Suzanna Owiyo – Marching to the beat of her own drum

To most people in Kenya and beyond, Suzanna Owiyo needs no introduction. She is the voice behind the famous Kisumu 100 hit song. In fact, people unreservedly refer to her

  • PublishedJune 10, 2019

To most people in Kenya and beyond, Suzanna Owiyo needs no introduction. She is the voice behind the famous Kisumu 100 hit song. In fact, people unreservedly refer to her as ‘Kisumu 100’, 18 years on. And rightly so. This is the song that catapulted her into the limelight, introducing to the greater Kenya and consequently the world the powerhouse that is Suzanna’s voice and talent.

Forty-four-year-old Suzanna was brought up in Thika where her father was working and if it were up to him, she would have ended up a teacher. However, the universe had other plans in store for her. When they relocated back to Nyakach in Kisumu, she got the chance to learn about her Luo roots and also learnt how to play the Nyatiti, a traditional Luo instrument, from her grandfather who was a talented and prolific Nyatiti player, sparking her interest in music.

“From a young age, I used to admire female musicians performing on stage. The likes of Tshala Muana, Mariam Makeba, Nayanka Bell and Yondo Sister really inspired me and I used to tell myself that I would want to be like them,” she says. She was also greatly inspired by Anyango Nyar Japan, a renowned Japanese female artist who camped in Alego with an aim of learning how to play the 8-stringed instrument.

In primary school, she was also active in the church choir and was among the children’s choir that sang for Pope John Paul II when he visited Kenya in 1985.

This desire would be enhanced when she joined high school at Rae Girls High School where she was active in drama and music club.

Although the interest was there, she did not know how she would go about it until she came to Nairobi after high school to work at her brother’s stationery firm. “I was just going about my work when I came across an article on Sally Oyugi who was doing Afrojazz at Lora Blue at Corner House in Nairobi. I contacted the restaurant and they put me through to her,” she narrates.

Sally Oyugi, now deceased, took her on as a background vocalist, which for Suzanna was an exciting chance to do something she had always wanted.

“I was happy because for me it was all about learning. She also encouraged me to pursue music,” she recalls. This would be the genesis of her on-stage career.

Dream come true

A short while later, Sally would travel to the US and having no band to sing with, Suzanna joined a Congolese band as a dancer. Later on, she started doing renditions of famous hits which led her to Kisumu where she was part of an in-house band performing every weekend at Kimwa Grand Hotel in Kondele, a prestigious hotel at the time. For Suzanna, this was a dream come true. Her father, on the other hand, was against her pursuing music.

“The perception that people had, and still do, about female musicians made him wary of the path I had chosen but deep down I knew I was doing the right thing,” she says. This feeling was so ingrained in her that Suzanna admits that if ever she had stage fright, it was very minimal.

It was while performing in Kisumu that a colleague taught her how to play the guitar, something that would prove very instrumental in her career later on.

“I love challenges. When I took up that guitar, I was determined to learn. At the time there were very few ladies who were playing the guitar but I figured if they could do it, I could also do it,” she says.

The turning point of her career came in 2001. Kisumu was having its centenary celebrations and the preparation committee was in search of a theme song. When she heard about it, she decided to try her luck.

“I had lived in Kisumu so I knew the culture, the people, the lifestyle and there was so much I could talk about. I did a demo and presented it to the committee and they immediately took a liking to my song,” says the singer.

When she performed the song, the crowd went wild. Her voice and the fact that she could play the guitar enthralled those in the audience and for the next couple of weeks, she was constantly in the media. Kisumu 100 changed the trajectory of her life from then on.

She had been introduced to renowned producer Tedd Josiah by the hip-hop duo Gidi Gidi and Maji Maji and the moment felt right to take her music to the next level.

“I had been recording an album with Tedd Josiah, which was almost complete when I dropped Kisumu 100. We ended up renaming the title of the album and released Kisumu 100 as a single from the album. He advised me to take the song and run with it and it worked,” says the singer-songwriter.

The album went on to earn her a Kora Awards nomination in 2002 for ‘Most promising female artiste’ and won the same category at the 2003 Kisima Awards. With her powerful voice, eclectic sense of fashion and her signature golden locks, she would go on to perform at numerous concerts both in Kenya and abroad.

This lady from the lakeside has graced several stages around the world, doing what she does best – sharing her music and culture with the world. She has performed for notable guests including several heads of state such as Barack Obama and the late Nelson Mandela who gifted her a bracelet which bears Mandela’s prison number 46664.

Among her major milestones is sharing the stage with great musical legends such as Youssou Ndour, Baaba Maal, Angelique Kidjo, Akon, Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle, Alicia Keys and the late Oliver Mtukudzi whom she says was not only a colleague but also a brother. She has also received several accolades for her contribution to music among them the Order of Grand Warrior (OGW).

Her secret? Staying true to herself. “I love my roots as an African and I believe that I express myself better in my native language. When I’m composing, the words flow better when they are in Luo,” says Suzanna on the direction she took with her music. The singer fuses traditional Kenyan music with traditional African instruments, and contemporary rhythms. Her songs draw inspiration from the everyday life of Kenyans, having interacted with many people through her travels.

