NAIROBI, KENYA—Some people just have that je ne sais quoi charismatic quality that draws you in and Kenyan singer Phy (real name Phyllis Mwihaki Ng’etich), 23, has that in spades. Arriving at her producer’s recording studio in central Nairobi, the diminutive singer— her hair wrapped in a bright pink and purple scarf and black crocheted top over an orange tank top—apologized for being a little late and sat down all style, sass and smiles. Originally from the Rift Valley, a region known for its distance runners, the singer/songwriter/guitarist moved to Nairobi four years ago to attend college at the University of Nairobi (studying real estate management) but she also had a deep love for music.
So gigging between classes, as well as taking courses in songwriting and music management, helped her get something of name for herself on the Nairobi music scene. But her big breakthrough came when she auditioned for—and got a spot on— “Maisha Superstar” in 2015. The show is something like “The X Factor” or “The Voice” and it is the largest musical talent television program in East Africa, with competitors also coming from Tanzania and Uganda. Chosen as one of six finalists, she competed for three months against other musicians and ended up winning the musical showcase.
Almost immediately Phy released her first single “Ruka”—which means jump in Swahili—and soon after her album “Phylosophy” debuted. With over 20,000 followers on Instagram, a KenyaBuzz People’s Choice Award Winner in 2016 and featured on CNN’s “African Voices” as potentially Kenya’s next big superstar, the musician has had a busy few years. This year Phy—who is taking a break from what would have been her last year of university—is working on releasing more songs and plans to not only hold a debut concert in Tanzania, where she has a sizeable number of fans, but also to hold a big concert in Nairobi in August. She spoke with she-files.com about her influences, the music scene in Kenya and how she one day wants to win a Grammy. EXCERPTS.
BROWNELL MITIC: Where did you grow up and how did you get into music?
PHY: I was born in a small town, Sotik, in the Rift Valley. Basically, I was raised by both of my grandmothers and I developed a passion for music because I used to herd cows for one of my grandmothers while listening to a small radio. So that was how I fell in love with music. I loved Michael Jackson; we had every single song by him in my house. Also, India Arie inspired me with how she plays guitar. And there was a Kenyan trio called Sema, they were amazing. And of course Bob Marley. I also would say Mali Music; I think he is a genius.
You moved to Nairobi to come to university. Why did you decide to study real estate?
Well, music is number one so that comes before anything but for musicians here it is advised to have that extra thing because music is not as lucrative as people might think. You need something else to sustain you. And I am passionate about real estate in a weird way. My dad used to take me to a lot of construction sites, so I developed this passion for building and construction.
Before I did this competition, I was a struggling artist. I was doing a gig one night and an artist called King Kaka spotted me and he said, “I think you have potential.” And I said, “Yeah I do—it has been a long time coming, someone is noticing.” So we had a great rapport and a year later he called me and told he was part of the show as a mentor, so he said, “Come and audition for me.” Out of 30 people from East Africa, they choose six of us.
And how did it feel when you won?
I had so many mixed feelings. I was like, “I am so glad it is done. I am so drained and I want to just go home and be with my family.” I could not wait to finish because you are in an anxious environment. Everyone is competing and everyone wants the best for you. It is really weird. And some try to sabotage you. We kind of saw my winning coming. You keep accumulating points until the end. By the last two weeks I was still leading and it was hard for the rest to beat me.
What was it like afterwards?
I did an album immediately after the show. There is a trend in Africa [that] when you do a music show, there is usually not a follow up plan and so people tend to disappear. For me the plan was to avoid being a statistic. Immediately I got together with the team and I was like, “We need to do this next week.” And I got two of Kenya’s biggest rappers [King Kaka and Khaligraph Jones] to be on the song, so that got me a step further.
Tell me a bit about the music industry in Kenya—is it pretty competitive?
The scene is growing. When I was about 10, Kenyan music was really big in Africa. Tanzanians and Ugandans used to come and shoot their videos here and then something happened and we regressed while everyone else came up. Now the most famous countries for music are Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania—they have even crossed over Africa and gone out. The legislation [in Tanzania] supports their music because their radio gives them 96% playtime. We do not have that here in Kenya. I would say 90% of the music played in Kenya is like Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Rihanna. So the artists here struggle a bit more.
Why do you think that all changed for Kenya—what happened to the music scene?
The system changed because the government changed. Everything changed in terms of the arts. We used to have music education in primary school. They took music out of the education system, they took arts and crafts out of the education system. So everything that was artsy was taken out. And the artists who were prolific at the time, they did not pass it down. There was no mentorship of sorts. And DJs became stronger, so they controlled television shows and radio shows, playing whomever they liked. Even people started paying the DJs to play their music, so it became a corrupt system. We really regressed. But I feel like the scene is different now.
So what are your goals?
I want a Grammy, that is the goal. (laughs). I feel like I need to put Kenyan music on the map, especially for the females because you can count on one hand those who are considered successful. I would like to cross over to Africa and do a lot of collaborations with Africans. WizKid [from Nigeria] is my role model. He was born in a small town [and] we basically have the same story. So if he can hook up with Drake [with their upcoming single “Come Closer”] I am like “Wow, this is definitely doable.”
Photos courtesy Ennovator Records