I have known Emma Mbeke Nzioka for about 3 years now - from back when she worked as a media photojournalist and moonlighted as a film location scout. On the weekends one would find her doing the flea market beat selling her specialty homemade Indian candy. Music was therapy that helped her decompress after a hard days hustle.
Fast forward to present day Nairobi and we have witnessed a surreal transformation. 2018 marked the break out year Emma who now rolls by the moniker 'Coco Em' - Nairobi's hardest hustling Deejay.
It had been barely a year after her bold venture into full-time duty behind the decks when Boiler Room - the international live music streaming platform came calling and she headlined their True Music Africa tour, Nairobi edition. It was then that deejay Coco Em was thrust into the global spotlight. A number of high profile international gigs soon followed and she closed out the phenomenal year by playing at the first Afropunk Fest in Jo'burg on new years eve.
I had been planning to meet up with the hustle queen for a while now, trying to squeeze myself into her hyper schedule. I caught up with her at The Alchemist . She was prepping for a photo shoot and was in a sassy mood.
Aware of her audience, she is playfully theatrical behind the camera. She makes silly faces, air kisses and holds burlesque poses like a pro. We were thoroughly entertained. Two hours later we set up at The Brioche Cafe for the interview. Emma is polite, articulate and charmingly coy.
Theru: You have been labeled as Nairobi's hardest hustling deejay, what do you say about that?
Coco-Em: [laughter] It's true I hustle hard but I don't know about me being the hardest hustling deejay. A lot of deejays hustle pretty hard. Some work 2 jobs and some play every single night.
That title had been placed on me coz I shot into the limelight after boiler room and everyone started seeing all the other stuff I'm into. This deejay thing, photography, film ... that kinda summarizes this hustle thing.
What drives you, where does this work ethic come from?
From my parents. They are both very accomplished, at the top of their game. My mum is a lawyer- chief parliamentary state counsel and my dad is an architect whose projects have shaped the Nairobi city skyline.
And what do your parents think about your career choice? What did you study in college?
[laughter] Sometimes I think that my dad is not quite sure what it is that I do exactly. But he has always been supportive of his girl. It took my mum a while before she understood and accepted what it is that I do.
I studied creative multimedia and majored in web design - 3D design and animation. So I got out of uni and did web design for a few weeks and realized that was not my calling which was kinda hard to explain after folks have paid your school fees flown you out to Malaysia and then you come back and go like, “I don't know about this web design thing” [laughter]
So I got into photography quite by accident. I bought a camera after uni and started experimenting. I sent my portfolio to Nation Media and I became a photojournalist. 3 and 1/2 years down the line I started experimenting in the film.
So why music? When and how did you come to decide that DJ was your main thing now?
During this whole period, music had always been a part of what I did. Back then I was a YouTube music junkie. I would post whatever music I liked on facebook. After a while people begun to notice my curation and that I had good taste in music.
I had a friend who kept telling me that I should seriously consider becoming a DJ. I had never thought about it and knew nothing whatsoever about it. But then someone showed me how easy it is to start. One can buy a controller on eBay and it will be shipped to you and then you learn how to use it on YouTube.
What or who were your early passions and influences?
I grew up on Lingala music - thanks to my mother. I remember this one album, Kofi Olomide's Noblesse Obligé, it's a classic and I knew all the songs. Back then I used to hide the fact that I loved Lingala because it wasn't cool. My mother also had this Madonna album Who's That Girl. At one point that album was on a constant loop at our house and I knew all the lyrics. I did go through a rock phase in high school and then Missy Elliot happened. To this day she is still an inspiration. Thanks to my best friend I got into hip-hop and that influenced my music choices at the start of my DJ career.
What inspires you, what is your creative process when establishing a set?
So I think about the event that I'm going to play at and the type of crowd, and what it is that I want to express. For me, my sets are so personal and that's why I am not able to do regular club nights. That would be just too mentally exhausting. I put in hours. I mean I slept at 5 am preparing [for tonight] curating the sound - it's an obsession.
And for me, it's a story. It starts with a particular sound and it flows from there. I go through my collection and put together a folder of what is resonating with the theme of the night and with me at that particular time. If I'm feeling it in the first 10 seconds it's in.