“I speak fluent English, Kiswahili and Kikuyu from growing up in Thika, but I chose Luo because it defines the authentic me. Music is an international language; if it’s good, it will transcend languages. I have never thought twice about changing it to appeal to a certain crowd,” says the singer who is referred to as the ‘Tracy Chapman of Africa’.

Beyond the music

Although she is best known for her music, Suzanna has taken to lending her voice and effort to other noble causes. “I have travelled the world and seen how powerful music is. It has given me a platform where I can actually make an impact, over and above my music because I also want to be remembered for my deeds,” says the songstress.

This, she says, is the biggest lesson she has learnt from her years in the music industry. This has seen her get involved in various activities such as the Arts in Medicine programme under The Mater Hospital. The programme, which she learnt at the University of Florida, was to help patients’ recovery by including live music in their treatment, not the common piped music in hospitals.

Another of these activities is her Soko Bila Waste campaign. “I attended the launch of the global food waste campaign “Think Eat Save” where the highlight was how much food wastage was happening across the food value chain and I realised that I could sensitise people on it. It’s all about sparking behavioural change for better food handling practices,” says Suzanna, who is a UNEP goodwill ambassador.

This was the birth of Soko Bila Waste, which translates to ‘waste-free markets’, in 2013. She then enlisted the help of other prominent women as they moved from one market to another sensitising traders on reducing food wastage. One of their biggest achievements was preparing a meal for students at a local primary school from food that would have otherwise gone to waste. She plans to have an even bigger nationwide campaign to help with food security in the country by ensuring a culture of zero food wastage at all levels of the food value chain.

Suzanna has also supported various charities dealing with women and girls such as Plan International where she is also a goodwill ambassador under ‘Because I am A Girl’ Campaign which aims at empowering girls around the world and end gender discrimination. Among her passion projects is the ‘End FGM’ campaign, which she raises awareness on. She also lobbied women leaders to help raise medical funds for former boxer Conjestina Achieng’.

Since music is her first love, she is keen on helping and mentoring other musicians through the Suzanna Owiyo Art Centre in Kisumu which was established to give young talents a platform to showcase their talents and get mentored.

“The reason the center is in Kisumu is that my art is rooted there. It was in Kisumu that I got my breakthrough so I feel like I owe them,” says Suzanna who is also Kisumu’s cultural ambassador.

“I don’t just treat my music as a talent, I know it’s a responsibility. I want to use my voice as a tool of change,” she reiterates.

Suzanna’s stand

With her huge audience, Suzanna is well aware that her fans may not always see eye-to-eye with her on some matters with regards to her music or beyond. One of these is with her political stance.

“Things to do with politics are usually very sensitive but as a citizen of this country, I also have a right to take whichever stand I choose. The best thing for such situations is to put the country first,” she says matter-of-factly.

Another issue that pricks at her is the ongoing push for Kenyan DJs to play Kenyan music. In her opinion, those in position to promote Kenyan music should do so for the industry to grow.

“Nigerian music and other foreign genres that enjoy airplay are there because the people in those countries pushed for their music not foreign music. That’s the same thing that we should do as Kenyans,” she opines.

She is, however, keen to caution Kenyan artistes from aping too much western culture as it dilutes the quality of the Kenyan sound. “The problem with us is that we want to import everything yet that uniqueness is what will sell us.”

She attests that her uniqueness, staying true to herself, her passion for her craft and belief in herself is what has given her the staying power in the music industry and urges other musicians to do the same.

On motherhood

Suzanna has a 16-year-old daughter, Nadia, whom she describes as her life and her motivation to work harder. She is quick to admit that her career and motherhood is a tough balancing act but ensures that her daughter does not miss out on a good mother-daughter relationship.

“When I’m at home, I’m not Suzanna the singer; I’m a mother. I’m grateful that my daughter understands what my job entails,” says Suzanna who describes herself as a good cook, especially when it comes to traditional delicacies like omena.

Suzanna, who says she is a disciplinarian, is especially cautious when it comes to her daughter’s upbringing, “I don’t want to spoon-feed her. I want her to chart her own path but of course I will support her interests however much I can.”

Since noting her daughter’s interest in arts, especially fashion and music, she is keen to nurture her to her full potential. “She had told me to teach her how to play the guitar and before we could find a good time to practice, she had picked up my guitar and gone on YouTube to look for tutorials. Although she is still learning, I like that she has made her own way,” she says proudly.

Apart from spending time with her daughter, Suzanna has recently taken up reading books and walking to unwind.

With regards to her music, she is keen to reassure her fans that she is working on several projects which will be out in the course of the year. Despite performing at several corporate functions in the country, the singer still stages shows abroad, her last performance being in Paris in early February.

She continues to urge people to follow their passion and work hard while at it, “Music has given me so many things that I could have only dreamt of and allowed me to meet people who want to change the world. I am grateful for the platform it has given me to impact lives.”

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