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Kanjii Mbugua: Gospel music industry has changed

By Maria Nene | July 29th 2018

Kanjii Mbugua was referred to as a gospel artiste probably because he was part of Milele, a 90’s gospel music group.

Those who have interacted with Kanjii Mbugua will find it hard not to admit that he is a musical giant, and an entrepreneur to boot.

Privately, he is also a father and a husband. A loving husband if ever there was one -- and just a man, as he sang in the single, I am Just A Man, off the his 2009 14-track album Stories.

When it comes to music, Kanjii can only described as relentless. He is always after that perfect sound. Perfect beat. Perfect rhythm that resonates with his fan base -- and any other listeners who might not realise that, after all, he is just a man.

He is busy too. But getting him for an interview proves much easier than anyone would have thought. And when he opens up about music, and generally, the Kenyan music industry, then you start admiring his passion. 

“I met two women who proved to me that my music is celebrated in the country,” he says when I caught up with him about three weeks ago. “A mother who complimented me on a show I did way back in 2001 at Parklands Baptist Church and her daughter who is in campus and really loves the Rauka album.”

These compliments proved to Kanjii that he has made a mark in the Kenyan musicindustry. Speaking at his office at Kijiji Agency, the accomplished musician confesses that although he is not likely to ride on the current popular music trends in Kenya, he appreciates all music genres across all generations.

“Music evolves in ways that we can’t fathom and no matter what we think, it still has to move towards unlikely directions,” he says, and breaks in to his trademark boyish smile, which is complemented by his boyish looks.

“A couple of years ago, I got deejay decks just as a hobby. I really envy deejays because they get to play any kind of musicthey feel like and it’s appreciated. As I played around with it, I actually had fun playing music that I really didn’t know well.

“Electronic music is big currently; a lot of it is terrible and also good. I am a singer and this music doesn’t allow you to sing hard. I don’t see myself going this route unless it’s for a specific project but then again, you never know,” he confesses.

Society ideally dictates the kind of musicians that become successful. Without appreciating and consuming their music, artistes will never thrive. It goes without saying that any kind of art is a reflection of the kind of society we live in. Artistes get inspired by their environment and the society at large, and they sing about what they see or hear. 

“I grew up on 90’s Rhythm and Blues era and some of it was terrible and some was incredible,” he says, and adds that he cannot write off the current music genres just because they don’t seem to have instruments or structured notes.

Christian message

However, the onus is on the artistes to come up with compelling material. “You have to know the angle of tapping into making timeless music. I set out to do music that relates to people for long and I think I’ve achieved it.”

Kanjii was referred to as a gospel artiste probably because he was part of Milele, a 90’s gospel music group that released memorable albums. However, he says that this label doesn’t befit him.

“I would rather use the term faith-based musicians. I have done a variety of songs; love songs, political songs, social justice songs, motivation songs, revolution songs and they don’t necessarily have a Christian message and yet some define me as a gospel artiste but I’m a faith-based musician,” he explains.

He says that his Christian faith drives him but he doesn’t necessarily inject it into his music. “There are Christian doctors, Christian mechanics and yet no one defines them as such, so I wonder why we are called gospel artistes.”

Gospel music has certainly changed. So much that you have to keenly listen to it before you categorise it. Nowadays, some artistes don’t include any Biblical teachings in their content. As long as the artiste brands it as gospel, then it is labeled so.

“I always ask myself questions like, as a gospel artiste are you ministering in the correct way? Is your music serving its purpose? A few years ago gospel musicwas everything and now it’s just a thing,” he says, and adds that it is about the artiste’s personality and he cannot judge any current gospel artiste.

But he has questions. And answers.

“They are narrowing themselves down and copying each other and in the process, they fail to deliver what they should. I would love to see people doing real worship music.

“The true gospel music influence hasnarrowed. Every gospel artiste needs to ask themselves, why am I doing this and what do I hope to accomplish? Not to follow trends, but to record content that moves people. We can’t use one brush to paint the whole industry.”

Jump ship

Kanjii is of the opinion that there are some good gospel artistes who are churning out good content. “The challenge is how to make musicians work out suitable content by themselves. The media has a role to play -- you guys can choose to amplify good music.”

It is not a secret that some secular artistes jump ship to the gospel side when their popularity fades. Some even exist in limbo and produce music from either side as long as the opportunity presents itself.

“Your music is consumed outside of you. You have to work on who you are first because it will come out no matter how much you hide. Limit X from Uganda was our mentor at Milele. During Christian musicconcerts they would get shocked by how people would behave rudely even though they were worship leaders. You can’t go far if you are living a lie. So if you want to do gospel music then it has to be in your heart,” he says.

Yes, Kanjii is just a man, but the more he speaks, the more you realise that he might be more than just a man -- then you remember his lyrics.

I cried last night, first time in years/ I tried to fight, but I didn’t want to hold back the tears/ Does it come as such a big surprise? I’ve got to make you realize that I’m not what you think I am,
I’m nothing more than just a man, oh yeah. I’m just a man, I’m just a man...

When he is not proving that he is just a man, Kanjii runs Kijiji Agency which hasmorphed, or metamorphosed, and provides corporate services. Previously, it produced popular Kenyan artistes such as Dan Chizi Aceda, Astar, Juliani, Esther Kahumbi, and Neema Ntalel.

Currently, Kanjii is churning out Accapella versions of the songs he loves and listens to through social media. “The acoustic sessions is a fun thing. I am a very strategic person but I decided to do them randomly because I love music and sharing. Musicians don’t get to play all their favourite songs,” he reveals.

Kanjii says that people are responding positively and some are using it as a learning platform. “People write to me and the guitarist about the cords he plays. I have received a lot of feedback from people who say it’s a phenomenal job. Fellow artistes tell me that the sessions have helped them to know how to play various tunes that they didn’t know how to.” 

And there is more to Kanjii. The musician noticed there is a gap in life skills in Kenya and he came up with the maishaskills.com website which allows Kenyans to find out about underrated life skills like parenting, money, relationships among others.

“It has taken some effort and time to keep it up and running. We want to be a bridge for people by giving them what they want. We commissioned research and we found out from an African context what people feel is missing in their lives.”

The musician feels that urbanisation diffused the traditional context of passing information to the next generation.


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