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Blinky, the Kenyan bandleader whose crew shaped ‘cool’ Nairobi music scene

Nairobi, Kenya  – In April 2022, Kenyan alternative music collective Just A Band released a comeback single after a six-year hiatus and 12 years after it first shot into national reckoning.

The return came as Kenya’s music identity was undergoing an evolution; after the COVID-19 pandemic, alternative music found new roots among listeners eager to escape contemporary African music to sounds they considered more reflective of a world turned upside down.

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The four-man band first burst on the scene in 2008, with a unique blend of electronic, funk, jazz, and hip-hop sounds— all with an African inflexion. Their first single Winyo Piny, which introduced their first album, Scratch to Reveal, showed Just a Band as a geeky ensemble with little regard for the conventional.

By March 2010, Makmende Amerudi (Swahili for “Makmende Returns”) – a promotional video for the band’s single, Ha-He, from their sophomore album – became Kenya’s first video and meme to go viral. In the video, Makmende, a fictional Kenyan superhero-inspired protagonist dressed in bell-bottom pants, dangling gold chains and a huge Afro hairstyle singlehandedly rescues a kidnapped woman and defeats the city’s most notorious thug through his mastery of kung-fu. The fictional character became such an important moment for the country’s internet culture and eventually got a Wikipedia page.

“[We were] curious and not under any pressure but making something that [we] absolutely loved,” Bill “Blinky” Sellanga, frontman of the group, tells Al Jazeera. “For us, the band was an imagination portal. It was a space where we were not even seeing ourselves performing or any of the stuff that typical bands do. This was a space where we could create ideas.”

Sellanga, a singer, producer, DJ and multi-instrumentalist is sitting in a glass-walled lounge area on the second floor of Baraza Media Lab, a coworking space for media and creatives in Nairobi. It is early in the morning but the 41-year-old has hardly slept a wink after being featured in an advertisement for an unnamed brand.

“The ad shoot went late in the night,” he explains as he orders a cup of coffee. He is dressed in a plain white shirt underneath a black denim jacket and pants with a multi-coloured flowery cap covering his dreadlocks.

Early days

Born in 1982 as the eldest of three children, Sellanga grew up in the Eastleigh neighbourhood – east of the capital’s central business district – where many Somalis and Kenyans live.

On his way to school as a child, he would listen to songs being played in the matatus – RnB in the morning and hip-hop in the evening. It was on those daily commutes that he fell in love with  Tupac, Biggie, Mary J Blige, Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliot.

“I think that’s why I have such deep respect for those guys, particularly Busta and Missy, because those two were so ahead of their time,” Sellanga says as he recalls how he cried when he saw Busta Rhymes at a concert recently. The rapper’s use of heavy African drums had stayed with him from that tender age.

Back at home, his father listened to music all the time. If it wasn’t Luo music playing, it was Congolese artists such as Diblo Dibala, Franco to Awilo Longomba and TPOK Jazz. His mum, an avid Christian, was always belting or humming gospel tunes.

It was in high school that he got the nickname he would later adopt as his stage name. The huge and thick eyeglasses he wore reminded his classmates of “Blinky Bill” in an eponymous Australian cartoon. But it was not until after a 2009 newspaper review of the band’s performance that he adopted it, after seeing how “accountant-like” his real name sounded.

It was also at high school that Sellanga and Jim Chuchu met. They were both in the same year and shared a dorm house. They were also in the school’s choir; Chuchu played the piano while Sellanga who played no instrument, was a composer and the musical director.

The fact that Chuchu knew how to play the score to, the Prince of Egypt, fascinated Sellanga and that helped them bond. “I’d write music and he’d play the piano arrangements.”

They composed and taught the new songs to the school choir.

After high school, the two lost touch. With a two-year wait to join college and little else to do except lounge at home, Sellanga took his mum’s guitar which had been collecting dust in one corner of the house and taught himself how to play.

“I’d listen to songs I liked, then I’d start learning them on guitar.”

