As the camera pans across a lush green landscape, a voice comes though at the beginning of the film: “The beginning of empowerment is being conscious of what’s going on around your environment then doing something to change it.”
“Madaraka”, a documentary film that premiered in Nairobi and Kisumu last week, has assembled a very powerful cast of superstar musicians but the film tells a profound story of one man’s journey to empower a community of youth away from crime and drugs.
It chronicles the story of Kisumu born social entrepreneur Simon Okelo from the streets of the lakeside city where he watched his own brother and some of his closest friends dying to gun violence.
Determined to change the situation for children in the slums, he started a project called One Vibe in 2007 based in Manyatta, Kisumu to mentor youth away from crime by creating an opportunity for them to explore their creative skills though art and music.
“I grew up in the orphanage from 1997 to 2010 and I always saw people bring clothes and food,” says Simon. “The narrative has to change from charity to collaboration.”
The Young Generation Centre, an orphanage that was started by his mother in Kisumu has been transformed into a creative hub where some of Kenya’s top artists like Sauti Sol and Nazizi have recorded.
CD for lessons
Simon’s love for music started while attending the Railway Training Institute in Nairobi, where he connected with DJs in city who would give him the latest music.
During the holidays he took the music back to Kisumu and since most DJs there could not pay for it, he would burn them copies on CD in exchange for some lessons on spinning the decks.
He met his future wife while working on a health project in Ghana and relocated to the US in 2010.
This is where the Madaraka Festival was born in Seattle bringing together performing artists from Africa and the Diaspora every June for a concert that raises money to support his project in Kisumu.
“I chose the name Madaraka because it is about empowerment and that is what we set out to achieve with these projects,” says Simon.
The proceeds from the first Madaraka festival in 2014 were used to set up a recording studio in Kisumu while the second edition of the event raised enough money to buy film production equipment.
“If you have a music video that you want to shoot then come to us,” he says. During the shooting of the documentary, the film crew from Seattle was shadowed by a local film crew comprising youth who have grown up in the home and are now making their own productions.
The star-studded cast of the film includes top musicians like Sauti Sol, US based Ghanaian star Blitz the Ambassador, Nazizi, and the Kisumu born, US based trumpeter Owuor Arunga. Nazizi and Sauti Sol stayed at the studio in Kisumu for a whole week, recording music and conducting workshops with the youth.
The film is directed by Wael Abou-Zaki AKA “L’ who says he saw a lot of similarities between his own family’s background as immigrants of the Lebanese Civil War and the adversity that Simon faced in Kisumu.
‘L’ was originally contracted as a stage manager for the Madaraka Festival in 2015 but he saw the opportunity to make a film on the story behind the festival. Once he and Simon agreed on the documentary then the director spent months probing deeper in to the story.
“The common thread through the documentary is the question ‘why’,” explains L. “We are tackling questions on empowerment and legacy.”
In October 2016, the artists, accompanied by a film crew and photographers, performed in Kisumu at a concert called ‘Made In Kisumu’.
Many scenes that appear in the documentary were shot during that week. The premier of the film in Kisumu last week was therefore an emotional connection with the children who participated in the film and whose story this documentary tells.
The film was first screened in Seattle on June 21 at an event that raised $50,000 (Sh5 million), which was used to support the two events in Kenya last week.
The plan is to get the documentary to film festivals around the world and to gain support for distribution on major digital platforms.
“Our goal is to get it on Amazon or Netflix and in the process promote the work of the artists who helped create the film and the entire One Vibe project,” says ‘L’.
Since 2013 One Vibe has created 16 full time jobs for youth and more than 10,000 people have attended their concerts and community events in Kenya and Seattle.