Emmy Kosgei’s runaway success in vernacular gospel music has raised her profile and revealed a true Kenyan star. She opens up to Carol Odero showing a steely determination and philanthropist behind that radiant smile
As far as entrances go, Emmy Kosgei’s arrival for our meeting can only be described as nondescript. She slides out of the back left of a regular salon car in a pair of jeans skimming her hips, heeled wedges, a soft lime green sweater with a subtly made up face and surprises me with a warm hug even though this our first ever meeting.
All of this belies just how popular this 28-year-old artiste is; on Promulgation Day, it was Emmy’s professionally executed performance that salvaged an otherwise disastrous presentation by our local artistes.
Last month she had members of parliament from all over the world on their feet and dancing when she performed at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting held in Nairobi.
She can also count a number of influential Kenyans as her declared fans. And if you consider that Emmy is gospel musician who sings exclusively in Kalenjin, then all these feats become even more amazing. About an hour into the interview a fan notices her and approaches exclaiming; “I know you! Your performance on Promulgation Day was great. After that it all went downhill,” she laughs along with Emmy.
Emmy’s easy popularity almost makes it seem that she was born under a lucky star. But in truth, all of this is the result of hard work, a keen sense of timing and a willingness to take advice. She is a firm believer in not going it alone. “I get a lot of advice from people and before I do anything, I always consult with my parents,” she says. “If they say no, don’t, then I don’t.”
Daughter to highly acclaimed protestant cleric Bishop Jackson Kosgei and his wife Rose, a versatile businesswoman, Emmy grew up in Mogotio in Koibatek District. “I would say it was a humble background. We were not well off, but we managed,” she says.
She has always been a performer joining everything from the youth choir to the drama club in high school. “I used to compose my own songs and sometimes people would cry. My dad would say it was because my words were so powerful.”
Then she moved to Nairobi to study food production at Utalii College it was her first time in a city. “I know a lot of people might think I am a mshamba but I don’t care,” she says. She sung in church but never considered doing it professionally. Then she met Esther Wahome who heard her sing in church and became her mentor. “She advised me to try something different. Everyone was already singing in English and Kiswahili.” Emmy decided to sing in her native Kalenjin in order to stand out. “Vernacular language is different, very rich and not explored,” she says.
When she performs, Emmy always wears outfits she designs and has tailored by her staff at her fashion house, the Emmy K House of Fashion. Again, this was on Esther’s advice. “I used to be a model and at the time I was slim so she also told me to take advantage of my looks. Esther also said to do a good album cover and video.”
But before her career took off, Emmy started trying to make ends meet with a job at Engen in 2003 in their customer service department. She left because she had to work in shifts and that got in the way of her making church music. Then she was hired as a sales representative for a Catholic NGO where she thrived and was promoted. This job offered a flexible schedule—and it was there that she met a friend who served as a stepping stone to her first ever tour in South Africa.
Her first album came out in 2005 along with a DVD compilation. “I used my savings and money from my dad and friends because I could only afford about half the amount.” It was this album, ‘Katau Banda’, which was themed around tribal clashes, which she promoted while in South Africa. “I have never been received anywhere the way I was in South Africa. I was given a VIP reception by the Embassy.” Complete with a fleet of high powered cars, it amazed even her.
Shortly after she flew to the US to perform and on the flight back, wrote out her second album, ‘Kaswech’. Radio stations asked her to interpret it and they played it repeatedly in 2008 after post election violence. “I would get text messages from people who told me while there was chaos outside they had been clinging to their radios listening to that song because it was the only thing that gave them hope.”
She has a ridiculous number of text messages on her phone to this effect, and shows me. One is from a man who says that although he understands nothing of the language, he is deeply moved by her songs. It has playful, catchy and danceable beats. She found a way of getting around language through subtitles on video. Even so, in late 2007 and early 2008 when vernacular songs and radio stations came under intense scrutiny, she had a brief moment of fear when she thought it was the end of her career.
Those fears were completely erased on Promulgation Day when her song ‘Taunet Nelel’ which, interestingly enough, was written two years ago as a patriotism-meets-Christianity song, moved people such as prime minister Raila Odinga, vice president Kalonzo Musyoka, first lady Lucy Kibaki, Gichugu MP Martha Karua and nominated MP Millie Odhiambo to dance along with the rest of the dignitaries on the dais.
Emmy says she felt vindicated for never agreeing to travel around the country campaigning for either side of the referendum divide. “Performing at the Promulgation was a great honour and turning down those requests made it even sweeter.” To think she says she gets nervous before each show seems absurd! “That day I was shaking. I did not know that would be the reaction. I was supposed to turn and face the crowd somewhere halfway but I saw them dancing and it moved me.”
There are many instances where others are confronted by Emmy’s music but the greatest platform had to be that day. Wearing white, a colour she has a penchant for performing in because “it just brings out the message best,” and flanked by a back up group that includes her younger sister and brother, she brought the crowd of thousands to their feet.
Emmy is not just a gospel artiste. She is also a patriot and philanthropist, and her music seems to spring from a place of healing. “When I was singing ‘Kaswech’ I was thinking how one generation could have so much blood on its hands that it affects the next one. People took part in the violence without understanding the implication of it. The way to fight tribalism is by accepting it. Every community is unique and that is what makes us Kenyan. You have to appreciate those differences, not stifle them.
