There is a publicist in camouflage cargo shorts jostling for space at the table next to me. He has a video camera wedged next to my elbow. The camera is running. Once in a while, when I get into his shot, he taps my arm gently. It’s annoying, but I’m in his territory: I’m interviewing his boss, Stella Mwangi or STL, by the pool at Nairobi’s Tribe Hotel.
You’d think interviewing Stella would make this a musical story. It’s not. It’s more of a story about what a young woman does with what life throws her way; what she does with her talent and how her choices define her. Which makes it a very abstract story because she is only 25 years old and thus is a work of daily transformation, both as a musician and as a woman.
No to pastries, yes to a Tusker
She’s having a beer, a Tusker. It’s a deserved beer after a lengthy photo shoot. Most artists who have accomplished as much as she has would be prone to certain theatrics and demands. Not Stella. Only once did I hear her tell the stylist that she was uncomfortable with something (a white dress she wore anyway); otherwise she did as she was told, and avoided the tasty pastries on display outside the room. Clearly, carbohydrates and STL aren’t the best of friends.
“Drinking a Tusker is one of those things that say you are home,” she says, sipping the ice cold drink. She is slouched in a lounge chair and looks much smaller than she appears on TV. The chair almost swallows her.
Stella’s family moved to Norway as political refugees when she was five. Her father, Jeff Mwangi Kwirikia, was a literature teacher and a political activist who was convicted after the 1982 coup attempt. When he continued to criticise the regime, he was forced to flee the country.
Stella and her sister, Jackline Wangui, who is four years older, found themselves in a foreign land with nothing but their wits and their black skin, which presented new socialisation challenges.
“Hip hop saved me,” STL says. “I was the only black kid in class and that came with a lot of insecurity. We listened to a lot of Lady of Rage, MC Light, Salt and Pepper … the lyrics spoke to us, it gave us confidence to socialise in an all-white society.”
Staying close to her roots
Her father insisted that they never lose track of their roots, so he taught them Kiswahili and Kikuyu, which she speaks fluently. But mostly her father cultivated and encouraged their musical talent. “My parents organised shows for us and together with my sister, we wrote my first full song at the age of 11. We called it Black Power and I think that sort of gave me the confidence to pursue my passions more keenly.”
Music bloomed in her from that point. She realised that music had the potential to give her the necessary support system to live through the challenges and social insecurities that her new country presented. And she pursued it feverishly.
Her first album, Maroon, was born out of collaborating with an African group called The Rise in 1998.The album saw her open for several hip-hop concerts in Norway. Over time, working with renowned producers such as Tom Roger of Big City, Stella got noticed.
After winning the Most Promising New Artist of The Year at the Kisima Awards in 2006, she released a few singles – The Dreamer and Living for Music – which saw her climb the East African charts; they also became some of the most played songs on MTV Base and Channel O.
In Norway she landed gigs as supporting artist for big-time artists Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross and Flo-Rida. Her songs also started getting featured in movies and TV shows such as American Pie, The Ghost Whisperer, CSI: New York, CSI: Las Vegas, America’s Next Top Model, Scrubs and Melrose Place. She also performed for last year’s joint Nobel Peace Prize winners, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman.
“I’m stunned at the success so far,” she says. “I never thought it would come this fast, this soon. Don’t get me wrong, I have dreamt of this my whole life and I have worked hard to be here, but still, I can’t help feeling surprised.”
2010 was a hard year
But the road to musical success isn’t always a smooth one. Take 2010, for instance. It was not a good year. No money was coming in from her shows and she had to ask herself some hard questions: was it worth it, this moneyless pursuit of her artistic passions? Was it time to cut her losses and do something that “made sense” economically?
“Getting things working in Norway and putting my name out here [in Kenya] musically is not cheap. The money wasn’tthere to support these endeavours. And money is important, it gets things moving.” But somehow things worked out and before long she was picked to represent Norway in the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest with the song Haba Haba.
Although she was knocked out in the semi finals – which online pundits accredited to her vocal range which is more suited to rapping than singing – the experience bolstered her confidence in her talent and gave her a reason to fight on.
