Following the release of her debut album, Safari, Kenyan singer-songwriter Victoria Kimani speaks to Helen Herimbi about her transformative journey.
A sparkling black catsuit, Gucci slides, dark shades and a peak cap with the word Safari embossed on it. Change clothes? That will just have to remain the title of a Jay-Z song. “These are the only kid-friendly clothes I had,” Victoria Kimani says mischievously.
We’re at Urban Brew Studios in Joburg where the Los Angeles-born Kenyan who now lives in Lagos, Nigeria – on account of being signed to mammoth Naija record label, Chocolate City in 2012 – is set to perform live on Yo.TV, which is SABC 1’s long-standing kids variety show. This R&B singer, who dabbles in pop, trap and tinges of afrobeats, is there to perform Fade Away with South African crooner, Donald.
The song is a ballad that morphs into a house track with thumping drums. Kimani chose this as the single to push in Mzansi. It’s one of the stand-out songs on her 15-track debut album entitled Safari.
The title track is about stealing away with your bae for a weekend when that payday cheque clears. But when she sings “kuja twende safari,” she means more than just “let’s go on a trip or journey.” Kimani tells me this as she is sitting in the make-up chair where the artist, Bev, is using her fresh face as a canvas.
“I called it Safari from a creative standpoint,” Kimani says. “The sounds on it are very diverse. I have an R&B/pop background with my songwriting but then when I moved back to Africa, I was introduced to new sounds and had to find a way to appeal more to people at home. I recorded the songs in three different countries and collaborated with musicians who are used to a different kind of tempo. Just collaborating with them sounded and felt like a journey. It sounded like my life.”
Those musicians include, amongst others, Sarkodie on the ratchet Giving You, Ice Prince on the romantic For You, Phyno on the seductive Lover as well as SA’s own, Khuli Chana on the sublime All The Way which samples Angelique Kidjo’s Wombo Lombo. The all-female posse cut, S.O.S, is her only cringeworthy title. It stands for Surprise Oh Surprise. Featuring Emma Nyra (from Nigeria), Vanessa Mdee (from Tanzania) and Bucie (from South Africa), at least the track is a pan-African vocal masterclass.
“We’re all friends and fans of each other and so I knew everyone would be able to flow with this type of track. But Bucie,” Kimani dodges Bev’s brush to look at me and grin. “Man, I’m genuinely a fan of Bucie’s.” “I was there when Bucie recorded her part and she was like: ‘what do you mean when you say Surprise Oh Surprise?’ I said it could mean anything and she said: ‘so a surprise could be like a bun in the oven.’ But she didn’t tell me that she was pregnant and she didn’t look pregnant so when I found out later, I was like: Oh my God, this is like a song for the baby!”
Kimani is so proud of Safari, released in December, that it feels like her own child. It is a more mature offering than her 2013 mixtape, Queen Victoria, and puts personal views at the centre. Like the dancehall-inspired March Along, which is a beautiful ode to the resilience of a girl who grew up in Kimani’s missionary parents’ orphanage.
And like how attempting to make a mark on this continent felt like a pilgrimage where she had to find and remain her true self. Kimani didn’t feel accepted initially. Understanding that it’s a jungle sometimes, she held onto teachings from her icons to keep from going under.
Safari opens with Nina Simone Intro – which is an excerpt of an interview with the late American great talking about liberation. Brenda Fassie Interlude, which is a snippet of the late South African great declaring how she won’t change for anyone, appears halfway. Thanks to YouTube and downtime, researching these women gave Kimani her voice back.
“The Nina Simone interview really stuck out for me,” she says. “With the Brenda Fassie Interlude – that’s someone I’ve looked up to for as long as I can remember. I realised how free-spirited she was. When Chocolate City announced me to West African audiences, how I dressed threw a lot of people off.”
“Things can be seen in different ways if you are dealing with people who are conservative and hold onto their traditions. It’s like being an atheist was at least better (than how I dressed) to them. I had to be strong because I didn’t want to change anything about myself to fit into any environment. But four years ago, things were different and I used to be in tears about this all the time. So to see how Brenda’s attitude was unapologetic, that kept me going.”
In shedding that skin and coming into her own, Kimani learnt to deal with criticism. In light of the reverence that is placed on icons like Simone or Fassie or Makeba, sometimes – to serve their own agenda – people refuse to believe women can be revolutionary and, well, women.
Shout out to my bad-bads/Nina Simone start a revolution, badass is the first line Kimani sings in the intro. I ask her how associating Simone with being a bad-bad has been received. “Nina Simone smoked cigarettes in her interviews,” she exclaims.
“She was telling the camera guy that he’s hot. She was a bad bitch. She had confidence and when I say ‘bad-bads’ that has nothing to do with the act of doing bad things. It takes confidence to be a musician and an educator. And I would have loved to have a drink with Brenda.”
For now, Kimani gets to toast her success with her peers and while she travels around the continent to show off her evolution, it’s endearing to see she’s still willing to share her journey. But first, she admires herself in the mirror, squeals with delight at how Bev has transformed her face into the star she knows she is and prepares to perform.