“I don’t wanna be the biggest superstar in the world. I just want to make something beautiful.” With heartfelt lyrics, soothing vocals that drip honey, and intricate guitar playing, 23-year-old singer/songwriter, guitarist and producer Imi is doing just that.
Her meticulously crafted debut EP, Roots x Wings is a beautiful and conscientious exploration of self identity. Inspired by the sage Sudanese proverb, “We desire to bequest two things to our children: the first is roots and the other is wings”, Imi creates a space where feeling vulnerable is welcome and self-discovery encouraged. Introspective part A, Roots, is about anchoring yourself. For the songwriter, “Echoes In The Wind” is about the all too familiar self-conflict of knowing something you choose to ignore. “A Hero's Tale”, discusses finding freedom from self-doubt and having the courage to believe in yourself. Legacy details self-intimacy. Extrospective part B, Wings, is about allowing yourself to soar and fearlessly express yourself. Spanish-influenced “Dejame” is an exploration of how loving people can cause you to want to be the best version of yourself. “Dreamscape” imagines not escaping the outside but rather escaping into yourself whilst Germaine’s powerful spoken word acknowledges that making peace with loss is an integral part of self-love. The two segments are tied together by X, an interlude about the beauty of finding your roots whilst discovering your ability to soar.
Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, Imi is currently based in Madrid, Spain, pursuing a dual Business and Comparative Law degree all whilst still creating and performing. Candid, easy-going and enthusiastic, Imi discussed her background, musical journey and other interests with me.
How did you fall into music?
When I started playing guitar, and when I started performing, I never wanted to write my own music. The only reason I got to perform was because I moved from Nairobi to South Africa and no longer had access to my guitar teacher. The only way I could learn was by finding interesting songs that I liked and looking up the chords. My roommate at the time, her name is Noni, she’s like this really cool up and coming artist, would need someone to back her up when she was performing. After she left, I kept up with performing, and it was just covers at first. I enjoyed the learning so much and I wanted to keep pushing myself that one day I was like oh okay, let’s see what happens here. First I made an instrumental. I really liked it but I didn’t do anything on it. Then after making instrumentals for a little bit, the words just started coming and I was like okay, cool.
What have been your musical influences?
I really like R&B, I really like soul, I love hip-hop - just wait, the day I get my rapping skills right (laughs). But, to be specific, Eryn Allen Kane, Lianne La Havas. I would say June Gachui, Emma Cheruto, Sauti Sol, more-so their stuff from Mwanzo. I could really go on...oh, Tracy Chapman!
So you grew up in Nairobi, moved to South Africa, now you’re in Spain. That’s a lot of various cultural influences coming you’re way. Does that play into how you create your music?
It really does, it really does. With what I’m working on now, a lot of my inspiration is afro-acoustics. Then of course having grown up in Nairobi, the fact that everyone is bilingual but we all think of English and Swahili as this one language that intermingle into each other, that definitely influenced my music, not necessarily in terms of lyrical pieces but in my covers. On SoundCloud I had this thing called African Acoustic where I would pick African songs and mash them up. You’ll find that there’s this one called Theme: Taboo, I mashed up “Taboo” by Phy and “Ginger Me Slowly” by Somi with ‘“Sweetest Taboo” by Sade. When I was in South Africa, I developed a very deep interest in poetry and spoken word. At open mic nights I’d be singing covers, and I’d also be playing guitar for spoken word artists. That really influenced how I write my lyrics in terms of how poetic I’d want them to sound. In terms of Spain, being here for five years has influenced the way my music works in terms of intonation in the guitar style I use, more so in the work I haven’t put out yet. But on the Roots x Wings EP you’ll find that the song Déjame is half in Spanish and half in English. That was part of me trying to assimilate more into Spanish culture.
Let’s segway into the Roots x Wings EP which is the first body of work that you put out as an artist. What was the process behind putting that together?
Roots x Wings, took at least two years of work. Some of the songs like “A Hero’s Tale”, I’ve gone through four or five different versions each with like ten drafts.
I decided to stay in Spain for two months over the summer and work on the EP. I already had a list of about 12 songs that were written or half-produced. Then I was like okay, I’m not going to put 12 songs out there, how do I narrow it down. About a week later I came across a Sudanese proverb that says, “We desire to bequest two things to our children: the first one is roots and the other is wings.” I saw that and I loved it! but didn’t make the connection. Then I was thinking about it as I was writing another song and was like, “Wait a minute, wait a minute! I love this concept, I could write around it”. And so I began, and surely enough I was able to cut down on songs. I sent it [the EP] to a friend and they were like, “Imi this is amazing but I was really looking forward to an interlude called X”. I was mind-blown! “X” came about literally in the morning and it was perfect because everything fell together so well. I did most of the writing, the composition, the lyrics except for two songs. Germaine was written by a friend of mine called Nteranya. Dreamscape was written by my friend Eric.
The idea behind Roots x Wings is to give people the space to see and to find out for themselves. Not creating a perfect space but understanding that you can create that space for yourself by understanding what ultimately makes you you and allowing yourself to be the best you can be.
What has been your most memorable/favourite live performance?
I have two. The first is when I performed at Dala. Both my parents came and they were so excited to see me. I know it’s a very simple thing to say but not everybody has parents who are willing to support them. The second one would be when I was performing in Madrid. I’m singing and, there’s a crowd of people around me, then on my left side I hear whispers. And I’m like, “Man, that’s so rude!”. There’s all these whispers and I’m like you know what, I’m just going to focus and engage. I keep singing until the end of the set then this lady comes up to me and she says, “I’m so sorry I started crying during the set. Your music just got me in such a space, I couldn’t hold it back, I just started crying.” I turn around and I’m like, “Guys, this lady just came up to me and told me she was crying.” And they were like, “Yeah Imi, did you not see?”. I know crying is not something worth being happy about but what I really appreciated was just knowing that the music touches someone and it gives them that space to feel safe enough to be themselves.
Is music something you’re interested in pursuing full time eventually?
I can’t really say and it’s because of the way my journey with music has unfolded. It was never part of the plan. I just wanted it to be that space where I’m growing because I want to grow, not because anyone is expecting anything. As I kept learning and really enjoying music, I realized I wanted it to be the space where I can talk about things that are true, things that are real. So I can’t really say whether I want to pursue it full time or not but if that opportunity comes around sure.
Besides music, besides poetry, what other stuff are you into?
Oh I’m like a little kid, I’m interested in so many different things! I really enjoy reading. I also have an interest in social entrepreneurship. There’s this organization that I founded with a friend of mine called Jengana. We try to find opportunities where we can build workshops where young people educate other young people. I’m also into sports, I play football now and then.
Now it’s time for a rapid fire round.
Who are your top five favourite artists?
No, that’s just wrong!
Okay top five:
Eryn Allen Kane
Your top five favourite albums or mixtapes.
Jheeze, of all time?!
Okay I’ll just say the ones that come to mind:
Trip - Jhene Aiko
Tracy Chapman - Crossroads
Bobby Tarantino I - Logic
Mwanzo - Sauti Sol
D’Angelo - Brown Sugar
What’s your dream collaboration, dead or alive?