Away from the mic

Nyamari Ongegu (Nyashinksi) -artiste
We are meeting in a nondescript restaurant, the sort of place where I assume celebrities can go about their business uninterrupted by fans. While the faceless strip in a faceless building doesn’t look like much of a place for a heart-to-heart, Nyamari Ongegu popularly known as Nyashinski, looks right at home when I walk in.

Slumped in a wide wicker seat, he paints a picture of nonchalance. Across him is a man stretched out and dozing off in an identical chair. The singer looks up at me warily, and I introduce myself. There is an awkward moment when I wonder where I am going to sit before he asks me to pull a nearby chair. He isn’t quite what you would expect. He is much leaner in person, and seemingly introverted. So much so that drawing him out was a little like pulling teeth, but once the scene is set, he slowly warms up and sometimes bursts into full blown cackle.

Onstage, he is a fireball. So is that ‘swaggy’ unabashed persona a front?

“I am a very introverted person. The person I am on stage is not the person I am off stage. Some people were born for fame, I wasn’t. Mine just found me. Sometimes I just want to go somewhere and just be, but I can’t. And some people can misinterpret that; think I am a snob.”

While he would rather be at home playing video games, or making music in some studio, that isn’t a luxury his job can allow. But he isn’t complaining about it either.

This shyness, he explains, does extend to his dating life.

“You know those guys who will have a girl laughing out loud in two seconds? Well, I am not that guy. I don’t have much game. It takes a while for a girl to realise I have a great personality. Also, attracting a genuine girl is a little tough for me, and when I do, they tend to think I have a harem of girls thanks to what I do. So now I give it time, if it works it does, if not, too bad. And don’t ask me if I am dating anyone now because I won’t answer that. Let’s keep the Nyashinski mystery on. But someday, I will want a wedding and a bunch of kids,” he says with a little smile.

The sleeping man stirs and becomes a little more present. He introduces himself as V-One, a producer.

“Those who know him well know the answer to that question,” he interjects in a sleepy voice, before taking a bite of Nyashinski’s French fries, tries to offer me some before descending back to his stupor.

A seemingly effortless online jaunt one hour later reveals that he could be in a long term relationship with a beautiful Nairobi-based enterprenuer. But in the spirit of respecting the Nyashinski mystery, we dig no further.

The hazy path

Like almost every other youngster in his time, Nyashinski wanted to be a doctor because it symbolised success. He wasn’t an exceptional student, but he did alright. Not that he couldn’t be bothered with doubling down on the books; it was just that his teenage brain was a little preoccupied with music. He would scribble lyrics on little scraps of paper, and listen to as much American music as he could. He even dared to let his hair grow, maybe somewhat influenced by the pop culture. But the Afro would get him in trouble with the school administration and earn him a suspension. His little rebel phase, he calls it. The Afro had to go but the music stayed, and with his best friends Munkiri and Collo (together they later formed the Kleptomaniacs), they would perform during Nairobi School shindigs. Later, he would ditch the English rap because he says it took out his enjoyment of music. But he was living the teenage dream.

“…especially so when the girls would scream out at us after performing for Insyder. That was good enough. The passion was everything.”

Then the fame came and the money started pouring in, and while the budding artiste’s mother wasn’t frazzled by her son’s fancies, his dad wasn’t so enthused.

“Dad didn’t approve, thought it was a waste of time. But over time, he has become a great fan of my work. So much so that he brought me a musical instrument that I will soon learn to play. Watch this space.”

Having completed high school, he was admitted to Kenyatta University to study Environmental Planning and Management.

Would that be a NEMA kind of job?

“No. Think UNEP. It is where I hoped to ultimately clinch a job.”

While in his hearts of hearts all he wanted to pursue was music, he knew that he had to have a backup plan, after all, the music industry then wasn’t a roaring house.

Despite his good intentions, he dropped out in his third year of studies. By then, the group Kleptomaniax had taken the country by storm and releasing hit after hit.

“We had started getting paid some good money (Sh30,000 a gig for the singing group of three) and I was ready to see where music would take me.”

The family move

 But not long after, the family got a chance to relocate to Delaware USA. And despite being very aware that he was cutting short his career, the then 21-year-old was excited about the move.

“It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. Growing up with that attention from my music may have stunted me somewhat. I was happy to leave Kenya. I had started getting tired of keeping up with the momentum of releasing good music. Plus the allure of the US we saw in movies was enticing.”

But was it all that he had hoped for? I ask.

“Well, no one knew me there, and I loved that. It was like falling off a cliff, the anonymity was refreshing. Then the excitement of discovering a new place was all consuming to worry about what I had left behind.”

