Jua Cali is arguably one of the freshest, creative and most defining artistes in Kenya. He helped hatch Genge music, a style that fuses hip-hop, dancehall and African music styles. Fifteen years on, the genre is still a formidable force in the Kenyan music industry. ESTHER AKELLO caught up with the artiste who spoke on the evolution of Genge music; the future of Calif records and for the first time, opens up on love, settling down and fatherhood.
If effortless flair, charisma and humility are what you are looking for, then rapper Jua Cali is your go-to guy. While his presence is enough to fill a room (mostly in awe), his down-to-earth personality and approachable nature does the exact opposite; putting people at ease instantly, as he engages with them seamlessly. A trait that has managed to permeate into his music, earning him a wide fan base that not only relates with his lyrics (and humour infused music videos), but also endearing him to those willing to learn a thing or two about Nairobi’s Eastlands area and its culture – the creative muse for his music.
Talking about a revolution…
2001 was a defining year for the Kenyan music industry. While for the longest time many had simply settled on Zilozopendwa (The Classics) as the sound of Kenyan music, a generation of young, fresh and hungry artistes were jostling for their own space, sound and a chance at glory in the musical annals. Among those were the likes of Eric Wainaina whose hit song Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo (country of bribes) caused as much joy as it did anguish.
In Nairobi South, other voices such as the late E-sir, the late K-rupt and Nameless were taking over the airwaves celebrating the youthful, fun-loving, raving culture of young Kenyans. Meanwhile in Eastlands, things were also cooking. Two nondescript young men had been holed up in their parents’ homes for almost a year trying to come up with an original sound that would represent their street culture in all its glory. In 2001, Jua Cali and a childhood friend, Clement ‘Clemo’ Rapudo, emerged from the shadows with a hit Ruka, an ode to their neighbourhood California Estate. The sound would later be defined within hip-hop circles as Genge and Jua Cali, unveiled as its undisputed king.
“Local music was being redefined and we wanted to be a part of the change. Additionally, Eastlands was grossly misrepresented as a poverty stricken, dangerous area where people were barely educated, just because of our street culture, which included our street slang, Sheng. We weren’t having any of it. We set out not only to demystify our culture, but also showcase its vibrant and dynamic nature,” explains the artiste who adds that even his stage name Jua Cali is connoted from the Swahili statement jua California (know California).
While many celebrate Jua Cali’s lyrical prowess, the struggle to get to the top is still fresh in his mind. Self taught, his musical journey started as a young boy heavily influenced by his elder brother (he hails from a family of eight siblings) Chris Sati, who even went on to record some songs, which unfortunately, never saw the light of day.
“Chris gave me my first basic lessons in music. We loved analysing lyrics and often times, we would critique songs together. It is through him that I learnt that the verses, words and beats in songs followed a certain kind of arrangement as opposed to being randomly put together. In fact, he is perhaps part of the reason Ruka became such a success. The first time Clemo and I played him the song, he criticised it and challenged us to have a second look at it. The second time around was the charm,” shares the 37-year-old whose real name is Paul Nunda.
After finishing his diploma studies in IT at a local college at the age of 20, Jua Cali told his parents that he wanted to produce music professionally. They did not oppose his decision. “I think my parents, and Clemo’s as well, were ahead of their time. To date some parents still discourage their children from venturing into the creative arts professionally. Our parents reasoned that at some point, white-collar jobs or employment opportunities for that matter may not be enough for all graduates and people would have to rely on their talents as opposed to skills to survive. The amount of trust they put in us became our driving force,” confesses the artiste.
He adds that Clemo’s parents allowed them to modify their living room into a makeshift studio, which they ended up using for eight years. It is here that they recorded numerous artistes of note including Nonini and Flexx among others, before finally being able to afford their own office space.
With their parents’ blessings, the two producers got to work, which entailed researching on the kind of hip-hop music being produced at the time. Back then, research was not at the click of a Google button. “Today’s artistes have half their work done, thanks to the Internet and platforms such as YouTube. To carry out our research, we had to sit and listen to songs on the radio and try to figure out what the musician did with the songs and instruments to come up with a catchy beat, killer bass line or captivating chorus because we could not afford to go to a music school or get a trainer,” explains the rapper who recently released a single, Safsana.
While their plan seemed to be slowly taking shape, there only remained one hitch – they did not have any artiste in their stable. In fact, owing to their novice nature, zero portfolio and lack of equipment, artistes were giving them a wide berth. After some convincing, they reached a decision: Jua Cali would become Calif Records’ first recording artiste.
“Initially, I really fought with the idea of becoming a recording artiste. However, how else were we to create a portfolio or prove to people that we had what it took to make stars?” he poses.
But that was just the first part of the hurdle. Marketing, especially an unknown artist was going to be an uphill task. “Our marketing required quite some leg work. We had to look for disco owners and TV and radio presenters and ask them to play our songs because those were the platforms for mass airplay back then. Needless to say, some people were not too open to playing music from an unknown artiste. Still, we ventured on, speaking to public service vehicle operators to play our songs in the buses because once people liked the songs, then they would request for them on radio, hence making them hits,” he explains.
Six months after Ruka started receiving some airplay, the song became a massive hit after an interested anonymous benefactor approached the broke entrepreneurs and offered to shoot a video for them for free. After that, there was no turning back. The duo dropped their next hit – Nipe Asali – in 2002 and with it, the floodgates broke open as artistes made a beeline to the production house.
