Ssaru Kenyan artist joins Apple Music's rising stars Up Next Programme

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Kenyan singer-songwriter Ssaru. PHOTO | POOL

Could a young Kenyan singer-songwriter follow in the career path of some of the most successful African performers who have been catapulted into fame through a global artist development programme?

The Up Next platform by Apple Music has in recent years showcased the talents of artists like Grammy Award-winning Afrobeat stars Burna Boy and Tems. Now Ssaru, one of the most promising Kenyan acts, is on the trajectory to global attention after she was selected for the programme run by the music streaming service, aimed at identifying, showcasing and elevating rising stars.

“Add my name to that list alongside Burna,” says Ssaru in a typically playful reaction to joining the ranks of the Nigerian superstar who was featured on a similar programme in 2019. “It is a privilege to get such visibility with some of the biggest artists in the world.”

Ssaru was in buoyant mood when discussing the latest milestone in her nascent career. “You don’t even know how much this platform means for an artist until you get on it,” she says. “Someone must have noticed that I have put in the work and the effort to deserve this privilege.”

The Up Next playlist features new and emerging artists, handpicked by the team at Apple Music from around the world. Ssaru follows R&B singer-songwriter Maya Amolo who was the Up Next act for East Africa in December 2023.

Born in Taita Taveta County, but raised in Nairobi, Sylvia Saru (her stage name is spelled with a double ‘s' as an abbreviation of her first name), has come a long way from the girl who just a few years ago launched her music career fortuitously by uploading her freestyle rap videos on social media. “I shot my first video using a friend’s phone because I could not afford a smartphone,” she recalls. “That video became a trending topic on Twitter with people asking 'Who is this girl?' I did not even have a Twitter account at the time because I thought that was just a platform for older people discussing politics.”

Her debut single Nyama was released in 2019 and quickly won her wide acclaim among the legion of fans of the gengetone genre, the high-energy combination of rap, dancehall, reggaeton and other urban influences.

“I really don’t mind when people brand me as the Queen of Gengetone, because If I am not, then who is?” She asks with a laugh. “But I don’t want to be categorised in a box because genres are about what you feel at a given time, it could be drill, R&B, or whatever. I just want to be known as the queen of everything, and not just one genre.”

She is defiant in the face of the criticism that she and other artists of the genre have faced for the raw depiction of sexuality in their music. “You are not obligated to listen to my music and I don’t expect love from everyone who listens to the music,” says the 26-year-old. “That is why I make music in a variety of styles. Some people will connect with the gengetone, but I also have R&B songs and even rumba which my parents are really enjoying.” The latter refers to Rumba ya Ssaru which is a collaboration with singer, and songwriter Charisma.

The campaign against gender-based violence has not escaped her attention because most of the recent victims belong to the demographic that forms her main fanbase. A month ago, she released the single Girl Power featuring rapper Joefes to create awareness of the alarming situation.

“I decided to use the power of music to speak out about the rampant killings of young women because I felt that people misunderstood the situation by blaming the victims,” she says. “No one is safe because you could get killed even while going about your normal business. This message was intended to reach music fans because that is the medium that can effectively communicate to them.”

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