A LYRICAL ARTIST …

Ghanaian writer Evans Kafui Offori tracked down Kenyan singer-songwriter Njoki Karu to talk about her musical background, her creative impulses and her penmanship for filmmaker Wanuru Kahiu’s film, Rafiki.

Nkoji Karu (Image by Jeremy Greene)

When I finally got the opportunity to see Wanuri Kahiu’s film Rafiki, I was more than excited. The showing in Accra was slightly lowkey – for perhaps obvious reasons – but an impressive number of especially young people showed up, and as a cinematic experience, it did not disappoint. Rafiki is a story of two young Kenyan women and their forbidden love, set against the backdrop of their different class backgrounds and a climate of homophobia. It could easily have been set in Accra; such is the shared and terrifying continent-wide reality of violence towards LGBTQIA+ folk. ‘Rafiki’ made international headlines after Kenya’s courts banned it from being shown in the country. It has since gone on to be screened at film festivals all over the continent and the world.

As difficult and sobering as it was to watch, one of the more delightful aspects of what was an excellent film was its soundtrack. One voice in particular stood out for me, and not long after getting home, I found myself entranced by the penmanship and sound of the artist I’d discovered to be Njoki Karu. She did not have a large catalogue, but a listen to each of the songs ‘Stay’ and ‘Secret Love’ told me one thing: this was a supremely gifted singer-songwriter. Experiencing her art felt like a privilege. I had to interview her. However, reaching Njoki was not easy. She currently works as a Music Therapist in a Los Angeles hospital, and as you can imagine, is pretty busy. A number of DMs requesting an interview went unattended for quite some time before I finally heard from her, and when I did, it was as genuine a response as I’ve received from someone who really owed me nothing. 

Nkoji (Image by Jeremy Greene)

‘So Njoki is…is me,’ she says when we begin, after I ask the perfunctory introductory question. She is not shy, but she appears soft-spoken, initially picking her words very carefully. She tells me she was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, and only ended up in the States for college. ‘My childhood was… a lot of playing. I think that’s the one thing I remember; I played a lot.’  She, along with her older sister, was raised by a mother and father, and at first it seems her parents had very little direct links with her gifts. ‘My mum would sing around the house and my dad’s family is also quite musical, but they aren’t musicians. They’re just Africans, you know, and Africans, we sing everywhere.’ Then she begins to talk about her song writing, and their influence becomes more evident. ‘My dad loves words, and that’s one of the things I really picked up from him. My mum is a very good orator, a brilliant storyteller, but when it comes to writing, my dad is…he’s just phenomenal. That’s one of the things I always wanted to learn, like, “yo, how do I do this? How do I write?”’ 

‘When I was growing up, I always felt as though I was misheard. Not misunderstood; misheard’

And write she did, officially starting to match her pen to her own melodies about six years ago. Her voice alters now as she continues to talk about her childhood and music. This is important to her. ‘When I was growing up, I always felt as though I was misheard. Not misunderstood; misheard. Music was one of the ways I could actually sit down with myself and be like “okay, what do you want to say and how do you want to say it?” My words in music felt like the one tool I knew I possessed, where I could say what I needed to say and feel heard.’ This vulnerability continues throughout our conversation, and I feel extremely lucky to be trusted with what seem to be deep secrets. At this point we are interrupted by her alarm, and as if roused from a mini reverie, she switches quickly to another question I’d asked about Berklee College of Music, of which she is a recent graduate. She tells me how she was first admitted to study Economics at the University of Nairobi, but after trying a music programme in the year Kenyan secondary school graduates stay home before university, she decided to take a chance and audition for the prestigious college. She got in. ‘For me the thing was just being in a place where everyone was passionate about music. That was completely mind-blowing.’

‘I wanted to use music primarily to help people who’d been through traumatic experiences and also to see how I could tailor it to help people who were living in IDP (Internally Displaced People’s) camps’

Njoki decided to major in Music Therapy at Berklee. I ask what the thought process was for choosing to go in that direction. ‘Everyone is led to doing music therapy for a particular reason. I wanted to use music primarily to help people who’d been through traumatic experiences and also to see how I could tailor it to help people who were living in IDP (Internally Displaced People’s) camps. We had post-election violence around 2008 and some people still don’t have homes. I wanted to use my music to help people in those kinds of situations. I was going knowing I’d be coming back home to use it in that kind of setting.’ She has not let go of this dream, though she admits it might be harder to achieve than she thought, but she is certain she will figure it out. ‘Our work is there to validate what people’s experiences are,’ she affirms. 

During her time in college as well as back home in Nairobi, Njoki continued to write and perform original songs and covers, and still does. There is something truly raw and earnest about the way she performs. While she thinks of herself as a songwriter first, Njoki Karu does not take performing lightly. ‘If you’re sitting in an audience and I’m not comfortable with the song, you’ll kind of know that I’m not feeling the song that much. But if I sing a song that I’m so passionate about, sometimes it moves you to tears, because in that moment, I’m taking you to a place I was in. It can be a place of pure joy or a place of pain, and you feel that. The energy makes you empathetic; you just understand what I’m going through.’ ‘Rafiki’ director, Wanuri Kahiu, must have felt that energy when she heard Njoki sing at a concert three years ago, because she sought her right after. Njoki had just sung ‘Nita,’ a song that would later make it onto the film’s soundtrack. Wanuri loved it and asked if she had more like it. ‘I got to send her some music; she listened, picked the ones she wanted, and that’s how we proceeded.’ 

Rafiki Official Trailer

‘Rafiki’ has undoubtedly brought Njoki Karu to the notice of more people, but I’m curious about what her thoughts are on the film’s main subject matter, considering the fact that she is Christian. She does not waste time with her response, which turns out to be the note on which we end a wonderful conversation. ‘Regardless of race, religion, gender identity and sexuality, all those things, our basic unit is that we’re human. We have to learn that people are human first, before anything else. When we try to kill people for who they identify as…it’s like, why would you kill someone because they identify as gay? How does that take away from you? Those for me are the questions. You can have your opinion and that’s fine. But this doesn’t take away from your way of living. It doesn’t. And I think if we could all be a little more compassionate, if we could all move around with just a little more love, the world would really be a better place.’

It has been an enthralling chat, and a slightly sleepy Njoki begs leave of me so she can go get some rest. I imagine she has a busy shift the next day. As I prepare to pack up my devices, I stumble on a note I made of something she said. It is not novel, but it rings hard and true: ‘Everyone has a story, it’s only…how do you tell it?’