ELSY WAMEYO :: Wake Up Call
With a potent new single called Nilotic just out (and on 2SER rotation), Kenyan-born Adelaide-based vocalist and songwriter ELSY WAMEYO has a belly full of fire and a mouthful of messages for both Australia’s Blak community and those in this country who are yet to appreciate their own privilege, inaction and apathy around issues of racism. Elsy caught up with Jumping The Gap’s host Paris Groovescooter to talk about her music, the stunning video clip that accompanies her new song and what to expect when she plays Sydney next.
SER: Congrats on the new single! Besides being a great track musically and vocally, there are many weighty messages weaved into the track. Lines like “rip up the monarchy”, “the massacre before your eyes, and you’re still ambivalent?” and “…execute a Black man and you call police the victim” all leap out and resonate, alongside themes ranging from Blak Pride to righteous indignation. What were you ultimately aiming to convey to listeners?
EW: People need to wake up. Nilotic is a wake up call for the black community and the oppressors. Under every word and sentence there is a message. I intentionally said it bluntly, nothing is hidden. I didn’t want to dilute the situation because of the scars it left in me, and many others who are too hurt to speak. Every line has a very specific message that I need people to hear and understand. What people must know, is that we are tired, we are hurt and deeply scarred. We have been pushed to limits we can no longer bear and so it’s only fair what our next action will be. To my people, you have every right to take back what was stolen from you. You have all the authority and freedom to be who you are, let nothing and no one move you. Stand firm.
SER: The track’s name refers to the River Nile or to the Nile region/languages in Africa and musically, and compared to some of your earlier tracks, this one feels like African influences are coming more to the fore. Would you agree? You moved to Australia from Kenya when you were still quite young, so how much would you say traditional Kenyan music plays a part in your listening habits or early listening memories, and how does your birthplace influence you when crafting your own tunes?
EW: Yes, I totally agree. Nilotic is deeply influenced by the sounds of Africa. Traditional Kenyan music has always been a part of my life. Till this day, I constantly listen and dance to Kenyan music, but more so African music in general. There are beautiful ties in all African music, yet each country has its own flare. Growing up, my father always played tunes from the likes of Papa Wemba, Franco and TP OK Jazz, so for me that’s all. I do have distinct memories of listening to Kenyan music from artists such as Jua Cali, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, Prezzo and Alikiba. As I’ve grown up these are the songs that fill my heart the most. Translating this to my own music has always been very hard for me. I never quite knew how to create the sounds and bring to life what was in my heart. Nilotic was the game changer, but even through the production I didn’t know and each day was a learning process. I drenched my mind in the Maasai culture, documentaries on Nilotes and Africa in general for months. I had to create a makeshift home away from home to truly re-feel the energy and sounds of Kenya. Now that I’ve seen what I’m capable of, I have faith in creating and translating anything I want into music. There are many more sounds I would love to play with from other countries in Africa, I don’t even know where to start.
SER: The video for the tune is beautiful. As one of the credited stylists for the clip, tell us about how the visual ideas all came together and your discussions with others involved, and also about that fantastic zebra-print outfit you’re wearing in it?
EW: The zebra-print dress I sourced from a local shop in Adelaide called Binti Boutique, which is run by my friend who so happens to be a Nilot. The matching hat I designed and had it made by my stylist The Monzaley, who you guessed it, is a Nilot. I worked closely with The Monzaley on other outfits in the music video including the traditional brown Kalenjin outfit and the black and blue kitenge suit. A lot of the visual ideas you see I created in my head, sketched out in my visual diary, then went hunting for what I needed to bring it all to life. It was easy because I knew exactly what I wanted it to look like, the challenge was finding the things to create it all. I sourced fabrics and jewellery from my aunties, shipped Maasai accessories from Kenya, made use of hair ties, ropes and everything in-between. I spent days literally sleeping amongst all these components building, shifting and layering designs till it worked. Everything was premeditated for a whole year, but interestingly enough only came together a week before the shoot. For some pieces I reached out to friends the night before and they made it happen. I always knew exactly who to go to whether I was asking to borrow a top, a shoe or pair of earrings. Everything happened so swiftly. [Note: Below, Elsie has kindly provided some photos she took during the design process]
SER: Talking of videos, it’s usually quite a gruelling workout for artists to do a film clip; long days redoing take after take, different locations etc and I imagine getting the lip-syncing on set just right is also not that easy. The joy that’s evident in everyone on set, particularly towards the end of the clip, is really wonderful to watch and I’d love to know about the talented dancers featured. Tell us about the experience for you and those involved.
