayal that only reminds me of his sexy self in Dirty Dancing—one of the best films that I first watched as a child thereby my definition of classic. This and many images of “Full Light” are the “illustration of a rare equilibrium, expressed via a careful combination of natural elements. The result is a visual game that is apparently seductive and simple but which conceals elaborate technical skill.” This image balances between Swayze’s masculinity and femininity – a rare equilibrium to display via lens. I miss him so much.

My other favourites include portraits of Antonio Banderas, Magic Johnson and images of Cher’s butt (puts Nicki Minaj’s fakeness to shame), Naomi Campbell and a psychotic looking Denzel Washington (reminds me of his role in Flight).

“Herb Ritts died in 2002 of pneumonia at the age of 50. He is remembered as one of the major lifestyle photographers of the 80s and 90s. Mixing commercial commissions with portraits, music videos and his own projects, he broke the boundaries of fashion, art and advertising.”

 

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During his illustrious career in photography he worked for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Elle, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. He also worked in music videos for the greats like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Jennifer Lopez. He worked with fashion brands like Calvin Klein, Versace and Giorgio Armani.

 

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After visiting the exhibition, interestingly I was served at the centre’s bookshop by a Swedish gentleman who asked if I was from Kenya. “Your earrings do look like Kenya’s flag,” he said, adding, “I am actually going to be in Kenya soon for a holiday as my Dad used to work there.” I am amazed at this. When I am away from home, I always see signs that remind me of home. Ended up buying an awesome lens cup at Fotografiska.

BONUS: Thanks Sylvia Ziemski​ for the awesome company. Herb Ritts exhibition was a production of Fondazione Forma per la Fotografia, Milan, in association with Herb Ritts’ Foundation. It was curated by Alessandra Mauro and designed by Jessy Heuvelink, Head of Design at J. Lindeberg.

DSC00437Few stories have brought my heart such despair as much as hope as this 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup that I chanced upon in a small hidden bookshop in Amsterdam.

Solomon has “common hopes, and loves, and labors of an obscure coloured man, making his humble progress in the world”. He is born and raised a free man. The lower-middle class industrious man is married with three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. Together with his wife, Solomon tries to make ends meet by running various short-lasting projects, including a career in music. Solomon is among few black males from Saratoga who can make some good money off his violin playing.

Two circus promoters approach Solomon offering him a job in Washington and promise to pay extremely well for his services as a musician. In desperate need for providing for his family, he follows them immediately without alerting his family. By tricking and drugging him, they kidnap him from his native Saratoga into slavery deep in the south of Louisiana – where he would be bound for 12 years.

“My subject is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage,” Solomon writes in the first page of the first chapter. I sobbed occasionally while flipping through his pages and now I balance tears reflecting upon the book as I write this. How a free man or anyone could find himself bound in chains and shackles then subjected to utmost inhumane treatment is heartbreaking.

This is a solitary tale yet a painting of the lives of so many – cast and condemned as slaves, either born into it or captured like Solomon.

Life of a Slave

tyas_cvrIn chronological order, Solomon explains to the reader the process of how he was enslaved, and the day-to-day life of a slave. The life of a slave is worthless. Some slave owners feed their animals more than a slave. And some let dogs maul their slaves. A slave’s history, if any, doesn’t exist. The words freedom and liberty must never be uttered from a slave’s mouth (lest they receive several lashes as punishment). The subject of freedom and liberty however was always spoken or thought of in private as revealed by Solomon, discrediting the old assumption that slaves never understood or even fathomed what it meant to be free. Before his kidnapping, Solomon recalls, “I frequently met slaves … Many times they entered into conversation with me on the subject of slavery. Almost uniformly I found they cherished a secret desire for liberty …”

Slave buyers bargain for human beings like they would for any commodity. Their qualities are rated just as a mule’s would. If need be, they are stripped and signs of scars from lashing indicate tendencies of a difficult animal to be made servant – the price immediately depreciates. Once bought, slaveholders can hire out their slaves just like animals or trucks. A slave can be forced to work tirelessly under the watchful eye of the overseer day and night while being whipped all through. They are also whipped if they don’t produce as expected during the cotton-planting season or if their produce fluctuates. If a slave is found walking to other plantations without a pass written by their master, any white man is permitted to seize and whip them.

At this point of the book, I am appalled at the utter darkness of an era when some life was so worthless to be branded with a price tag.

Throughout a whole year, a slave only gets about three or four days off during Christmas season – when they can eat up and meet with friends from other plantations. This is where and when married couples only unite and parents meet their children. Lovers unite too, “cupid disdains not to hurl his arrows into the simple hearts of slaves”.

The Great Escape

During his bondage, Solomon spends every day scheming how to escape and many times attempts it – a dangerous endeavor that always puts him trouble or risk with its worst punishment being death. During his first attempt, he notes, “we resolved to regain our liberty or lose our lives.” At times, he starts to lose sanity. “Were the events realities indeed?” He is constantly baffled.

After a deathly flogging for declaring that he was indeed a free man soon after his kidnapping, Solomon writes, “I resolved to lock the secret closely in my heart … trusting in my own Providence and my own shrewdness for deliverance.” It’s a chance meeting with a good-hearted white man that sees his road to freedom start. Bass risking his life to write for Solomon is show that good can always trump evil. The important letter they both draft finally reaches the right and lawful office in charge of rescuing those illegally sold into slavery.

