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How 26-year-old Safe Joe made it as a music producer

By Mona Ombogo | Published Wed, May 9th 2018 at 11:25, Updated May 9th 2018 at 11:30 GMT +3
Safe Joe

One of the more championed beliefs about success is that if you hold on to a dream long enough, passionately enough and do just one thing to get you closer to it each day, it will inevitably become a reality.

Joseph Mugweru, despite the fact that he grew up in extreme poverty, was certain that he wanted to become a music producer. He wasn’t sure how he’d accomplish it, but he never let what looked like the impossible deter him.

Today the 26-year-old who’s better known as Safe Joe, runs two successful companies: Safecon Music, which deals with music production, and Safecon Management, which manages and showcases artistic talent.

He shares with Hustle the steps and challenges that got him his dream career.

Why music?

I grew up poor; my mother was a single parent. When we were young, she earned Sh3,000 a month as a pre-school teacher.

At the time, we lived in a remote part of Eldoret. I used to hunt rabbits to supplement our meals. That’s what everyone around us did, so I didn’t mind it much. And there were tougher things to deal with, for instance, when I was forced to repeat Standard 7 because my sister was already in high school and my mother couldn’t afford the high school fees for both of us.

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By then she had got a better job but it still only paid Sh10,000 a month. Music was how I dealt with the difficult things in my life.

When did you realise you could make a career out of it?

My mother recognised my love for music. I’m not sure if she was compensating for me repeating Standard 7 or not, but she gave me money to pay for my very first studio recording. It cost Sh500. The song never went public, but the fact that I had produced something propelled my dream forward.

I remember when we moved to Nairobi, every three months I’d visit this shop along River Road and ask them to give me a quote for studio equipment. Of course I never bought anything because I didn’t have the money. The shop attendant got very tired of me.

In 2013, one of my mother’s brothers came to visit from the UK. I performed one of my songs for him. To my shock, a few months after he returned to the UK, he sent me money to buy studio equipment.

I went to that same shop. I can’t help smiling when I remember the expression on their faces when I actually bought the equipment. Finally. I then started my business.

Are you self-taught?

Almost 100 per cent. I already had some knowledge about music production, but not enough. I spent nights watching YouTube videos, and then during the day, I’d try to find artists who needed songs recorded.

It was hard, though, because I didn’t have a track record, so no one wanted to work with me despite my extremely low costs. I’d charge between Sh1,500 and Sh3,000, depending on how broke I was. Often, I couldn’t meet the rent.

The last straw came when Kenya Power shut off the main electricity line to the block where my studio was because most of us hadn’t paid them. In 2014, I shut down my studio when the landlord kicked me out.

How did you bounce back?

Luckily, I got a job with a producer who needed someone to make beats for him. It kept me afloat, but the partnership didn’t last very long.

And then someone told me about a competition that was taking place, sponsored by a wildlife organisation. They needed a theme song for an awareness campaign to save elephants.

I entered the competition and my song was one of three selected for funding. I was an artiste and audio producer on the track. This was my second turning point.

Between 2015 and 2016, my business flourished. I was comfortably making rent in a much better neighbourhood, and I had consistent clients. My name was getting out there. But, ironically in 2016, I broke down and went into depression.

Why, when your business was doing well?

I didn’t realise I was pushing myself too hard. I had failed once before and I didn’t want to go through that again. Also, I’d lost my mother in 2009 and never truly stopped to mourn her or deal with her death.

Now as I was facing success, a part of me resented the fact that she wouldn’t get to experience it. She had worked so hard for us, it didn’t feel right succeeding after she was gone. I crashed.

How did you get back up?

This is why I believe God watches over us. A few months after my breakdown, when I had dealt with some things in my head, an old friend from Nairobi offered me a contract to do a soundtrack for a campaign on devolution. I got to travel all over Kenya.

Just after I completed that contract, another friend told me about the Safaricom Blaze BYOB competition, which was a reality show looking to help young people build sustainable businesses. I went for auditions and in January last year, I got into the Blaze house.

What was the experience like?

Nothing like I’d ever encountered before. The accommodation, the food, the lifestyle we lived was out of this world. I never imagined I’d have a fashion stylist; I met people I never thought I would meet, had interviews in media houses. It was amazing.

To crown it all, I was second in the competition and won Sh650,000 in cash and Sh350,000 in business support.

How did you use it?

I revamped my equipment, moved to a new studio premises, did sound proofing and used the rest for administrative costs and marketing.

This time I realised I couldn’t do everything alone, so I partnered with people who had different expertise so that I could do what I love, which is producing music.  

The Blaze package also took us through Centomony, which is an entrepreneurship course that focuses on how to handle finances in your business and personal life. That completely transformed how I operate my business.

What are some of the songs you’ve worked on?

Most recently I worked on a collaboration with another BYOB contestant, Babra Chege, and Willie Oeba. The song is called The Letter. It’s a dedication Willie wrote to his father who passed away. The song resonated heavily with me.

My other projects include Sinyora, which I did for Ndanah Miqassa just after the Blaze competition. I also did some tracks for the soundtrack of Wanuri Kahiu’s film, Rafiki, which was recently banned in Kenya because it features lesbianism. Perhaps that was controversial, but I don’t shrink from challenge.

I take on projects that I know will get me out of my comfort zone. I believe if we stay in one place for too long, we shrink. My aim is to consistently move forward.

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