Now more than ever, storytelling is important. It’s the way we record history, offering a glimpse into our world in 2017. For Kenyan-born singer Naomi Wachira, storytelling is integral to her music, best described as intimate, vulnerable, and healing. Her music is pleasing to the ears—staying with you long after a song is over. It’s music that counteracts the tumult of our times, reminding us that this chaos, too, will pass.
In this interview, Wachira opens up about finding her true, authentic self and creating music that soothes the spirit and eases fears.
You were musically inspired by Miriam Makeba and Tracy Chapman. What about their music appealed to you? How has their music influenced you?
I love that their music was so empowering and that they owned their stories and who they wanted to be in this world. I love that they paved a path for someone like me to see the possibility of using music to do something worthwhile, and that you don’t have to be a pop star or have huge productions to get your message across. They were simple in their presentations and yet so incredibly powerful. I tend to mostly do shows solo and have loved the simplicity of just me and guitar and connecting with my audience.
There’s a tradition across the diaspora where people pass down history by telling stories. Your music, especially songs like “Beautifully Human” and “Farewell,” seem to be part of that lineage. Do you aim to tell stories in your music?
I’m a strong believer that when we tell our stories we create space to connect with others on such a personal and deep level, especially in exploring universal themes—whether it’s love, hate, despair, hope, or identity. I’ve found that most of my audiences love the stories behind the songs just as much as they love the songs [themselves] because it allows them to insert their story in the song. In those moments, we all forget our external labels.
In “African Girl,” you sing about knowing who you are, where you’re going, and who you want to be. Was there a process to figuring who you are and what your purpose is? If so, what advice would you give others about figuring that out for themselves?
There definitely was a huge process of digging around my soul to discover my identity, and it continues to be a process. Identity comes in many layers, but it begins with your inner self and then works to your outer self. It takes a lot of hard work of asking who are you outside of how others have defined you. It means peering into your soul to remember those parts of yourself you’ve forgotten because you needed to fit into some ideal, whether it’s making your parents happy or assimilating to a new culture for the sake of survival. It’s never too late to understand your identity and you never stop learning about yourself. It’s a continuous journey where you have to be willing to be brutally honest with yourself and be okay with what you discover, and then start to change what needs to be changed.
Your music overall—especially “Up in Flames”—is very introspective. There’s a lot of focus on taking care yourself, finding your place, healing, grieving, etc. Is that intentional?
Absolutely! I don’t think that you can attempt to do good in this world without learning to how to care for yourself, work on whatever trauma you’ve experienced, and keep creating peace within yourself—as they say, charity begins at home. If we want to change the world, it must start with us as individuals before we can go out into the world.
When did you realize music was your calling?
I realized there was strong pull to music when I about 5 years old, but it wasn’t until my mid 30s that I knew it was a calling I needed to respond to. I started to feel an inkling when my daughter was born, and it became full-fledged when my father passed away a little over three years after her birth. There was something about experiencing life and death in such deep and personal ways that shifted my focus on the things that are truly important in this life.
Tell me more about your music journey. You’re the daughter of a pastor who spread gospel through music. How has that past influenced the music you create now?
I would say that my upbringing has really helped me become a very positive person who tries to see the best in people, and you can hear it in my music. There is a deep spiritual component to how I write and I can attribute that to how I was raised. Even though my understanding of faith has gone through numerous revisions, I still believe that we are all spiritual beings with physical bodies.
You’re a mother who’s balancing managing your own career, scheduling your own tours, and raising a daughter. In this political moment, how do you communicate what’s happening in the world to your daughter?
We actually don’t talk politics very often because my daughter requested it. The few times we’ve had conversations about what we see or hear on TV, we talk about how to respond in a manner that doesn’t use the same tactics or words you might hear politicians using. The lesson is always, how do we stay true to who we are even when others are doing things that we don’t agree with?
How does our current political climate show up in your music?
I really try to stay away from politics. My whole mission is to unite people, and I feel like talking/singing about politics does not unify people. I sing about how we show up in our lives with love, empathy, and mindfulness. How do we treat people we might not understand with an open mind and, if nothing else, respect where they’re coming from? I know that it’s hard when you don’t agree with people, or they don’t see the world the same way you do, and it’s even harder when you watch people in power use their platform in ways that don’t empower others. I would rather remind each of us of our capacity of kindness and understanding. Each of us can make choices that lift other people up instead of bringing them down.
Song of Lament feels very healing. The music is calming. It’s relaxing, but there’s also a focus on a number of social ills, including poverty and slavery. What is this album borne from? Where were you emotionally when you recorded it?
The album was actually inspired by tragic events that happened in April 2015. The first was the drowning of 700 men, women, and children in the Mediterranean Sea as they escaped war-torn homelands in search of peace and a dignified way to life. The other event was the 148 students killed in a university in Kenya by terrorists. I was heartbroken and feeling incredibly hopeless and helpless by all these social ills and music felt like the only thing I could offer that would not only honor these stories, but also bring an awareness of what happens when our actions are borne out of fear, hate, and hunger for power that doesn’t help others. I was also going through a rather difficult time with my own personal life, and I wasn’t feeling very grounded or hopeful about my path in life.
Who do you hope Song of Lament reaches? What is your intention for the album?
My biggest hope is to remind us of our shared humanity. To honor the stories of those who’ve endured, and some have lost to, dehumanizing experiences. To remind us to hold on to hope even in the darkest of times. And above all, to remember that each of us is a light and if we all chose to shine our light, we can make it through anything.