In the 12 years, Solomon’s spirit defies, among trials, a deadly smallpox outbreak that claims lives and causes him temporary blindness, thorough flogging, whipping, the jaws of hunting hounds, hunger and an escape that forces him to walk miles and camp in a swamp (amongst wild animals like deadly snakes and crocodiles). He also writes that he wouldn’t have made it out alive without music. Many times, his violin granted him solace, favours and visits to other plantations.

This is an extraordinary story on the resilience of the human spirit, especially in the face of the worst of life’s challenges and deepest of sorrows.

America’s Dark History Vs Redemption

This book totally immerses the reader into the darkest period (18th and 19th centuries) of American history when slavery was legal. It brings to full light the brutal horrors and injustice of slavery and how historically it was associated with African descent – contributing to a system and legacy in which race still plays a dominant role.

The book balances a memoir and objectivity – even though a mere slanted moral weighing machine. Not all slave owners or white people were heartless and inclined to slavery. Many times, Solomon expresses his regret in a “unjust, barbarous and cruel” system that empowered slave owners and a mindset that disregarded a people of one race. “It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives.”

Solomon’s mistress cries at losing her most handy servant, as his master is furious at losing their most-priced property. “Ten years I toiled for Epps without reward … I am indebted to him for nothing, save undeserved abuse and stripes,” writes Solomon. But at the book’s ending, his lawyer and associates who come to the rescue, ask him to bid his former master and mistress goodbye, which he does. Though subtle, this is a sign of a forgiving heart on Solomon’s side and it reflects upon one side of how a whole generation and a people would need to deal with the deeply scathing injustice of slavery and racism in pursuit of healing.

Unsung Heroes

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Steve McQueen and the cast and crew of 12 Years a Slave accept the best picture award at the Oscars.

Poor 23-year-old Patsey of Guinean descent was a slave brought over to Cuba on a slave ship. Solomon writes that had she lived another life, she “would have been chief among ten thousand among her people.” Patsey’s life was the epitome of a series of unfortunate events. Among slaves in Bayou Boeuf area, she was known as the queen of the cotton fields and would produce twice as much as any cotton-picker but would be whipped thoroughly at the end of each day if she either picked less or didn’t pick more.

Patsey is also caught in between the lust of her master and overflowing hate from her mistress. “She wept oftener, and suffered more, than any of her companions. Her back bore the scars of a thousand stripes; not because she was backward in her work, nor because she was unmindful and rebellious spirit, but because it had fallen to her lot to be the slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress.” In the film adapted from the book, it is indicated that their master Epps would also rape her yet in Solomon’s tale, he only insinuates such activities. However, the girl would be branded by hot metal or thrown at glasses by her mistress just for kicks. And even though Solomon endured severe lashing as well as others, he writes that no other worse lashing did he witness during his 12 years as a slave that was worse than that subjected on Patsey by Master Epps.

Patsey is the only one who dares to run after Solomon as he finally leaves Master Epp’s farm as a free man. As she weeps at him, he says nothing at all. This is potentially a sign that even though Solomon left the bondage of slavery, he would remain enslaved by the empathy for his former comrades for as long as they remained enslaved. That’s why he is unable to bid the slaves farewell or urge Patsey to stay alive or strong – for a part of his spirit forever remains in those slave pens.

If you read and reflect upon this book, you will realise that Solomon Northup and everyone who helped him regain his freedom, and tell this story (including the director Steve McQueen) – are the silent unsung heroes of both today and a past time when calling a black man a hero would be despised. It is this unforgettable memoir that would inspire the director Steve McQueen to make the Academy Award-winning film 12 Years a Slave.

The movie befits the story, especially because its characters match the spirit of the slaves as described by Solomon, but it doesn’t come close to the actual suffering and horror slaves in Solomon’s account were subjected to. However, for these two dark-skinned actors in the film adaptation: Chiwetel Ejiofor (BAFTA Best Lead Actor) and Lupita Nyon’go (Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) to win for Solomon’s story is triumphant indeed. I wish he were alive to witness people of all colour and race live and be accorded equally and rightfully. He would assert that the producers, cast and directors who brought his story to life did not trump colour or race but the darkness of an era. He would be proud that they upheld liberty, equality and justice for all.

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Alas! The stories of the voiceless slaves have been told, again, hundreds of years later.

BONUS: You might love my review of To Kill a Mocking Bird. Can’t wait for the book’s sequel coming out this July.

DSC00208This moment right here is surreal even though I haven’t met D’Angelo yet. I am inside the backstage of D’Angelo’s The Second Coming Tour meeting his tour manager, Alan Leeds. I later discover that the legendary American music executive has won a Grammy and managed Prince and James Brown. He’s had a hand in the careers of serious soul music men though generations.

Alan asks so many questions about D’Angelo’s Kenyan and African reach. I hate that I am fully preoccupied by the thought of meeting D’Angelo so I decide to politely cut to the chase amidst our conversation.

“So how’s D’Angelo?” Alan must have dealt with a million journalists before as he immediately gets the code for the “Can I now meet D’Angelo” question. He says, “He’s okay. Tired and resting. You can’t meet D’Angelo or see him, especially after the show. I thought I also made it clear that no interviews. He’s not doing any interviews and doesn’t do interviews.”