EW: The experience of filming Nilotic was so heart filling, I am so overjoyed and forever will be. The filming process was amazing because it wasn’t just a regular shoot. It wasn’t just days of filming. It was… much deeper. I really wanted us as a people to feel proud in who we are and where we’ve come from. I was really intentional in who I chose to feature in this video because there was a big task that we all carried. To move and inspire those that look like us and really take hold of our culture.
Each day I got to spend quality time with various Nilotic groups. I learnt so much as we sang, danced and sat in long conversations about our personal journeys, and how we intended to build with what we have now. Shooting with the Kalenjin women was so humbling and nurturing. As they danced, they showered me with songs of blessings. In the last [part of the] song, they all gave me a hug as you see in the last scenes of the music video. Here they all whispered a word of encouragement and blessing which I will forever carry. The Dinka group was the last day of the shoot. I was surrounded by friends who I have known basically all my life. I felt so honoured to dance alongside the Dinka people. They always have so much love and passion for their culture and it was so beautiful to see and experience that. Vivana and Prosper are the two amazing dancers you see in the video. They are both practicing poets/dancers/artists and everything in between. I knew they were the perfect fit for what I wanted to execute. We sat down one afternoon and I gave them a spill on the idea and vision for the video. Choreographed a few things and they came and delivered. I’m still so amazed at how they translated my words and vision into movement and emotion through their body. The Nilotic project has so much depth, love and compassion which is then intertwined with beauty, skill and power. The atmosphere created at each location was from everyone’s energy. I don’t feel a word could ever fully describe how it made me feel but I’m overjoyed.
SER: It was great that Genesis Owusu took out so many ARIA awards last week. Along with artists such as Sampa The Great getting more widespread recognition, for someone like me (who has lived through the ’80s, ‘90s and beyond in Australia) it represents a continuing shift in Australia’s popular music landscape. You were hard pressed to find a Blak artist honored at the awards even a decade or so back or to hear them on the radio, and historically genres like r’n’b and hip hop had a long struggle to get mainstream recognition in Australia, where white rock music ruled for a very long time. From your own, more newly arrived in Australia, vantage point, how do you see our music landscape shifting in recent times and what has been your experience gaining traction as an artist since you first began releasing music here?
EW: The scene is shifting, but way too slowly. It’s not enough. I do recognise the effort and grind that is being put to showcase people of colour but we’re nowhere near where we should be. Personally speaking, I’m so grateful to have been carried by the hands of Northern Sound System and Carclew, two entities that love to build and support local artists here in Adelaide. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Though my heart weeps for my people. It’s always a hard conversation when a little black girl asks me what it takes, or what she has to do to be where I am today. There’s never a straight forward answer. Getting traction as a black artist can be so much harder than any other I think. I see a huge gap between us and the rest of Australia, but we keep pushing and come out on top regardless.
SER: Nowadays, with streaming music available everywhere, the old idea of asking an artist for their “top 5 desert island” selections has become a bit redundant, because most people would just opt to take their phone and therefore have a world of music at their fingertips. That said, what five artists would you say you couldn’t live without?
EW: 1. Elsy Wameyo 2. Spirit of Praise 3. Kendrick Lamar 4. Little Simz 5. Major League
SER: Talking of streaming, it’s become quite a vexed issue – many arguing that streaming services are making all the money rather than the artists who can’t possibly afford to live off streaming revenue compared to the days when people paid for albums or singles. What’s your view on streaming and are your songs also released in physical format? If not, is that something – i.e. the tangible hold-in-your-hand Elsy Wameyo record – something that holds creative currency for you? Also, is there an album in the works and if so, when can fans expect to hear that?
EW: I don’t really pay too much attention to streaming, numbers and the back end of things until it’s proposed to me. I mean, I know for a fact this industry is messed up, but with the way it’s built, it would take a lot to uproot it. I’m just always grateful that I can share my music with family who are back home, and everything is always at the world’s fingertips. I’ve never released my songs in any physical format but soon, we’ll have vinyl and hopefully CDs too. I think being born into this newer generation, I’m so used to everything being online but, I do love the idea of having my tracks on vinyl.
SER: It’s strange times, with many artists just out of lockdown, but when can Sydney people hope to see you performing here? What kind of live set-up do you have and what’s the Elsy Wameyo live experience like?
EW: I’ve always wanted to come and perform in Sydney! God willing I’ll see you all next year. The Elsy Wameyo live experience is what you want it to be. When I’m on stage it’s never a showcase about myself, rather, a connection and journey I take with my audience. I perform alongside my amazing band, we drive the ship, but it’s up to the crowd to tell us where we’re going.