Afropop Queen Victoria Kimani Is Kenya’s Best Kept Secret

The “Wash It” singer tells the Recording Academy about her multinational background, growing up in L.A., Tulsa, Nigeria and Kenya and breaking out of what can sometimes be an isolating music scene

By RACHEL BRODSKY

Everyone has an origin story, and R&B/Afropop singer Victoria Kimani‘s is especially memorable. Born in Los Angeles to Kenyan parents, the 34-year-old moved all over the globe—specifically to Tulsa, Okla., Nigeria and finally Kenya—during her teen years.

These days, she lives full-time in Kenya, where she is one of the nation’s most recognizable performers. She makes time to return to L.A., though, where she’s recording her sophomore album, which follows last year’s Afropolitan EP and 2016’s Safari.

For all intents and purposes, Kimani should be better known in the States. Over the course of the last decade, she’s been professionally linked to everyone from DJ Whoo Kid to Jadakiss to DJ Green Lantern to Busta Rhymes to Timbaland and beyond. More recently, she joined Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie on the grooving single “Wash It,” and she shows up on Afrobeat upstart Hakeem Roze’s bouncing June single “Miracle.” Later this year, she’ll drop her long-awaited sophomore effort. 

Kimani sat down with the Recording Academy to tell us more about her multinational background, coming of age in Kenya and Nigeria and why, as an artist, she’s committed to breaking boundaries and pushing beyond Kenya’s local music scene.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background? You were born in the States but you moved to Kenya as an adult. How did you get your start in music?

Well, growing up was interesting. I’m first generation Kenyan-American. We listened to a lot of gospel music growing up. I was pretty sheltered, my parents are pastors, so there wasn’t too much secular music invited in the home. But we listened to a lot of African music, a lot of jazz, a lot of Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie, lot of the legendary African artists from my parents’ generation, and then listened to a lot of gospel music at the same time.

So I think I kind of just taught myself how to sing from listening to gospel artists and trying to match their runs and match their melodies. My dad is a musician and even in the ’70s he was singing Elvis Presley covers in Nairobi. Kenya in the ’70s with his bell-bottoms and his Afro. He’s very deep with the music. As far as good music goes, that definitely came from my dad.

But growing up here was, it was interesting, I was always moving around. Yes, I was born in California, but here we ended up moving to Oklahoma so my parents could further their Bible education in Tulsa. Then we went on our first mission trip when I was 14 and the first African country that I went to was Nigeria. Although we’re not Nigerians.

We lived in Nigeria, Benin City to be exact, for two years from 1999 to 2001, and that was my where I got my real introduction to world music and how there’s other rhythms and other kinds of music besides what I was familiar with in America, just being around my friends at school. I’d say I got more exposed to African music for sure when I finally went back to the continent.

After we left Nigeria we entered Kenya and my parents said, “Okay, well, we’re relocating here now. No more America for you. We’re going to live in Kenya.” And I’m like, “What!” I think I had like two weeks to say bye to my friends. So straight from Nigeria, moved to Kenya and that’s when I started recording. I was 16 when I started recording my first songs in Nairobi, Kenya.

Have you been based in Kenya ever since?

There’s been times between then that I moved back to the States. So from 16 to about 18 or 19, I was still in Kenya. I came back to pursue my music and then that’s when I got into songwriting where I used to write for a few different artists. But I think when I actually moved back full time, that was towards the end of 2013.

What made you eventually decide to make the move permanent?

Opportunities. Opportunities to build my fan base of people that I felt like were my people.

I felt like, although I was born here, I’m still very much Kenyan. My family, my entire family; mom, dad, brothers, cousins, everyone was still in Kenya. I was approached by a record label that was based in Nigeria, as a matter of fact. And I felt comfortable to go back to Nigeria because I had already lived there as a child. So I knew what I was getting in to. At the time Nigerian music was really starting to create some hype, some waves, globally. So when I had that opportunity I jumped at it because I always just stated myself as not just a Kenyan artists because I sing in English. I don’t sing in Swahili. I wanted to be [collaborative].

For me that means someone that could be from one place, but you’re [traveling] around the continent, you’re working in East Africa, West Africa, you’re collaborating with artists in Central Africa and South Africa as well. So I sort of treated the continent how anyone would treat America. Where you could be from Virginia and move to Los Angeles. You could be from L.A. and move to New York. That’s not something that’s really done a lot in the continent. Most people in Africa stay in our each individual countries and we literally don’t meet. So I really treated it the same way I treated America very early on with even how you move around a lot as a child with my parents. So that was very instrumental for me and I think it definitely sets me apart as an African artist, as a Kenyan artist in the continent who has collaborated so much across the continent.

But initially when I moved back, this was just an opportunity. It was an opportunity for me to reach back to my own roots and to reconnect back into my town and to find myself as an artist. And five years later it definitely accomplished that and still accomplishing more. We’re still building on it.

What is the reasoning behind people in different African nations staying more or less put? Are there economic reasons behind that? 

There’s so many different factors. I mean for one, like right now people are doing it a lot more. But in 2014, when I moved back, no one was doing that because I didn’t know that they needed to. I think a lot of East African artists didn’t realize that the door could be open to them in West Africa. I think a lot of people maybe can’t afford it. Some people really don’t have the means to be able to leave like that. Some people don’t have passports, and a lot of artists are also very content in their space. They don’t mind being like the local champion, which is great, you know? They’re just comfortable. Maybe some people are afraid? Maybe they don’t have the connections? There’s so many different factors that can kick into that.

