We speak to the Kenyan Afro-pop sensation about their latest album, their evolution as artists and Black Lives Matter.
Sauti Sol recently dropped their fifth studio album and it is a jubilant gift for the undeniably turbulent times the world finds itself experiencing. Midnight Train is a rich and uplifting 13-tack album with standout tracks in "Suzanna," "Nenda Lote," "Sober," and "Brighter Days," which featured the prolific Soweto Gospel Choir and was the first track to be released in the run-up to the album launch.
The album is the Kenyan Afro-pop sensations' first under Universal Music Africa, following a major recording deal they signed earlier this year. Midnight Train, which explores sobriety, personal insecurities, love and hope, is testament to the group's evolution over the past few years.
At a time when the world is reeling from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as mss protests against racist establishments, the project is one that is soothing and provides some relief from the current reality.
And so we caught up with two of the Sauti Sol group members, Polycarp Otieno and Willis Austin Chimano, to talk about their latest album, the creative process behind it and their thoughts on Black Lives Matter.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Earlier this year, you signed your first major deal with Universal Music Africa. You've also now subsequently launched your first album with them. Describe the significance of these two moments for you as a group.
Chimano: Signing with Universal was a long time coming because the negotiations took quite a while, almost three years. I remember it was exciting at first, but then also having been independent artists and having done a lot by ourselves, we were looking for a tailor-made deal for us and not just a normal artist contract. Which is why it took so long. Once that happened, it was all systems go with recording the album. I'd say the significance of it is for us to gain new ground in having a machine push us to different markets and new audiences. Just working with Universal's network to take us global, that's what the significance is and they've been really supportive.
Talk to me about some of the inspirations behind the songs that went into this body of work.
Otieno: Our inspiration and how we write our music comes from where we are at in our lives––what we go through as human beings, as men, as husbands to our wives and as friends. Writing stories that relate with other people and just things that normally someone would not speak about in song. We try to put that into song and still make it groovy.
Still, there's always a message deep down in the songs. Topics like facing our own insecurities. "Insecure," which is one of the songs on the album, is very artful. We did a campaign before we did the songs. We had videos of ourselves speaking about our insecurities and how we embrace them.Then [fans] relate to that and are like, "Wow, Otieno feels like this about himself and I do as well." It makes you feel better about yourself, I guess.
"We talk about divorce in the album and social issues that you wouldn't normally hear in pop songs."
Sauti Sol - Midnight Train (Bien-Aimé Acoustic) www.youtube.com
In what ways would you guys say Midnight Train is different from Afrikan Sauce?
Chimano: Well, Afrikan Sauce was a project that was largely a collaborative. Also, we were just at a different point in our lives then. Midnight Train is an album that totally represents what our original fans would describe as "all grown up." That's what Midnight Train is. It also just encompasses the best of us and what we've managed to learn throughout the years in terms of being able to direct our own videos, do our own mood boards, production, mixing and mastering. To an extent, this is the first album that is collaborative not just with other artists but songwriters and producers––a lot of people came together to make this album work.
Tell us about working with India Arie on the beautiful track "My Everything"?
Chimano: First of all, India Arie was and has been and still is one of our biggest inspiration when it comes to how we write our music and how we arrange our music. We used to be big, big fans of her when we were starting our music. It's a dream come true to just have her bless our album. The funny thing is we randomly met at an airport in Atlanta last year. We just bombarded her with all our love, telling her how much we love her music, where we're from and that we are also musicians. She was very gracious. She listened to us. You could feel that positive energy coming from her.
I think she went and did her research, maybe watched our music and she loved it. She was very keen on working with us. She really gave her all, even with her recording. She made time. It was actually during the Grammys because this was in January. That's one of our biggest wins as a band, to be able to be associated with someone as great as her.
Was there any song that stood out in particular and was just really fun to record in studio?
Otieno: I'd say recording with the Soweto Gospel Choir was amazing. They were pretty dope and such fun people. Even with shooting the video as well, I remember it was such a fun day. They were so easy-going. How they just picked up the song and recorded it did it so much justice. When we left South Africa, they had to keep recording to finish it off. When they eventually sent it to us, it was magical. I was shook. We were just like, "That's our song."
SAUTI SOL - BRIGHTER DAYS FT. (SOWETO GOSPEL CHOIR) SMS (Skiza 9935653) to 811 www.youtube.com
Does "Midnight Train," the first track on the album, sample Toto's hit record "Africa"?
Chimano: Yes. The thing with this song is it that it has two versions actually. We just uploaded the cloud version recently. That's the one that has been on YouTube, I think. All the other streaming platforms like Apply and Spotify, have the version that's more Afrobeats. It's a bit different. It's not really sampled.
Otieno: Yeah, we had both of them and we asked, "which one do we choose?" Then we decided, "Let's just put both."
How have you changed the ways that you engage or even entertain fans with all of the social distancing rules that are in place?
Otieno: We've had to definitely adapt to the times. We even had to move the album [release] I think three times because it was meant to come out in March. Because of the uncertainty and people thinking that things would get back to normal, we kept pushing the album release date. Then everything came to a standstill. We had tours planned throughout the whole year, but then we couldn't do those tours. We've been doing online shows of course, and even recently we've been getting paying gigs from corporate. We've been creating a lot of content.
We sought permission from the government to stay together and to be able to create. We had to get tested and get a letter from the ministry of health so that at least the local cops know that we are here and thus, won't get raided. To be honest, it's been quite impactful because we can see people are listening to us more. Maybe people are finding a lot of hope in our music and listening to these songs. They're finding something to keep them happy through our music.
What message do you want to send to the world during Black Lives Matter protests?
Chimano: First of all, it's very sad and unfortunate what happened in the States, but then, it just speaks to a greater evil that's been happening for years. Of course I'd say all these things have been happening, but because of our smart phones, they're just now coming through to the forefront. People are getting angry, and people should get angry because if you don't get angry and you're quiet, then it'll continue. Systematic racism will continue.
I think what hurt the most is seeing this person die in front of our eyes, and that was so bad. As an African, it resonates as well because we have police brutality. This is a worldwide thing, especially against people of colour. But people need to keep protesting. We need to keep speaking up. All these years, people have been protesting peacefully. I'm not encouraging violence, but it's unfortunate that it has to get to the level of what happened in Minneapolis, for people to notice. People should keep protesting and fighting. We have to know that we are not second-class human beings.