It’s late in the evening when Owen Mwatia, otherwise known as Daddy Owen, calls to tell me he is ready for this interview. He asks me whether we can meet at Java at the Junction Mall and I reply in the affirmative. I came to learn in the course of the interview that he has a soft spot for this particular café as it is here that he fell in love with his wife – Farida Wambui.
“I recall that day clearly. I had earlier performed at her work place and though we interacted, it was on a professional note. I was meeting a friend thereafter at this café and coincidentally, she was also meeting her sister here,” Daddy Owen recollects.
Their love came as natural as their meeting. Daddy Owen asked Farida out and when they started talking and getting to know each other, they realised that their worlds were far apart. However, when Daddy Owen eventually asked Farida to be his girlfriend, his celebrity status and humble background did not matter one bit to her.
“I said yes to Owen the man who needed to be loved back and not the celebrity,” Farida, a regional marketing manager with a Swiss pharmaceutical firm, says.
Meanwhile, as he awaited her answer, Daddy Owen’s heart was beating hard against his ribcage. He wasn’t sure whether Farida would accept his advances seeing as it is that he came from Eastlands while Farida was born and raised in the leafy suburbs of Lavington. Yet, it is in these differences that their love would find a perfect resting place and blossom. Indeed, opposites do attract.
The couple dated low key for three years before eventually tying the knot in a grand, colourful wedding in Nairobi in 2016. In July last year, the couple was blessed with a son. However, his entry to the world was marred with a scare.
“I was excited about the prospect of becoming a father again. So I accompanied my wife to the last scan, which showed that the umbilical cord had wrapped around the baby’s neck. Some of our friends had lost their babies to this complication and this reality hit us hard. The doctor ordered for an emergency Caesarean section to save the baby. We thank God because the procedure went well and to top it up, our son did not need to be incubated for he had the right weight and his lungs were developed,” the father of two narrates.
Disrupting gospel music industry
The new parents thus spent a better part of last year tending to their newborn. Even then, Daddy Owen was working on an album that would disrupt the gospel music industry once more.
“I got saved while I was still a teenager and I used to crave for music that I could relate with. My peers, too, were looking for this kind of music. What was available was secular and hence many of them went to discotheques to satisfy their musical thirst. When I eventually got into music, I knew the kind of music I wanted to do and who it would appeal to,” he says resolutely.
Growing up in Kakamega, Daddy Owen used to spend most his free time helping out in his father’s music shop. Congolese music used to rule the airwaves then and Daddy Owen got to listen to a lot of songs from this genre. It is here that he also got to understand music in its entirety – the beat, notes and arrangement. He started writing songs while in high school and these songs would be sung during sports days to cheer up his team.
“My brother Rufftone and I have always been creative. We were particularly adept at drawing and we both won national drawing competitions. We weren’t really into singing,” he offers.
When he cleared form four, Daddy Owen moved to Nairobi to stay with his father and brother. He enrolled for a diploma course in travel and ticketing. Upon completion, he resorted to selling clothes in Gikomba and Mutindwa markets in Nairobi. The eight to five job did not appeal to him. Before venturing into clothes business, he worked at a chip’s outlet peeling potatoes and making samosas and yoghurt.
“I thereafter got a job with a bus body manufacturing company to do matatu graffiti,” Daddy Owen narrates.
All this while, his elder brother Rufftone was making inroads in the music industry. Whenever he had time, Daddy Owen dabbled up as his brother’s right hand man. Again, this gave him the perfect opportunity to interact with the music industry. It was as if the universe was aligning him with his destiny. And so when his brother challenged him to do a verse on one of his songs, Daddy Owen did not hesitate. Rufftone’s producer then, the revered R Kay, was impressed and he told him as much.
“I would say that R Kay’s words were what I needed to push me into music. I knew I could write and sing songs but it took R Kay’s pronouncement for me to finally believe in my ability,” he says.
And so in 2002, Daddy Owen released his first song Haijalishi, which became a massive hit as many youths finally found a beat they could dance and worship to. As the song’s popularity grew, so did Daddy Owen’s star. However, behind the scenes, things were not as rosy.
“I wanted to change how gospel music was done in the country and this did not sit well with our fairly conservative churches. Even performing in jeans was unheard of yet these were the waters we were testing. Radio stations were also not playing gospel songs and my team and I had to innovate if we were to survive,” he recalls.
Daddy Owen used to perform a lot in high schools. After the shows, he would request the students to call radio stations and ask for his song when they were on holiday. His songs then started to get airplay. Also, together with Starehe MP Charles ‘Jaguar’ Njagua, he would personally distribute his song to DJs and request them to play it in clubs.
Internationally, there was a wave of contemporary gospel music sang by the likes of Makoma, Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary and the likes. This stood him in good stead as gospel music, as it was known then, was undergoing a transformation and he was at the forefront of this change.
“Another challenge was money. No one was paying us for our songs. It took me six years to break even and I only held on because I had a vision that gospel music would one day take over the music industry. I would share this vision with other gospel musicians and they would laugh it off as wishful thinking. I am happy I have been vindicated,” he shares.