Bummer. How I handle this conversation is what will either make me meet D’Angelo or not. I decide to be straight up honest and lay all my cards on the table. “I know you said no interviews but I thought that if I made it to the backstage I’d at least meet him and introduce myself, and maybe ask a few questions off the cuff.” Alan towering over me, looks at me pensively with that ‘what do I do with this girl’ look, while chewing gum and shaking his head. “No. You can’t meet D’Angelo. He’s not meeting anyone. Listen. Even his record label executives were at the show tonight and haven’t met him and will not meet him. I am with my cousin here, and she won’t even meet D’Angelo.”

In this moment, I understand and don’t want to be fussy – even though I am not moving an inch. “I also work with artists as a Publicist and I understand how sometimes they want time to themselves, especially before or after a show,” I tell Alan. He wants to know who I work with and I mention Sauti Sol and their recent MTV EMA Best African Act Win. Alan wants me to share with him more on Sauti Sol.

Our conversation immediately shifts from D’Angelo to music business. He starts to ask me about which international music stars have been to Kenya recently and seems pretty impressed that Erykah Badu was here a few years ago.

Read my 10 Mins with Erykah Badu

“Do you frequent Europe? Because we have a couple of shows lined up for summer” – an extension of The Second Coming Tour (which at the time was about to conclude). I respond, “I come to Europe once in a while, I only had to come this time because of D’Angelo and was hoping to interview him for Kenya’s National Newspaper: Daily Nation. He’s got a big audience at home.”

My article published by Daily Nation: A triumphant return: D’Angelo’s second coming a big success

We continue to discuss music business and at some point, I feel like we’ve talked about just about everything possible. Alan keeps thanking me for coming and says he hopes to see me again. We have also agreed that I will be interviewing D’Angelo via email – which totally works for me! Of course! But for some reason, I can’t go. Something keeps telling me to stay behind because ‘you might just meet D’Angelo’ – it says. But it’s getting late and looking over at Sylvia, she looks weary. I am also tired from the concert and long day that we have had. We are still carrying stuff from shopping from earlier in the day because we didn’t have time to return to hotel, have dinner and make it to concert in time so we carried everything with us.

I am so honoured to meet Alan and talk to him. He reveals a lot about the mystique around D’Angelo’s privacy and scarcity at interviews. “D’Angelo is very private and never likes to meet people. I try explaining to him but he’s an artist and he thinks in a certain way. I keep trying to make him open up more.” I totally understand, I tell Alan. He’s trying to explain to me why I have to go without meeting D’Angelo. By now I know I am not seeing him and am cool with that. Plus Alan has also told me that the whole band and crew is flying to Amsterdam tonight ahead of their twin shows at one of my favourite venues in the world – Paradiso.

Read about how I attended Wiz Khalifa’s concert at Paradiso

For the umpteenth time Alan bids me farewell and I finally feel like I can stop being a bother and leave. In my quest to seeing D’Angelo, two hours or more could have already passed in this backstage. We walk through the corridor and into the red-coloured lift, when Alan runs over to us and beckons me to return. “I will show you to a different exit,” he says. Suddenly, Alan is walking us through D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s Second Coming Backstage, through the twists and turns – I feel like I am in a music video or movie. There are about 10 security guards, all tall and buff – some standing and others sitting on chairs by the walls. I don’t suspect anything, until I start to see signs with band members names on doors and arrows leading to D’Angelo’s Dressing Room.

We reach a dead-end. There’s only a red-coloured door here and a guard dressed in black sitting right outside. “Wait here,” Alan tells me and enters through the door. I am not sure if D’Angelo is here or he simply wants to pick something before leading us to ‘the different exit’. After about two minutes he returns closing the door behind him. He stands right in front of me and opens the door for me, signaling me to enter. I look at him like W-T-F-Dude! Inside – I see D’Angelo in the large room, all by himself. He quickly stands and holds his hands in respect, like how people pray, as I approach.

I stop half way, wondering to myself why I didn’t see this coming. I would have prepared a speech or a better introduction. For a split second everything that led me here plays in my mind. The drama and bad service at Brusells Airlines. My last-minute decision to travel all the way from Kenya to Sweden for this concert and the ambition to even try meet D’Angelo. And then there are lots of childhood memories of jamming to D’Angelo’s music and watching Untitled.

I drop all my bags on the floor and start to softly (I think) mumble things to D’Angelo. “Hey D’Angelo – Hey D” I am not too sure what to call him, “I am so honoured to meet you. This is unbelievable! I have loved your music since I was a little girl so this moment is too special. I am also a journalist …” He moves closer and hold both my hands, as if telling me – it’s okay you don’t gotta rap.

I take a breath and introduce myself saying I am from Kenya. “What!? Are you kidding me!? You came from Kenya? No way!” He won’t believe me. “That’s why I also want to interview you,” for the first time Alan cuts me off saying, “I told you no interviews.”

I respond to him and D’Angelo, “I know what you said, I am just explaining who I am and what I want to do because we’ll do it via email. I am not trying to interview him now.” D’Angelo is dazed. He looks like he just saw either and angel or a devil. He keeps rubbing my hand while saying, “Sister bless you!” He also gives me that respectful European cheek kiss and hugs me. I introduce Sylvia to him as my good friend and host in Stockholm and ask to take a picture with him. He’s cool.

