Covid-19 came with a lot of bad turns - massive layoffs, closed business and the weight of unavoidable adjustments. Caroline Njoroge speaks with Hellen Mtawali on repackaging oneself to utilise the opportunities that exist, where to find them and how to harness them in the wake of this new dawn.
Hellen Mtawali is a multi-skilled powerhouse whose contribution to the Kenyan music industry cannot be ignored. The 50-year-old composer, singer, voice coach, marketer and mentor knows all too well what it means to keep reinventing oneself. She has mentored many, earning the title ‘mum’ to many in the music and larger media industry. Having taught at Daystar University for over two decades, she has groomed numerous stars.
She is remembered by the older generation as a constant figure on past gospel shows: ‘Sing and Shine’, and ‘Joy Bringers’ on KBC in the ’90s. Millennials on the other hand, find her past role as a principal and voice coach in the reality music TV show, Tusker Project fame more relatable. She has managed to remain relevant in the music industry despite the evolution experienced over the years and the changes that came with Covid-19 were not to become the exception. She shares insights from her journey.
What is the greatest lesson that this season has taught you?
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That we are yet to maximise our potential. Having to sit in the house for days on end resulted in me having to come up with creative ways of working. Around that time, the government approached me to train some children online since schools had been closed indefinitely. The music, drama and performing arts programme each ran for a period of four weeks, conducted on Google Meet and Zoom.
After a while, I wondered what to do with these kids after graduation. That’s when the idea of Africa Online Vocalist (AOV), a platform for competitions for musicians that involves coaching participants online, was born. The difference with AOV was that we managed to get a couple of music producers on board who were willing to offer recording deals to participants who stood out. This means then that the coaching, as good as it is, does not have to be the end with improved skills. There is a chance of taking this gift to the next level.
So, you started something new during the lockdown period?
Yes. Before this, I was overly reliant on being physically present for training sessions. Maximising digital platforms was not something I was willing to look into. Now, I’ve realised how much time and resources can be saved by capitalising on digital platforms. It took circumstances that necessitated my staying at home for me to see this.
What do you think is the future of business for individuals in the creative space?
There is so much to do. I would say the future is bright for the truly passionate. One pitfall I see many getting into is focusing so much on the money that they miss possible opportunities. Sister, if there is an opportunity for you to do something that is in line with what you want to achieve, even if there is no pay cheque attached please do it! If you can plait well, be willing to first do it for free if that is what it will take for people to recognise the gift you have. Then you will attract those that want the quality of service you have to offer. It is better to offer what you have for free than sit in the house waiting for miracles to find you.
Explore yourself. That is the next thing I would like to mention. You may have so much more to offer than that one thing you have been focusing on. Like Dr Myles Munroe once said, die empty. You could be a singer who is also good at designing spaces or clothes. Don’t limit yourself to one thing if God has made you multi-talented.
During this period, I have also learnt how to design posters for online platforms. I’m keeping my mind fresh by remaining open to learning and seeing the new opportunities available from now moving forward.
Finally, let your fingers do the walking. Check what is available online. See what new things or opportunities there are that you can explore.
How has your career journey experience been so far?
It has been one of constantly evolving. Before 2020, I found myself mentoring a lot of Kenyan youth. With the online platforms that I am now focusing on, the scope is widening.
What have been some of your greatest wins as a woman this far?
The fact that I can communicate. I consider this to be my greatest skill. It enables me to relate to people from all walks of life and relay my thoughts and intentions in a manner that can be understood.
How have you managed to balance between harnessing your gifts and being a wife and mother?
There is a course I took at Daystar University as a student that really helped me understand time management. Study Skills was the name of that course. It helped shape how I utilised my time and balance between all the responsibilities I had to attend to. More than two decades later, these lessons apply in my everyday life.
What are you most grateful for in life?
My life and my sanity.
Summarise your journey in one word
Looking back now, what would you tell your younger self?
There’s more to life than what you know. Keep learning. Venture into what you want and wait not for the applause of people.
What would you tell young girls struggling to find opportunities in this day and age?
Opportunitise yourself. Package yourself and find someone who needs what you have to offer, give it for free if you have to but just start somewhere.
What’s the secret to you being so good at what you do?
I never stop learning and I personalise whatever I offer. For example, as a voice coach, I make every student know that they are not just another number in a batch. I identify their strengths and weaknesses, and what they can do to improve their talent.
What’s your final piece of advice?
Follow your passion not money. Then passion will make a way for you to be rewarded for your gift.