KAGWE MUNGAI Making Music His Career

The music industry may be considered to be a lesser profession in Kenya but that has not deterred singer/producer Kagwe Mungai from turning it into his career. In just three years, he has become a force to reckon with in the industry, working with local and regional stars including Sauti Sol, Wyre and Vanessa Mdee. ESTHER AKELLO chats with the producer and entrepreneur on his unapologetic foray into the music industry, and his plans for the future.

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There is no plan B because plan B distracts from plan A.” Such a statement, especially coming from a young person, would probably be considered careless at best, and foolish at worst. After all, what is that famous proverb again? “Don’t carry all your eggs in one basket?” But it is a philosophy 24-year-old entrepreneur, singer, songwriter and producer Kagwe Mungai is more than happy to live by, especially in an industry many in Kenya consider unpredictable.

“Some people think my philosophy is presumptuous and naïve but I was raised to have self-belief and self-confidence. It might take a bit longer to reap the financial benefits of music compared to your conventional eight to five desk job but I have conviction that anyone can make it in any industry, provided you have the right attitude about your work,” he explains.

Despite having his roots in Rnb and Neo-soul genres of music, the self-assured artiste describes his music as eclectic, his catalogue extending to dance hall, house and jazz. “I experiment with genres so its difficult for me to categorise myself as one type of singer or producer because that makes it difficult to evolve and an artiste, just like any other professional, has to change and grow or risk becoming redundant,” he adds.

While many may be more familiar with his music videos for songs such as Creeper or Dutch (his collaboration with Fena Gitu), his sphere of influence extends to much more. What many people don’t know is that Kagwe is among the unseen faces and masterminds behind Sauti Sol’s controversial hit, Nishike. 

“I met Sauti Sol when they were under the Penya Africa music label after Natalie Lukkenaer, the executive director, insisted that we had to meet. I played for them several tracks and they were impressed with the tune that eventually went on to become Nishike,” says Kagwe.

The criticism and praise for the song came in fast and thick prompting the video to go viral (it was declared the most watched Kenyan video of 2014 on YouTube, with over one million views), dividing fans and critics alike especially on the content of its video, which many deemed as adult themed. It eventually led to its censorship by the Kenya Film Censorship Board, barring it from receiving airplay on local television channels. However, so dynamic was the song, that it was nominated at a global stage on the 2014 MTV European music awards in the best worldwide act and best African act categories, scooping the latter award.

“Be prepared for controversy when change sets in. A lot of people are insecure about change and that was the genesis of the rift over Nishike,” expounds the producer on his reason for getting behind the project, adding that life never hands one anything they want, instead, one has to exert themselves to break down doors or barriers.

While many artistes will confess that they have struggled over the decision to pursue music as a career or hobby, Kagwe asserts that for him, there has never been any question. Music is his calling, having started his active path into the industry at the age of 13 while living in South Africa with his mother and two brothers.

“My first real dalliance with music as a participant and not as a spectator happened when I joined not one but two bands while in South Africa. One was a rock band, formed by a group of friends where I was the lead singer, and the other was the school band, where I was the drummer. The school band won a citywide competition and got a chance to play in different venues all over Johannesburg, South Africa. Even back then, I remember thinking music had to be in the cards for me. I actualised my decision by going to the University of Southampton, UK when I was 17 and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in music and management sciences in 2010,” Kagwe expounds.

Instead of coming back home immediately, Kagwe took a year interning and networking with industry players in England and mingled with industry greats such as hip-hop artist J-Cole.

“As an artiste, there is no greater desire than to have your name recognised globally and where else to learn the nitty-gritty’s of the global music industry than England. Additionally, I wanted to get first hand experience and hopefully replicate some of the systems and best practices back home in Kenya,” says the artiste.

And if the reverberations of his collaboration with Sauti Sol and the extensive list of coveted artists he has worked with is anything to go by within the short time he has been in the industry, then only the sky remains the limit for the singer. So far, he has not only produced for the likes of Tanzania divas Vanessa Mdee and Shaa; and Ugandan songstress, Jackie Chandiru, but has also worked with notable Kenyan musicians including Eric Wainaina, Wyre, Muthoni the drummer queen, Madtraxx, Fena Gitu and maestro producer Jaaz Odongo, who he also credits with opening industry doors for him.

It was also the same year he worked in England that he released his first series of songs under the title, It Only Gets Better and has received airplay in the UK, Canada, Australia, Portugal and Angola. It is the same drive and hunger that saw him hit the ground running when he came back home in 2012, participating in various projects including debuting as an actor in a local film, Lifestyle, and has been a brand ambassador for the clothing line Nur. This year alone, he has been nominated in both the Jumia Glamour Awards and Kenya Buzz People’s Choice Award in the Male Artist of the Year category.

While Kagwe confesses that his main motivation for making music is the sheer joy it brings him and his desire to spread joy to others, he suffers no illusion; joy is not enough to pay the bills.

“A lot of people shy away from the liberal arts world because it’s a business that requires one to impress their audience so much so that they are willing to invest in you and your talent by buying your music. It’s like a sales pitch to a client, except with a tune,” notes the singer who started his own production house, XAXA Entertainment in January 2015.

He adds, “As an artiste you are your best brand ambassador. Only you can define your voice and the target you want to reach and that is the genesis and motivation of XAXA Entertainment. I aim to catapult my brand and its diversity into the public limelight.”

While he admits the company has faced challenges such as structuring and being relatively unknown to the public, he says many clients have already taken a leap of faith and just in its inaugural year has worked with mobile technology firm, MTN Uganda, and local dairy products company, Eldoville.

Additionally, he is quick to dispel the perception that once musicians have a hit, their life is easy even sliding into international-like celebrity lifestyle. He asserts that the music industry may in fact require more effort because at the end of the day, one is as good or as memorable as their last hit.

“Sometimes it feels like one day in the music industry is two days of a regular work day because it gets so hectic. Most times, my life revolves around the studio whether it’s for another artiste, a corporate organisation, or myself. Then I have band and dance rehearsals for the various shows planned in a week, which can take anywhere between two to six hours and thereafter songwriting sessions with other singers and songwriters. It gets even worse when releasing a song because you have to compound all the above and still do publicity events like media interviews in three to four media houses a day,” explains Kagwe.

It is also the same drive, however, that has seen him take a back seat when it comes to relationships though he opens up about his passion to have a family someday. “I look forward to having a family of my own. Part of my motivation is driven by my desire to leave a legacy not just for them but for posterity,” he says.

While he asserts that his desire is to conquer not just the local but global stage, strangely enough his life goal remains simple. “At the end of it all, while it is great to be remembered as a force to reckon with in the industry, I would be happier if my epitaph read, that I was a good husband and great father,” he concludes.

Published in December 2015

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