All this time Alan is watching us like a movie scene playing out. “So did you enjoy the show?” D’Angelo asks me, and then asks Sylvia too. What? D’Angelo wants to know if I enjoyed his show? Me? Dreams are valid because having grown up in Molo, a small town in Kenya’s Rift Valley, I would never believe that I could even ever come close to meeting D’Angelo and get that kind of VIP treatment in that setting in a foreign land. When I walk out of Annexet, we hug again. My gloves drop and Alan calls me back to get them. D’Angelo is just standing there looking at me …

BONUS: My article on D’Angelo published by Kenya’s Daily Nation:  A triumphant return: D’Angelo’s second coming a big success

Read the full D’Angelo series below:

How I Met D’Angelo: Part I

How I Met D’Angelo: Part II

How I Met D’Angelo: Part III (Second Coming Tour Concert Review)

Inside Second Coming Tour: How I Met D’Angelo: Part IV

Watching the music video of Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s Umqumbothi is one of my fond memories from growing up. How could men drinking beer from pots look so fresh? While still a child, I immediately decided that Yvonne was the coolest African woman on TV.

Fast forward. 20 years later and Yvonne Chaka Chaka – the Princess of Africa, remains one the most respected voices in and from Africa. She has performed everywhere. From New York, Italy to Nairobi. Name it. She’s performed alongside world stars like Youssou N’Dour, Angelique Kidjo, Bono and Queen, among many others.

DSC00254I am the last to interview Yvonne during her recent Nairobi visit. ‘Damn – I have to make this good’ – I tell myself. “Are we ready? Twende sasa” She tells me as my camera crew takes forever to set up. We are seated in a tiny room by a café situated in the upper floors of Intercontinental Hotel. She seems a little agitated and tired. Thankfully, she quickly warms up to me as soon as we start, and even makes jokes you would only share with your friends. “I am not as skinny as you! You can see that now I am a mama,” she jests in realization that March 2015 is her special birthday month – she’s turning 50 and celebrating 30 years in the music industry. “Half of 100 is amazing. I can only be happy.”

DSC00256She is pensive throughout the interview. However, she answers all my questions without a second thought and thoroughly. She’s either done too many interviews or is extremely sharp. I think both. I am so intimidated and at the same time inspired by Yvonne – a true representation of a strong African woman with beauty and brains. “You are what you eat and drink” – all she can reveal about her beauty regime.

Yvonne beams with pride when I tell her how in 1990 – I was the little girl dancing to Umqumbothi in my mother’s living room in a little Kenyan town. She says, I don’t know how I got popular in countries like Kenya, Senegal, Ugandan and places like Mauritania. It must have been the power of radio, TV and my manager at the time because there wasn’t social media then. I did not expect to be so popular in this beautiful continent of Africa. But I am very pleased that I am known in this continent as am a very proud African.”

I wrote songs of freedom in the name of women

With a rich discography including other monster hits like I’m burning Up, Thank You Mr. DJ and Makoti; Yvonne’s songs and music videos remain catchy and popular, still dripping cool. However, only the clever listener can decipher the message behind most of her lyrics.

During the apartheid (1948 – 1994) there was more than racial segregation in South Africa. The ruling government did not allow musicians to directly sing about their own struggle or that of their country. These challenges heavily influenced the direction Yvonne’s music would eventually take. She says, “Growing up in South Africa I knew things weren’t as rosy as everybody thought they were. However, I had the platform and the voice and it was my right to disseminate information and air my views.”

Yvonne then found a secret avenue. She would write songs and then rewrite them to hide direct message. She explains her part in the South African rebellion against the apartheid government, “I Cry For Freedom was initially written for South Africans but SABC could not play its original lyrics.” Yvonne was forced to change the lyrics and had to battle with the idea of balancing the new message with the original. “It became a song about women empowerment and against women abuse”

Meeting Madiba 

Another one of my favourite Yvonne songs: Let Him Go was originally written for Mandela. “The message said let him go to his children and family but obviously I couldn’t say Let Mandela Go – I’d have gone to jail, so we changed the song’s packaging to be about a woman loving another woman’s man – you always there when he needs you, where is he now? Let him go.”

The song Motherland was about South Africa and Africa. Produced in 1989, its lyrics were directed to the colonizer: “Who’s that man calling me stranger in my motherland?” Yvonne says, “Things weren’t that bad then because we knew that people were fighting for South Africans to have their rights and to be taken out of the misery of apartheid.”

A year later, Mandela was released from detention. Yvonne recalls meeting Mandela in 1990, soon after his release. “It was amazing! I was lucky to meet Madiba. When you are in a room with him, you felt love and humility. You felt so good. I don’t know how it’s like with people amongst Jesus but when you were around that man you felt such love. I would never want to compare him to Jesus but really he was one of Jesus.”

Yvonne’s latest album, Amazing Man, released in 2013. It’s a “dedicated to Mandela and all the African leaders,” she says, adding, “I could never stop recording, it’s who I am.”

It’s hard for women to break through even in the 21st century 

Yvonne is a mother of four boys, “and that includes my husband – the fifth man in my space.” Of all her children only one took after her. Temba is a musician, music producer and writer, and has produced some of her music. She however hopes that he can put the music on hold to complete his degree.

She explains her mission in Africa to Black Roses …

“I have seen how easy it is for men to do whatever they want to do, and how hard it is for women to break through, even in the 21st century. Why can’t we give women a platform to air their views and be what they want to be? Women are still disenfranchised, disintegrated and married off early. I am strongly opposed to 12 to 13 year olds getting married to older men. Why can’t we just let the children be children? Why should I be married to a man who I don’t even love and just be given to him as a young girl? Why am I a woman who when my husband dies his brother will forcibly marry me, why can’t I chose my Peter or James?”

