For years, Mercy Opande believed her singing career would forever be overshadowed by the entertainment industry’s almost impossible beauty standards. But proving her wrong, the audience rallied behind her, making her the first winner of KTN’s I Can Sing competition. She tells Christine Odeph about her journey
It was rehearsal time ahead of Parents Day at little Mercy Opande’s kindergarten and one of the girls supposed to sing on the big day unexpectedly fell ill. When the teacher asked for a volunteer to sing in the girl’s place, Mercy raised her hand. The teacher asked her to come forward and try.
“As soon as I finished singing, the teacher laughed and said I could never sing. It was a terrible thing to say to a child but at least I still had that childish innocence - singing just made me happy,” Mercy, now 33, narrates.
A year or two later, when Mercy was in pre-unit, she moved schools and found another teacher who loved singing as much as she loved children.
“She further watered the seed. Any time our class was presenting I was her representative,” Mercy narrates, adding that by the time she got to Class 8 and throughout high school, she realised that people would complement her whenever she sang.
With high school behind her, life presented some challenges and singing was put on hold. “For five years, I worked as an untrained teacher at Timbuani Primary School in Shelly Beach, Mombasa.”
Having grown up with the dream of becoming a recording artist, Mercy tried to record her music in studios but her efforts were thwarted.
“In Mombasa most of them just wanted the popular Swahili-style genres like Taarab. My sound wasn’t marketable to them. So I gave up for a while,” Mercy says. But through teaching young children, the singing bug returned to her. “I realised the concepts I taught them became easier for them to remember when I used songs.”
In time, Mercy began composing music and teaching the songs to her students who performed them at the Kenya National Music Festivals. “I remember one boy whose mother was completely against his participation in the arts. But after seeing him perform on stage and the transformation it had on his confidence, her tune changed. I started seeing music as a powerful tool of expression.”
Before leaving Shelly Beach in 2010, Mercy tried to audition for a popular televised singing competition. Her hopes were elevated by a positive response from the regional screening judges.
“Everyone in the room said I was a shoe-in for the live show. But two weeks later, I got a phone call telling me that I didn’t make it. I told myself I was done with talent shows and moved to Nakuru where I joined Egerton University to study Communication and Media while working nights as an online content developer. I didn’t just want to live a hand-to-mouth existence where you make enough to pay bills and nothing else.”
Her love for music manifested itself once again when she joined a local church where she became the youth choir director. She also practiced singing in her house almost every day by playing music and singing along, harmonising with the artist and matching melodies.
Meanwhile, in 2012, a new season of the competition that had rejected her began. Mercy wrestled with whether or not to try again. “Even with a horrible flu, my friends encouraged me to go, so I did.”
Although she qualified for Day Two of the audition, she was rejected once more. “When I returned to my first church - not the one I am currently a member at, I was met by the sound guy at the door after service. I will never forget his loud mocking laughter about my failure. I just went home to cry. I said I would never audition again,” Mercy narrates.
Feeling dejected, she joined her current church and immersed herself in worship ministry. “When I heard the members of the praise and worship team singing, I felt like my heart opened up,” Mercy narrates. “Honestly, singing for God is the best thing that has ever happened to me. My pastors saw potential in me,” Mercy says. After a while, she joined the church’s worship training programme, where they learned character building and music for three months.
In 2017, KTN Home unveiled the first season of ‘I Can Sing’, a talent-based reality TV show that is now in Season 2 (Fridays at 8pm on KTN). Interested parties were prompted to record a two-minute video of them singing at their best and send them via the Facebook page. Mercy, then a student at Egerton University, felt a pull towards the show.
“I had my reservations. I am a born-again Christian, I am heavy set and I don’t look like the conventional pop-star. To make matters worse, I had last auditioned in my 20s. What if they only wanted young, fresh faces? I didn’t want history to repeat itself. ”
Two weeks to the deadline, Mercy’s relationship with her then boyfriend came to a sudden end when he called her on the phone and broke up with her. “I spent the day crying. When you lose someone you love, you feel like you have nothing else to lose. When I am sad, I cope by singing and I sing very well. So I said I would just do the audition video and if they rejected me, at least I had gotten my mind off my heart break. I took my phone and started recording myself singing Foolish by Quincy Tolliver. Then I just sent the video,” Mercy says.
As time passed, Mercy immersed herself in her studies and forgot about the video she had made. Meanwhile at KTN, competition submissions were closed and TV producers began sifting through the videos to pick potentially good singers.
The selected videos were then shared with the show judges who previewed each and selected 200 potentially good singers who were then called for the live auditions. Towards the end of March 2018, Mercy received a phone call inviting her to join the 200 singers.
“At first I was happy and excited. But after a few minutes, I became sad. I was sure history would repeat itself and I would just be sent home like before,” Mercy says.
However, her faith in God came to the rescue. “For the first time in my life, I heard the Holy Spirit speaking to me as I prayed about the auditions. It said just go, Mercy, you are going to win.” At the live auditions in Nairobi, Mercy felt intimidated.
“There I was in my simple kitenge outfit looking at people looking so confident, playing instruments and harmonising perfectly. I walked into the audition room and saw two glamorous lady judges and I thought I had no chance,” Mercy says.
