Kenya: 'African Girl' Naomi Wachira Sings Her Way to Fame in America

"I am an African girl. Well, I know where I'm coming from, and I know who I want to be," says Kenyan- American singer and songwriter Naomi Wachira in her song African Girl, a defiant soul anthem that catapulted her onto the world stage and to a whole new path and calling.

The words, from the title track of her first album, African Girl, offered a breakthrough for the artiste with Kenyan roots, who is based in Los Angeles. With her rising profile, she is now out to make a contribution to the world by offering music that is poignant and hopeful through the Afro-folk genre she is specialising in.

The imagery and subject matter of the African Girl song form the foundation that all her other songs are built on. The song's message captures the essence of a defiant, bold and unambiguously Afro-centric feminist.

"The song actually started as a poem I wrote for a multiculturalism class I took in graduate school. The poem was titled Where I'm From. In it, I talked about the food we eat, the heritage, and the faith that was passed down to me. Months later, when I was re-reading the poem, I felt such a pull to turn it into a song," Naomi told Lifestyle.

Before a powerful performance three years ago, the songbird used to be the typical proverbial "prophet" who is hardly recognised at home. This is because much of her music -- though celebrated in other parts of the world -- never used to be popular among Kenyans, especially those in the US.

Solo performance

This, however, changed when she gave a rousing solo performance during the Miss Kenya-USA pageant in Seattle, Washington in 2018. Her performance made her an instant celebrity because the power in her African Girl song reverberated throughout the Kenyan community.

"After her performance, I had so many young Kenyan girls coming to me and telling me how deeply that message had impacted them. As you know, it's very challenging raising children in this country. They find it hard balancing between life at home with their African parents and the cultural differences and language barriers in schools," said Gloria McCarthy, the founder and president of Miss Kenya USA.

To some, the song broke the ice so that families could discuss issues around insecurity, schooling, drug and alcohol abuse, and of course issues touching on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, which is always a live wire within Kenyan families.

"Her music is different, thoughtful and poignant with powerful life lessons. Most of us Kenyans are used to artistes that are full of drama performing music that mostly glorifies debauchery. Naomi's music is soul-searching and inspiring," said David Kizito Bulindah, a Kenyan resident of Seattle, Washington.

Listening to Naomi's stage performance in a low-intoned voice that made it sound more like a poem recital than singing, Susan Njeri, a 19-year-old high school graduate, could not contain her emotions.

"It's as if Naomi was directly speaking to me. I've had a very tough time growing up as a gay girl in a typically Kenyan homophobic family where being gay is regarded as a physiological impairment and a character flaw," said Njeri, crying.

Goodness of humanity

That underlined a key component of Naomi's songs. She articulates the pain and chaos of modern times while also lifting up her enduring and hopeful belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity.

"I am naturally a seeker with a deep desire to know the meaning behind things, people and events. Even as a child, I always wanted to go outside the box," Naomi said. "Music has now become the perfect extension for the seeker in me. It allows me to create narratives that go beneath the surface of what you might observe, and also create space for something better. Being an eternal optimist, I relentlessly look for hope anywhere I can find it."

The artiste was born and raised in Kijabe, Kiambu County, to Elijah and Dorcas Wachira. She attended Kijabe Primary School, Kaptagat Preparatory, Kambui Girls and Naivasha Girls.

"My father passed away in 2013. He was the executive director of Kijabe Printing Press for most of my life and my mother was a housewife, farmer and businesswoman. When my dad retired, they moved to Karai, just outside of Naivasha which was to be their retirement home, but a few years in, they started an orphanage, which my mum still runs. I have two brothers and one sister," Naomi said.

Naomi said she started singing with her parents at the age of five and hasn't stopped since. She says discovering that she could write music at the age of 15 was both a terrifying and freeing experience as it gave her a platform to express her otherwise introverted self. Through age and experience, she has developed a style of writing that is simple and to the point.

She moved to the US in 1996 to attend Moody Bible Institute and graduated in 2000 with a degree in communications with an electronic media bias.

"My dad's plan for my life was that I be a news anchor or broadcaster. But I was never passionate about those things," she said.

Sorrowful experience

She moved to Seattle and joined the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology in 2007.

"It was not because I wanted to enter the ministry. It was a way to figure out what faith actually meant. I needed to decide for myself what it is I believed. I graduated in 2010 with an MA in Theology and Culture," said Naomi.

Naomi's music has been described by music platform Beehype as "a stark and heartfelt reflection on the contemporary world and the human experience; a sorrowful experience, but also inspiring".

She blends her African native rhythm with American folk and soul. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of great African legends such as Miriam Makeba and Angelique Kidjo, Naomi has set her goals to change the way the world views Africa, one song at a time.

Some of the achievements Naomi is proud of include being named best folk singer and songwriter right at the beginning of her career, being part of the Seattle music scene, performing at several sold-out shows as a solo artiste on her first Europe tour in 2015, getting to tour North America and Europe with Damien Jurado, an artiste she admired and used to listen to in the early 2000s, and being able to bring her daughter along to some of her tours and raising a well-grounded child.

So, what does her future hold?

"I'm currently working on my next album and plan to still do all the work that goes into releasing an album, but perhaps without the touring part," she said.

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