But I think for the most part it’s just a comfort thing. Right now, a lot Nigerian artists, they don’t need to leave Nigeria. In fact, the farthest that they probably would want to go is probably Ghana because they have so many resources locally. They’re making enough money. They have this stick-together mentality. Whereas in Kenya we’re very different, but at the same time we have a certain level of comfortability. There’s only 50 million people in Kenya. There’s 200 million people in Nigeria. So if you just think about that alone, some people have just become comfortable with their space, and others feel more pressured to go and leave and go find a greener pastures elsewhere.

Another motive for me getting to go to other places is because our industry is not fully built yet. We don’t even really use the good singing platform just like other artists, they’re singing globally. We’re very much in our own little bubble of not understanding where to place art in general. Even fashion. Politics is very much at the forefront, even in the youth in Kenya. So music is not an industry that’s developed. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t able to leave Kenya and explore the continent the way that I did.

You’ve experienced so much success in Kenya. As someone who goes back and forth to the States, what’s your interest level in terms of gaining more attention over here? Is that a priority as you ready your next album?

Definitely. I mean, ultimately I think everyone right now… I don’t know if you’re too familiar with African music or Afro-beats, but the message is very much Africa to the world. It’s very much about sharing our culture and music with the rest of the world. When Lupita’s made it globally and in America it just sends so many positive messages back to Kenya and it was like wow, if you do have this international dream or whatever it is and in your capacity or outside of it, it’s possible. So, for her success, like it just meant so much to me as well. Ultimately I would like to see my music in a space that it can grow more in especially… Even now that you could just go down into a place that has structured like we still are struggling with collecting our royalties in Kenya.

We still are fighting for our rights as composers in Kenya. We still are, a lot of our music is stolen and we’re not able to do anything about it back there. So here we are in this land of global opportunities, but also you have rights, you actually have rights as a creator, you know, so ultimately it would be amazing for that crossover to happen. The producers that I’m working with now they’re African producers based in the States. So they also work with some top tier American artists as well. So for me, they understand the rhythm because I do want to stay very true to like my own rhythm, but they also understand the crossover. They know what’s palatable more for people in America or Europe or the rest of the world. So for me it’s about collaborating and creating more fusion. And so yeah, that’s definitely my goal.

Could you tell me a bit about one of your recent singles, “Wash It”? It’s a collaboration with Ghanaian artist Sarkodie. How did you guys connect?

Sarkodia is definitely probably the best rapper from West Africa. His flow is just super crazy and Ghanaian people have really showed so much support for anytime we have collaborated. This is actually our third collaboration. He featured me on his last album and then I featured him on my first album and then this is our new project together. Now we’ve just been working on the next body of work. I think it’s time for another album. And so that’s literally what I’m finalizing here in Los Angeles right now.

What are you hoping to portray on this album that maybe you hadn’t gotten the chance to? How would you word describe the evolution between your first and this one?

Identity. My first, I was still trying to figure out who I am and how I fit in that space. I also felt a little displaced for a while when I first moved back to Kenya because I don’t speak Swahili, because I was born an American. Now I’m around people who’ve never, ever been anywhere but Kenya. So I had to figure out my sound and my space in that capacity. And then you can hear that when you listened to the album.

Now I know exactly who I am. I know where I come from. I know how I was brought up and I know what I like. So now that really translates in the production, in the songwriting. It’s very, very much Kimani, very me now. I feel like my first body of work was me trying to find me and yeah. So I feel like I’ve finally cultivated my own sound.

Can I ask—to what extent do you grapple with your own multinational background as an artist? Do you grapple with it at all? I only ask because I imagine it can be an interesting experience performing for more closed-off communities when you yourself like to cross borders.

That’s an interesting question. There’s two different ways that I can answer it. One of them is in the literal way where because I know that I’m 100% Kenyan tracing back to all my ancestors, but my mother told me that my tribe, which is Kĩkũyũ. My tribe allegedly migrated from Cameroon back in the day, which is West Africa. So if that’s true, then you know, where are we really from?

You know, a lot of Kenyans are actually nomadic. Especially Kĩkũyũ is known to go travel from different parts, but even now, they don’t have a place they really settle. They take their cattle and they move. They just walk from country to country. So I don’t know if I really trace all the way back, but at the same time, because my story is so different than a typical Kenyan, because I was born [in L.A.], I do feel like I can’t ignore where I was brought up. I cannot ignore how my accent sounds.

Yeah, I can’t really detect an accent. If anything, it’s just a very soft lilt. 

I don’t think I have an accident at all, but I definitely know I have one at home because Swahili’s the first language, so I’m sounding like this. It’s like, “Where are you from?” I had to remind people that there’s something called Kenyan-American. It’s like people don’t realize that Kenyans left and there’s a lot of Kenyans that have left the country and live in so many different parts of the world. I think a lot of Kenyans don’t don’t that. And so having to go back and explain this is the reason why I don’t speak Swahili. This is the reason why I identify so much with West Africa because they are an English-speaking country. This is the reason why I was able to drive when I go to South Africa, when I go to these different places, because I’m literally speaking a common language. I had to explain these things.

I’m also very naturally rebellious. Nothing is really how it’s supposed to be. And so I had to just stop apologizing for the fact that my parents didn’t raise me speaking Swahili. I think really it’s just about other people educating themselves about diversity in Africa and also with diversity of Africans. 

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