At the tender age of 19, singer Sara Mitaru left the country for the United Kingdom. It was a daring move.
She had just quit her job as a marketer having graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree. But she was ready to test her limits in a land nobody knew her.
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’.
Besides her full-time job, Sara had been doing backing vocals for celebrated 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.
Voice good enough
“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. So much has changed in the music industry too. The singer admits that it has not been so easy.
Sara describes her music journey as a love and hate story, as she opens up about the realities that almost got her quitting, issues she says need intervention from industry stakeholders.
Fondly, she speaks about her music and film producer husband and their daughter.
During this interview, Sara is accompanied by one Mercy, a friend. We are seated in a luxurious hotel and even though the waiter keeps stealing glances having this iconic face sprucing his ego, Sara remains humble and centred on the real issues.
She takes a pause and sips her beverage before throwing a thunderbolt.
“Do you know that if a woman asked a radio presenter to play their song it would be 10 times hard 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.”
She nods back and sips some more.
Indeed, Sara shoots from the hip. She does not mince her words, she is articulate and discreet. She is a geek whose worldview is rather unconventional. Simply put, she is not your ordinary artiste. She knows her worth and the power of her talent.
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 at Java Coffee house was like the best thing any lady could dream of. The music industry has evolved. It is not what it was 25 years ago,” says Sara.
Having been born in Canada where her parents were studying, Sara began singing at a young age and even as the family returned to Kenya when she was still small, she would find herself in church every Saturday practising with the choir.
“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.
Sara has just released a new track My Baby, a club song that is remarkably different than 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 and happy girl side.
Considered one of Kenya's celebrated artistes, who took the less popular route as they embraced Afro-Fusion, a genre that did not enjoy prominent airtime as Kapuka and Genge at the time, the married singer says the industry still has a long way to go before its impact is felt.
It is a genre that popularised live concerts and whose new preference is opening up new dimensions and providing a refreshing new sound away from ordinary music genres.
Ruling the airwaves
With frontrunners like Ayub Ogada, Suzanna Owiyo, Erick Wainaina, Atemi Oyungu, Abbi Nyinza, Charles Odero aka Makadem and Yunasi having struggled to popularise themselves, in recent years, relatively fresh newcomers like Dela, Fena, Sauti Sol, Nina Ogot and H_Art the Band have been changing the tides to the attraction of the genre into mainstream media.
This, Sara observes 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, one that has seen trans-pollination collabos; the likes of Blinky Bill, Fena, Muthoni the Drummer Queen and more working together to promote the genre.
“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 one of the biggest hits, 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 person 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.”