Muthoni Drummer Queen is an inspirational force in Kenya's music scene. She fuses African drums, hip-hop, reggae/dancehall, and neo-soul/blues to create powerful music that explores her experiences growing up in Nairobi and the spaces that women occupy in the city. We spoke to Muthoni to explore Kenya's creative community and the advice that the Drummer Queen would give to other aspiring female creatives: "Work hard and work even smarter. Dream big and go get it!"
Muthoni Drummer Queen by Margaux Martin
As a woman growing up in Nairobi, how has the city influenced your music?
The city is my home and I’m very attached to it. Nairobi created sheng – the slang derivative of Kiswahili – and it's been helpful to have a language to write in that is authentic to the experiences of Nairobi. Being the hub for East Africa for many years, Nairobi’s music life has been vibrant from the mid '60s with a lot of artists from DRC Tanzania and even Zambia living here and innovating Congolese rhumba music with Kenyan artists and sound engineers.
Further, Nairobi is an international capital with loads of people from multiple ethnic backgrounds from all over Kenya and all over the world who in turn brought their musical influences here. Combined with the American pop/soul/R&B and Jamaican Reggae on the radio, it’s safe to say Nairobians have cultivated an eclectic music palette and my music is a representation of that diversity.
For me, I picked hip-hop, reggae/dancehall, and Soul/Blues for my expression. I have also spent some years trying to figure out how to utilize the ethnic drums of the Luo, Luhya and Giriama communities as the base of my sound. I’m getting closer to cracking that and adding it to my music.
As a feminist musician in Kenya's creative scene, how does feminism impact your work?
I have so much internalized patriarchy to unlearn, and so much feminist theory to learn and practice on a daily basis. Still, I use what I understand of feminism now in my music. For one thing, I rejected the hyper sexualized presentation of women I grew up seeing in hip-hop because I understood (even without knowing the language) that that imagery is created for the male gaze, and is performative femininity. I disagree with the idea of female sexuality being commodified to gratify men, and weaponized against other women so that if a women doesn’t have the hyper sexualized look, she is denied certain access and support in the industry.
In my latest album SHE, I tell the stories of 11 different women going through different moments of their lives and making the decision in each case to love themselves, choose themselves and in a nut-shell be their own hero. I believe that women are layered and nuanced beings, with the agency to make decisions over their own lives. My imagery is that of a boss-lady and queen because I want to make another image of women in a male-dominated hiphop scene of an urban, African queen.
"I think there has been real progress within the Kenyan music scene with regards to how we as a society view it, and the space that women occupy in it" – Muthoni Drummer Queen
Muthoni Drummer Queen by Jeanne Bonnet
You have spoken about the difficulties you faced when trying to get into the music industry for being perceived as “not Kenyan enough”. How do you think perspectives towards Kenyan musicians, especially women, are changing?
I think there has been real progress within the Kenyan music scene with regards to how we as a society view it, and the space that women occupy in it. While there have always been some female artists, we see a lot more women across the industry playing traditionally male roles such as managers, PR, programmers, music pluggers, instrumentalists, and such. We have a lot more female DJs, photographers, and music video directors.
Music platforms such as Blankets & Wine festival among others have made music discovery possible and moved music that was once on the fringe closer to the center. As a result, there has been greater awareness, love, and demand for a wider variety of Kenyan music. I would say that since late 2015, we have been living through a cultural re-awakening in Nairobi. It’s beautiful to hear new genres such as Kenyan alt-R&B, gengetone, and debe take over the airwaves. We are far from where we need to be, though.
How do you think music festivals help to create a platform and sense of community for female Kenyan musicians?
Festivals are in many ways a guaranteed means for audiences and artists to meet. Preferential programming of female artists/DJs allows audiences to discover female artists, plus performance fees mean real income for women to invest into developing more music outputs/products.
Do you feel that there is a sense of community for female musicians within Kenya’s creative industry today?
Yes! A lot more women in leadership positions in the industry as well!
What do you think is the most important thing about having a community as a female creative?
Because different women have been through different things in the industry, the network becomes a useful means to gain perspective, and makes it easier to understand how to navigate the scene when you can learn from the experiences of others.
"I hope to inspire women to listen to themselves, trust their own intuition, forge their own path" – Muthoni Drummer Queen
Muthoni Dummer Queen by Margaux Martin
How do you hope your music will influence other Kenyan women?
I hope to inspire women to listen to themselves, trust their own intuition, forge their own path, present their authentic selves, build up their own brands in their own image and likeness, own capital in all its forms and expand themselves into grounded, ungovernable, women.
What advice would you give to any aspiring female Kenyan musicians?
Female friendship is power. Build a team from the start. Own your masters. Legally protect your image, name, and work. Work hard and work even smarter. Dream big and go get it!