He also began composing again.

The boys reconnected in 2003 at Kenyatta University where they met Dan Mlui, who became the third member of the group. None of them was thrilled with their chosen courses. Sellanga pursued sports science and his friends often teased him for studying to become a physical exercise (PE) teacher. The other two were both pursuing degrees in telecommunications.

So music became their escape. The trio spent their free time at the college’s dining hall, every day jamming. “We were these frustrated college students who wanted to make music but were stuck in courses that were really not the right fit for us,” Sellanga remembers.

One day during one of their jam sessions, someone suggested that they start a band. But there was an issue. Though their love for music is what brought them together, their interests were varied. Muli was getting into animation while Chuchu was into videography, photography, songwriting and visual arts.

Still, they fused their individual artistic expressions into making their first album; Sellanga was the lead songwriter and vocalist; Chuchu who handled the musical arrangements and wrote songs with him, also produced and directed all the videos while Muli created muppets and animations for some videos.

It was during their album launch concert in Nairobi that Mbithi Masya, a filmmaker and writer, so blown away by their performance, offered to help with distribution, sales, marketing and video production. He became the fourth member of the band in 2009 and went on to produce their videos including Makmende Amerudi.

Seeing how his bandmates brought in their other artistic expressions into the songs fascinated Sellanga whose focus was songwriting, singing and producing. “I was like a sponge,” he says. “They are such intelligent people.”

The era of cool

From the start, the band’s self-effacing name has puzzled fans and onlookers. But the history behind it is anti-climactic.

“When you start with a name, you’re never really thinking about the future,” Sellanga says, leaning back on the couch. “We thought, well, we are technically not that good, we’ve seen other bands, and we don’t feel like we are that good in that sense … so we are just a band.”

But their fans, who were entranced by their music and the cool aura they radiated, disagree.

“As a young boy living in Nairobi, Just a Band defined my adolescence, teenagehood and early adulthood,” Eddy Ashioya, a creative storyteller and newspaper columnist based in Nairobi tells Al Jazeera.

For a band creating what its members describe as “super-nerdy” infectious music, their philosophy around creativity has been that of creating things they want to see.

“I think that Just A Band really embodied the freedom of not being tied to what everyone says you should do,” Sellanga explains.

The band’s early work had a lot of electronic musical influence. Sellanga describes it as “always up in the clouds” and being bandleader, he wanted to give their sound an indigenous spin.

So they began adding local languages – Dholuo, Kiswahili and Sheng (the mix of Swahili and English spoken in Nairobi) and bits from the Kenyan songs they grew up listening to. This unique blend can be heard in all three albums; Scratch To Reveal – released in 2008, 82 – released in 2009 and Sorry for the Delay – released in 2012.

The band’s legion of fans include Karungari Mungai and Mwangi Kirubi who say they have attended all the band’s performances in Nairobi since inception.

Mungai, who uses the stage name Karun, is a Nairobi-based songwriter, and producer, who was a member of the group Camp Mulla, another Kenyan favourite that has since disbanded. She first heard their music while she was in high school.

“Just a Band’s music is timeless,” she states matter-of-factly to Al Jazeera. “I think all of us that are day one fans, we have just been waiting for them to come back because their music was so wholesome … when they were performing live, they had created such a nice community of people who would show up for them. So anytime they announce anything, all of us are so happy that they are willing to put their music back out again.”

Others say the music was a bookmark to a happy era.

“They made it cool to be different before it was cool,” Ashioya, tells Al Jazeera. “Growing up in noughties Kenya, with President Mwai Kibaki taking over from the near-dictatorial era of the late President Moi, we believed we could be anything we wanted … Just a Band redefined what it means to be an urban Kenyan. I didn’t need anyone to tell me how to be cool, I was cool. Their music gave me the confidence to live it out. ”

Things fall apart

“When Just a Band took a hiatus, they not only left a gaping hole in my soul but one in the Kenyan music space, as well,” states Ashioya.