“When I realised that people could identify with my style, I felt vindicated. More so because we were introducing a whole new genre and society is not always open to change. It was around that time that Nonini, who had signed to our label, also released the track Manzi wa Nairobi, which also became a hit,” he says.
And the hits just kept on coming as artistes such as Jimwat, Flexx, the late Lady S, Rat-a-Tat, Pilipili and Mejja went on to release their music under the stable’s name, sealing the production house’s star making power. “Our strategy back then was to move like a pack. We would all release music at the same time so that at any given moment, Calif Records was always in the limelight,” Jua Cali reveals.
Not even corporate institutions could afford to ignore the production house. In 2007, Jua Cali joined an elite group of local artistes to enjoy an endorsement deal with an international brand when mobile phone company Motorola signed him up in a one-year deal as an ambassador for a line of their phones. In 2009, Orange Mobile enlisted Jua Cali to endorse Hello tunes for quite a pretty penny.
“When Motorolla approached me for an endorsement deal, I was happy. It was an endorsement by an international brand but even more fulfilling was the idea that I helped to put Kenya on the map. It also felt like we were opening doors for other artistes nationally and more so in Eastlands,” the singer says elatedly.
Re-invention and staying relevant…
With a family, 15 years experience in the music industry and three albums in his bag and a fourth soon to be released, nobody recognises the need for re-invention like Jua Cali. While just six years ago the stable was at its peak leading the airwaves, the advent of the Internet phenomenon, competition and simply put, life, has forced the stable to change every so often to accommodate change while remaining relevant.
“Of course, one cannot stop time and one has to also allow artistes to grow. Some artistes left to start new ventures and families. Five years ago adopting the pack strategy worked well, but now a lot of artistes opt to be independent. That also means you have to fight harder for artistes even as you build individual brands. We now have three artistes we are mentoring and have also ventured into other arms of the entertainment industry such as shooting music videos and interviews, “ he says adding, “One thing I have learnt over the years is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. While each generation perceives life and music differently, the different things that make good music never change, for instance; a good chorus, clear and understandable verses and relevant content. I have also chosen to remain true to who I am as opposed to jumping on every emerging trend. People love authentic music.”
To remain consistent as well, the artiste admits that song writing is a never-ending process for him. In fact, he says often times the songs he releases in his albums are revised versions of songs written over a long period of time. “I write up to 12 or 13 tracks at a time. Through this, I am able to deal with different topics and then I release them one by one. This way, I never feel the pressure to frantically search for my next ‘big hit’,” he says.
If the love for music gets Jua Cali going, then it is his love for his family that makes him come alive. Even as the photo shoot for this interview continues, every once in a while he spontaneously breaks away from the set and runs after his kids: four-year-old Evans and one-and-a-half-year-old Doreen, swooping them into the air or tickling them. And the affection does not just end with his children. The chemistry and synergy between him and his wife, Lilly Asigo Nunda, is so palpable as the two from time to time share a kiss on set or tease each other over one thing or another.
This is the other side of Jua Cali that not many get to see and deliberately so. When word of Lilly’s marriage to the rapper spread at her workplace, it prompted her to quit and start her own business after her colleagues started treating her differently. “I have never been vocal about my marriage to Paul and I have never even pressured him to ‘showcase’ me as his wife. I have no idea how my colleagues found out I was married to him. However, as soon as word went round the office, expectations of how I was supposed to live, act and so on grew out of hand making my work environment very stressful,” says Lilly.
Jua Cali adds, “I know first hand the price that comes with fame and being a public figure. It is a cost I am willing to live with because if not for my fans, I wouldn’t be here today. However, given the kind of situation Lilly went through and to curb speculation because I often get asked if I am dating, leave alone married, we decided that maybe it was time for Kenyans to meet my family and what better avenue than Parents!”
Although they have been together for seven years, the couple has been married for four. They admit it has taken quite sometime to gel and often times, arguments would end up in anguish or tears. “Marriage has definitely taught me there is no such thing as a personal decision and consulting with one’s partner is vital. Moreover, Lilly does not like surprises. She likes to be kept in the loop!” chuckles Jua Cali as Lilly adds, “It’s good to know what’s going on! Two heads are better than one. When we started out, I felt so misunderstood and often times I would just lock myself in the house and cry or call my sisters and rant! However, I am grateful to my husband because he encouraged me to open up and talk. I then realised the success of our marriage is in our hands.”
Jua Cali is also grateful to his wife. “Lilly is so understanding and patient as far as my career is concerned. She understands that sometimes I have to work late or out of town. She also makes me feel like I matter. She puts me first, in words and in deeds. If that doesn’t make a man feel like a king then I don’t know what else a woman needs to do to make a man happy.”
As far as parenthood is concerned, Jua Cali says despite all his challenges and achievements, it is arguably one of the most sober decisions he has made in his life, literally and figuratively speaking. “Fatherhood really threw me a curve ball. It’s like reality hit me for the very first time. I thought I was prepared but you can never really be fully prepared especially for the mixed feelings. One minute you are amazed and the next so full of fear. I realised that being a good father takes discipline and soon enough I quit drinking and cut down on the weekday raving, and often times it is reduced to when I am performing at a gig,” confesses the hands on dad who admits to changing his children’s diapers and lulling them to sleep when Lilly was too tired to wake up in their infancy years.
Jua Cali, who says he looks forward to more years of great music and treasured family memories, urges other artistes to be authentic, chase their dreams and not to be afraid to move into and embrace the different phases of their lives.