“I respect culture. If people or women are comfortable with that – that’s what they are comfortable with but some people find themselves in those situations or are coerced– those are the people who need us to rescue them.” I also get very upset when Africans fight and kill each other. I would like to have children (both boys and girls) live and learn.”

Awards and accolades

Just like music, Yvonne’s humanitarian work has made a mark and garnered her recognition. She became the first woman to receive the World Economic Forum Crystal Award. Other notable accolades include the 2015 Ubuntu Award for Diplomacy in Arts and Culture and a Continental Lifetime Achievement Award from the president of South Africa.

She says, “I don’t count awards I’ve received because whatever I am doing is not to achieve an award; it’s because I have time to do it, I see the need to do it and I am helping somebody. I appreciate awards and I get very humbled. It means once you are doing something you like, someone is watching and acknowledging. I am thanking God for life and being able to do all the work and the things I love. I do it out of the goodness of my heart and I’ve been given a platform. Maybe, it’s a calling from God.”

Yvonne’s first trip to Kenya was in 1987. Since, she’s become a Kenyan of sorts. She constantly throws in Swahili words and tells me about her friends who include wives of two of the most powerful Kenyan politicians – Aida Odinga (of Kenya’s former prime minister Mr. Odinga) and Margaret Kenyatta (the First lady of Kenya). She says, “I do come to Kenya a lot. My second home is in Kakamega where I work with Vestergaard Frandsen and have a lot of children.

DSC00267By the time I wrapping up, we’re cool and both relaxed. Yvonne tells me that today is a typical Yvonne-crazy-day with over 10 interviews to do. Her realness reminds me of my mum. “On a normal day I can sleep for 12 hours if I am not at rehearsal,” she says. So what would Yvonne do if not music? I wonder. “I’d have been a hopeless lawyer” – she says with that ‘I’d still be rocking!’ twinkle in her eye.

BONUS: I loved interviewing Yvonne. Thank you very much Chao, Susan Wong and Capital FM Kenya Team.

DSC00074Every night, Dagobert Restaurant & Pizzeria, a Turks owned establishment in Sweden transforms into a Kenyan club. Named after Kenya’s second-largest city, Club Mombasa Stockholm is now the meeting point for Kenyans living in Sweden.

On a cold late winter night last February, Kenyans, including Kenya’s ambassador to Sweden, Dr. Joseph K. Sang, fill the venue to launch of Club Mombasa, situated on Roslagsgatab Street in Stockholm’s city centre.

There are plenty of activities: some chitchat, dance, laughter and hugs in the crowd as Kenyans in Sweden reunite and make new alliances. Kenyan DJ Frank, formerly of Mamba Village and now based in Sweden, plays a good mix of African songs. They range from rhumba songs from greats like Papa Wemba and Wenge Musica; popular Kenyan hits from olden artists like Remmy Ongala and Maroon Commandos to the best of the new crop of hit-makers like Madtraxx, Jaguar and Sauti Sol. Over at the bar, Turkish attendants bop their heads to the music while looking over to the Kenyans on the dance floor showing off famed Kenyan dances like Mosquito, Helicopter and Lipala Dance.

Kenyan businessman and music promoter Clay Onyango is behind the launch of Club Mombasa. Inspired by a need to create a space for Kenyans to connect without prejudice, he says, “Kenyans are indirectly discriminated elsewhere. ‘All tables are booked or you’re not dressed appropriately’ – some of the things we are sometimes told when out just to have a great night.”

Clay has lived in Sweden with his family since 1991, and since successfully set up a trusted Moving Company: Orkarinte. His office is just a block away from Dagobert Restaurant, where a brilliant idea struck him during one of his many lunch visits. He would eventually seal a deal with its managers to transform the restaurant into a Kenyan club every night, “with Friday nights mainly focusing on Kenyan music.” Beaming at the success of Club Mombasa launch, Clay says, “I am so happy, word went round and even attracted other Africans who aren’t from Kenya. I didn’t even know the Ambassador Sang would come as I didn’t invite him.”

Unlike in some European cities, there aren’t other known Kenyan clubs or restaurants in Stockholm. For a Kenyan visiting Sweden like me, it’s refreshing to have a Kenyan experience away from home. But for Kenyans living in Sweden, this is a dream come true. Osore Ondusye is a retired Maths and English Kenyan teacher, married to a Finnish woman and has been living in Stockholm for 30 years.

DSC00078This is an event he couldn’t dare miss even though he identifies himself as “one of the oldest Kenyans in Sweden”. The 65-year-old says, “Before tonight, Kenyans in Sweden hardly met up at specific places. That the Turks agreed for Clay to use their restaurant for Kenyans is not common. Kenyans mostly know of get-togethers via a website: Kenya Stockholm Blog, established about 20 years ago. Some social gatherings and very few occasions like visiting dignitaries have brought Kenyans together.”

At Club Mombasa, I ask ambassador Dr. Joseph K. Sang a few questions about his presence at the launch but he says he’d rather respond during working hours at the embassy. It’s clear that he’s out here in a different capacity – as an ordinary Kenyan enjoying a night out. On Monday morning, I catch up with the ambassador at his spacious office at the Embassy of Kenya in Stockholm along Birger Jarlsgatan. He’s now dressed in a suit – a stark difference from the casual man I met at the club. He says, “The launch of Club Mombasa has left me very happy and glad; I would like to see more of that. Plus Kenyan music is fantastic! We encourage diasporans to set up Kenyan clubs and restaurants, and more businesses to spark trade.”

