Following success with several hits such as Lingala Ya Yesu, Kilele, Wanajua and Niwache Niimbe, Peterson Githinji, popularly know as ‘Pitson’, is among the current crop of darlings of the local gospel music industry. However just years before, the award winning and talented singer/songwriter worked as a nondescript banker determined to escape the shackles of poverty that haunted him from his childhood. Pitson opens up to ESTHER AKELLO on his desperation to escape poverty, answered prayers and why he wants to run for office.
I do not think you are a serious God. If in fact you do exist and I don’t think you do, I will not serve you even when I grow up.
Your son, Peterson
Sounds like a prayer an atheist or agnostic would say. Right? Yet these were the words of a longsuffering, desperate and defeated 16-year-old Peterson Githinji to a God he deemed less than just. Tired of living a miserable life, the letter was his last attempt at getting God’s attention as he let go of a faith he considered more or less dead.
“I wrote the letter after being chased away from school for lack of fees while in form two. The only fee I had ever paid was my form one admission fee. The fact that I was a pastor’s child, and the only one sent home for that matter, stung. I questioned God on why He allowed my family to suffer, wrote Him a letter and threw it into Nairobi River,” says the 30-year-old gospel artiste who admits to having hated God as a child because of the suffering his family was going through.
Living in a single-roomed house in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area, Pitson, (born Peterson Ngethi Githinji) and his three siblings knew only too well what it meant to lack. Born to a pastor father and homemaker mother, his poor circumstances filled him with so much shame that when asked what his father’s profession was, he would lie that he was a businessman.
“There was a lot of pressure and stigma as a pastor’s child and little room for mistakes or normal reactions to a situation such as anger or hatred. I found myself wishing my dad had an office job like other parents,” says Pitson who says his heart broke one time when his father gave him Ksh 30 to go buy himself a shirt while his friends traipsed all over town in the latest trendy attires.
However, true to the declaration: “the righteous are never forsaken” – in the Good Book, a few days after being chased from school, a woman unknown to the family approached his father saying that God had directed her to pay his sons’ school fees. The lady, who Pitson later only came to know as Mama Njoroge, paid his fees in full and that of his brother up to the form four level. Pitson became born-again as he needed no further affirmation that
God hears and answers prayers.
While poverty was his prevailing circumstances then, Pitson vowed his future would be different and dedicated himself to study. “I am a first generation graduate. No one in my family or my parent’s family has ever made it to university. As a teenager, I read anything I could get my hands on while religiously watching and mimicking speakers like PLO Lumumba just so I could speak or act like a well- to-do person,” confesses the law and finance graduate.
Unprepared for fame …
To support himself during his university studies at Inoorero and JKUAT universities respectively, Pitson tapped on an old talent: singing. “I used
to sing at my dad’s church before joining the Christian Union and music clubs in high school. Thereafter, with a few former schoolmates, we formed a group called Brothers Under God’s Grace,” reveals Pitson adding the group went on to release an album that did not fare well.
Having moved out of his parents’ house by then, he needed another strategy to help him get by. “I went knocking on every music studio door I could find along River Road and requested to sing backup vocals for any artiste for half the market price,” he explains.
Soon, word of his prowess and cheap rates spread and the calls started coming. In 2011, things started looking up when Esther Ndung’u, a gospel artiste, requested him to sing back up vocals on her album. Impressed, the producer, Sammy Gitonga, offered to produce Pitson’s first album for free. With the album released but lacking in marketing skills, Pitson took it home where it simply collected dust. Ironically, the album was titled My Latter Days Will Be Greater. Towards the end of that year, he collaborated with another artiste, Mwenye Haki, on the song Wanajua (They Know) this time releasing a video.
Despite the song being well received, Pitson, unsure of his next move, sought and landed a job with a local bank. Then in 2013, an old friend, Noel Waitara, who had just opened his studio and was seeking new clients, offered to produce one of his songs for free. With several penned songs up his sleeve, Pitson only had one challenge: picking the right song. It was catch-22 situation and he resorted to a familiar habit.
