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Wendy Kay Is Doing It Her Way

© COURTESY OF WENDY KAY
WORDS BY LESIBA MANKGA
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF WENDY KAY

Being tapped into the best talent in the African diaspora is somewhat of an unwritten requirement for my job. It’s like the little T&C’s at the bottom of the page that you glance over because let’s face it, every agreement in life comes with its own terms and conditions. Expanding on the depth of knowledge of artists from the diaspora has been a challenge that I have tried my utmost to tackle head-on. Like a sprinter who is trying to beat their personal best, breaking the wall into uncharted territory for my musical tastebuds would require me to completely let go of my previous personal preconceptions of what I would consider to be ‘good music’.

This approach to my work means I have to listen to music from a different perspective. An analytic lens, if you will… Sifting through the bottomless pit of music that is available at the tap of a finger can not only be tiresome but at times… Cumbersome. So much so, that if I come across a song that I even remotely enjoy, I savour the moment. Like a child who is enjoying the last sweet of the day, I enjoy that moment of discovery as much as I can.

So, on the 18th of June, I was at our HQ in Johannesburg, listening to the “EA Wave” playlist on Apple Music; waiting for that moment to come… Waiting for the ‘last slice of cake’ moment to come my way… And to my joy, the next song that played gave me that moment I was craving. Ladies and gentlemen, join me in uncovering the origins and inspirations of the multi-layered Kenyan gem – Wendy Kay.  

© COURTESY OF WENDY KAY

I read your Spotify bio and I found out that once upon a time you were a backup singer for Coke Studios. Can you tell me a bit about your experience?

It’s always been a dream of mine to go to South Africa, so I jumped at the opportunity to go there through Coke Studios. It was an amazing experience. I got to meet a lot of amazing artists like Busiswa, Mafikizolo, Shekhinah, Mi Casa… And I could go on and on.

With so much focus on the sounds coming out of West Africa, not much is known about Kenyan or the Eastern African music landscape. Can you describe what it’s like being an artist in Kenya that creates R&B?

That’s an interesting question… I don’t think about that when I make the music. My inspiration comes from various aspects of life in Kenya, things happening around the world or even sounds coming out of other parts of Africa. However, I can say that the music industry in most African countries are similar in the sense that they are not as developed. In Kenya, you fall into two main broad categories. Either you fit into the mould of what every other artist is creating or you are an outlier that goes against the grain. Out of those who have chosen to do things in their own way, only very few have gone on to make it.

The song ‘Niambe’ (ft. Njerae) was my introduction to your music. However, after diving into your album, I found that you create a variety of different genres. So in your own words, how would you describe your sound?

I would describe it as Afropop or Afro R&B with a lot of Soul sprinkled on it… Some days I feel like making R&B and other days I feel like making reggae – I’m just unpredictable like that… And I also incorporate my native language of Swahili into my lyrics.

I wanted to pay homage to the people who came before me. That’s why it’s the first song.

Can you talk us through the song ‘Panda Shuka’?

In English, “Panda” means “up” and “Shuka” means “down”, so that song talks about the ups and downs that one experiences in life while trying to hustle and chase their dreams. I wrote that song for the young Africans out there who are pursuing their dreams. Especially the youth of Kenya because there is a huge disconnect between the youth and the government. Also, we don’t know much about our own musical heritage. Looking back at the 80s, a lot of South African music was penetrating the country instead of our (Kenyan) music. I struggled to find women making music from around that period. Most of what I came across was music from other regions like Congo. I wanted to pay homage to the people who came before me. That’s why it’s the first song.

What were some of the inspirations behind songs like ‘Niambie’ and ‘Maneno’?

Firstly, your pronunciation of Swahili is really good. I’m starting to think that you’re Kenyan [laughs].

‘Niambie’ and ‘Maneno’ are really different songs… For me, when I write music, I write about the things that I go through or the things that people around me go through. ‘Niambie’ is a song that came about from the conversations that my friend and I were having about the tiresome aspects of relationships that we were both experiencing, but I didn’t just want to tell one side of the story. I wanted to include the insecurities that the partner would be experiencing.  

