Interview
Stella Mwangi. Image courtesy of the artist.

Stella Mwangi: Hip-Hop Saved My Life as an African Growing Up in Norway

The Kenyan-Norwegian rapper speaks about the Hollywood hustle, the potential of East African music and what she's dropping next.

If it seems like Stella Mwangi is everywhere these days, that's understandable. It's nearly impossible to see all the rings she's throwing her hat into: her songs are getting featured in Hollywood and across commercials, films and movie trailers.

There's a reason why it's possible to stay on such a grind, to make it work after more than a decade in the rap game, and that's an underlying theme with much of what the Kenyan-Norwegian artist, who also goes by STL, does. She's charged with an incomprehensible current that would have burned out other artists. Even as I caught up with her, she was hours away from taking a flight to the filming of a reality cooking competitions in Norway.

So what is on deck for Stella Mwangi? As it turns out, seemingly everything.


What was it like performing on the Cannes Lion platform?

It was huge and a really big honor. There were so many crazy people in the crowd. I met Tyler Perry man! It was the perfect crowd to perform for even though they hadn't heard a lot of my songs, they got really lit. As soon as crowds in Europe loosen up, have a couple drinks, they get crazy.

What's important to me is to bring a presence an energy, to capture that crowd and have them live in the now. If I bring hundreds of dancers or something, it can take away from that connection. I'm the type of artist who likes often likes having it simple, it comes down to the mic and the audience. There's a very thin line of the connection, like when artists tell crowds to do all kinds of weird things. It can take away from it.

How have the last couple of years been on the Hollywood side of things? Your music seems to be getting featured all over the place.

Yeah, it goes back all the way to 2005 when my music was getting scouted by these guys in Hollywood. Getting my music featured inspired me. There's a lot of ways to put your music out there, so many ways of being an artist, so many ways to spread your talent. A lot of guys say you're so lucky to get your songs in movies, but I'm trying to tell them it's been 10 years! It's a whole mission, all about connection and having people throughout your journey that believe in what you do.


Image courtesy of the artist.

So you've been dropping a lot of tracks recently, can we expect to see more from you?

Yeah, we got a lot of songs. I just released a song called "Repeat," it got featured on Basketball Wives. But I've been working on my third album, the third official studio album. I just want to take some time with it; I want to make it more personal. With songs that are for movies and commercials I can get into a character and lay it down, but with an album I need to get more introspective and personal with it.

I've been crafting it for a while now, and I just realized I shouldn't stress about crafting it. Growing up I faced a lot of racism, but I got a diary from my Dad, and could write about those feelings, put those emotions into rhythm and poetry. He then introduced me to Public Enemy, their song "Fight the Power." So I saw that music has to face the world, you know? When I released my debut album in 2007 I wanted to say certain things, do different things, but now I'm a woman, I have a lot of experience and I sort of want to make my music my therapy, to use it as something to inspire me.

I want to hear music that can transport me into a mood, and that's what I want from my third album, to make music that can help people, like music helped me.

It's almost like your album is the novel and the songs are the short stories?

Yeah! It's just my experiences and my questions, dreams, future plans, mistakes. I'm trying to tap in more into my own personal life and issues. That's what I want with the album music.

When I hear music sometimes I hear artists that are trying to make a hit, who are trying to kind of be on 'someone's level. So recently, for example, I made this song "10 Toes', which was just saying, trying to make it clear that this isn't a competition, that music isn't a competition. We need to think further than that. Like for me, hip-hop saved my life growing up in Norway. I know other black people, other Africans, that looked to hip-hop the same way.

Yeah it's important to have songs that can make guys dance or laugh, but music can mean a lot to people who are out there listening.

What are you hearing out of the East African music scene right now? Is there more of a space for EA artists to do their thing?

Oh yeah. The first time I saw the potential of East African music was in 1998, the first time I was able to visit Kenya after moving to Norway. There was a radio station for everything man! I fell in love with the Swahili hip-hop, when I heard it, I felt represented. When I look to the scene now, I hear potential. The internet is available, it's easier for guys to release music. As far as Kenyan hip-hop, I'm really digging it. I feel this hope, there's a new wave coming in. I feel like the platform for it should be coming from within and our leaders than from international record labels.

What I feel like we're lacking on is the mentality of how to manage our talent. Also with our music rights, we don't take our talent as serious in Kenya as we should, not like they do in Nigeria for example. Old talent, young talent, it all should be promoted.

You're an artist that has managed to be prominent and successful both within Kenya and internationally. Do you think that Kenyan artists are starting to get more respect and traction on the international scene these days?

Yeah, I feel like we have a head start, like a lot of people know about Swahili even if they can't speak it.

It's really about knowing our value. In Norway the government supports art, they put value in it. If you hear your song being played in a restaurant you can go to the owner and say you need to get paid.

That's what artists need in Africa, in Kenya. Artists should respect themselves more, but it's complicated to respect yourself when you're not getting respect. There's so much talent in Kenya, and I'm so grateful that artists don't lose that drive, to do what needs to be done, but a lot needs to change.

After so long in the game, what's still driving you stay on the grind with your music?

You know, it's really about falling down so many times and having to pick yourself up and start over. I find myself back in the beginning and needing to start over. It has somehow come to my advantage. I always find myself starting over again and it helps me keep myself fresh, I keep it as like, a motivation.

As an artist, everything is driven by inspiration. You can't just order it, it comes to you. The tricky part is what you do while you wait for it. You start feeling like I just want to quit, this shit isn't working out. But its that feeling of when inspiration comes when you're just about to give up that keeps you going on. Also just finding new things to do, to try and expand. So that's what is keeping me fresh or whatever (laughs).

