INTERVIEW: Soul and Style with Sauti Sol
Their publicist warned me. The guys are quite talkative. Good for interviews, she said.
In the hour I spent chatting with three of the four members of Kenyan pop group Sauti Sol, I found out both were true. Bien-Aime Baraza, Polycarp Otieno and Willis Chimano are VERY chatty guys. True to reputation, they are great for interviews.
They are also the hottest thing out of Kenya since Barack Obama (Just ask band member Polycarp.)
Sauti Sol (which comes from Sauti, Swahili for voice, and sol, latin for light) is already HUGE in Kenya, BIG in Africa and is making it on the international scale. Earlier this year, the four (the three I interviewed plus Delvin Mudigi) dazzled crowds at South by Southwest music festival with their smooth shimmying and their colourful and original style-- not to mention their addictive music.
We got to hear all about that and more. Check it.
Celebrity Red Carpet: Hey, guys! How are you today?
Chimano: Great, great, great!
CRC: First things first. We love your style. What is the fashion scene like in Kenya?
Bien-Aime: The fashion scene in Kenya is growing. There are tons of local and upcoming designers. People in Nairobi are trying out new stuff, outside of the box.
CRC: How do you define your style?
Chimano: We like African avant-garde. Making stuff that looks weird in a good way. We want to look edgy. People expect Africans to look a certain way-- showing up in a grass skirt. We wanna look funky and modern with an African touch.
Bien-Aime: We like random stuff that's timeless.
Chimano: Sorta weird, but good-weird.
CRC: Are there African hipsters? Are there other people in Nairobi who dress like you?
BA: Who try to dress like us. No-- like we started geeky glasses and now everyone is wearing them.
CRC: What are the cultural influences on your style?
Bien-Aime: There are East African fabrics called kanga... We wear a lot them.
Chimano: We make them ours. You know, you have a traditional blazer and then add lapels made out of kanga, an African touch. Or shoes with an African print. We embrace the African.
CRC: Do you have a favorite designer?
Bien-Aime: Patricia Mbela, she's amazing. She's a very good friend of ours, she designed out outfits for our last South by Southwest show and our European tour.
CRC: Do you have all your stuff custom-made?
Chimano: Yeah, we want our own look and own style. We start from scratch.
CRC: Ok, I'm dying to move from fashion to music... and dance. I've seen your synchronized dances on stage-- who makes up the dances?
Polycarp: Dancing is one of our strongest points on stage. It's really electric, it looks good on stage. Like the outfits.
CRC: You dance on stage and, yet, your videos aren't dance videos... they tell stories.
Chimano: The song we sing tells a story and the visuals should tell a story.
Bien-Aime: But we are going to have to do a dance at some point. We like American videos where everything in a clip is random. We like random.
CRC: So, tell me about "Coming Home." It's a pretty striking video.
Chimano: Yeah, Polycarp hangs himself. We were telling a love story-- a musician who goes on tour and leaves his wife behind, She feels abandoned. So he returns and she's moved on with his best friend. A lot of people have come up to us, said that it moved them.
CRC: So, speaking of your fans... on your Twitter, you often use the hashtag #solgeneration. Who is the sol generation?
Chimano: Sol is Latin for light-- so it's the light generation, the enlightened generation. We want it to be a generation that knows what it wants, stand up for things. We're trying to show young people that they can dare to dream, that you can go farther.
CRC: Yeah, you spend a lot of time promoting education.
Bien-Aime: We have an initiative called Soma soma. Soma means to read. We go to schools to put emphasis on education, to say you can take your life in whatever direction you want.
CRC: How would you describe young people in Kenya today?
Bien-Aime: Young people in Kenya are trying to hustle, to be entrepreneurs, to make money.
Chimano: Kenyans are known to be entrepreneurs in Africa, They have the Midas touch... It is good for our country to have that mentality. As a country, we are still young.
Polycarp: We [in Kenya] are at that stage when everyone thinks if you are not doing a white collar job, your life is over. But there are so many other opportunities.
You need to be daring, try new things.
CRC: Would you say that you are social activists?
Bien-Aime: We don't like being called social activists. We are into certain values based on love, truth, understanding. Another thing, people use the label "activism" to get funding from NGOs. We finance ourselves.
Chimano: I don't want to label myself a role model. Go ahead and think of me as one if you want. But I am just me.
Bien-Aime: The thing is, when you are a social activist, when you do a kinky song or a love song, people say, um, what are you doing...? And I just want to be me!
CRC: What makes you sad about modern Kenyan society? What makes you happy about it?
Chimano: What makes me happy is that I know my country and love it. I 'm cool here. The people want to grow; business, culture-- it's all coming out of the box.
Polycarp: One thing I hate-- driving is soooo bad. People have no sense of the road, it's really annoying.
Bien-Aime: I used to think we were bad, until I went to Mali...
CRC: Speaking of Mali, I know that when you were there you got to perform with some of your idols.
Bien-Aime: YEAH, man!
Chimano: It shows that anything that you want in life is reachable. There we were, playing with them. Polycarp was in tears.
CRC: Who do you want to collaborate with next ?
Bien-Aime: Everyone here has their own idols. For me: Kanye West and Coldplay.
Polycarp: John Mayer and, yeah, Coldplay.
CRC: What are the differences between a crowd in Kenya and one at the American Festival South by Southwest?
Bien-Aime : In Kenya, we are known, we're the best band.
CRC: You don't have big heads or anything...
Bien-Aime: Literally, I don't know. Metaphorically, not yet...
Chimano: Performing internationally was hard at first; we don't have our own audience. But as the years went by, we worked our acts, got good on stage. It's still hard, but five years ago...
Bien-Aime: As for Kenya, you have to be there. For one part of the year, we tour abroad, for the rest we have to be in Kenya. The sounds we do here aren't the sounds we are doing abroad, we are not always just singing, we are building relationships.
CRC: You sing in English and Swahili... How do you decide what language your songs will be in?
Chimano: It isn't something to decide. Songs have spirits. We don't really choose the language. We do a melody and do whatever language comes first.
CRC: What languages do you speak every day?
Chimano: We are speaking Swahili all the time. The official languages are English and Swahili. But there are 43 languages in Kenya. Luhya is our mother tongue. Except for Polycarp-- he's Luo, Obama's people.
CRC: Speaking of Obama, do you get asked about your opinions on him since you are from Kenya?
Chimano: Only in America.
Bien-Aime: This is off the record, but Polycarp uses Obama to get girls.
CRC: What do you do? Say you are his family?
Polycarp: Something like that.
CRC: Speaking of love, a lot of your songs are about love. Where are your favorite places to take a date in Nairobi?
Bien-Aime: Well, Polycarp is a big womanizer. Ask him.
Polycarp: Oh, you put me on the spot. I dunno. There are fancy places in Nairobi. We have a song about Java, a chic restaurant.
Chimano: Our first hit single is about taking a lady you like to Java. But there are very many nice places. We were born here. We know every corner-- it's a phenomenal place. You just have to know where to go.
CRC: So, I just want to end with one more question... what does the future look like for you ?
Bien-Aime: We can only make it... or make it.
If you want more of these guys and their border-crossing music, don't worry, we'll be giving you updates. They have a lot going on in the future, including a new video coming out next week.
So if you like their humour, their suave sound and their colourful look, keep tuned for the band that is breaking stereotypes left, right and center.
In the meantime, you can also check out their new self-titled EP "Sauti Sol" and other fun and exciting things at their web site.
One last piece of advice from the band:
"Don't forget to eat lunch!"