For most of the past three years, up-and-coming Kenyan R&B artist Raymond Georges Ndungu Jane slept under a bridge at the edge of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park.
Since becoming homeless after a family tragedy at 12, it had been the best place the 22-year-old former choir boy had stayed: there was informal work, generous strangers abounded, and when both dried up there were the massive bald-headed marabou storks that were easy to hunt. Things were stable enough this year for Ndungu Jane, who goes by Ray Gee, to be in the mood to sing for his friends. And in March, after one stranger heard his silvery voice and recorded him, his life began to transform.
The clip of Ray Gee crooning a Justin Bieber cover went viral across social media just as the start of the coronavirus lockdown pushed Kenyans to spend even more time online. “Some guy came over and said, are you Ray Gee? Are you the guy that was recorded?” Ray Gee told Reuters. “Have you ever been famous and you don’t even know you’re famous?”
“The first month was actually creepy because I was still in the streets, and...I’m going to interviews dirty. Sometimes, I would even get chased away,” he said as music from one of his biggest inspirations, Boyz II Men, played out of taped-up headphones resting around his neck. By the end of March, he got his second big break and first real paycheck, with a feature on a government-sponsored coronavirus awareness song. With that, he joined the growing ranks of Kenyan musical artists singing about the virus.
In September, Ray Gee was featured in a song with one of his idols, popular Kenyan singer-songwriter Nviiri. “I never even had this kind of dream,” he said. With those proceeds and help from producers with whom he now works, Ray Gee moved into his first apartment and invited two of his friends from the street to join him. He has also helped others stay afloat and connected them to centres helping homeless youths.
About 40 of his friends are now off the streets, he estimates, but he hopes to do more. “If I had enough money to open a centre of my own I would do it. I don’t have that kind of cash right now but I know in future it’s all going to flow,” he said.