Alicios Theluji, the beautiful voice behind the popular song "Mpita Njia" was raised by a widow. She tells us about her mother's strength and takes us through her journey from Eastern Congo to Nairobi.
I am sitting at a table at Nakumatt Junction waiting for Alicios Theluji, the woman I am about to interview. As I look through my notes, wondering what she is like, I am quite surprised to hear a woman at a nearby table mention the same name to her friends, as if she had read my mind.
“Alicios who? I know Alicios. I’ve never had an interest in knowing her personally. I love her music though. I think she is one of those few artistes whose music is at another level. If you compare it to music by Wahu or Avril or Amani, her music is calm and entertaining. And she looks reasonable and mature music-wise. She has class — you know — standards, I don’t think she can settle for anything less. I think she has a specific sound. I don’t think she is a good dancer though — which is OK (Alicios says she is yet to unleash her dance moves, wait for it).”
They leave soon after. She is a fan. Maybe not her number one fan.
Shortly, Alicios walks in alone, quietly, calling absolutely no attention to herself. There are no heads turning. There are no hangers-on around her. And she is dressed the way you would dress on a Saturday afternoon if you had a coffee date with a friendly acquaintance.
The first thing that strikes me about her is how down-to-earth she is. She is easy and relaxed with no airs.
“I am worried,” she says when she sits down. About what? A relative. A 17-year-old who recently came from Congo. She left him at the supermarket and she is concerned. The boy speaks little Swahili and English. She says that she will have to call to check on him during the interview.
From the beginning
After she settles down with a mug of tea masala in her hand, she smiles, a disarmingly unpretentious smile and asks: “Where do I start?”
In Congo perhaps...? Eastern Congo she corrects. The Swahili part of Congo. That is where she was born, in 1987, to a businessman and a singer — Jacky Kahara Laini (who doubled up as a tailor).
Four years after she was born, her father died in a road accident, leaving her mum with three children. They relocated to Kinshasa, the Lingala part of Congo.
When she was six years old, her family visited Kenya for the first time. The family went back home, then the 1996 war broke out as Mobutu was leaving office and they had to escape the war. They came back to Nairobi.
Alicios is not nostalgic about her early days in Nairobi. Perhaps for a good reason. “In Nairobi, we lived with the Congolese community since we thought that we’d go back home. But then the war worsened and we realised that we were not going back, so I was enrolled in school, some refugee school.”
At first, things went well with her family. Then they didn’t. So they moved from the five-bedroom house at Nyayo Estate, Embakasi, to a one-bedroom house with no electricity in Kabiria. Her mother, knowing that she had three children to raise, decided to go into the business of making clothes — kitenge to be specific. The vitenges came with luck, and the situation thawed up for them. For her mother.
This is where Alicios draws her strength. From her mother. Knowing the unpredictable nature of the music industry, she completely backed out of her singing career, and concentrated on her kitenge-making business and on raising her children.
They moved to better living quarters and she re-married and Alicios got a baby sister (currently 12 years old), they went to good schools — Alicios herself, attended St Mary’s High School (in Nairobi’s Donholm area) then went to Sweden (Blekinge Institute of Technology) to study Economics.
“My mum is my hero. Considering that she is only 19 years older than me, that she made something out of nothing is the greatest inspiration I can get,” she says.
The life that Alicios has lived is that of odd facts. Like the fact that she had a talented mother who abandoned her dreams to raise her children, or that she can sing in English, Kiswahili and Lingala, or that her second name — Theluji (spoken as Zeluji in Congo) was given to her by her father’s friend who thought that she looked too white.
Or that her signature short hair-do is actually something from her childhood (in Congo school children are not allowed to keep long hair, the habit stuck with her) or that the father of her son is a man she met when she was 13 years old, or that she fell in love with music when on stage with her mother — the band members were allowed to dress up their kids and invite them on the stage.
Alicios loved to sing, but she never thought she’d become a musician. No, it was not her voice, her voice is perfect. Or the looks, she’s got beauty for two. It was school.
“While at St Mary’s, it was obvious I could sing well. But my mother was spending so much money on my schooling. By the time I joined university, I thought it would not be good for her to spend that much money on education only for me to not follow through.
“In fact, after my first song, Mpita Njia, I assume most people thought I would quit school but I didn’t. After it was released, I went back to school to finish my degree. I guess I didn’t want to disappoint my mum.”
Mpita Njia was her first professionally done song. It was recorded in 2011 but released in 2012.
“I wanted to get into the music scene. The producer whose work I loved very much was Robert Kimanzi, R Kay. I approached him and asked for ideas. After our discussion, he suggested that I write a song. I did. He rejected it. I wrote Mpita Njia, he liked it and suggested Julian Kanyamozi (the Ugandan singer) as the best artist to collaborate with, although he warned me that Julian may turn me down.”
The song, a conversation between two women, needed two performers but Alicios did all the parts on her own (having a conversation with herself). She recorded the song, packaged it and wrote Juliana’s name on it then sent her a copy. Juliana communicated back, she wanted in.
Alicios is tenacious. Her manager, Budha Blaze, thinks that she is an amazing singer. Which she is. He also thinks that she is a bubbly and a ‘very’ grounded lady.
Maybe it was the tenacity, or the bubbliness or the beautiful way the song was written that charmed Juliana. They worked on the song together, then she went to Sweden. When the song was released, she started getting calls from all over the world. She boarded a plane back to Kenya. On arrival, she heard the song five times on different stations on her way from the airport. That was when she decided that she would get into music as a career.
As the interview progresses, she takes a break to call her nephew, speaks with him on the phone and comes back to the table. Alicios is a ‘looker’. Constantly looking at people, and things around her in a quiet undistracted manner.
She says that observation gives her material for her work. She listens to people, watches them, and turns their stories in to music. Sometimes, the music can be the views or thoughts of a group, like the song Anita, created from a conversation with a bunch of ladies.
Her songs are personal — even when they are stories from movies, or stories of neighbours and strangers. Everything that life has thrown at her gets into the materials bag from which she can draw to create music. Her identity is something that comes up several times during the interview.
“Who I am, what life has thrown at me defines my music. I don’t know how to be something I am not. I like to be real, authentic. The music I sing is the music that I love. It is what I am made of. I believe that my music sounds like something from DR Congo via Nairobi to the world. I love the African sound.”
It is this sound, the African sound with an international appeal, that has seen her collaborate with some of the big names in the music scene including P-UNIT, before she took a break from music to finish her studies.
Now she wants to get back on it, going full force. Why? Her youngest sister is sick. Tumor in the spinal cord-around the neck. She is currently at a hospital in Sweden and is partially paralysed but her state is getting better. She wants to do all that she can, while she can. You never know what tomorrow holds. And she wants to help her mum take care of her sister.
“She was a fine young girl. Then she went to sleep one night, and when she woke up, she had this pain in her arm. We thought that she had slept on it, the doctors thought otherwise. Things can change real quick.”
But that is not all. She has a son to think of too. A one-and-a-half-year old boy called Kito who; “is another reason I can’t fail or give up because he’ll be watching, and I hope to be a good mother like my mother.”
His father? A man she met when she was 13 years old. “He is from Congo, and like me, he moved to Kenya when he was young then off to Ireland for studies. After I joined university in Sweden, I went back home and found him at home too. We reconnected and have been together since.”
She believes that he is the perfect choice; a Kenyan man would have been too Kenyan for her and a Congolese man would have been too Congolese for her.