How else could you explain a phone number so long it couldn’t fit on my phone’s screen? It was 2007 and I had a kaAlcatel.
A blue one with a rubber band holding it together. I was sure it was the Illuminati. I mean a phone call at 2am?! The Kenyan country code is +254; I know it. This one wasn’t. “Should I pick or not?” I deliberated with myself. I had heard stories of people who picked the wrong phone calls and lost their minds; walking in the streets naked. It was back in the days when “flashing” was a thing. Nokia 3310 was the it phone. It was so huge and heavy that if you walked around with it in your pocket people thought you were armed.
My bed wasn’t even a 4 by 6 then, it was 3 by 6. I was 24 years old and living in Ngumo thanks to Pastor Albo and Eda Esilaba. I couldn’t go back to Dandora. I was tired of jumping over sewers, the never ending gunshots and seeing the same old faces. Maybe I saw myself in them. It felt like walking around and seeing my face on other people’s heads.
I needed out. So I stayed for like a month at Dj Moz and Njugush’s house in Waroko Burning. We came back from a school mission one and I stayed. Never went back to Dandora. I’m sure they were silently wondering, “Mwanaume hauendi kwenu?”
They understood though. Njugush once gave me 5 k to have my music put on CDs to sell at school missions. That’s how we survived as Gospel artists. I hope I’m still gospel.
So I finally got the guts to leave Waroko Burning and got space at Albo’s. I don’t know how, but when I did, I found myself upstairs. In Dandora we had staircases to the next floor. In Ngumo the stairs were inside the house to other rooms. Budah! We only saw this kind of houses on TV.
Pastor Albo was cool. He was white and the synonym of organized. In every aspect. From their first born Bulamu sleeping at a particular time every day to having a date night with Eda every Wednesday or Thursday.
He gave me a bed (I wish I had a picture) and everything was catered for. In return, I contributed like 5k every month. We even had those big white basins that can’t leave the floor. It was my first time to use one of those. Funny enough, he never did those pastor things like praying loudly early in the a.m. or “Juliani kuja hapa chini tukuombee!” I assume that’s how pastors are.
About that time I started dating LC. She featured in my “Hela” song and if you ask me she remains one of the best rappers I have encountered. Not just best female rapper. I first saw her at K-Krew mission at State house girls. She could rap. I could rap. So I wrapped her. Box! We were winning souls for Jesus, but winning her heart was also in the Agenda. The second time I ever went to Java, I took her. It was the one at Koinange Street and I ordered a “double mocha”. It was the only thing I knew on that menu.
Okay, back to the phone call. It was 2 a.m. I was about to get one of the most refreshing moments in my life and God knows I needed it.
My career was plateauing; I was a familiar face in the Gospel circles because of my first single “Jesusnosis”, hanging with K-Krew and Kijiji records. I needed a new challenge. I knew I was destined for greatness. I mean pastors said it all the time! Mostly after performing in church services. They would go, “Kijana wangu unaenda mbali!”. I would nod in agreement and say “Amen”. Yet wondering “Ndio mchungaji naenda mbali. Nitatembea usiponipa hata fare ya kutoka hapa.”
There was a church event almost every weekend. Astar and I got invited to most. Afterwards, we would receive a brown bahasha. We knew what was in it. You could tell either by the weight or on how they justified themselves before handing it over.
We were not doing it for money. Lakini kondoo pia lazima ikule nyasi.
Back to the call again. The voice from the other end of the phone sounded warm and excited,
“Niaje mbuyu, ni Jal. Emmanuel Jal!” He went on “Nakupigia kutoka London. Nimeona video yako flani na niko impressed sana. Tunaeza ongea?” “WHAT?!” I thought to myself.
I knew Jal! Everyone knew Jal! The first time I heard about him, he was being played on The STOMP Arthur K show, was the biggest Gospel show then. I knew about his child soldier stories and I didn’t think he was the best rapper. The second time I saw him was when he came for TSO (Totally Sold Out) Kubamba end year gig. In 2006, I think. We didn’t talk or anything. I just adored him from afar. I’m sure he never even saw me.
Jal’s label, Gatwich Records was looking for an African artist and he wanted to sign me. Apparently, DJ Moz had travelled to London on his way to visit Debs (now his wife) and had somehow carried one of the VCDs I had made from the cash Njugush gave me. The VCD had a performance I had done as the headliner in “Vina na Maana” at Ufungamano House, University Of Nairobi. I carried it everywhere for when people asked for my music.
God is good. Jal had watched it and was impressed.
To cut the long story short, they signed me.
They sent a letter of intent which I shared with David Kuria. He was then running an entertainment site called Mwafrika (waaay before Mpasho and Ghafla). He was influential and the only person I knew with good English. My advance was to be KShs 300, 000 for a renewable one year deal. Jal even employed a publicist called Diana for me. Budah! I had made it.
It has been a long journey since then. We have become good friends, Jal and I. Last year, I joined him on his UK tour. I’ve never had such a run of appearances and performances. In a week’s time we traversed almost the whole of the UK (yes including Scotland). The only means of transport I didn’t use is a ship.
Jal has been a big influence in my career. Especially on how I do business and interact. Him and a certain broke CEO. Because of their passion, commitment and heart of transformation, their nod always goes along way.
I remember David Kuria asking me, “Where do you see yourself in 2–3 years?” It was when Jua Cali had the Orange Kenya deal. I was like, “The 3rd or 5th biggest artist in Kenya”.
David Kuria deadpanned, “I asked in 2-3 years not 5-10years!”