The plan, according to his parents, was for him, their last child, to go back to school. But the young man wasn’t too keen.

“I didn’t want to waste my dad’s money on school fees and student loans because I knew that it wasn’t for me. Now in America, I just wanted to look for work and start making money.”

And so started the job search. Luckily a Kenyan resident got him one delivering ‘proofs’ to banks. Proofs are basically slips that show proof of a transaction. He would pick up bags from the hub and drive around collecting the slips from institutions before delivering them to the banks.

“Many Kenyans do that job over there. I was getting  900 dollars per week. It was a full day’s job. I lived with a little dog and the money sustained me just fine, though the living expenses were higher there than here.”

 The long lonely road

Always looking for better opportunities, his brother-in-law who lived in Dallas at the time, called him and told him that there was more money and great benefits to be made in the trucking business. And so he looked up the application process and found that it meant going back to school on a short truck-driving course.

“I called up my father and told him about it. That I needed about 5000 dollars for the course. Dad was shocked to say the least. “You want to drive trucks? After refusing to go back to university?” But he relented and he went looking for the money, because he didn’t have it. We aren’t very rich, but he finally managed to get the money and I enrolled for the driving course for three months.”

After the training, he was given a truck to run.

“At times, I would be so tense and hold onto the steering wheel for dear life, and my trainer would ask me to relax, and I finally mastered it.”

At this point, he shows me a picture of a big white truck.  The kind he would drive across states hauling containers and later other trucks.

“I had started wearing out. The job runs you down. And it is a lonely existence because you are on the road for weeks on end. Just you, the truck and the long road ahead. Relationships breakdown, your health suffers too. I knew many older drivers whose marriages had broken down due to the work. Also, I know I worried my parents a lot. They didn’t know where I was sleeping, they were scared of me getting an accident, which thankfully, through the years, I didn’t. Not even a speeding ticket,”

No co-driver to keep you company? I prod.

“No, the insurance covers only you but you can go on the road with your dog, or your wife for company.”

Eventually, Nyashinski and his brother-in-law bought a truck of their own, and the hustle went on.

 Finding lost love

Even as the years went by, something continually pricked his conscience. Now and then, on the long road alone in his truck buried in thoughts, he would think about music. He would compose lyrics in his head, sound them out, then relegate them to the darkest recesses of his mind. It was after all a part of his past. But when a friend invited him over to his house one day, told him that they could visit a friend who owned a studio, he was game.

“There was no pressure on me to record anything. It was all in good fun, and that’s why I went. But then he played a beat... A few weeks later, he invited me back and I went, and we went to a different studio and I sat down, wrote some lyrics and recorded a song.”

And that was the beginning of his journey back to music. Pretty soon, he was booking and paying for 10 hours at a studio in Chicago, when he could get time away from work. He would record a song and as he went about work, he and his friends would listen to the music.

“It gave me morale, a zest for life. Then I recorded a song, and sent it to Collo back in Kenya. I asked him to release it. He did. On SoundCloud. I don’t think it did very well but he started sending me beats and I would send him voice notes. Then other singers started reaching out to me and I would help them with the writing too.”

As though the universe was conspiring to get him back to music, Nameless went over to the US, and linked up with Nyashinski. He listened to his music and planted the idea that it was probably time to come back home. And he did. But on a short holiday with family. In between the visits with family, he squeezed in a studio session with Nameless. And the song Letting Go was made. Soon he was back to trucking.  

“I didn’t like how I looked in the video. I was a tad bit overweight, and so I decided to shape up. And the idea to come back to Kenya was gaining traction so I changed my diet and worked out. 

“I thought about coming back home real hard. I knew that music was my talent and at the end of the day, I would have to answer to God if I didn’t use it. So again, I went back to my parents and told them that it was time I went home. They wanted to know if I knew what I was doing. I wanted their blessings.”

And blessings he got. But there was the little money issue. He would need to support himself before his music took off.

“I had savings but I didn’t want to run through my savings to make music. So I kept my income separate from my savings, using what I was making and not my savings. And I moved back into our old home in Nairobi West.”

That was in 2016. Back home after 10 years, it was time to remind Kenyans that he still had it.

And a number of hits followed, with the latest being Marathon Runner.   

The pressure to keep releasing great music does get to him sometime. “I have had my difficult moments. But I deal with it by surrounding myself with people who are grounded and know the real me. Plus I also have a spiritual life. It centres me.  

On that note, we end the interview. Nyashinski and his friend the producer have to be somewhere. He asks for the bill which is quickly settled. And with a warm smile and a ‘can’t wait to read the story,’ he is out of the door. Probably off to make another bop.

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