But the contest also exposed her to racial murmurs which insinuated that she, who had lived in Norway almost her entire life, wasn’t “Norwegian” enough (she is a citizen) to represent her country in the contest. A politician in the Norway Conservative Party was forced to apologise after making remarks on her Facebook page that she’d rather have “Sami, polar bears and muskox” as winners and that “that’s what we should sell, not that we are open to asylum seekers”.
Stella, gracefully, steers clear of the topic, even rising above it. “It’s about the music, once you let yourself be drawn into anything else, you will veer off track and the music will not make sense anymore,” she says.
Exploring her African-ness with music
But what is her sound? What is STL’s beat? I ask her.
She admits she is still doing battle with this one. “I’m struggling to do what I want to do … which represents who I am. A couple of weeks ago I said to myself, ‘Don’t make things complicated Stella, do what you feel, not what is popular’.”
She is at a point where she is looking for her true self through her music.
“In 2012, I want to stick on the red line, I want to explore the African image in a futuristic way. I want to write songs for myself, to do it for the love of the job.
” But surely you have to think of the bottom line, I point out.
“Yes, but what you can’t do is to let money constantly guide your creative choices.”
In short, she concludes, she wants to tell “inspiring stories”, stories that stem “from a place to which people can relate”. I point out that she is smaller in real life than she appears on television. Does she eat meat? Does she diet obsessively?
“I work out, it helps with my energy on stage. I eat mostly fruits and vegetables but I can eat meat once in a while.”
As a performing artist, constantly in the public eye, her appearance matters a great deal. At some point during the shoot, she clutched a small flab of “fat” on her belly, asking anyone who would listen, “Hey, is this showing my belly too much?”
Kenyan artists must unite
Having made it in a foreign land, I am curious to hear her take on the Kenyan music scene.
“What Kenyan artists need more than anything is unity,” she says. “A lot can be achieved if all the talent is harnessed under an umbrella where they can have a strong voice and negotiate on their own terms, because we have some really respectable artists such as Wahu, Amani, Nazizi and so on …”
Nigerian artists, she says, are good examples of how unity in the industry can be achieved.
During the interview, STL refers to her “road tour”, essentially a few scattered shows in the country and another one in Kampala, Uganda. “It’s amazing and flattering to meet hardcore fans here,” she says. “This tour has opened my eyes, not only to the extent that music is appreciated here, but also the kind of songs fans are drawn to.”
But you don’t write songs to this audience specifically, do you? I ask.
“Actually, when I write my songs, I aspire to write songs that know no geographic boundaries, because a good song is a good song in Russia or Cape Town.”
So beyond the music, is she seeing someone?
Actually, she just got engaged. “It was amazing, I have dated him since I was 17 years old, and he proposed in a sea of rose petals all around. I was totally taken by the spectacle.”
Is he an artist as well?
“No, a producer,” she says, after which she clams up about her mysterious man.
At this point, the guy with the camera cuts in and informs her that they have to leave for Eldoret the next day, because she has a show that night. She seems unaware of this fact. “Really, I didn’t know we have a show until next week!” The camera guy tells her that they do. She seems unperturbed by this new development.
Huge energy on stage
But does her confidence on stage hold in real life?
“The insecurity I harbour is of not making it, because I have spent my whole life dreaming of this, of wanting to make it so badly,” she admits.
“But making it is also very tricky because you never know which song is going to be a hit and which one is going to be a miss. Don’t be deluded into thinking that it’s not personal when a song you put so much into doesn’t do well … it is very personal because you gave it your all and you want it to do well.”
Despite her hectic lifestyle, she knows how to relax.
“I zone out by watching cartoons, I’m a big fan of Family Guy and The Simpsons. And I also love cooking.”
What happens next? Where does Stella see herself 10 years from now?
She mulls over this for a few moments. “I will have done 10 albums, I will have met Oprah and I will have travelled around the world. Oh, and I will have opened African restaurants all over Europe.”
What she wants for valentine’s Day from her fiance:
“Nothing fancy, just flowers and a quiet dinner.”
What she loves most about Kenya:
“The food is great, the weather is brilliant, the people are friendly and I love spending time with my grandparents when I come here, which is normally twice a year.”
Stylist: Nana Gecaga
Make Up: Muthoni Njoba
Photographer: Emmanuel Jambo
Location: Tribe Hotel
Clothing: Poisa Ltd
Shoes: RTW STYLZ
True Love Magazine February 2012