In 2013, Naomi Wachira was named the “Best Folk Singer” in Seattle by Seattle Weekly. The headline read: “African Girl, American Woman.” It was an accurate and succinct description, though the feature less accurately refers to her current sound as “Afro-soul” (when it is more along the lines of Afro-folk), and correctly — if not predictability — links her to the iconic Tracy Chapman (a personal influence of Warchira’s), while overlooking her kinship with Natalie Merchant, among others. Nonetheless, Seattle Weekly rightly anointed her as a rising star in the music scene. In the last three years, Wachira has crafted impassioned thought-provoking music about identity, belonging and self-love that is a breath of fresh air.
Born in Kijabe, Kenya, Wachira attended boarding school in Kenya, before heading off to Chicago, where she studied communications and earned an M.A. in theology from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. It was not until 2011 that Wachira decided to make the leap to making music by doing an open mic set at Conor Byrne. Soon after, things started to blossom for the singer-songwriter. In 2012, she released her 3-track EP, simply entitled, African Girl. And earlier this year, she debuted her fantastic full-length self-titled album.
Celebratory, vulnerable and lyrically spirited, Wachira is fearless and compassionate when mining the human experience in her music. In this Winehouse feature we talk about her borderless songwriting, being a proud African girl and following her bliss. Check it out! Chaka V.
TWM: Let’s start from the beginning ─ what was your childhood like? When did you fall in love with music?
Naomi Wachira: I lived a pretty normal and quiet childhood. My dad was a pastor and my mom was a business woman. I spent most of my time in boarding school and when I wasn’t in school we would either spend time at my grandmothers or help my mom with her bookstore. My parents were part of this group that traveled around in different churches and I was the only kid allowed to sing with them. I think that’s when I fell in love with music. I just remember this feeling of being safe and at home when I was on stage singing. I discovered at 15 that I could write songs and spent most of my teen years writing whatever came to mind, and that’s when my dreams of doing music as a career were deeply planted.
TWM: Was your family supportive of you making music?
NW: My family was not really supportive for quite a long time. My parents were very insistent that I focus on education and find a job where I could both make money, but also have a positive impact on society. I followed my parents’ wishes for a while, but music just wouldn’t leave me. My father warmed up to the idea right before he passed away because he realized that it was possible to actually have an income with music and that I was trying to make a positive impact in the world. My mother “got it” when she saw me perform live earlier this year. She told me afterwards, “I never quite understood why you wanted to music, but after seeing you perform live, I finally understand why.” It was perhaps one of the most humbling, powerful, affirming moments of my life. Now mom, my siblings, and daughter, are my greatest support. Whenever I’m discouraged and want to quit, I often call my mother and she’s the first to tell me I shouldn’t give up and encourages me to persevere through the hardships. It has changed so much of how I see and value this journey, knowing that I have my family’s full support.
TWM: Who were some of your musical and literary influences growing up? And who are some of your current favourites?
NW: My earliest recollections of artists were the likes of Miriam Makeba, Tracy Chapman, Mbilia Bel, and Whitney Houston. When I was in primary school I would often stay up late so that I could listen to the late night hour of classic R&B. My whole being would come alive and find this indescribable peace whenever I listened to music. I wasn’t much of a reader growing up as I’ve always preferred to learn by observing life around me. My musical favorites shift a lot nowadays. As of late, I’ve been listening to Sam Smith, James Blake, Laura Mvula, Emeli Sande and ASA.
TWM: Your genre is classified as “singer-songwriter folk” ─ these genres are so often associated with white musicians. Do you find that people are surprised when they meet the woman behind the sound?
NW: I haven’t found anyone that was surprised by what I look like and the genre I’m classified in. Because of so many artists like Odetta, Tracy Chapman, ASA, Ayo and Nneka, perceptions have changed on what women of color can be when it comes to music genres. I do find people are often surprised by how short I am – I’m all of 5’1.
TWM: I am an African girl, is your manifesto, credo. You’ve sang about it, your twitter handle is the same? Why is that such an important declaration for you to affirm?