For ‘Maneno’, the producer is from Nigeria but he was in Kenya at the time and I wanted to explore a coastal Kenyan sound called Chakacha. “Maneno” is Swahili for “words” and I was trying to highlight that one should be careful of what they say to themselves. You reap what you sow… You speak things into existence.

© COURTESY OF WENDY KAY

When I write music, I write about the things that I go through or the things that people around me go through.

Talking about your journey, can you tell us about your career up till this point? How are you pursuing your career in ‘your way’?

I’ve been in the game for a minute. I started in live music nine years ago and at first, I wanted to be a musical actress. I didn’t even think about being a musician because I wasn’t confident in my songwriting. I was then introduced to a school where you learn how to be an artist, for a period of time, and that’s where I developed and honed my songwriting.

Kenya doesn’t have a strong sense of identity in its music. We are a culturally diverse country but you can hardly find references of Kenyans who make authentic music because of the heavy presence of international sounds from neighbouring African countries. I recall conversations that I had with different industry professionals here in Kenya and most of them told me that I simply would not have a market for my music. That’s how heavily diluted our music scene has become, and in a way, it kind of discouraged me because I felt like I didn’t have a place to belong.  

All of that changed when I joined Coke Studios. Being around industry titans, I learned to be hard-headed and assertive about my music. If I was going to fail in my pursuit of a musical career, I would do it on my own terms. That’s why I named the album My Way.

© COURTESY OF WENDY KAY

Some days I feel like making R&B and other days I feel like making reggae – I’m just unpredictable like that…

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career?

To be honest, I’m surprised I’m still doing music right now and that’s mainly due to the pressures that come with pursuing a career in music, particularly from family. This isn’t necessarily the most stable career choice. 

In all honesty, I felt like quitting music almost every day but it keeps calling me back, but I’m happy to be able to say that the persistence paid off because I’m finally starting to make money from my craft. Admittedly, it is not at the level that I would like it to be, but after close to 10 years in this industry, I can honestly say I am earning from my music. I even had to learn production just so I have the freedom to create my own sound.

Would you say that in life you’ve always been free to be yourself? From the outside looking in, it seems as though you’ve had to reduce yourself to fit other people’s visions.

I think for a large portion of my life I was hiding. Even in the hiding, I wasn’t sure who I was or what I was hiding from exactly.

I’m a spiritual person and I kept asking God, “Why did you give me this talent?” because I am one of the quietest and most reserved people that I know… But now I understand why he did it. This talent has forced me to break out of my shell. It’s put me in situations of uncomfortable growth. Even me doing this interview with you right now was really tough for me to do. Not because I’m depressed or anything but I just felt I didn’t have anything worthy of sharing with the world. Without this voice that God has given me, I do not think I would have experienced the things that I have and be in the position that I am in today.

© COURTESY OF WENDY KAY

I think for a large portion of my life I was hiding. Even in the hiding, I wasn’t sure who I was or what I was hiding from exactly.

How did you go about the tracklisting for the album?

This is my only album which you can listen to on shuffle, and that was done purposefully. I wanted people to consume the album in that way. I want people to listen to the album and not know what is coming next. I feel like it is a more exciting listening experience in that way.

If you had to pick a song on the album that represents you stepping out of your comfort zone, which song would you choose?

I would say ‘Fantasy’ because it’s the first song that I handled from production to writing, completely on my own. That whole experience has given me the courage to share more of my production capabilities.

Talking about ‘Fantasy’, it is a personal favourite song of mine and the production sounds really familiar but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Did you sample that song?

I didn’t sample any song but it was definitely inspired by the amazing Johnny Mitchell, who was also sampled by Janet Jackson. It came out the way I envisioned it and hopefully, we will have visuals for it… But we’ll see how that pans out.

Lastly, after listening to the album, what do you want people to take away?

In life, you really have to be your own hype man. You have to believe in yourself at all times and remember to protect your energy. Choose very carefully who you choose to keep around you.  

Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

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Lesiba
The Best Music Journalist In Southy. - @lesiba__ everywhere if you're looking for me -

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