This June the annual Swahili Culture event in Stockholm – working towards bringing Kenyans together while promoting an East African culture in Sweden makes a return. The Embassy of Kenya in Sweden has collaborated with the embassies of DRC, Tanzania, Congo and Rwanda to curate Swahili Culture. Dr. Sang says, “It’s not just about promoting food, music, film, art and fashion but also celebrating Swahili. We encourage Kenyans here to speak, and teach their children Swahili.”

A shorter version of this story was published by Kenya’s Saturday Nation April 4th. Read: Kenyan club opens in Stockholm

BONUS: For more of my tales from Sweden check the series below:

How I Met D’Angelo: Part I

How I Met D’Angelo: Part II

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Checking out Berns – Stockholm’s legendary concert venue on the day of D’Angelo’s concert.

I am with Sylvia, finally headed to D’Angelo’s concert. We have been waiting for this moment all our lives; it finally dawns on us. We arrive at the concert venue – Stockholm’s Annexet arena at about 8:00 p.m. This is where The Second Coming Tour stops in Sweden. In fact, the concert starts in about 30 minutes.

There are thousands of people outside the arena queuing for ticketing and security check. I need to get my VIP passes to the backstage at one of the many box offices around the arena. We quickly rush to the one indicated Press Office. “Hi. My name is Anyiko Owoko and I am here to pick my Second Coming backstage passes for the concert tonight from D’Angelo’s Management,” I put on a confident face while on the inside I am freaking the hell out.

I am not a celebrity or movie star – why would his management be so kind to me? How many journalists would die for such access? What if they forgot to leave the passes or someone decides to hoard them from me? There are a million questions racing in my mind.

Two friendly officers send us over to another box office with a fierce-looking lady separated from us by a thick glass window. “What’s your name again?” She asks while carefully examining some eight white envelops sitting on her table. “Anyiko Owoko,” I respond while crossing my fingers so tight. And voila! She has found my name. She glares at the writing on the envelope and then right back at me with that kind of ‘but-who-are-you-look’ – then hands it over.

DSC_0988I am on top of the world! Excitedly I rip the envelope open right there and then. It has two tickets and two backstage passes each indicated Guest. I quickly hand Sylvia’s to her. The VIP passes make us feel different and special; we’re not about to take that damn queue. We head back over to the Press Office, flash our guest tags and the guard quickly leads us into the arena using a back entrance – just like in the movies. It’s a split second in slow motion leaving me a little tipsy. Am I in Nairobi or getting this VIP treatment in a foreign land?

My journey to meeting D’Angelo is like a hurdle race. After every successful jump, is another hurdle to encounter. It was such a hustle getting through to his management. Now that I’ve finally got the backstage passes, my new challenge is how to get in contact with either Cleo of The Vanguard or Alan of D’Angelo’s Management, and eventually D’Angelo.

DSC00198Annexet’s inside is designed like Amsterdam’s Paradiso but its four times bigger than Paradiso. I love it! Not small and not too big. People stream in as we make our way towards the front left area facing the stage. Now that we’ve secured a standing area, I am trying to find more information about these backstage passes. Several security guards eye me with careful scrutiny when I flash my backstage pass asking, “Where does this lead me to?” Most of them don’t really know (weird – huh?), and direct me to their colleagues. I finally get a response from one guard. “This takes you to the backstage and D’Angelo’s dressing room,” he confirms, adding, “But this is a bad time as the concert is about to begin. Make sure you wear it after the concert. Ask any guard in blue to get you someone from D’Angelo’s Management. Only they can escort you to the backstage.”

Wait. Did he just say that this pass leads me to D’Angelo’s dressing room. Oh glory kingdom come! With that assurance, for the first time – I feel like meeting D’Angelo in person later tonight might become a reality.

Dimly lit in orange-ish light, Annexet is charged. The crowd roars and claps after every song the DJ plays, as if in other words protesting “We want D’Angelo!”

Check out:

How I Met D’Angelo: Part III Second Coming Review

11082501_965598620131992_3887513584481505353_nIf you are a journalist like me – you constantly have to deal with PR people. They can sometimes rub you the wrong way because of always demanding results, even without employing the best means of communication. But my friend Cedrick Lumiti was never like that, he was king at PR.

We first started communicating via email and phone around 2009. From the get-go, even before meeting Cedrick in person, I gravitated towards his passionate approach towards work. His humour and the sincerity of his laughter was a bonus. Soon, I would start to realize that his style in practicing PR was quite different from the norm – it was very personalized and custom-made, almost for anything he was up to.

In communication, Cedrick covered all loops. He left no room for doubt. He also brought fun to work. After sending an email, he would always quickly follow-up by calling. We would almost always start chatting about everything non-work related before getting to business.

When we finally first met, Cedrick was a little intimidated by my towering figure. I admit that I was a little shocked that a man only four feet, six inches tall had such a big voice, strong demeanor and colossal drive. Thankfully our friendship would emerge tallest.

For the show I host on KBC TV: Grapevine, I hardly missed to attend any event or function that Cedrick managed during his tenure in entertainment-related PR. Some of our great moments at work include covering the Safaricom Lewa Marathon, twice. In a crowded bus to Lewa, full of rowdy journalists, I remember Cedrick shutting down someone’s idea for us to all eat at a fancy hotel. He instead took us to a famous meat-eating kawaida place, and even offered to buy drinks. He knew when to work and when to play – even though sometimes the two wouldn’t be far apart.