“I told God I had one shot and that shot had better hit the bull’s eye,” he says.
Lingala Ya Yesu (Jesus’ brand of Lingala music) and an accompanying video was then released in December 2013. The song evoked divergent reactions with some saying it was not Christian enough while others lauded its fresh and different approach to gospel music. Within six months, the song was on heavy rotation on mainstream TV and radio stations and Pitson had finally hit the jackpot.
“A lot of people did not understand Lingala ya Yesu but just as the song says, it is not complicated. That said, it only dawned on me that I had a hit when the song became beat of the week on NTV’s The Beat for three weeks and number one on KISS FM’s hot list several months later,” says the artiste who adds that the genre was influenced by his interaction with members of the Congolese community during his childhood.
French author Julian Renard once said, ‘Fame is a constant effort’: Pitson soon found himself on unfamiliar territory. “There’s nothing harder than being a recognised artiste, yet you cannot lead the lifestyle people expect you to. I would go to my normal nondescript restaurant for lunch and order the simplest of meals or walk down the road or board a public service vehicle and the stares and whispers would freak me out. Clients at the bank would also refer to me as Lingala ya Yesu. I appreciated that they acknowledged my work but I was having a hard time reconciling who the real Pitson was and who people expected me to be,” he says.
The recognition became so stressful that Pitson withdrew from the public. He stopped going out of the house unless it was necessary and that too changed when he felt the need to quit his job. He turned down interviews and when he did agree to them, it was on condition that the journalist organise a way for him to slip in and out unnoticed.
Despite stepping out of the limelight, the song was still ruling the airwaves and Pitson got wind that 3.3 million Kenyans had downloaded his song through the Safaricom Skiza tune platform. The finance guru in him finally jerked up to the reality that he was accruing quite a pretty penny. Donning oversize clothes and anything that would disguise him, he went to digital companies to register his song for download. Then slowly he started emerging from his shell and started performing at shows.
“My biggest regret as far as fame is concerned is not having a mentor. I lost many opportunities as people took advantage of my ignorance,” says the former banker.
In 2014, Lingala ya Yesu took the Song of the Year award at the Groove Award. It also picked accolades in the Coast, Mwafaka, Sauti and Extreme awards. His song, Niwache Niimbe (Let me sing), and his collaboration with Mr Seed on the song Happy Day, were nominated for Song of the Year and Collaboration of the Year in the 2016 Groove Awards respectively (At the time of going to press, the results had not been out).
Love, music and politics
In 2013, Pitson married the love of his life; 28-year-old lawyer Caroline Nyokabi, and the couple welcomed their first child, Havilah Ngonyo, in December 2015. While the couple has been together for seven years, he attests that marriage is a whole new kettle of fish.
“I don’t know about other professions, but marriage for an artiste
is difficult because often times you are on the road or if around, you keep odd hours. Additionally, in this digital age of social media, while one is busy trying to shield their family from the fame bubble, photographs and rumours circulate within seconds before one even gets a chance to explain their side of the story,” says Pitson. To encourage good relations between him and his wife, he adds that he consciously keeps her in the loop on everything to avoid misunderstandings.
As part of his long term plans, Pitson, who mentors a couple of upcoming artistes, confesses that he would like to start his own record label. He also aspires to vie for a political seat come 2022.
“Politics is not a dirty game; we left it to dirty people. There will come a generation that will not choose leaders based on their ethnicity but on substance and I look forward to such a day. However, it will not come by
sitting down; we each have to rise up and take our place,” concludes
the singer who is also the brains behind Daddy Owen’s hit single Vanity.
PITSON’S ADVICE TO ASPIRING ARTISTES
Have a mentor
Keep records such as income per month, places performed and how much you earned
Be flexible – With a hit, one can dictate show fees, without one, eat humble pie and reduce rates.
Avoid debts by living within your means.
Published June 2015