It was 10am on a Friday. I daringly peeked between the blinds in my room. Despite it being April, it was snowing furiously. I then made the mistake of checking Nairobi’s weather forecast. Highs of 24℃, lows of 17℃ with a slight breeze - cue the homesickness. In an hour I would be conducting my first Skype interview. I would be speaking with Christine Kamau, founder of Women In Music Africa. Needless to say, I was a nervous. What if the WiFi played up? Or my laptop broke down midway? The 7 hour time difference between Syracuse and Nairobi had made planning and securing this interview tricky; I was therefore determined for it to go smoothly.
As an aspiring female music industry professional, I was excited to be interviewing Christine. I am acutely aware of the fact that the music industry, like most, is extremely male-dominated. There are various glass ceilings we as women have to break in order to achieve success that our male counterparts never have to face. Whether it is being overly sexualized and criticized for your appearance as a performer; being labeled “bitchy” for asserting yourself when in a position of leadership; or dealing with the gender wage gap, inequality, bias and underrepresentation continue to menacingly prevail.
A jazz trumpeter by trade, Christine has had plenty of experience navigating the field as a female musician in Nairobi. She saw a gap in the industry that desperately needed to be filled which lead to the creation of the Women In Music Africa Forum, a social media based platform aimed at highlighting the work and achievements of Africa's female musicians whilst fostering an environment for musicians and industry professionals alike to interact, network and grow.
Monica Kemoli-Savanne: What drove you to create the Women In Music Africa forum?
Christine Kamau: I wanted to do this out of my own experience in my career. I’m a trumpet player and I play jazz. I’d spend time on the internet trying to find information about other female African jazz musicians and so on, and just out of that experience I discovered that there isn’t really a platform that celebrates female musicians in Africa. I also found that women inspire each other differently. When you see another female musician really making waves it’s really inspiring. So I found that I wanted to create a platform to inspire, to mentor, and also just to know what’s happening across the continent in terms of female musicians. And the funny thing is I’ve found that all our issues are the same. Whether you’re a female musician in Nigeria, or Kenya, all our issues are the same: being underrepresented; or you find that you go to festivals and the percentage of female musicians performing is usually much less than the guys.
When did you set up the forum and what has the journey been like thus far?
I started it in 2015 and it started as a panel discussion. I invited four female musicians and we just talked about our musical journeys you know, what our experience has been playing music in Nairobi. We did two of those and just from the feedback I got from the people who attended, they wanted a show where they could showcase their skills. So we moved and grew and started a concert series in 2016. We’re on our third year now and we’ve showcased about 25 female musicians so far. We’re growing, and we want to grow this into a music festival.
We also did one jam session this year and we’re doing another one in November. Those are our three events: our panel discussions, the concert series and the jam session.
When dealing with various venues in Nairobi, what has your experience been like and what would you say the best venues in Nairobi are?
I wouldn’t really endorse any venue to say it’s the best. I mean they’re just venues but I’ve received support from the Goethe Institute which is the German cultural center, we’ve held several of our concerts at their venue so that has been fun. The other venue that has been great is the Michael Joseph’s Center because it’s an open space for artists; the process is very artist friendly. Those are two spaces that we are hosting our events at, the Michael Joseph’s Center and the Goethe Institute.
Do you think at some point you would want to expand the forum to other parts of East Africa and the rest of Africa? Like creating small pods of the forum around the continent?
Actually the small pods is what I’d like to do. We’re hoping to grow into Ethiopia and Uganda. There are some musicians from Uganda who are asking us to go and host this [forum] there so we’re trying to work that out. I think that if it would be possible to have a Women In Music Africa forum in every city in East Africa, that would be wonderful. I’d want to have these forums across the different cities that we have on the continent. And for the shows, we’ve tried to broaden our base. Last year we had one female performer from South Africa so it’s just not local musicians from Nairobi. And this year we had a female musician from Zimbabwe. So small baby steps but we’re working both ways, expanding to other cities as well as enlarging our events here so that its more diverse and it’s not just local musicians but musicians from around Africa as well.
You’ve been in the music space in Nairobi for quite a bit now as both a performer and as the founder of this platform. Would you say Nairobi is an easy or difficult place to establish yourself as a musician? Are there ample opportunities to make your way in the industry?
I can only speak as a jazz musician. It’s really different for whatever musical space you are in but for me, as a jazz musician, there are enough venues to play. If you do jazz you end up playing cocktails and corporate events and restaurants so there’s always an outlet for your music, and we have at least one jazz festival which is cool but I think there could be a lot more. Generally, for all the other sort of genres or styles of music that people do, I still think there’s so much that could be done. This is a very young industry and I find that the system is ad hoc - it goes with the flow. We don’t have systems or structures that have been there to sort of guide and make sure that the industry is growing. So that has been a challenge generally for musicians.
Would you say one of the things Kenya’s music industry needs is some infrastructure and have some structural systems?
What you’re saying is very true. Especially in management because the talent is there - it’s unmistakable. But the management is what hasn’t been invested in. So things like record labels and management companies and so on, are what we need.
What would you say have been the biggest challenges for you in establishing this forum and making sure that it has been consistent and growing?
The greatest challenge has been to have the musicians buy into it. Initially I felt like people were questioning like, “What is this music in Africa forum thing?”. The challenge was to make them understand what we’re trying to do for them, to encourage them to be committed to the events and to come out. That for me was the challenge, to sort of communicate what it is that I was trying to do because we’re fulfilling a need that really needed to be met. It’s been a great experience so far. I can’t say that there’s anything that has made me have sleepless nights.
Is there a specific event that has been your favourite?
Yes, there’s definitely one that was special. We had the late Achieng Abura and we were talking about how to navigate the live music scene. The panelists were Achieng, Atemi, Fena who talked about their experiences being female headliners, putting together a band and playing gigs around Nairobi. That was a really fun panel and was definitely the most memorable.