NW: It’s such an affirmation for me because if you don’t know or understand who you are or where you’re coming from, then it might hinder where you’re going. African Girl is grounding for me and reminds me of my foundation, but also the privilege I have of living life on my terms and pursuing my dreams. It’s also about honoring those who’ve shaped me to be the woman I am today. I’m also raising a daughter and I want to lay a foundation where she appreciates the value of her heritage.
TWM: Cold Specks (aka. Al Spyx), who is of Ethiopian heritage, recently tweeted “#SomaliDiversity let’s change the narrative.” As a proud African woman, artist, writer, world citizen, what parts of the current narrative would you like to see changed?
NW: I would love to see people update their perceptions of Africa/Africans, whether it’s in terms of how we live, development, poverty or health care. I think in a day and age where information is readily available, it’s important for people to know real facts and not just wait for the media to tell them what to think or believe.
But this goes beyond Africans. It applies to people who are different from us, who might believe or be something we are not. We have to become responsible for the information we share and/or believe. We have to become responsible for how we view people who are different from us and stay away from generalizing, stereotyping and making terrible judgments, especially if we don’t take the time to understand people/facts/realities. The narrative, in our day and age, entails that we become a people who are intentional, mindful, curious and open-minded.
TWM: Your self-titled album, Naomi Wachira, came out earlier this year. How did that feel? Was it exciting? Daunting?
NW: There were a lot of emotions related to making and releasing the album. I had been thinking about it for a really long time, and I just wanted to put my best foot forward with it. As exciting as it was, I was also pretty scared because I was putting my heart and soul on the line and didn’t quite know how people would respond – if they’d buy the album when it came out or show up to my release show. Thankfully, I’ve had some incredible support in the last eleven months, which has reminded me that it is a privilege that I get to tell my story the way I do, and have people come alongside me.
TWM: You’re a really thoughtful and honest songwriter. And there’s a really hopeful quality about your music, even when it is dealing with pretty somber issues. Why do you make music? What inspires you? What makes you want to write and sing?
NW: I make music because it is the one thing I know how to do that makes me feel fulfilled and alive, besides being a mother. I made this decision, a long time ago, that I wanted to write music that was hopeful, but also realistic about all the nuances of being alive. I wanted to write music that appealed to people on a universal level.
After my father passed away, I knew for a fact that I wanted to leave a good legacy behind, when my time on earth was done, and writing good, honest music would be my way to do so. I hope that what I write can connect us or at least remind us of our similarities. It also helps me process the things that happen in my life, and if someone can relate or connect, then I know that I’ve done something good.
TWM: Music has played a big role in moving the world towards a more just and free place. Politics play a big role in your lyrics ─ “I am a woman.” Do you think music still changes the world for the better? As a society, are we listening?
NW: I wouldn’t say politics play a big role in my lyrics, but I am fueled by the value of human life in all its forms. My philosophy on music is trying to create an alternative that challenges what we have normalized. A song like “I am A Woman” celebrates the three characteristics I find so powerful in women – life, strength and hope – and how they weave in and out of the myriad of experiences.
I believe that music is like a script that society can take cues from, so it’s quite a huge responsibility for those of us who create works of art. As Chinua Achebe once said, “we must create art for the sake of the community and not for the sake of art itself.” It’s hard to gauge if society is listening, but I know that when people share stories of how they connect or relate to what I sing about, then I know that as an artist I’ve done something worthwhile. And that’s all I can really hope for.
TWM: Some of the remixes of your music on SoundCloud are amazing transformations of your sound. Can you see yourself making music in other—funkier—genres in the future?
NW: I definitely want to. I just finished working on a single that will be released next year and has a funkier groove. I even got to collaborate with Owuor Arunga, who plays trumpet for Macklemore and other great Seattle bands, to play on the track and it sounds amazing! The ideas that I have for my sophomore album will definitely have a different feel than my last album, but still maintain a sense of simplicity.
TWM: When you’re not making music, what are doing? What brings you pure joy?
NW: I’m an incredibly low-key person. I like to spend time alone or with my small group of close friends, whom I affectionately call ‘witnesses.’ I love traveling and exploring places that have history. I live in a beautiful city and when the weather is great, just being able to experience nature around me is more than enough to fill me with joy and gratitude. And of course hanging out with my little girl is one of the purest joys there is!
Naomi’s album is available on iTunes.