One of the things that amuse Newton Kariuki is when people ask why he hates women. It is a question he has heard too many times, from the first time he released a song about a woman named Muthoni.
Karish, as he is known, likened her to a broom that sweeps everything and a call box that accepts every call as a euphemism to her adulterous ways. Some listeners thought the lyrics were extreme, especially the part where he calls her useless among other unpalatable words.
Had he released his hit song Rossy Wanjiku in this era of feminism and women liberation, he would have been in a lot of trouble for calling for the arrest of a woman wearing a short skirt.
He said Rossy looked like a cartoon and demanded that she wears a petticoat because of the embarrassment she was causing people who could see her thighs.
Then there is the other song where he is telling a woman, Nyambura, to leave him alone.
He says she is so awful, her mother should have given birth to a loaf of bread instead of birthing girl who is always chasing men and begging for love.
“Didn’t you see the things I sang about happening recently? Wasn’t a woman undressed because of a short skirt? These things have to be said. I was composing music at a time when AIDS was a reality that most people were afraid of talking about,” he says.
On why most of his messages tend to focus on women and their “evil ways”, he lets out a loud laugh, cracks his knuckles, sighs and says: “Men do not have problems. Women are the ones who do things like wearing miniskirts. Why would I sing about men?”
Ironically, he claims women are the majority of his fans.
When he first started singing in the 80s, he did not plan to dive into such controversial topics. His first composition was about relationships sang in his vernacular language Mbeere. It never took off like he had anticipated.
When he had a discussion with Peter Kigia, a songwriter and musician doing well at the time, he advised him to start singing in Swahili.
In 1993, he produced “Muthoni Kifagio” and it hit the market in a way that he admits surprised him and his producer.
It is then that he realised that his fans did not want him to be gentle. They wanted hard topics delivered in a comical way.
“I tried singing about good things, but nobody was buying. They wanted those things that others consider abusive, like telling off women when they are wrong. People are not interested in clean lyrics unless you are doing gospel songs,” he says.
He believes it is his candid songs that catapulted him into fame and ultimately led to his election as MCA for Mutongoi ward, Embu County, in 2013 and 2017.
“People already knew me from my songs and the activities I had been involved in as a musician. It was easy to convince them to vote for me,” he says.
His entry into music started as a beatboxer who would imitate drums and perform to a watching crowd – mostly of school-going children.
He was a teenager being pushed by love for music and a need to escape from the reality of poverty that surrounded him.
When he dropped out from Kangaru High School because his father could not raise his fees, it is music that nudged him on.
“In hopelessness and when it seemed like things were not working out, music gave me a reason to wake up,” he says.
Even though music provided comfort, it also became his source of turmoil. First came the threats from local administration when he started singing about the ills of mismanagement and tribalism. Then his wife started getting uncomfortable with the fast life and unpredictable income that music brought.
“I was working in the textile industry while still doing music and she kept asking why I cannot just quit and focus on my job,” he says.
He convinced her by placing a heap of money he had gathered from a show on her feet to prove to her that music pays.
“The next day, she was asking me when the next gig would be. Women!” he says.
On politics, he says he still struggles to get people to take him seriously. He is used to roars of laughter whenever he contributes to debates. They find it hard to separate the man in colourful attire dancing in music videos, from the suited-up MCA.
“I am still considering bigger things with my political career. It is too early but I am aware of the complexities of the politics in Embu,” he says.
He has no regrets for quitting his job in the mid-90s to venture into music full time. He has slowed down, and he says piracy to be the reason music production in Kenya died.
Kigia says he too had to quit music and start selling vehicle spare parts when music could no longer pay his bills. He says it is the direction most musicians have taken to avoid sinking.
Even though Karish does not make as much money as he used to when all he needed was wear a godfather hat, shiny shoes and a coat, and he would make the crowd go wild; he still lives for his music, and he is often scribbling a new composition.
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