When we traveled with him to Eldoret for the 2011 Niko Na Safaricom Live Tour, he helped me hustle for an interview with Redsan before his performance (even though it was against Safaricom tour rules for artists to be interviewed before show). In many ways, we were the same at work—never blinking or letting an opportunity slide. Our friendship was cemented on the mutual admiration for each other’s drive.

On our way back to Nairobi from Eldoret, I convinced Cedrick to allow the driver to take a detour into Molo so we could visit my mum and eat some of that yummy Molo lamb. The man I introduced to my mum as my friend and the media liason for the countrywide tour, loved his shoes clean, but was walking barefoot. It had been a rainy and muddy morning in Eldoret and at some point he threw his dirty shoes away, and then his slippers too because they didn’t look good on him – he thought :-)

During one of his trips to his Kakamega shagz, he would later call me to ask for mum’s contact for her to organize some nyama. “Oh no! Your friend who came to visit me without shoes!? He was so happy and pleasant and had promised to send me credit,” mum remembers Cedrick.

Screenshot_2015-03-21-13-05-29In times when I needed footage at weird times like Sunday night to ensure that I had the news in time for Monday night show, many PR people promised to deliver but didn’t – Cedrick always personally delivered. Whether or not I covered his events and even after leaving entertainment-related PR, he constantly used to watch my show and pass a comment usually by calling. I appreciate that.

His departure from entertainment-related PR in pursuit of further education and growth into bigger PR firms was a very sad thing for me. Nobody else took PR in entertainment as seriously as he did. He also understood how much Arts and Culture meant to me. After his move, he would still send me invites– call–challenge and cajole me to broaden my view of a story angle. His thoroughness in PR has shaped my own career.

Your passing is a great loss to the PR and Communications industry in Kenya. It’s a greater, even immeasurable, loss for me. Cheers to the great times, lessons and memories!

BONUS: My condolences to Cedrick’s friends, colleagues and his young family. May his spirit forever guide us.

Journalists are like vultures to leftovers when around story opportunities. In a few days, I am headed to Sweden to attend D’Angelo’s Stockholm concert (part of the Second Coming Tour in Europe). And even though I haven’t got his contact, I DSC00143am planning to meet and interview the Grammy Award-winning neo soul/R&B singer while there.

I have tried to get through to D’Angelo’s management via several emails, Facebook and tweets but no response. It’s a little frustrating but I won’t relent – I know that either way I will file a feature or two on his triumphant return.

Growing up, my mother never allowed us to get out of the house, unless you were going to school, church or shop. We worked around what we had – which was only finding the world through films and music. My sisters, especially Emma, always had great taste in music—introducing me to grown music at an early age. Even before my teens, my definition of music was synonymous to Tupac, Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz, Maxwell and D’Angelo. The rest didn’t matter much.

The thought of meeting D’Angelo then or now is still so foreign to me, a girl born and raised in a small town (Molo). But with my wealth of contacts (perks of being a Publicist) in an increasingly shrinking internet-world, I am doing my best to make it happen. I start to stalk all my European contacts for the hook up and thankfully my girl from Paris, Cleo, puts me in direct contact with The Vanguard’s keyboardist Cleo “Pookie” and D’Angelo’s management :-)

The rest is history.

From the day I arrive in Stockholm, I am almost never chilled out because I can’t wait for D’Angelo’s concert day to meet his people. Is it really going to work? Anxious, I send his tour manager several emails alerting him that I am already in Stockholm and would like to get full details leading up to the Feb 28th concert. But they are quite taken by the Second Coming Tour. I am surprised to get a response. One email says, “You will find your tickets and backstage passes at Stockholm’s Annexet concert venue at 7:30 p.m. on day of concert,” assuring me, “It won’t be complicated.”

So I wait.

I know how hard it is to get through to D’Angelo. As I move closer to his concert day, the more the idea of meeting or interviewing him sounds crazier. But I do have a strong feeling that it might happen. To avoid any jinx, I keep it all under wraps. Only his management, my editors at Nation Newspaper and a few friends know what I am up to.

Read: The Return of D’Angelo: Black Messiah (Album Review)

DSC_0946On the day of the concert, I am with Sylvia in town for some shopping and museum rounds. I spot D’Angelo concert posters everywhere. Today I feel all grown up because amidst the addictive pleasures of travel, I have brought myself this far to work and play.

Whether or not I meet D’Angelo, I am chasing a couple of Kenyan stories in Sweden and will still file a review of The Second Coming Tour concert. And for the cherry on top – I am reuniting with my friend Sylvia at her home in Sweden. Last November we bid each other adieu in Paris, jesting, “Who knows where we’re going to meet each other next …”

Seeing D’Angelo in concert is something I would always want to do at any point in my life. I just never thought I’d ever meet him, especially this way.

In the continuation, check out:

How I Met D’Angelo Part II

How I Met D’Angelo: Part III

How I Met D’Angelo: Part III (Second Coming Tour Concert Review)

Inside Second Coming Tour: How I Met D’Angelo: Part IV

How I Met D’Angelo: Final Part V

 

 

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“The best-selling story of a negro teacher in a tough school in London’s East End”

To Sir, With Love is such a wonderful book. E.R Braithwaite has written an autobiography so sumptuous with its many life teachings – making it really one of those tiny books that will change your life. This is one of those books I’ve read a lot about, making our acquaintance sort of like meeting the old friend that you never had.