Samuel Mbugua, one of the faces in their fan-generated music video, Probably for Lovers, describes his feelings on hearing news of the band’s break up to Al Jazeera as a “mixed bag”.

“On one hand,” Mbugua explains, “it was sadness because the lads had created such amazing art and music together. On the other, it was a mix of pride and gratitude.  Listening to their music, I felt that that they may not have been creating in a manner I had been used but they were creating. It grew on me and stayed.”

No sooner had they finished producing the Scratch to Reveal album than they began working on their next album, 82. They never stopped to take a break then or even following its release a year later in 2009. Soon, the fatigue caught up with them and then broke them after the release of their last album, Sorry for the Delay.

Chuchu was the first to leave the band in pursuit of his solo projects – producing feature films and photography. The band announced his departure in October 2013.

The rest of the band tried keeping it together and even released a single, Winning In Life, off their fourth untitled album in 2015. Eventually, things ground to a halt as his missing sound was noticeable.

That, Sellanga states simply, is when he began working on his own music. The house where they had all been living together in – Just a House – “became too confining”, as they each needed their space, he adds.

“It became like living with your parents,” he explains, “ you love them but any small thing became a big thing. And I think anybody who’s ever been in a band knows that feeling where it just feels like you want to pursue your own thing. You want that independence.”

In April 2016, the band announced they were taking a two-year break to pursue solo projects.

Chuchu has been championing the rights of creatives and the LGBTQ community through his projects. Muli – the most elusive in the group is still a much sought-after animator and graphic novelist. Mbithi continued with filmmaking. Sellanga is the only member who remained in music.

It was a natural progression, he tells Al Jazeera.  “I think it was better for all of us that it happened that way,” he says. “I don’t know if I’d have been able to do the things I’ve done as a solo artist while still also pursuing that collective vision.”

The solo journey

Leaving the band, Sellanga explains, led to a lot of self-discovery as he didn’t want to lean into the band’s legacy too much.

“I wanted there to be a clear difference between Blinky and Just a Band,” he says. “There’s a DNA in the way that we make music as Just a Band,” adding, “There’s a feeling that the music gives you. I didn’t want to recreate that.”

With the collective splitting, Sellanga saw it as an opportunity to try out all the crazy ideas he had and pursue a different vision with laser focus.  But that freedom was not totally unfettered.

“I never used to have to think about anything outside of the music”, he recalls. Now on his own, he had to learn everything about the visuals, the packaging, the distribution. “ Things like posters, I couldn’t just go to Jim [Chuchu had handled all the band’s visuals] to ask for them,” he laughs.

Sellanga, having seen the impact of the Makmende Amerudi video, needed to figure out how to still make the music engaging by including strong visual components.

This collaboration led him to work with visual artists like Osborne Macharia, with whom he’s created two music videos. It also inspired him to explore photography, and he’s set to host a solo exhibition in early 2024.

Sellanga’s first solo project was, We Cut Keys While You Wait, in 2016. The extended play (EP) was a six-song offering including collaborations with soul/jazz singer Maia Von Lekow, ShappaMan formerly of rap group Camp Mulla and Kenyan Soul singer Sage Chemutai. The EP led to Sellanga securing deals with Sony Music France, which distributed his first album, the 12-track, Everyone’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales.

As a producer, Sellanga has been a creative force behind many Kenyan productions. As a DJ, he has played sets in almost every continent and hosted interactive musical performances at TED2018 and TED2022.

Sellanga’s 3rd album, We Cut Keys 2 is expected before the end of the year. Dracula, the first single released in mid-November has been described as a “masterpiece” and a “sonic revolution” by fans and critics online. The album features American rapper Goldlink, Ghana’s Fuse ODG and several Kenyan acts like Muthoni Drummer Queen, Jovie Jovv, Kasha and Idd Aziz.

Sellanga believes that he has become a better musician. After starting out listening to a lot of electronic music, his musical tastes and influences have grown to include artists such as Yasiin Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def), Hugh Masekela, Fela Kuti, Omou Sangare, Jacob Collier, as well as funk and soul artists.

