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Profiles

Finding success in relative anonymity

Carol Atemi
Songstress Carol Atemi Oyungu. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Carol Atemi Oyungu says, “I’ve been told that I’m a diva. People will call you a diva because you want your things done in a specific way, in your own way. What most people will be happy with is for you to take any mediocrity without a protest. If you don’t then you are a diva.”

Atemi doesn’t call herself a performing artist, she refers to herself an entertainment professional and runs her company called Diva Inc.

She’s melancholic, she sings like a bird in love, she’s vivacious and often unapologetic. For the fifth year running now, she and other artistes, have been creating a Christmas feeling through ‘Tis The Season (which she directs), an annual Christmas concert happening next week. She calls it a “Christmas concert with a Kenyan theme.”

She met JACKSON BIKO at Kesh Kesh Cafe for tea.
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What are you struggling with this moment in your life?

[Pause] I'm struggling with expressing my worth - or the worth of Kenyan music - to the market. I’m struggling with telling people to listen to the songs you put out and explain to the market that we have come of age and they should come and watch what we do because it’s special. I’m struggling with people like you, Biko, who only like Kidum. [Chuckle] I understand that when people say things on the internet like ‘I wish there were good Kenyan musicians.’ I'm a good Kenyan musician. As artistes we love our fans we just want them to love us back, to love our music back. Come to our gig and you will change your mind.

So there are a lot of insecurities around artistry, I take it?

Oh my goodness! Yes! Lots of insecurities because you're not selling tea, you're selling you. So when people say they don't want the tea, we hear them saying ‘‘I don't want you.’’ So it's painful. One of the biggest problems with our market is that our infrastructure for music management isn't as well put together as the Nigerians and the Tanzanians.

So being an artists like you is much about business as it is about art?

That’s right. You've heard the thing that people say if you get a job you love you'll never work, it's a lie! You'll work every day. It's just that you'll be like ‘‘oh my God I love it, let me wake up and do it.’’ It requires not only creating but selling what you have created.

Does it get easier though? I mean you've been doing it for how many years?

Well, as a solo act for 10 years, not entirely, it doesn’t. That thing of more money, more problem is true. A success is a wonderful thing, but a failure is easy because with a failure you will say, okay this didn't work, let's try something else. But a success means you now have to top it. But what if that feels like the best plan you had? What will you do next because you sure can’t do the same thing again because it worked the last time? And when you think of how much work you've put into this one thing and you have to put in more again for the next one... it's lots of stress.

When did you know that you could sing?

Maybe in primary school. I come from a musical family. My dad was a reverend who also wrote songs and played the guitar. My mom was a choir mistress who had a church in Kibera, so our house was always filled with music.

A child of the reverend and a choir mistress, look how you turned out.

[Laughs] Look how I turned out! But my mom tells me things like, [makes a voice] ‘you're such proof of God's changing power.’ When you were in university, you were terrible! Terrible! Just disco everyday but look at you now, no more disco, you just want to stay at home. [Laughs]. I turned out alright despite all the disco, didn’t I, Biko?

That you did. Are you a successful musician according to you?

No. I think we're a country of upcoming musicians.

When would you say that you're successful?

I think you're successful when security guards know you. [Laughs]. It's true. I went somewhere with Nameless recently and all the watchmen recognised Nameless! Even my Help knows Nameless! Talking of which my Help doesn’t know what I do, she always says [makes a voice] ‘unafanyanga nini? Dadako anaenda kwa bank, wewe unafanya nini? Do you think you could walk into Tanzania and in 10 minutes find five Tanzanians who know five Kenyan artistes? No. But they can mention five Nigerian artistes. Recognition across border translate to people buying your music across borders.

Talking of the money, is it lucrative to be an artiste like you?

(Chuckles) Yes it's lucrative. I just think that it could be better. But I live off music. I don't do anything else, everything I do is centred around music.

If you were to show up at the pearly gates, and you're asked who are you? You say Atemi. And then they say what have you sang? Which song would you say that truly represents you?

I could say ‘‘Bebi Bebi’’. But there is one called “This Is A Song For You” it's brand new. Unreleased. I play it at secret events.

What do you know about love?

That I don't have it right now. And that Jesus loves me. [Laughs] I feel like every love situation needs a song.

What kind of expectations do men you date come with?

Well, generally when I agree to date somebody he either A, doesn't know I'm a musician, or B, has heard of me doesn't think I'm a great musician. I prefer when a man doesn’t really know or has never heard of me or my music. Why? Because then it's me, it's not Atemi. He's going to find out at some point he's like what, why didn't you tell me? I had one guy take me on a date and someone told him I was a musician but he didn't know who I was. So we got to the venue and the band was like ‘‘oh my God Atemi is here.’’
And I went and I sang, he left me there. He was like, she's singing in bars? How? It wasn’t even a bar, it was what used to be Onami at Westgate.[Laughs hard]

Are you happy now?

Like right now in my life? Probably not. I don’t know, I’m melancholic. [Chuckles]. But I'm happy sometimes.

What's making you unhappy now?

I'm generally anxious. And the problem with that, because I understand, this is something I've been evaluating for the past couple of months, is even when something wonderful happens, and you're so worried about the future, then you miss it. Because you're like okay so this has worked out thank goodness, what about this other part? As opposed to celebrating the working part.

How come you are not saying anything about my pen, Atemi? Don’t you like it?

I like it so much. But it would be better if it was pink. [Laughs].

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