By Prudence Minayo
Hard as it is to break into the Kenya tumultuous music industry, it is much more difficult to keep at it and remain relevant for years. Some people only boom for a few years then fade away like they were never there in the first place. This is why the few who keep the fire burning for years or decades deserve acclamation and Eric Wainaina is one such musician.
For close to three decades, Eric has been in the music industry. He has released positive songs, won awards and even received international acclamation thanks to his music.
Eric Wainaina was born on 28th August 1973.
The 47-year-old was born in Nairobi to George and Margaret Gitau Wainaina. He has a brother named Simon. At one time, a piano was intended for Simon but ended up in his hands. This is what inspired his love for music from a young age. He reluctantly took piano lessons and was also part of the choir in his primary and high school years.
Wainaina attended St. Mary’s School, Nairobi for both his primary and high school education.
The musician made his debut into the big stage in 1992 and he has never looked back since then. He joined the world of professional music as part of an acappella music group known as Five Alive. The group began in early 1992 and were well received by Kenyans. The group got their inspiration in music from LadySmith Black Mambazo and Take 6. It was made up of five young stars, namely: Eric Wainaina, Bob Kioko, David Mageria (was replaced by Joe Kiragu), Victor Seii and Chris Kamau.
This experience put a seal on Eric’s music career. He knew that music was what he wanted to do.
In 1996, Five Alive released their debut album Five Alive which was a success and opened great doors for them including the opportunity to tour Europe. The same year, Eric was featured in a video commissioned by the United Nations Drug Control Program.
In 1997, the group called it quits. Having decided that music was the career path he wanted to pursue, Eric went on to attend in Boston, USA. He graduated with honors having majored in songwriting, Berklee College of Music and record engineering.
While still at Berklee, he would visit Kenya during breaks and release a song. In 2000, he performed at Kenya Beats of the Season concert. So many people loved him to the extent that 15,000 people tuned in to watch him on broadcast
The then young musician released a song titled Kenya Only. This was a song with great music artistry. The lyrics were so powerful that it became a national anthem after the 1998 bombing of the Kenya United States Embassy that left many dead and others injured. It also became popular during and in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 post election violence.
Nchi ya kitu kidogo.
His rising popularity soared after he released the song Nchi ya kitu kidogo (a country of corrupt dealings). This was a song about corruption in Kenya. Kitu kidogo means the money a Kenyan citizen has to spend every other day on bribes. The song was widely received both in Kenya and beyond. Government officials did not like this at all and even refused to allow it to be aired on the national broadcaster, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC). He was also intimidated during public performances as he would later recount one such instance years later on Jeff Koinange Live on Citizen TV. He recounted how they were told to stop performing that song in a public ceremony attended by the then vice president, the late George Saitoti. They were only able to perform since the audience had already begun singing. Releasing this song was a great show of bravery considering it was the late president Moi’s regime. A regime where those who spoke against the government were silenced.
Transparency International (Kenya) praised the song and even made him an ambassador. He was also made the ambassador for the MS Kenya NGO, Kenya Human Rights Commission and by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
In 2001, Africa Almac.com named him among the top 100 Africans of the year 2000. The list consisted of other famouspeople including Nelson Mandela, Baaba Maal, Joseph Kabila and Yash Pal.
In December 2004, he premiered a musical theatre piece known as Lwanda, Man of Stone. The piece had 21 songs which were based on the legend of Lwanda Magere, a man who led his people to untold victory until betrayal led to his death. It was one of its kind in Kenya and was received so well that a concert adaptation is still being played on cultural events.
Eric also partnered with Mumbi Kaigwa and Andrea Kalima to co-write and arrange music for Kigezi Ndoto, a Kenyan play. The play toured Europe in 2006.
The songwriter also wrote music for Owen and Mzee, a touching story on the friendship between a baby hippo and a tortoise at the Coast of Kenya.
He was also a part of the launch of the Kenya National Civic Education Program (NCEP) in 2006.
The award winning musician released his second solo album Twende Twende in December 2006.
He produced and also featured in the musical Mo Faya. The musical was shown at the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival. The same year, he composed the musical for the film from a whisper. The film won best director, best picture, best screenplay, best original soundtrack and AMAA achievement in editing awards, at the African movie 2009 awards.
In 2010, he wrote the UN-MDG anthem to be performed at the FIFA World cup closing ceremony in South Africa.
In 2013, he was assigned the national UN Goodwill ambassador by UNEP.
In the course of his career, he has performed in so many places both nationally and internationally. Some notable performances include:
- The only Kenyan to perform live at the 2002 KORA awards ceremony.
- Performing at the launch of the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the UN headquarters in New York in 2002 in a ceremony presided by Kofi Annan.
- Performing at the Netherlands Festival Mundial in 2003.
- Performing at Harare International Festival of Arts (HIFA) in 2003. He then criticized Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe which led him to be given negative reviews by the government.
- Performing at sauti za busara festival in Zanzibar, 2004.
He has received/ been honored with the following awards:
- The Jack Maher Award for his wonderful skill as a songwriter. This is an award given to students who have been identified for their ability to become leaders in the international music scenes.
- The MNET South Africa award for being the best male vocalist (2001).
- Best East African Artist at the Pan-African 7th annual KORA All Africa Music Awards (2002).
- Nominated for the 2003 KORA award
- Won 2005 KORA Award for prestigious artist of the decade.
The famous musician married Sheba Hirst in February, 2008. He once recounted that the two met in 1994 when he had gone back to St. Mary’s School to pick his documents. They were engaged for five years before their marriage. At one point, he cheated on her and this was a huge blow to their marriage. The extra-marital affair even resulted in the birth of another child. This was a down moment for them and Sheba left him for a while but they were able to reconcile. The hurt his wife suffered made him promise never to do so again, especially made worse by the fact that it was so public.
“Of course this comes from having slipped up before and understanding how much it hurt my wife, and deciding I don’t want to ever do that again. The biggest accomplishment for me, in tandem with my wife, is having saved our relationship from imploding,” he told The Standard in a past interview.
He has two daughters with Sheba, Seven and Neo. He also has a son as a result of the cheating.