Daddy Owen says his big break in music happened in 2008 with the release of System ya Kapungala and Tobina. Interestingly, he did the songs when he was contemplating quitting music altogether so as to focus on more sustainable ventures.
After System ya Kapungala and Tobina, the calls, endorsements and awards started streaming in. Daddy Owen was the man of the moment. He went on to release well-known songs such as Mbona ft Denno, Kazi ya Msalaba, Saluti and Vanity. He was the Groove Awards male artist of the year from the year 2009 to 2011. He eventually turned down any further nomination so as to give other gospel artists a chance.
He has five albums to his name and he is currently working on the sixth, which he promises is going to be a game changer in the gospel music industry. In what way? I inquire.
“For the longest time, gospel musicians have been releasing what I refer to as ‘popcorn’ songs known for their longevity or, rather, lack of it. Our songs are not sung in churches during praise and worship as it was in days long gone and this is what I want to bring back. I am working on songs that people will sing to in churches, songs that will inspire congregants as well as connect them with God,” he reveals.
I had the privilege of listening to one of the songs he is working on and true to his word, it is revolutionary; nothing your ears have ever heard before!
Daddy Owen unapologetically describes his music as a complex mix of Kapuka and Lingala. Content wise, he is categorical that his music is inspired by the Holy Spirit. He also draws inspiration from the environment around him including what he sees on social media.
“Packaging of the music is also very essential and this is what makes my music tick. Together with my team, we work on every aspect of the song and it takes months before we release it as we want to ensure it is of good quality. I have people, including my wife, who give me honest reviews and I use their feedback to refine my songs,” the 37-year-old reveals the secret behind his success in music.
And this is what he has to say on being a gospel musician: “It’s not easy. You are judged more harshly, everyone is watching your every step and not everyone will believe you are genuine about your salvation.”
Founding Malaika Awards
For many years, in fact since his foray into music, Daddy Owen has always been spotted wearing dark sunglasses. This was his attempt to cover his squinted right eye. He is also not able to see with it. He says his disability is acquired and I prod on how he got it. He is uncomfortable to talk about it, brushing off my question with a nervous laugh. Clearly, it is a chapter in his book of life that he would gladly tear off if he had the power.
I prod further even mentioning a blog that implied he lost his vision during a mugging incident. He neither confirms nor denies the rumour and we leave it that. But how did his life change after the incident? He shuffles in his seat, clasps his hand in front of him and leans forward, his face facing down. A somber mood suddenly engulfs us and everything around us freezes for a moment.
“My eye was affected when I was at the cusp of launching my music career. I feared people would not accept me. There is this notion that a celebrity needs to be perfect in all ways and more so physically. My self-esteem took a beating and sunglasses became my signature as I didn’t want people to see my flaw,” he says wistfully.
Talking of self-esteem, Daddy Owen says he has suffered from low self-esteem for the longest time. When he was a child, ringworms and rashes covered his skin. In high school, he suffered a serious bout of acne and when he outgrew them, he heaved a sigh relief but not for long for he lost his right eye.
“All these incidents made me feel inadequate. It was only recently that I accepted myself. This came with the realisation that people don’t really care about my eye but what I have to offer them. My take to anyone who feels inadequate for one reason or the other is, if you are really good at what you do, people will focus on it and not your shortfall, real or imagined,” he asserts.
Daddy Owen, an ardent footballer, founded Malaika Tribute Awards in 2013 to celebrate persons living with disability and who are impacting their communities despite their challenges. He proudly refers to this group of people as unsung heroes who are silently transforming the society.
Malaika Charity Organisation, the foundation overseeing Malaika Tribute Awards, also annually organises the Malaika Disability Walk to create awareness on the plight of persons living with disability. Each year sees the number of participants double up, something that scares and excites him in equal measure.
Daddy Owen wears many hats. He was the ambassador for NHIF Supa Cover for the whole of 2018 and Twaweza with Safaricom. He is also a ‘restrapreneur’ – he owns a chain of restaurants, which he is not keen to reveal.
With his seemingly busy schedule, does he find time for family? “My family means everything to me. Since my schedule runs late into the night, I ensure I spend my morning hours with them. We also go for a lot of vacations together,” he says as his wife nods in agreement.
Daddy Owen’s dad passed on in 2017 and the pain is, understandably, still fresh. He talks highly of him. “My father had a very difficult childhood having been born out of wedlock. He endured stigma and I am proud of him for he raised us decently,” the third born in a family of eight says, adding, “He didn’t go to school yet he was the wisest man I have ever met. He imparted in me life lessons that I hold dear. He once told me that the world will never pay what you are worth but what you negotiated for. He also said that one’s reward is equal to the quality of their work,” he shares.
Himself a father, Daddy Owen wants nothing but the best for his children. Even more importantly for him, he would want his two sons to be footballers. Hs eldest son is seven years old. Daddy Owen supports the Phoenix Football Team in Nairobi and is a close ally of Tottenham Hotspurs skipper Victor Wanyama who he fondly refers to as his brother.