East African musicians highlighted on CNN’s ‘African Voices’

This week on CNN’s ‘African Voices’, East African musicians talk through their career ambitions and why they’re focusing on their roots for inspiration.

One rising star on the African music scene is Vanessa Mdee from Tanzania. Her unique sound focuses on her bilingual abilities; skills she gained as a result of growing up in four different countries. Mdee explains: “I left Tanzania when I was nine months old, I went to New York for five years, and then to Paris for another six years, then moved to Kenya for about two or three years, then moved back to Arusha.”

Such a unique childhood meant that Mdee gained a huge passion for life. Mdee tells the programme: “Growing up was a lot of fun because I got to experience the best of all worlds. Growing up in the developed world, growing up in Africa, learning different languages and experiencing different cultures.”

Mdee’s career began after winning an MTV contest but it was only after her first track was released that she realised her passion for the music industry. Mdee explains: “The exact moment when I released the single, in that moment, I discovered that this was the only thing I ever wanted to do.”

Performing her music live is Mdee’s favourite part of her job. The singer tells ‘African Voices’: “I have this thing, I call it a clap-back. You’re in the studio, writing this song and then you send it out into the world. And then when you’re on stage, performing the song, and the fans sing the lyrics back to you, I call it a clap-back moment. Because it literally is this full-circle moment, where from a thought, you generated lyrics, then melodies, then this full body of work and you send it out into the world and your positive vibrations come right back to you. For me, that is the most enjoyable part of what I do.”

Mdee has high ambitions for her future and she’s aiming to inspire the next generation of African girls along the way. Mdee tells the programme: “World domination is my ultimate goal, definitely. I’m not going to stop until I get there… There’s a place for a young African female to make strides, to be a pioneer, and to change the narrative. So that makes me proud – the fact that we are still making history every day. Africa’s beautiful. Our stories are unwritten. Our songs are going to resonate across the globe. That’s the message I want my music to give. Hope. A lot of hope and a lot of love.”

‘African Voices’ also meets Blinky Bill, a musician, producer, and DJ from Nairobi, who draws inspiration from all over the world. Blinky explains his music style to the programme: “It borders on being experimental on some level and sometimes it reaches that place where you don’t think too much. It just hits you and you like it. So my music balances both worlds… It’s 2017, I think we’re in a space where the world has become way more connected and I think it really underestimates the audience if you say ‘they won’t understand this because it’s too complicated.’”

For this artist, however, a career in the music industry was not his first ambition. Blinky initially wanted to be a lawyer but it was listening to his father’s music throughout his childhood that inspired him to create his own music. Blinky explains: “My dad used to have a lot of cassette tapes, so I would listen to a lot of Congolese music and a lot of African American pop. On one hand I would be exposed to Michael Jackson or Prince and on the other, Chico ‘I Need Some Money’ would be playing all the time on the radio.”

Bob Marley hugely influenced the young Blinky and still does today. Blinky tells CNN: “The thing I love about Bob Marley is he’s the king of simplicity. I was talking about complexity earlier, but he’s the opposite. There’s something about Bob Marley’s songs that translates wherever you go. You can be in New York or you can be in Kibera and it will still connect.”

Soon after learning to play guitar, Blinky’s sound was officially born in 2003 when he joined Kenya’s music collective, ‘Just a Band’. Blinky reflects on this time, telling the programme: “When we started, we tried explaining what we wanted to do to a bunch of people and no one could understand it because it hadn’t been done before. I remember when we took one of our first music videos, someone told us ‘nah, this won’t make it because no one will understand it.’”

The band, however, leaped to the top of the charts with their 2010 music video becoming Kenya’s first viral music video and the band toured the world as a result of their success. Blinky tells the programme: “We got to play in South by Southwest in the US. We got to play at Paleo Festival in Switzerland. We got to play in Paris and South Africa a bunch of times… It was a testament to believing that if you make something that you feel is right, it will find its audience wherever it is in the world.”

Blinky has since gone solo and tells the programme that it’s an exciting time for East African musicians: “I think this might be the generation that has the most number of musicians in Kenyan music… it’s a very interesting phase and I can’t wait for the world to get to see it in its honest form.”

African Voices’ is sponsored by Globacom Limited.

‘African Voices’ airs Friday 14th July at 1130 EAT on CNN International.

The show also airs at the following times:

Saturday 15th July at 1500 EAT

Sunday 16th July at 0130 EAT, 0530 EAT and 2100 EAT

Monday 17th July at 1130 EAT

Tuesday 18th July at 0630 EAT