This, Sellanga says, has not only widened his scope and understanding of music but has also seeped into his music making it richer. He has also remained outspoken about the importance of freedom and experimentation to artists.

“I just never want to be shackled in the chains of what everyone expects me to do,” says Sellanga who has recently been experimenting a lot with the drums of his people, the Luo. He hasn’t cracked it yet, he admits but is motivated by the challenge.

 

The reunion

The band’s break lasted six years.

On May 16, 2022, it announced its comeback on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. There was an immediate outpouring of fan love as Kenyans replied with memes and gifs expressing their excitement and welcoming the group back.

 

 

“Been waiting for this moment for years,” Kenyan rapper and songwriter Papi Subu responded to the post. “Can’t wait to see you guys again soon.”

Although the band did not publicly explain the reasons that led to their comeback to their fans, Sellenga offered some answers.

“When we come together and make that music, the people who have loved it for a long time and the people who say we made them dream, emboldened them, gave them the energy, we felt we still wanted to do more for them,” he explains.

For Kirubi, a Kenyan photographer and aspiring filmmaker, “JAB etched for themselves a place in our hearts that no other music group can replace,” he told Al Jazeera. “They feel like brothers you want to keep rooting for no matter what. It’s great to see them back together again.”

When the band launched their second album in Nairobi in 2009, Kirubi captured the moments as a gift to them, and to document their journey to stardom.

A changing identity

Just a Band’s return comes as Kenya navigates a crossroads in its music identity.

In other African nations like Nigeria and South Africa, the music sector has become a multibillion-dollar earner and their sounds are currently in massive rotation on dancefloors of Europe, Asia, and the United States.

In Kenya, that is not the case.

Despite its diversity and potential, Kenya’s music industry is in search of a musical identity while its artists grapple with piracy, low streaming revenues and a lack of support from its home fans.

Critics have said the Kenyan government has neglected arts development in the country, leaving no infrastructure or support channels for artists.

The Music Copyright Society of Kenya, a government body overseeing the royalties from airplay for artists in Kenya has been embroiled in a court battle since 2018 over alleged misappropriation of funds.

Regrdless, Gengetone, a genre heavily influenced by reggaeton and dancehall began dominating Kenya’s music scene between 2018 and 2022. At its peak, alternative Kenyan music began bubbling again having disappeared from the airwaves following Just a Band’s exit.

But then Nigeria’s Afrobeats and South Africa’s Amapiano punctuated that rise as both genres hypnotised audiences in Nairobi, as elsewhere across the continent. On the radio and in the clubs, those are now the music of choice.

These days, popular Kenyan artistes have begun gravitating towards the two popular genres to secure airplay on local radio, in clubs and get onto the most listened-to playlists on Spotify.

To this, Sellanga is scathing in his critique.

“We are a very pop market. It’s almost like, we all just like pop music,” he sighs. “ The space’s open nature and willingness to give music from outside an audience, something that other countries don’t, is both a curse and a blessing. We can’t all be making Amapiano or Afrobeats.”

“We don’t have a music industry,” he adds. “We have a music scene. Every single artist has had to build their own rail. This is not enough to properly sustain the auxiliary services that really take it to the next level.”

He attributes much of this failure in building an industry to the government’s lack of support for the sector especially when it comes to the collection and distribution of royalties.

“Kenya is getting there, but it’s through a lot of sacrifices on the part of the artists,” he says.

Meanwhile, the band is also navigating its own identity in its second stint to create a balance between collective projects and the solo careers of each member.

“We have created worlds outside Just a Band and so the question in each of our minds is, can we successfully do both,” Sellanga says, then pauses to reflect. “ How do we split ourselves if, say the band drops a project that does well and at the same time, our solo projects also take off?”

There’s not enough space in the room for such a heavy question that clearly has no answer yet, at least publicly. “I feel like we will just see how everything unravels,” he says.

Source: Al Jazeera

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