It’s a hot and almost uncomfortably bright Thursday mid-morning. The sun shines down on Nairobi, making everything gleam in high-definition. In an effort to escape the heat, I find a comfy set of couches in a cool spot shaded by leafy-green potted plants at the upper level of The Alchemist, a venue synonymous with being the first home of the Nu Nairobi scene. The sounds of sizzling food and chatter float upwards as the food trucks begin to open for business. Ever the embodiment of cool, Karun arrives in pair of green and yellow kanga pants, white pumas, and a heavy-looking backpack, evident of the hard work she’s put in preparation for the release of her upcoming project. She greets me with a hug and warmly engages me in small talk as I set up.
I made it back to Nairobi just in time to catch her recent, badass, all-female live show at Muze, Nairobi’s swanky new club. Karun revealed that that would be the last time she would be performing some of her songs. As she works on her next body of work, the singer-songwriter has been going through a period of catharsis. “I don’t know if you ever heard of Cosmic Homies when I was with them but that was very wavy and awesome and experimental but I feel like I’m done.”
Karungari Mungai, mononymously known as Karun, has gone through several phases in her career. She broke into the music industry as a member of the popular alternative hip-hop group, Camp Mulla. Camp Mulla’s music would go on to proliferate internationally, and the group was subsequently nominated for several awards including Best International Act (Africa) at the BET Awards (2012), MTV EMA Best African Act and Best African Act MOBO Awards. Under the moniker of Runkah, Karun was a member of Cosmic Homies, an experimental music collective of “East African based indigos” alongside Taio, Marushka and Kiwango whose psychedelic wave of funky hip-hop was instrumental in revolutionizing Nairobi’s underground scene. Her journey as a solo artist began in 2013 with the release of her debut album, “Sun and Moon” which was followed by “Indigo” (2016), a collaborative album with eclectic DJ/Producer collective EA Wave, and several singles.
Karun has dealt with her fair share of dark valleys. She describes a particularly challenging period when she was “repulsed” by music and wasn’t able to listen to it for a year. “The frequencies would just jam in my brain. I don’t know what happened, I think I must have gone through some trauma. Because it was a physical thing, I didn’t feel like I needed to be a musician. I kinda tossed that out the door and I would draw and express myself in different ways. I didn’t have a fear that I wouldn’t get back into the music industry, I was just like cool, I’m not a musician now. But then eventually, whatever was happening went away, slowly.” Additionally, moving on from the persona of Miss Karun of Camp Mulla and re-establishing herself her sound has been a difficult process. “It’s been a fight, even within myself, just being like who am I if I’m not that person. I feel like, in between now and back then, it was confusion.” In an instagram post promoting the release of her music video for “Roses” ft. Ukweli, her first appearance in a video in 6 years, Karun clarified that the long wait had been very intentional - she had wanted to “get it right” and “stop being misunderstood”. I understand why this is. When prepping for our interview, the articles I came across were more fascinated with discussing her personal life than delving into her music and career. However, Karun has become fully comfortable in her skin after finding herself again and coming back to who she feels she really is. She has subsequently gotten over battling to prove that she is her own artist - “I feel like I’m over that fight just because I feel like I’ve found myself so strongly that now with this next project, if you still see me as Karun from Camp Mulla, you’re really missing the point, you’re not really looking at what I’m doing. I’ve gotten to the point where I can see how awesome it was. For a long period of time I kind of hated that period in my life because I was like everyone sees me the wrong way and I’m famous for the wrong things and it just felt uncomfortable but now I’m just back to seeing it in a positive light.”
Grounded by motherhood, Karun has chosen to largely avoid social media’s often toxic environment and instead focus all her energies on her career and on redefining her sound. I asked what this new sound and she candidly responded, “Yo, I asked people on Instagram, “What the hell is my genre?” It’s so hard to describe.” Drawing on influences including SZA, Kelela, Flying Lotus and Bonobo, Karun’s music has evolved into being a blend of contemporary, alternative R&B with hints of afro-soul. She’s currently working on an upcoming project, the intention of which is to finally reveal her true self. “I hope they get me from this one. That’s like been my struggle. It’s like you guys don’t understand me and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s I didn’t explain myself that well so this time I guess that was really the focus. This EP will centre around love in all its contexts as she’ll move from talking about heartbreak to falling deeply, deeply in love and then coming to the realization that self-love is the ultimate kind of love.”
Not only is her upcoming project an introduction to the reinvented Karun, it’s been an opportunity for her to push her technical muscle both in terms of lyricism and production. “I’ve really been working on my songwriting as it’s never been that great. My solo album, Sun and Moon, I had a lot of help with songwriting, from the producers, from Fena and Kagwe. Even with Camp Mulla, I’d just write the hooks or the bridge. That’s all! But now I’m writing full songs. Another thing is the production quality. In every song I’ve released up until now I’ve always been like cool but the production could have been better. I’d always have that feeling of, did we really finish that project?’ That’s just that perfectionist in me. This time I’m working with Sichangi and Ukweli. They’re both like that. They’re both perfectionists. We’ve really worked hard on these songs to the point where I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing!.”
Looking back on some of the peak moments of her career, Karun reminisces about the days before Camp Mulla’s fame, when their music was still underground and they were “just in the studio making dope music and the music was being shared in high school circles”; and when the band ventured out on tour which was “really cool because I got to meet other artists, and when you see how really big the world is, you’re like I’m a really small person.” She fondly highlights the release of her debut album “Sun and Moon” which saw Karun form a beta test record label and release a vlog series called “The Lady Bug Project”. “I had a whole team involved: the producer, the band, the music arranger, a stylist, the social media person and someone followed me with blogs. That was a passion project for all of us. And finally, when she graced the SXSW stage alongside her fellow Cosmic Homies.
Like any 25 year old, the singer-songwriter has been grappling with the delightful pressure that comes with being in your mid-twenties: “Just being young, and having to curve my own path, it’s crazy. I’m feeling those things, it’s like I’ve been going through a quarter life crisis since I was twenty and now with a son, it’s all even more important.” However, she’s not letting anything get in the way of her working towards reaching her full potential as an artist. When I ask what’s been inspiring her lately as she works on her soon to be released project, she laughs and says, “Just working hard. I don’t know, I’ve just been having a lot of fun working hard and trying to figure out this business.” Karun’s drive isn’t just geared towards personal success. Part of the legacy she’s striving to leave behind is that of having paved the way for other Kenyan artists. “I feel like it’s my purpose. I feel like I have to do it differently, I have to do it better, to show these guys it can be done. Ijust want to do it right and leave the door open for other people to get to do it. Because people are talented, they just need other things to be in place and I just hope that I can make that possible.”