When Grammy Award artist Anthony Hamilton first performed in Nairobi in 2013, he had delirious fans eating out of his hand, as he delivered sweet soulful grooves with style and charm.
This Saturday, the American singer, songwriter, producer and author who is blessed with one of the most distinctive voices among his generation of soul performers returns to the Carnivore Grounds as the headline act during the Stanbic Yetu Festival.
During a conversation with the BDLife shortly after arriving in Nairobi on Tuesday, Hamilton reflected on the state of the world since he was last in Kenya.
“Racial tensions have been rife in the US, people’s spirits have been challenged by the pandemic. We are just finding a time to rebuild the faith.”
The self-described “country boy” from North Carolina began his path to music in his local Baptist church just like other American soul luminaries. His first job was working in a barbershop where he started writing songs based on the conversations he heard among customers.
Hamilton went on to (co)write some of the biggest urban anthems of the 1990s like U Know What’s Up for Donell Jones, Thugz Mansion for the legendary Tupac Shakur, and toured as a backup singer with D’Angelo promoting the Voodoo album.
Rise of Afrobeat
His style narrows the gap between classic and contemporary grooves, his vocals based on soul and gospel influences flavoured with an edgy funk and hip hop sound.
“I am a hip hop baby, grew up in the 1970s when rap started and even when I am singing, I want that beat to knock like hip hop because that’s who I am. But I am also a soul singer who grew up in the church singing gospel, soul, and blues.”
His own career took off with the release of his second album Comin from Where I’m From in 2003 featuring the title track and the fan favorite Charlene. He has since been nominated for 17 Grammy Awards, toured around the world and performed at the White House in 2016.
“I have met some amazing people, been to the White House to sing for President Barack Obama, and visited Nelson Mandela’s home in South Africa. Music has just opened the door for some amazing things. I dreamed of going to the White House but I never imagined a Black President would be in there,” he says with laughter.
In his view, the global rise of Afrobeat has been a long time coming and opens the door for African artists to penetrate the big music markets. “It is such a necessary sound and it will be around forever,” he says.
“I will certainly do some Afrobeats stuff because my voice fits that sound and everything is shifting and I have to be part of that shift so why not do it while I still look good for my age.” Producing his first full-length album in five years Love Is the New Black during the pandemic taught him the power of using music to convey a message.
“Sometimes people may not look at the news or read the newspaper but they will listen to music and get the message. Music has the power to seep through the cracks when people shut the door.”
“Everyone has their favorite black hair, favorite black car, or black jacket, everybody loves black, but people don’t like where it has come from,” he says about the title of the album.
“Instead of looking at us as these amazing black people, look at us as love, when you look at our families, when you look at our hair, our skin, when you listen to our music, when we play sports, that way you will respect us enough not to kill us.”
The highlight of the album is Superstar, a duet with Jenifer Hudson, of a song made famous by Luther Vandross and Hamilton says he had to pay respect to the greatness of his idol by staying true to the original style.
“That is a special song for a lot of people and I only wanted to be a part of the history by showing my love and appreciation.”
When we ask if there is a chance of the song appearing on the playlist for Saturday’s concert, Hamilton can only give a teaser.
“You know what! I have been working on that so stand by. I am going to be as honest on stage as I was last time, if not more. I am going to be present and will connect to people and people will connect to me,” he says.
The Stanbic Yetu Festival will also feature performances by Otile Brown and the Motown in Nairobi Ensemble.