‘The truth no one wants to discuss’

Sara Mitaru. [Courtesy]

At the tender age of 19, singer Sara Mitaru left the country for the United Kingdom in a daring move.

Music had been her dream career since a young age when her parents believed that together with her siblings, they would make a band similar to the ‘Jackson 5’.

Sara had been doing back-up vocals for singer Eric Wainaina. That had been a good starting point in the world of professional singing. However, she needed to build her identity as a solo singer.

“I told my parents that I was leaving the country, jumped on a plane and moved to the UK. I would go into the club and sing and if I would just get three people acknowledging my singing – that would just be enough. I wanted approval from people who did not know me as I wanted to know if my voice was enough,” says Sara.

“Someone would ask me if I would go and sing, say in this and that bar. Someone would ask if they would play the guitar with me. Every night I was booked for a gig, and I got paid. After doing this for a month, I had a band and before long I was called to go sing at the Glasgow Film Festival. I had proven my voice was good enough.” 

So much has happened in her music career and personal life since then. A lot has changed in the music industry too. The singer admits it has not been so easy.

Sara describes her music journey as a love and hate story.

She speaks fondly about her music and film producer husband and their daughter. 

During this interview, Sara is accompanied by Mercy, a friend. 

“Do you know that if a woman asked a radio presenter to play their song it would be 10 times harder for that to happen, than if it was a man? That is the painful truth. That is the way things are. It is the truth no one wants to discuss,” says Sara.

“Our industry is unfair to women. Please, play more women. I am appealing to my male friends not to let women tire in this. Our male counterparts should use their privilege (of numbers) and make it better. It is harder to get a woman’s song played yet we all know that women who sing are fantastic entertainers… hard workers.”

Sara does not mince her words, and has an unconventional worldview.

Having travelled this road, she has seen it all. 

“You recall when Eric Wainaina was singing Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo (2001)... We were in between a transition. It was a shift in democracy and multiparty politics. Then there is (Eric’s) Daima (originally titled Kenya Only), the new sound and style that came with live music with the likes of Kanji Mbugua pushing it… You can see where this is coming from,” says the singer.

Daima is a patriotic song that implores Kenyans to each do their share in improving the country. It was a melody that was made to give Kenyans hope amidst negative vices, including corruption and bad governance.

“I have the memory of sitting for the first Sauti Sol concert when they used to perform at the Alliance Francaise, Nairobi and the Goethe Institute. They were singing stories that were relevant to our hustle. When they brought us the hit Java, we could all relate as being taken on a date to Java Coffee House... The music industry has evolved. It is not what it was 25 years ago,” says Sara.

Born in Canada where her parents were studying, Sara began singing at a young age. The family returned to Kenya when she was still young, and she would find herself in church every Saturday practising with the choir.

She has just released a new track, My Baby, a club song that is different from her previous songs.

Produced by King David and directed by Tosh Gitonga, My Baby has a vibe close to DJ, Sara’s 2019 release that introduced her fans to her fun side.

Considered one of Kenya’s celebrated artistes, who took the less popular route embracing Afro-Fusion – at a time when Kapuka Genge were all the rage – the singer says the industry still has a long way to go before its impact is felt.

Afro-Fusion is the genre that popularised live concerts. 

Ruling the airwaves

Frontrunners like Ayub Ogada, Suzanna Owiyo, Erick Wainaina, Atemi Oyungu, Abbi Nyinza, Charles Odero, aka Makadem, and Yunasi struggled to gain popularity.

However, the succeeding generation with the likes of Dela, Fena, Sauti Sol, Nina Ogot and H_Art the Band found a foundation that made it easier for them to go mainstream.

This, Sara says, is a wave that cannot be stopped.

“We are standing at the helm of something that is about to give. That dialogue is going to change soon. All these people bubbling under are going to rise to the surface and cross over. They will become the voice of music globally.

“We need to remember where the music we now have on the radio came from. There is a time when nobody was playing these songs. Remember when the likes of Nazizi came and nobody wanted to play Sina Makosa. Now, we are ruling the airwaves,” she says.

The Afro-Fusion movement has been a strategic one that has seen trans-pollination collabos; the likes of Blinky Bill, Fena and Muthoni the Drummer Queen working together.

“We are evolving (musically), and it is a beautiful journey to watch. Like any growing person or child, there are advantages and disadvantages of every stage so everything must be spoken of in balance. It is all about figuring out where we are in this journey,” says the star.

Sara’s You Said single featuring Bien Aime of Sauti Sol remains a big hit, almost 10 years since it was released. Her Keep Me From You, a sensational love song featuring Bez from Nigeria is still fresh as they come.

“When music is not married with legislation, we have a problem. I cannot hold a gun to the head of a radio programme host to play my song. If I was to step out of the emotional bit and look at their undertaking as a business they are just trying to sell something, so legislation has to be in place. There has to be a law,” says Sara.

I do not think I can confidently say my peers and everybody in the music industry has had it easy. Everyone has had a day when they said they were done. You can be booked for all these gigs but no one wants to play your song on the radio. You may have all the fantastic ideas and when they do not seem to be working, you simply swim in the loneliness that comes with it.” 

Sara is a singer and songwriter.

“There is a place we get in music that we want to lead from our content and gifting as opposed to accolades. As always, you start singing as a child but you learn and evolve. I do not consider myself an established artiste. If I look at the experiences I have had in the last 10 years, they have made me a new and different person. I am ready to start a new journey,” says the artiste.