After studying and graduating in England, Braithwaite works for two years pro bono as a Communications Engineer for the Standard Oil Company before wanting to change jobs. He receives letters for different appointments for the same position at three different firms. Despite his qualifications, he is however always turned down because of his black skin. One time, employers note that he is overqualified saying, “[White people] might resent the posh way you speak …” A dejected Braithwaite sets the scenario, “To many in Britain, a negro is a ‘darky’, ‘nigger’ or ‘black’. [When] one sees Negroes as doctors, lawyers or talented entertainers, they are somehow considered ‘different’ and not to be confused with the mass.”

Sir Falls. Then Rises.

The book’s driving force is when a sad and idling Braithwaite serendipitously meets an old man, disguised as another “garrulous old crank” at St James’s Park. He gives counsel, “A big city cannot afford to have its attention distracted from the important job of being a big city by such a tiny, unimportant item as your happiness or mine. It’s no one’s fault.” Their small yet valuable and powerful conversation turns Braithwaite’s sadness into new inspiration making him apply for a job at an education opening. He becomes the first negro teacher at Greenslade School. His class is the most unruly and has the oldest children in the school. The children have driven numerous teachers away with their bad attitude and rude remarks. But after everything Braithwaite has been though to get a job, he’s determined to stay.

Braithwaite slowly teaches the brats life lessons like how to respect themselves first before other human beings, irrespective of colour. When he gets injured once, one of his students sees his blood and gasps, “Your colour is only skin deep, Sir.” As the older students start to refer to each other respectfully Braithwaite asserts that this is something the younger ones would aim at. He writes, “Every now and then I could overhear the now familiar ‘Sir said …’ expressed with positive finality, a constant reminder of the great responsibility I had undertaken.” Their relationship slowly transforms from bad to worse; then to amicable, and finally such fondness. The class even surprises him with a vase of neatly arranged flowers “collected from the tiny backyards and window boxes of their homes … the most wonderful bouquet in the world.” Even though Sir always subscribes to such exquisite etiquette and the finer things in life, equality and nobility is at his heart. When a local newspaper wants to feature the school, they want to interview Sir as a show of the school’s tolerance to supporting British ideals of equality. Sir however, turns them down not wanting his achievements to be aligned to his skin colour.

The book’s life lessons are many; the most profound being – respect begets respect. For instance, in the ruggedness of the kids, Braithwaite finds their style and individuality. “I could understand that such clothes merely reflected vigorous personalities in a relentless search for self-expression.” One of Braithwaite’s colleagues applauds his efforts, “You’ve made good of this job, you treat them with kindness and courtesy and what’s more they’re learning a lot with you.” This book teaches us that even those who seem most undeserving of anything deserve to be given a chance and be treated with respect.

Sir Falls in Love

When Braithwaite falls in love with a white lady, Gillian, he sees how their association exposes her to “vindictive faces and hard stares”. He writes, “It seems as though there was an unwritten law in Britain which required any healthy, able-bodied negro resident there to be either celibate by inclination, or else a master of the art of sublimation … We were to be men, but without manhood.” They are faced with difficulty if they stay together and even more difficulty if they don’t.

Braithwaite writes almost as beautifully as his own love story unfolds, “Life followed no pattern, no planned course. Before tonight I had not even kissed this sweet, beloved girl, yet now, for good or ill, the die was cast. I was afraid of this sweet person prepared to link her life to mine. But others had met this problem before and had succeeded in rising above it” She tells him, “I am not very brave about what people will say and things like that but I do love you completely. I’ll try to be good for you, I think we can be happy together.”

The death and funeral of a parent of one of Braithwaite’s students’ is the book’s ultimate gift of redemption. Seales’ mother was a white lady married to a negro. But still, most of Braithwaite’s students say they can’t go to his home to pass their condolences when Seales’ mother dies, because of what “the rest” will think of them visiting a black person’s home. This disappoints Braithwaite. He feels that they should have borrowed a leaf from the new ideals he’s taught them. Their headmaster warns, “This is a community with many strong racial and religious tensions and prejudices, most of them of long-standing …” Braithwaite decides to go to the funeral solo. Depressed by thoughts of his class; meeting them there, after all, becomes the book’s turning point. He sheds a tear, thinking, “These brutal, disarming bastards, I love them …” Braithwaite always has a sense of humour even in despair—some of his frustration in the book always bursts into comic relief.

Like life – To Sir, With Love isn’t perfect. Being told from Braithwaite’s experience and impressions, we don’t encounter a lot of other black people never subjected to prejudice or up against it; neither do we get a chance to get into the minds of those strongly against racism. There is room to question the objectivity of its themes. I am disappointed that the Sir in the book’s title isn’t the old man who sparks Braithwaite’s wits in teaching and mentoring. However, he writes, “I hope that he may one day read these pages and know how deeply grateful I am for that timely and fateful meeting.”

To Sir, With Love is timeless. Over 50 years later and we can still directly link it to the core message of the Black Lives Matter Movement. “It is easy to reach a gun or a knife but then you become merely a tool and the gun or knife takes over, thereby creating new and bigger problems without solving a thing. So what happens when there is no weapon handy?”

BONUS: It’s fitting that Sir Sidney Poitier who stars in the movie adaptation of the book To Sir, With Love – happens to be the first black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor (for his role in Lilies of the Field). After To Sir, With Love, Poitier went on to star in two other acclaimed films dealing with issues involving race: In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

 

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