At the end of the auditions, 23 contestants were shortlisted for vocal training and competitions. Mercy says she was so ‘inside her head’ that she missed hearing Daniel Valor Othieno, the host of the show, calling out her name a few times until someone pushed her from behind and said, “They are calling your name.” Mercy says she couldn’t believe it. “I am a person who cries in private. I found the nearest bathroom and that is where I jumped and celebrated.”
Mercy promised herself one thing at the start of the competition. “I told myself that no matter what happened and even if I didn’t win, my name would be remembered.”
When the first performance on the show finally came up, contestants were asked to pick their own songs and Mercy sang, You Provide The Fire, I’ll Provide the Sacrifice by Tasha Cobbs.
“People were tearful when I finished. The audience gave me a standing ovation and the judges were happy. I wasn’t sure if it was real,” Mercy narrates. Another memorable event during the show was when teacher, singer, actor, director Ian Mbugua, best known as a judge in another TV competition, visited the show.
“For that show, I chose to sing Lem Na by Filah Tuju, who was one of the judges. It is a very personal song for me. I lost my parents at a very young age, and I believe that they prayed for us (their kids). We used to encourage my late sister that one day our dreams would come true. This was my big moment in life and they were not there to witness it; and that song captured the emotions I felt,” says Mercy who performed the song with members of RedForth Chorus, a famous Kenyan youth choir. “Ian said the word ‘impressive’ three times to me. I thought: even if I go home today, I have finally made it. I have finally been exonerated and I don’t need validation from anyone.”
Before the semi-final, contestants had to randomly pick artist names from a wall. Mercy sat in the washrooms, her favourite solace, praying for a specific name — Whitney Houston. And as her turn to pick came up, that is the name she drew.
“Because most of my fans are young kids, I chose The Greatest Love of All. I also choose it as a message to the world about me. I was saying, even if I fail, I have lived and sang as I believed. God saw me through with that song.”
Becoming a star
As a worship singer, Mercy worried that younger generation audiences would never be interested in her look or her music. Throughout the competition, she battled with insecurities and, by her own admission, she was one of the more emotional contestants and always wanted to quit.
“No one loves attending a pity party — not even God. When I took action on my talent, people began embracing me. God responds to faith, not emotion. After getting on I Can Sing, I found brothers and sisters in the other contestants. When I started, I was my own cheerleader since I was far from home and my family couldn’t make it. Then I started connecting with the fans I never thought I could reach — young and old. People started flooding me with messages of encouragement. I was reaching people in other countries as far as Nigeria and Russia!”
There were some low moments too. “Imagine having migraines, being overweight and having to learn a whole new language and dance in two days,” she laughs. “I was so stressed because when you are representing someone’s culture, you need to be respectful.”
Mercy also discovered the ugly side of social media. “People who preferred other contestants were very vocal about it. There are those who mocked me for my looks. I was offered slimming pills. Some said I look like a man with my shaved hair. Most people don’t know that I suffer from migraines after a head injury from my past. Plaiting my hair makes them worse so, to make life easier, I keep it short.”
Even among the mean comments, there were people who elevated her. She received messages from people who wanted to dress her and glam her up for her performances, for instance.
“Even today people stop their cars or pull me aside to take a selfie with me for their kids or even for themselves. It gives me so much joy to know that I represented my church and my home town on such a grand platform.”
Fame can bring unexpected or uncomfortable attention, and Mercy’s experience has not been an exception. From inboxed marriage proposals, stalkers, requests for money and even face-to-face encounters with aggressive ‘fans’, she has slowly learned to adapt. But the journey has not been easy. “I moved from my bedsitter to a two bedroom house. I knelt at my former house before moving, thanking God for elevating me. On the first day in the new house, I just sat in a chair feeling like an imposter. I didn’t feel normal,” she says.
Mercy also battled depression immediately after the show ended. She was used to the adrenalin of competing and being on the show every week. For three months, she had been on a set schedule and now had to learn how to re-programme herself.
“My phone was always buzzing after the win. People who had forgotten I existed wanted to reconnect. I felt overwhelmed. Then I got sick and had to be taken to hospital where I was diagnosed with high blood pressure,” she narrates adding that on the doctor’s advice, she took some time off to recover and look after her health.
“Before the show, my elder brother and my pastor told me not to change who I am even if I win. And I have kept that advice close to my heart. I live in the same place, with the people who knew me before the show. These are the people who loaned me money when I needed it, helped me out and welcomed me as I am,” she says.
Mercy’s also says her singing has really improved, and has learned how to deal with pressure much better.
“I believe I will win a Grammy one day. I am working hard on my music. There are other projects I am working in terms of charity and also on my content creation business. Winning showed me that I can be the voice of the forgotten, the ignored and the uninspired. I have to do everything I can to represent them and God to the best of my ability. I am looking to solidify myself on an international scale. Ministry music requires patience.”
With her website ready, she has an audio release for her first song in the works. She is working on releasing four songs and videos by the end of 2019.
“Cowards live longer, but they live for nothing. If I had not challenged myself to go for that audition I would still be a singer, but not a winner. Faith is important — always rely on God’s timing. You can never please everyone. You are not an ice-cream vendor. As long as you stay true to yourself, doing what you know you are destined to do, that is enough. Before you have victory in public, you must claim it in private. It was only when I conquered myself that I was able to conquer people’s hearts,” Mercy concludes.
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