Nairobi is one of the most fast-paced, metropolitan cities East Africa has to offer, and while it’s located in the south of Kenya, it’s considered to be the very heart of the country. Although the city doesn’t gain traction for its creative scene, in comparison to its West African counterparts, Its hustle and bustle culture, is one semblance that likens it to many major West African cities. That being said, there are a few names in the Kenyan creative scene that are impossible to skip when discussing African creatives, one of which has sat down with Tush today.
My screen is lit up by the beam of a twenty-something-year-old painter-singer-songwriter-set designer ready to share their story with the world. While it was a cloudy morning here in Vancouver, it was a sunny, opportunity-pregnant Wednesday morning in Nairobi, where Bakhita joined the interview.
Unknown to Bakhita, their friendly countenance eased my nerves about the uncertainty of the interview. After exchanging pleasantries and a brief introduction of ourselves, it wasn’t long before we began conversing like old friends catching up.
Before including this interview in her schedule, the previous week – and the current week of the interview – consisted of a lot of production prep for sets they would be designing for upcoming projects. “.. As long as you’re making money” they added when commenting on how busy the week would be.
Bakhita Gikonyo, born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, had what many would consider a typhonic childhood. From constantly switching schools, to dealing with bullying, and sexual abuse during vital formative years, Bakhita had a childhood far from blissful. As many of her childhood struggles are driving forces for their art and music, they award their time at Riverside Farms Nursery School, a craft-based nursery school, to be one of the primary influencing factors of her talent as a multidisciplinary artist.
Years on, after moving on from the institution that began nurturing their artistic side, their self-confidence coupled with mental health stayed on a decline as they advanced into the Kenyan education system for their primary and secondary school years. For them, secondary school; a time when they were clinically depressed and in therapy, consisted of her battling to keep their head afloat. That battle was one they only won towards the tail end of their time at University.
Although secondary school can be considered a tough time in their life, they admit that taking subjects such as Literature and English “really opened [their] mind to knowing the world and perception and character and people.”
Barely halfway through the interview, we’re distracted by the presence of Bakhita’s publicist, Alfayo Onyango, who had snuck into the interview while we discussed. After the brief interlude which involved the three of us exchanging pleasantries and joking around, Bakhita and I delved back into unraveling her earliest memory of music.
“Honestly it was so beautiful” was what they could use to describe the music their mom and aunty used to sing for their grandad when Bakhita was about five years old. That was the earliest memory of music they had, and it amazed them how people could have a powerful gift of singing. “I just wanted to sing for the rest of my life after that,” they added.
Besides the fact that Bakhita’s interest in music was piqued by their family at the tender age of five, their interest in other forms of art was piqued when they started attending Riverside Farm Nursery. Taking art classes that involved craft making, painting, and music, helped them begin dabbling in projects that have grown into their main disciplines; painting and music. In regards to their work in set design, it began in secondary school. Bakhita became heavily involved in their school’s theatre and began building props for school plays. They then began volunteering at a music festival in Kilifi, South-East of Nairobi, which opened them to the world of professional stage design.
Like many African parents, Bakhita’s weren’t too understanding of their varied interest in the arts. Bakhita’s father wanted them to study law and saw Bakhita’s choice to pursue arts as a waste of time, school, fees, and life. Bakhita’s mother other on the other hand, was supportive, even though it was hard for her to see how these disciplines intertwined with one another.
It wasn’t until 2020 till Bakhita had a clear vision of how all their interests could be merged together. As the economy started to slow down in Kenya, as well as all other countries worldwide, they understood that while creative work is majorly freelance for those starting up, one would need two or more sources of income to sustain themselves. Due to the time-consuming process that’s involved in creating art pieces and their temporarily closed studio, Bakhita’s painting has taken a backseat to their two major sources of income, music and set design.
“It comes from an understanding that in order for things to change, you have to violently shift from head spaces that no longer serve you.” Bakhita explains when asked the general idea behind their sophomore album, Purge. Today, June 3rd, 2022, would make it the seventh month since the release of the album, but its sultry melodies are still timeless. The word Purge, they add, was specifically used as an ode to mental health and those who struggle with eating disorders.
Although considered a staple head in the Kenyan creative scene, Bakhita does not feel like they’re there yet. Bakhita still feels like they’re not where they want to be. They confess that the yardstick for their success is subject to change as humans are generally insatiable, but right now their success goals include touring more African countries and having a steady Pan-African fanbase.
“I’m still manifesting it!” Bakhita laughs heartily when asked about collaborating with Ghanian artist Amaarae. As per a conversation with NotJustOk in 2020, Bakhita identified Nigerian/Ghanaian artists such as Amaarae, Wavythecreator, and Odunsi as their dream collaboration. They confess they’re still deep in the manifestation phase of the collaboration with these artists, but they’re hopeful that their set design will help open the right doors. In addition to the two-year-old list, Tems, Tierra Whack, Groovy Jo, and Solange are also artists Bakhita looks forward to working with in the near future.
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