If I have come this far doing Kalenjin songs, imagine how far we would go if one person sung in Kikuyu, another in Luo, another in Kikamba, and everybody did their thing instead of putting fear into people by making them doubt who they are.” This interesting mix of the local and the global has landed her a distribution deal with EMI Records through its Kenyan arm AI, to take her music to the rest of the world.
During the interview, her phone simply does not stop ringing. It is a narration of a Bible verse. She steps away to take one of the calls discreetly. On the way back she is stopped by a gathering of elderly men, and Emmy actually curtsies when she shakes their hands. An animated conversation follows. When she returns she says they asked how they could support her.
It suddenly becomes evident why she is so successful; she is a modern woman with conservative, traditional and Christian values but she knows exactly how to hustle. The undertones of her slight Kalenjin accent illuminate a great deal of cultural spit and polish that allows her to fit seamlessly into high society as easily as she does into her rural community.
Her distinct brand of ebony beauty is as dazzling as it is startling and makes her gospel a smidge sexier, especially since it flows from the inside out. She is the sort of person who effortlessly attracts good things through nothing but a prayer.
She finds that observation amusing. “I don’t struggle. All the things I do in my life, I do them because I have passion for them. As for Christianity, I have never known any other life but this so I enjoy it thoroughly. Even when I first came to Nairobi there were no temptations for me. I can’t imagine any other life.” he maintains that, “God has done everything for me. I am not connected to anyone.” Her father is her greatest influence. Incidentally, he is physically handicapped but you could never discern this from her conversation. “He raised us in such a way that we do not feel the gap. It has taught us that disability is not inability in life.”
But there must be shoulds, musts and thou shalts, surely, right? “It used to bother me and I used to think I had to be or talk in a certain way. When people meet me they expected a kind of personality but I have adjusted. As much as possible, I try to be myself.” That includes being particular about her videos, which makes them rather expensive. “I am quite demanding. My mind is on the end product. I have to make sure it sells.” Think of it like a business and she is the product. Her office has a sales and marketing team, who run Emmy Kosgei as a brand. She is also very much aware of her self image and knows exactly what works with her colouring.
She is a skilled business woman. The Emmy K House of Fashion label has been in business for the past two years. She must be worth a small fortune, I point out. “Well,” she smiles , “I can’t complain. We manage,” is all she says. Lively lime greens, ravishing burnt oranges, soft ivory whites and bluer than the sky blues are but some of the colours that pop in her DVDs.
Away from that, her style is so casual it is laid back. “I know what favours my skin, not just in terms of what I wear but also how I take care of it.” Her skin is radiant, healthy and matted with the slightest dusting of powder. “Our culture favours long dresses, but up here,” she indicates her bust, “we are naked so I am comfortable with that.” She designs her own jewellery as well. The metals are crafted by a gifted sculptor and the beading is done by a community of women in Mogotio. Her mother and sister oversee the making of the beads and the women are paid for their trouble.
About two years ago Emmy opened Hope Academy, a school that educates 40 students from the direst of situations. “They don’t have anything. Some lost their parents, or are being raised by grandparents or come from environments where they brew alcohol. I conduct the interviews myself when we recruit. We are very strict with our choices.” ‘We’ in this instance comprises the head teacher of the school, and again her mother and older sister. Hope Academy emphasises spiritual matters, nurtures extra curricular talent because there is more to schooling, and of course studying. She sponsors 37 children altogether.
Three children who are now sponsored by Titus Naikuni caught his eye when he saw them in one of her music videos, and invited Emmy and her group to dinner with his family where he asked, “Who are these kids and what can I do for them?” Yes. Just like that. “It is hard asking people to participate in something that does not yet exist,” Emmy says, adding that she preferred to start the school before asking for funding so that she would something tangible to discuss.
She hopes eventually that all the children, and more, will be sponsored, an act of kindness that means paying fees as well as buying uniforms, books and things. As of now, whatever money she earns, mainly from her fashion line, is ploughed back into the school.
By now I begin to wonder if Emmy should be sainted. But surely there must be a chink in her armour if one looks hard enough. It happens to be in the form of this bit of gossip; rumour has it she is dating one or other very senior government official. My fans do come up to me and ask me, just like you did, if any of this is true,” she says. Then: “I am very principled. I would not have come this far if I were a loose woman. These men [referred to] are married and I know their wives, who are very good friends of mine.
” Who then, is she dating? “I don’t share my private life with the public because that can be misinterpreted. I keep them guessing, which might explain the rumours,” she says. “All I can say is, I am taken, I am seeing someone and he is very, very supportive of me and what I do, and I create time for him.” When I ask for more details about him, all questions are met with a firm shake of the head and a promise: “Watch this space,” she says. “Give it a few months then you will have the whole story.”
Did she ever get down on her knees and pray for a specific kind of man?
“My dad always says that it is my own responsibility,” she says. “There is no designed husband. Of course, it cannot work if you find someone who is not understanding or who does not support you. And when it comes to relationships, everyone needs divine intervention because it is a lifetime commitment.”
Away from the public, Emmy relishes her steam baths, massages, and aerobics. She loves solitude especially in the Mara, or by taking walks or drives in nature. “I can go on a drive to forever.” But at the core of it, Emmy is just a regular woman who admits that she wants what anyone else does. “I plan for a normal life. There is a lot of pressure in the industry I want to be like woman,” she says.
“I want children and I want to get married.” Nothing could be more apt than Emmy’s own words to wind up. “You can’t just be a celebrity in name and be rich. You need to leave a legacy.”