The relationship with the audience is crucial for a DJ, an also a delicate one. How do you balance between giving the crowd what they want and treating them to something new?
Thrift Social was my training ground. It really taught me how to read a crowd and how to present yourself to a different audience. In this case to another generation altogether, a younger crowd.
Having a set that relates to them means having to play what is currently popular mainstream and some of these songs I just cannot connect with. But I do vibe with some but I also want to play what's mine. So I'll throw in a tune or 2 of what's popular and then mix in new stuff that I have in my set. It's like a stew that I am cooking. All the while you stay connected by watching them [the crowd] as well.
What kind of scene do you like playing at and why?
I really enjoyed my latest gig at the Nairobi flea Market. It was really chill and it was the longest set I ever played - 2 sets 5 hours each.
I enjoyed playing that night because there was no pressure. Sometimes I feel boxed in by people's expectations, having to focus on the theme of the night. I am a very spontaneous performer. I hate restrictions. So the most ideal situation would be that people come out to see me as Coco Em and not as an Afro house or Hip hop deejay.
My best scene to come in as a performer and you didn't even know what you were going to hear and you loved it anyway.
What are the challenges you face in this profession? What is it that you least like about this business?
Getting your money from promoters.
Yeah, your rant on Instagram was epic...
I had to. I had reached the end of my rope. I was chasing three people at that point and was broke. I needed to process travel papers. The frustrations of knowing that I worked for you and fulfilled the contract on my end and you make me run in circles chasing my money! Yeah.
Now, this seems to be a huge problem within this industry especially in this part of the world.
Yes, we don't have a strong culture of contracts, for holding people to account for breaching those contracts. And that's what keeps this horrible behavior going. And it is especially hard for upcoming artists who are struggling to finance their careers and at the same time keep a roof over their heads.
Any other industry peeves?
There is this other thing, as a young female where you get onto the stage and approach the tech guy and make a request for one thing or the other and they give you that look. They don't treat you with respect. It's like you don't know what you are doing. There is an automatic bias towards females in this profession and that is really trashy.
What is the most rewarding thing about your profession?
That moment when I look into the crowd and see them really enjoying themselves. Sometimes I would even forget to mix, waiting for the drop myself [laughter], just being able to share this feeling. I can't describe it.
And the responses I get from young fans, the ladies who write to me, saying that I have inspired them to start DJing, or to push themselves in whatever they are into because I seem to be reaching heights that seemed impossible.
In your eyes, who is the greatest DJ out there and why?
Bodhisattva! He commands his space. He has such a great stage presence. And he's got a world's knowledge of music and sounds and he blends it with what is going on around him. He is influenced by where he has been as well. He knows his music and he gives you an epic story. He is the one I look up to.
What advice would you give to your female fans out there who are aspiring to be the next Coco Em?
They should first of all not want to be the next Coco Em. They should want to be the best version of themselves. They should look at me and ask, where did she start? what has she done? what has she gone thru' to get to where she is? And how long did it take? And maybe not use that to gauge and time their own journey because right now people are coming up real quick in this age of [digital] technology. You get publicity faster now than back in the day when there was no social platform. You can now play something in Kisumu and someone in Mexico will comment on it immediately. So take advantage of the technology and promote yourselves wisely.
Also, maintain consistency in your growth. You will not see it in your next show but in two years you will look back and be like wow!
Yeah, believe in yourself and conduct yourself professionally and don't let anyone intimidate you. You can wear that bra onstage if you want to if that is your look, support whatever it is that you want to.
So what I'm hearing from you is that you have to be authentic and believe in your uniqueness stick with it, and promote that with confidence.
Yes and surrounded yourself with people who have your back. I have had people with me backing me up right from the time I started out. So you identify your family and true friends and you keep them close... and later on, they form a part of your team which is what is happening now for me.
Looking back - any regrets? Is there anything you would have changed or adjusted on your journey thus far?
Hmm. Changes maybe, actuality no! I realize I am where I am for a reason. If I had arrived here when I was younger, I don't believe I would have had the wisdom to deal with some of the things that have happened to me, so even if people say that I have come up really fast, I believe my past has prepared me to deal with the challenges that come with success in this business.
So you are who you are and what you are because of what you have gone through.
Yes, take every part of your journey as part of the greater puzzle. Every piece is important and has a place in the final masterpiece.