We last saw her on a music video released in September 2015 but singer-songwriter Cecilia Wairimu aka Amani isn't done with making a mark. She tells us about battling hair loss, finding love and her latest project, giving African women a reason to embrace a natural look.
As soon as I see Amani, I spot her full head of hair. A closer look suggests she is sporting a twist-out hairstyle that bounces lightly as she makes quick steps along the corridor of the building where her hair business is located.
Three years ago, Amani’s hair was dancing to a different tune. Her singing career catapulted her to fame between 2000-2006. In 2014, she was nominated in the Best Collaboration category at the MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMA) for the single “Kiboko Changu”, featuring Ugandan artists Radio and Weasel. Previously in 2009, she had been a recipient of the MAMA award for Best Female Artist and got a nomination for the Channel O Music Video Awards in three categories for her video “Tonight”.
Now nearly eight years later, Amani hasn’t changed much except her hair is curlier and it has “the bounce”. Amani ushers me into her office, which is more like a store, stacked in boxes of crotchet braids.
“I am sorry you had to find the place like this. Orders have been coming in faster than we can handle so we had to convert this office into a makeshift store,” she explains as we settle down for the interview.
“Your hair looks lovely,” I say to which she responds with a sigh, an indication of the difficult hair journey that led to founding Diva Luxury, a crotchet braid company.
“I used to weave my hair a lot. Obviously, as a result of being in the music industry, it was convenient. I used a lot of harsh chemicals as well,” she narrates. All the hair pulling, stitching that was just a little too tight and chemicals were not too kind to her hair so it naturally responded to all the tension.
“My hair started thinning out at the back.” That was in 2011. Noticing this, Amani consulted her hairdresser. “She advised that I lay off the chemicals and weaving and allow my hair to grow naturally.”
But Amani was having none of that seeing that keeping up with a natural haircare regime was tedious. “So she started sending me photos and YouTube links to try convince me otherwise but I was just not for the idea. In 2013, I realised I had a bald spot at the centre of my head. I was embarrassed. I went back to my hairdresser, this time ready to lay off the weaves and chemicals,” she admits.
She started growing out her relaxed hair with plans to cut it off and remain with natural hair (transitioning) but being shy and in the public eye, she knew she had to grow it back under a protective hairstyle that would allow her hair to grow while hidden away.
“It was while I was doing my research on protective styles that I bumped into crotchet braiding. I was sold. It has less tension on the scalp and is better than braiding. So I crocheted my way through my transition. Through this entire time, only two hairdressers saw my thinning hair. I was too embarrassed to let anyone else see it,” she confesses. A year following her decision to go natural, she noticed her hair had grown back including that little bald spot where she had feared would never grow hair again.
“I did not use any fancy products. Coconut oil, olive oil for deep conditioning, and honey work very well with my hair,” she says. So she continued crocheting and doing more research.
“It was a very new style at the time, even the videos on YouTube were few. It was then that I figured I could help women going through the same issue, and so the idea of Diva Luxury was conceptualized in 2015.”
Born Cecilia Wairimu in Thika at a time when the superhighway did not exist, Amani took up singing seriously while in high school.
Her mother, a deaconess, discovered at the age of seven years that her eldest daughter could sing when she heard her sing from the kitchen. But it was not till she joined high school that she took the craft more seriously.
“I attended Bishop Gatimu Ngandu Girls High School, where I quickly realised I was no longer the top of the class as was the order of the day in my primary school (Moi Academy, Thika). Being a shy and introverted student, I constantly asked God what my edge in this life was. That was when I rediscovered singing,” Amani says. Her passion for music always won over her shyness whenever she took to the stage.
“I played chess in high school. I was a great swimmer too back in the day,” she says. On completing high school she studied International Business Administration with a major in marketing from the United States International University (USIU). A very instrumental lesson stemmed from the marketing course, a lesson that she has applied in her music career and her braid business.
“People respond to what is familiar.” It is therefore paramount that every business person keeps that in mind when advertising a product. It was while in university that she recorded her first song, Ninanoki, with Nameless in 2000.
She is the first born of three children; a journalism graduate sister and a scientist brother. Learning how to cook was a must in the house, not because she was a girl, but that her father was a professional chef. “I preferred baking to cooking, because the pressure of the latter was too much,” she says.
Getting to know women
In coming up with the company, she had to do research the right way. “I learned through my 15 years in the music industry that research through a questionnaire is not the way to go.” This, she says is because people tend to alter their answers to give a classy vibe, as she recalled was the case in 2007 from research prior to the release of her album, Tamani.
“My producer insisted I do research before releasing the album, and research I did. It concluded that most people listen to classical and jazz music. But he was skeptical of the results and invited me to one of his shows which was packed with revelers. I noticed how everyone jumped to their feet dancing when local songs were played. That was my moment of awakening,” she recalls of how that moment had her making the decision to only use observation as her mode of research.
“Observing the market could be something as simple as being in a gathering of 50 women, and seeing how many are wearing extensions, what color their extensions are and what kind of extension it is,” she says.
Her research brought out that women like protective styles, and Nairobi women especially like natural alternatives. Further research revealed that Kenya has the strongest natural hair community in Africa.
Now that she is into business, do we forget about hearing any more music from her? “Not at all,” she says. “I cannot trade for anything the joy I get from the human connection through performing on stage and singing.”
This is regardless of the fact that selling music is harder than selling a product. “No one ever wants to buy music. Even when they love your music, they are always finding a way to download it for free. For a product, all that matters is how good the product is and how much it goes for.”
Face of Diva Hair
The crotchet braids feature her face as a the marketing face, and with good reason; she was making use of her brand equity.
“I learned in university, where I majored in marketing, that human beings respond to things they are familiar with. If that is so, then they were bound to respond to me who has been in the industry for a while, hence the inspiration to use my face.”
Since the product was launched, she has been wearing it even in her videos. The very first video she wore her crotchet braids from her company was ‘Heart Breaker’ released in September 2015.
In late 2016, she appeared on stage in a pink dress performing her latest song ‘Bonbon’. It was however not the dress that got the public’s attention, but her weight gain that had tabloids talking, even speculating that she was pregnant. At the time of the rumors, she had been spotted several times hanging around with a ‘certain Nigerian dude’, as the tabloids called her boyfriend who she at the time was yet to formerly announce as her boyfriend.
“I have a thing with my weight. It fluctuates. I add weight just as fast as I lose it. So I guess I was a bit on the weighty side that day, and the dress didn’t help much,” she says.
“It has been such a struggle trying to keep my weight in check, so I decided that I will not let this entire thing stress me. The most important thing to me is to be healthy. So I try to work out three times a week and eat healthy. I have ‘a salad a day’ policy, to ensure I get the nutrients I need.”
Ready for marriage
Speaking of this certain Nigerian dude who she had been spotted with, she confirms that she is indeed seeing someone. “His name is Chinasa Udeala and that is all I am saying about him,” she says, her eyes lighting up. Udeala runs 360 Music Publishing Kenya, a company focused on digital distribution of African artistes’ content, artiste development and AirPlay royalty collection.
On whether she is thinking of settling down and having a family soon, she says, “I want to get married and have babies, as many babies as God wants me to have. I feel like I am ready for it now; I am ready for marriage. I am ready for babies.”
“Right now I am focused on making African women appreciate their hair as it is. We have been flooded with so much western views about our hair that we do no like our own hair anymore. We want that sleek look yet that is not what is growing from our scalps. Our hair is beautiful with curls. When you have it natural, it grows,” Amani says.