What advice, words of wisdom can you give to artists and rappers trying to make it?

For young artists, the most important thing is that they never lose that hunger. The most important thing is realizing that what worked for me won't work for you. We all have to find our own way. Don't wish for someone else's way, even if you try to find some artist, say Michael Jackson, that's his story and it can't be yours. Don't wish yourself to walk in someone else's shoes, just try to find your thing, cause this thing is a fight. It's a fight, it's a fight. Just keep on.

popular
Courtesy of Universal Music Group.

In Conversation with Daniel Kaluuya and Melina Matsoukas: 'This isn't a Black Bonnie and Clyde film—our stories are singular, they're ours.'

'Queen and Slim' lands in South Africa.

Melina Matsoukas and Daniel Kaluuya are everything their surroundings at the opulent Saxon Hotel are not—down-to-earth and even comedic at times. Despite the harsh lights and cameras constantly in their faces, they joke around and make the space inviting. They're also eager to know and pronounce the names of everyone they meet correctly. "It's Rufaro with an 'R'? Is that how you say it?" Kaluuya asks me as he shakes my hand.

Matsoukas, a two-time Grammy award winning director and Kaluuya, an A-list actor who's starred in massive titles including Black Panther and Get Out, have every reason to be boastful about their achievements and yet instead, they're relatable.

The duo is in South Africa to promote their recent film Queen Slim which is hitting theaters today and follows the eventful lives of a Black couple on the run after killing a police officer. It's a film steeped in complexity and layered themes to do with racism, police brutality and of course Black love.

We caught up with both of them to talk about just what it took from each of them to bring the powerful story to the big screen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Keep reading...
Art
Sajjad's artwork for "Pull Up" from Burna Boy's African Giant. Courtesy of the artist.

Meet Sajjad, the Artist Behind Burna Boy's 'African Giant' Album Art

We sit down with the artist to talk about the art behind African Giant and his use of currency to creates collages that tell ambitious stories.

"Currency is something that for the most part doesn't exist," Sajjad tells me over a crackling phone line. It would have been hard to hear him if he didn't speak firmly. "It's all about trust. We trust that a bill is worth a certain value. That's what makes it real. It's an interesting duality play on something that's real but at the same time isn't."

This philosophy is what informs Sajjad's art. Using currency, the artist creates collages that tell ambitious stories about unifying countries. In 2019, he created the artwork for one of the best and most important albums to come out of the modern Nigerian—and African—music scene, Burna Boy's Grammy-nominated African Giant.

Sajjad got the idea to start using currency as an artistic medium in 2016, when stopping at a New York City bodega—"these little convenience stores on every corner that sell everything!"—where he saw that they had put up dollar bills on the wall from the first few people who had bought things there. It was at that moment something in him clicked and he realized how many powerful stories physical bills could tell and represent. Inspired by this, Sajjad began a journey of using currency and other mundane everyday objects to create art that tells a bigger story.

We sat down with the artist to talk about designing the album art of Burna Boy's African Giant, the power of currency and what the future holds for him.

Sajjad. Photo: Dan Solomito

Keep reading...
Video
Stormzy performs during The BRIT Awards 2020 at The O2 Arena. (Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage) via Getty Images.

Watch Stormzy's Powerful BRIT Awards Performance Featuring Burna Boy

The night saw the British-Ghanaian star run through a medley of songs from his latest album, Heavy Is the Head.

The BRIT Awards 2020, which went down earlier this week, saw the likes of Stormzy take home the Best Male trophy home and Dave win Best Album.

The night also saw Stormzy deliver a stunning performance that featured a medley of songs from his latest album, Heavy Is the Head. The British-Ghanaian star started things out slow with "Don't Forget to Breathe," before popping things off with "Do Better" then turning up the heat with "Wiley Flow."

Stormzy nodded to J Hus, playing a short bit of "Fortune Teller," before being joined onstage by Nigeria's Burna Boy to perform their hit "Own It." Burna Boy got his own moment and performed an energetic rendition of his African Giant favorite "Anybody."

The night was closed off with a powerful message that read: "A lot of time they tell us 'Black people, we too loud.' Know what I'm sayin'? We need to turn it down a little bit. We seem too arrogant. We a little too much for them to handle. Black is beautiful man." The message flashed on a black screen before a moving performance of "Rainfall" backed by his posse.

Watch the full performance below.

Keep reading...
popular
The ornate gilded copper headgear, which features images of Jesus Christ and the Twelve Apostles, was unearthed after refugee-turned-Dutch-citizen Sirak Asfaw contacted Dutch 'art detective' Arthur Brand. (Photo by Jan HENNOP/AFP) (Photo by JAN HENNOP/AFP via Getty Images)

A Stolen 18th Century Ethiopian Crown Has Been Returned from The Netherlands

The crown had been hidden in a Dutch apartment for 20 years.

In one of the latest developments around art repatriation, a stolen 18th century Ethiopian crown that was discovered decades ago in the Netherlands, has been sent back home.

Sirak Asfaw, an Ethiopian who fled to The Netherlands in the '70s, first found the relic in the suitcase of a visitor in 1998, reports BBC Africa. He reportedly protected the item for two decades, before informing Dutch "art crime investigator" Arthur Brand and authorities about his discovery last year.

The crown is one of only 20 in existence and features intricate Biblical depictions of Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit. Historians believe it was given to the church by the warlord Welde Sellase several centuries ago.

Read: Bringing African Artifacts Home

Keep reading...

get okayafrica in your inbox

news.

popular.