By Emmanuel Mwendwa

Undoubtedly, few Kenyan artistes have had as much global impact as Suzanna Owiyo.

The singer, composer and acoustic guitarist has for the second year earned a coveted East African flag-bearer slot at the prestigious 46664 Mandela Day concert.

Today marks an important date on the international calendar in honour of celebrated African icon Nelson Mandela’s 91st birthday.
Suzanna Owiyo (left) with Lydia Ogot, her back-up vocalist, at a past performance. Photo: Emmanuel Mwendwa/Standard

Performances by top-notch artistes are slated to kick off this evening at the historic Radio City Music Hall from 8pm New York time.

Owiyo is set to perform alongside Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Will Smith, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Wyclef Jean, Angelique Kidjo, Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse, Gloria Gaynor, Baaba Maal, Queen Latifah, Thandiswa Mazwai, Freshlyground, Emmanuel Jal, Soweto Gospel Choir, Loyiso, Josh Groban and Vusi Mahlasela, among others.

Veteran actress Whoopi Goldberg will be the MC for the concert that will be broadcast live.

The annual Mandela Day is not just a tribute to the African icon, the events essentially symbolise a global call to action.
The day was first marked in 2003, after the adoption of Madiba’s Robben Island prisoner number 46664 as a rallying point to raise funds and awareness on HIV/Aids.

In an interview with The Standard on Saturday before she left for New York, Owiyo said: "The Mandela Foundation board was touched by my song Sandore, which I performed during last year’s 90th birthday concert. Its lyrics highlight the plight of the rural girl child, hundreds of whom are subjected to child labour under the guise of working as house helps," explains Owiyo.

Her nomination as a 46664 ambassador was sanctioned by Mandela after he reportedly watched the artiste captivate the crowd at London’s Hyde Park celebrations.

She joins a growing list of 133 special ambassadors. They comprise artists, musicians, movie actors, sportsmen and women who express commitment to supporting the fight against HIV/Aids."

They are picked out with the express approval of Madiba. The ambassadors are expected to reach out to young people through their mass appeal.

46664 initiatives

"The 46664 initiative will continue using celebrities from the worlds of music, sport and entertainment to speak to the youth about HIV/Aids," Mandela said at the launch of the project.

Regarding her commitment to the cause, she states: "I’m so excited and humbled to be part of 46664 family. It all started with the struggle of one man, Mandela, whose dream is to change the world for a better tomorrow. In him I see hope, love and care. Performing at his 90th birthday in London last year opened my eyes. I saw the importance of togetherness irrespective of colour, race or gender."

The only other artistes from Eastern Africa who joined the privileged list are Ugandan singer Bebe Cool, ex-child soldier turned hip hop artiste Emmanuel Jal of South Sudan and African Children’s Choir. "The concert in London provided a new impetus with the birthday taking symbolic perspective to inspire people from all walks of life to embrace values that have embodied Madiba’s life," notes Owiyo.

These values — considered Mandela’s legacy to the world — include democracy, reconciliation, equality, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom.

Liberation struggle

And in his own words: "It is time for the next generations to continue our struggle against social injustices and for the respect of the rights of humanity".

The message of the Mandela Day campaign is simple: The freedom fighter-turned-global icon sacrificed 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity.

"In return, every individual is expected to join this global social movement, wherever they will be today and give 67 minutes of their time supporting a chosen charity or by serving the local community as their contribution and make an imprint," observes Owiyo.

Her song Sandore, whose live version was recorded during last year’s concert, features in a collectors Mandela Day 2008 CD.

"All invited artistes shall perform their individual songs. But I’m also expected to sing one verse off Eddie Grant’s hit, Gimmie Hope Jo’anna, which is this year’s theme song. He donated the track to the 46664 campaign and it will be performed collectively on stage by several artistes," she explains.

Apartheid regime

The adoption of Grant’s hit single, Gimmie Hope Jo’anna (Jo’anna for Johannesburg) is no doubt symbolic: It was released in the US in 1984, at the height of apartheid regime, which subsequently banned its sale and airplay in South Africa.

Also on the cards for Mandela Day is an interactive artistic installation display at Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall, New York. The exhibition, running through until July 22, showcases six words: ‘Act’, ‘listen’, ‘lead’, ‘unite’, ‘learn’ and ‘speak’ — all illuminated on 3D format.

Each word reflects core values Mandela espoused as an anti-apartheid activist.

susan owiyo namesless Mandela