Kevin ‘K1’ Maina is an easily recognisable face in the entertainment circles with his claim to fame being the iconic ‘Makmende’ character he took on in Just A Band’s music video. While he exudes a charming and laid back demeanour, his life has been anything but… The actor, singer, DJ and MC opens up to ESTHER AKELLO on his rise to eminence and keeping his cool despite the fame.
Kevin Maina is painstakingly profound. In a world where fame can turn even the most well-intentioned entertainer into a vain character suffering from visions of grandeur, his gritty work ethic wrapped
around a down-to-earth attitude is refreshing. “As an entertainer, people have a lot of misconceptions about me. Some think I am arrogant and others assume I have a silver spoon in my mouth with everyone else at my beck and call but my life is far from that!” he shares.
Growing up in Ngumo, Jamhuri and Lower Kabete areas of Nairobi, Kevin understands firsthand what it means to stay grounded. “People think I grew up in the suburbs but I am that kid who sometimes had to be sent home because of school fees, or moved houses several times or into relatives’ homes because we just couldn’t afford housing anymore. I had to learn early and fast how to live with the bare minimum, when and how to tighten belts and where to look for extra resources,” says Kevin.
He adds that the struggles started when his father and the family’s breadwinner got into a road accident leaving him paralysed from the neck down forcing his mother to take over where he left. Unfortunately, his father died when Kevin was 10 years old, leaving him and his two elder brothers to navigate through life without him.
Kevin credits him and his mother as the initiators of his dalliance with art. “My dad would often reach for the guitar and belt a line or two of some song. I performed my first play in church at 15 and continued participating in musicals, dance and choreography. At some point, I felt a really strong calling to this world but pursuing it fully was a different matter altogether,” confesses the 30-year-old.
As with most unconventional careers in Kenya, voices of doubt and dissent engulfed Kevin. Many people dismissed performance arts as a pipedream, asking instead what his ‘real’ career would be. Eventually, through sponsorship from a well-wisher, he enrolled at the Academy of Graphic Technologies – Kul Graphics and pursued a diploma in graphics design and in 2009, got into the job market.
A shot of fame…
That same year, something unprecedented happened. Kevin found himself at the centre of what was to become East Africa’s first viral music video after playing an iconic fictional character, Makmende, in Just a Bands’ single, Ha He. Makmende is sheng for someone who claims to do grandiose yet unrealistic or unattainable feats. When Kevin reprised the role in the music video, Kenyans quickly ate it up, spawning hundreds of memes on social media and catapulting Kevin and the band onto the international stage many entertainers would die for including segments and articles in CNN, BBC and the Wall Street journal.
Unknowingly, that would once more rouse within him the desire to fully pursue his childhood passion. Two years after putting in the time in formal employment, he tendered his resignation.
“It was an unplanned move. However, at that point I knew it was the right thing to do despite having no savings or backup plan. What I lacked in finances, I made up for it with rigorous learning. During that employment period, I studied the business aspect of art including evaluating yourself as an artiste and the dos and don’ts of branding and marketing. Most artistes concentrate on the talent and dismiss the business model. I figured those lessons would be enough to help me start out my new career,” he explains.
While everybody loves an optimist, positivity was not enough to put food on the table and even he admits that for a while, the numbers were not adding up. However, with his family’s backing and especially his mother’s encouragement, Kevin quickly took up random freelance jobs. While he admits three months after quitting his job he was able to work on a project that gave him the equivalent of his salary in just four days, not all jobs were that generous or regular. Not even Makmende’s fame could turn around the tides. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
“When you do something as massive as Makmende, it can swallow you, becoming your identity. When the video became a hit, I thought producers would trip over themselves to give me offers. But the calls never came,” he confesses adding, “I realised I had to work on Kevin Maina, the artiste and learn from actors who embody iconic characters but don’t lose their identity. The only way to do that is to enhance your body of work. The more roles you take, the more people are forced to see you in different lights.”
Despite the travails, his efforts paid off at the end of 2011. A new show, Groove Theory, to air on Zuku TV and (later) K24 made a casting call to actors. Kevin auditioned and in a few weeks received a call confirming his audition had not only been successful, but he was the lead actor. The musical show draws parallels from acclaimed American hit musical show, Glee, and explores the life of a university student caught between following his musical dream and the challenges that arise and try to topple his relationships. In other words, the show was basically art imitating Kevin’s life.
It premiered on television in 2013 and became a quick success, garnering four nominations including Best TV Drama Award at the 2014 Kalasha Film and TV awards throwing Kevin into fame once more.
“Fame can be a monster. It can break your reality because suddenly you don’t have to introduce yourself for people to know you, your acquaintance group grows a thousand fold overnight and a lot of people want to be in your corner by mere association. Some people around you change, expectations are built, people think you’re partying all the time and that can just easily deceive you and crack you especially when you cease being the toast of the town,” explains Kevin.
It was also around that time that Kevin became an ‘accidental’ DJ. It all started when he left employment. Having collected a sizeable amount of music during his employment tenure, he released his collection on the Internet and gave it no further thought. However, week after week, feedback started trickling in and people began asking if he could upload new collections. Soon a friend with an events company co-opted him to handle the musical side of his events and the feedback was always the same; could Kevin DJ in future events?
“I was good at music and reading people’s body language but that was the most I knew about being a DJ. So every time a DJ, a friend or not, had an event, I would tag along, watch and take notes. In 2013, I played my first set as an opening DJ at an event and I have never looked back,” he reveals.
Family, Hollywood and staying grounded…
To stay grounded, Kevin turns to his family and close friends with his mother still being his biggest influencer. “My mum has always told me I am destined for greatness,” says Kevin admitting that he misses having his dad around.
“I wish my dad was around to teach me some things like setting goals as a man or even how to roast meat. I had to navigate some of these things as I grew up. A little help would not have hurt. Additionally, I have seen a lot of young men get lost because of lack of mentorship and it is definitely something I hope to engage in future,” he says wistfully.
Speaking of the future, he does have some big dreams including that of a family of his own. “I definitely look forward to marriage and raising a family. Three kids would be perfect and many married men had told me it helps to nudge a man, mostly the right direction,” he chuckles. Hollywood does feature in Kevin’s sights. A big dream? Sure, he agrees, but then quickly dispels any fear. “Kenyans tend to get comfortable and forget to push boundaries. My benchmark is definitely to meet international standards and circumstances often will tell you are not good enough. However, I am hopeful. For me, Lupita Nyongo’s statement: ‘Your dreams are valid’, rings true and I am ready to dream big,” he concludes.