She, the fourth album by the rising Kenyan musician Muthoni Ndonga, better known as Muthoni Drummer Queen, was one of 2018’s more original artist statements. A feminist manifesto that spoke to a new type of African consciousness, particularly through songs like Kenyan Message, it was a refreshing take on the hip hop electro fusion that so many alternative beatmakers have been experimenting with since Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy was released in 1991.
A decade after the Bristol band’s masterpiece changed the landscape, Diplo and Switch’s productions in the early days of the millennium helped M.I.A. elevate those sounds of deconstruction through a series of confrontations that were showcased on her debut album Arular. These days, some of the most fearless producers and vocalists are coming out of the African continent. And they are not all devoted to Afrobeats. Many of the new practitioners are women. Now a leader in the new sonic collage movement, Muthoni Drummer Queen feels that her recent, critically-acclaimed creations are actually the direct result of an identity crisis she experienced back in 2015.
Before she started working with GR! and Hook, two emerging music producers from Switzerland who had been introduced to her by a friend in Nairobi, Muthoni was busy running the Blankets & Wine festival in Nairobi. Launched in November 2008, Blankets & Wine had grown to become one of East Africa’s major music festivals. For its 10th anniversary, in 2018, Blankets & Wine partnered with Red Bull Music in a relaunch of sorts, because the reality was that the festival had stalled due to a self-imposed hiatus, which followed Muthoni’s decision to withdraw from the scene in order to figure out a new path for her career.
“For a long time, I had this impostor syndrome around building the festival,” she revealed recently during an interview that followed a live show in Vancouver. “I had created the Blankets & Wine platform quite accidentally, because I wanted to solve a problem. After I established that business, I realized that it required a full set of skills that needed to be developed. I’m grateful that I was able to develop that part of my brain, but for many years the festival took over my life, and I wasn’t really able to create music, because the event, in Nairobi, which used to take place on the first Sunday of every month, turned my life into a treadmill. I always had to worry about booking artists, finding brands to associate with, filing taxes, and so on.”
When she would play on “the platform”—the term she uses most often to describe the festival—she’d find that her performances weren’t good enough. She wasn’t putting in the time, in the way that other artists were all in when they rehearsed, honing their craft. “After a while, I felt that when I got on the platform I would fail. It was as if the platform had locked me out. As an artist, you know when you’ve done a good job, when you’ve communicated.” Looking back, she feels that the social currency that came with the Blankets & Wine festival allowed her to be in the theme, without actually really being in the theme.
By the time she put the festival on hiatus in 2015, it had become a place where artists from countries other than Kenya would gather. Blankets & Wine showcased musicians from Zimbabwe, South Africa, but also the United States and elsewhere. The platform had become less and less about Kenyan artists. “I felt like I didn’t do enough to contribute to self-love, which Kenyans need,” she laments. “I felt lost, for a long time, having given so many years in my life to the platform.” Her business partner was a venture capitalist, and he tried to help, but it became clear to Muthoni that she should focus on her own music career, instead of always feeling like she was at odds with her own self. She was longing to have a harmonized life, as a woman approaching her mid-thirties, and it felt like the life of the artist could eventually be available to her.
These days, she’s on a roll. And the life of the artist seems within reach. “I want to be the Oprah and Jay-Z for music in Kenya. At the same time. I want to create something at scale, that really monetizes, that really creates income for a lot of people, for a lot of talents. I’m trying to do something that creates intergenerational wealth and really raises people’s profiles, creating a new space for identity, for myself and for my peers. In Kenya, we need a structure, an industry that allows for structures to be, and to flourish. I can be a leader in that structure, in that industry, and still be an artist. I’m not reinventing the wheel here, because there are a lot of people who have done it in other parts of the world. I can ask them for advice, about how to put things together.”
Muthoni feels that she now needs a strong advisory board around her. She is surrounding herself with people from different industries and countries who give her criticism and feedback, as well as ideas that she can add to her blueprint, but she is doing it without sacrificing who she is. Or who she wants to become. So, what does a global music career actually look like? What are the steps that need to be taken, in order for her to get to that global music career? “I think it’s in my destiny,” she says.
She is now in a position where she gets invited to Switzerland and France, where she gets booked for high profile gigs and festivals, like the Montreux Jazz Festival and the Transmusicales in Rennes. She is about to embark on a European tour, and all kinds of people are now asking her to collaborate, on films and on other creative projects, but right now she is choosing to put a lot of time and effort into her live show. “Our show feels like it has wings,” she says. “The next step is pairing the show with the right artists and the right collaborations.”
Muthoni is convinced that her multifaceted life is allowing her to move faster, because she can be smart about how she should turn lessons and experiences like shows in dive bars in deep France into something bigger. It’s about keeping the eyes on the prize. “I have a deep amount of respect for strategic thinking where you’re working backwards, having defined a goal and an endgame for yourself. That doesn’t mean we don’t allow for serendipity or the kindness of strangers. It’s about knowing what it would look like, so that when it happens, we’re prepared for success. But it’s also about knowing what my limitations are, and not anticipating that there’s a savior coming on a white horse. Knowing all that, the things that we’ve been able to do are, in my view, transformative.”
As a self-declared advocate of Pan-Africanism who loves the continent in its diversity, Muthoni is visibly very excited about the role she is about to play. Many of her public statements point to her desire to play an active role in redefining Africa’s creative industries. She is quick to elaborate on the ways in which she intends to help build the new structures and systems in Africa that Africans can benefit from. She wants to be one of the people who define that new Africa of creativity.
As she gets ready to rule in Kenya and in other African countries, Muthoni Drummer Queen is spending quite a bit of time away from the continent, because the big music business isn’t (yet) in Africa. Yet every time she returns to Nairobi from her travels, she realizes that she does want to be in Africa, that she doesn’t want to be living anywhere else, and that living in Africa will enable her to derive the full benefit from being in Africa as an African. “I understand my role as a leader in the industry,” she volunteered as parting words.