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Escape Velocity

Soft Spot: Kabeaushé Interviewed
Alex Rigotti , May 30th, 2023 09:43

Fresh from the release of debut album The Coming Of Gaze, Kenyan pop newcomer Kabochi Gitau speaks to Alex Rigotti about the mythical backstory to his extravagant alter-ego Kabeaushé, joining the imperious Hakuna Kulala roster, and his intentions to remain anything but niche

Photo by Mo Kanchu

Kabochi sat on the banks of the River Kagera, far from the children who squealed with youthful carelessness. He had become steadily obsessed with one thing: finding the softest substance in the world. Starting with baby owl feathers and glistening cobwebs, Kabochi would conduct experiments as he grew older. He nearly created a tissue so soft, one that would have surely brought inexplicable joy to humanity… that is, until he was executed. All is not lost, however; his research is recorded in the songs of The Coming Of Gaze, an album from a shadowy figure that emerged from his ashes, and who yearns for the slick sweat of dancefloors. Their name is Kabeaushé.

Well, that’s what he wants you to believe. “It’s so much more interesting than, ‘hey, I’m this kid from Nairobi’ - that’s boring as hell!” he laughs.

It may come as no surprise to know Kabeaushé is part of Hakuna Kulala. The label has been instrumental in shaping East Africa’s underground electronic scene, often encouraging an international, collaborative approach from their artists. It makes sense that they would support – and even help concoct – such a left field narrative

So no, that’s obviously not what the artist did growing up – but his real name is Kabochi, and the Kagera is a real river where his grandmother lives. Kabochi actually grew up in the Nairobi district of Umoja, where he climbed trees in his backyard for mangoes and played amongst coffee and maize plants in the shambas. His mother was a talented singer and a staunch Christian who played gospel music around the house.

Much of his artistry can be traced through the development of the radio. Until the late 1990s, KBC was the only radio station in the country; it played everything from popular genres such as Zilizopendwa and Lingala, to staples like Michael Jackson and ABBA. The youngster’s heart lay elsewhere: “I was really gravitating to what was ‘foreign’ to me. ‘Who’s this dude called Lil Wayne? Why are they sagging their pants like that?’”

In the 2000s, more radio stations began to open, and kapuka music began to flourish: reggaeton sung in Swahili with a Kenyan twist, its practitioners’ mannerisms, dress and videography strove to emulate Western influences; it’s amongst this cultural chaos where Kabeaushé now draws inspiration. “I enjoy how musicians from here would stack lots of vocals and it would sound so clipped and nasty and gritty, but for some reason it sounds so awesome!” he enthuses. “Or how wonky everything felt because they were trying to go for something but wouldn’t land on it; they would end up making their own thing which sounded crooked, but it’s what made it cool. That’s what I’m into now.”

Young Kabochi, he says, struggled with school: “I was collecting Ds hard,” he recalls. “I became a bit of a black sheep, like ‘what did he do this time?’ That’s never a good thing for someone. Everyone else had their thing figured out. I could draw a bit, but I didn't know anyone in Kenya who was making money from drawing.”

I’d associate ‘figuring things out’ with bunning zoots with your friend and his creepy older brother just to say you’d smoked – shallow inhale mandatory. Kabochi’s ‘figuring things out’, however, was two years of acting experience and mentoring with Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. “She was awesome. We didn’t hang out much, but when we did, she was sick.” Kabochi starred in the second season of MTV drama Shuga, which was particularly notorious for its axing of a storyline about the spread of HIV/AIDS and gay people.

Charismatic and charming, Kabochi then turned to radio presenting, but that didn’t quite turn out so well: “I remember feeling like I’m gonna die if I stay in there for another minute. The organisation wasn’t the best, it was very draining.” It was there, however, that Kabochi realised that he wanted to make the jump to music. Feeling exhausted, he planned a trip to Kigali, Rwanda to celebrate his cousin’s birthday. Having owed many loans, his salary became a pittance, and his cousin ended up having to cover the trip back. “I just said: I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to focus on music and I’m going to give it one year. It might fail horribly, but if it does dry, I don’t want to regret it.”

Co-founder of Hakuna Kulala Derek Debru stumbled upon his Soundcloud. Though the pair had connected eight months prior, it wasn’t until then that Debru sent him the details of the label’s Kampala compound. Kabochi was supposed to go for ten days, but he stayed for six months: “We became super close friends because he’s just as nuts as me,” Kabochi says.

“Uganda has a way of drawing you in”, he continues. “Uganda is super lush. It was still Covid at that point – I got Covid, so I ended up staying. But then we ended up hanging out, interacting with all the other artists from the label… it just naturally ended up like: ‘Fuck, I’ve been here six months, I’ve gotta go back home!’”

Photo by Joëlle Lê

Kabochi credits the label for teaching him the art of making people move. “Studying the rhythms of what makes people move and how the production translates, being in the clubs… it’s not just about what’s singable.” It was also with Debru that Kabeaushé’s backstory was born: “We just wanted to make a perfect world where you could put all kinds of cool fantasies in there.” He was also a part of a music incubator, where he met Oliver Luckett, the co-owner of a blues club in Mississippi with Morgan Freeman. He took an interest in his music and art, bought six pieces from Kabochi, and gifted them to Freeman, who has hung them in his apartment since December 2020.

Now, Kabochi is releasing music as Kabeaushé on debut album, The Coming Of Gaze. Central to their musicianship is groove, fun, and gender fluidity. Though Kabochi doesn’t disclose his own relationship with gender, he is happy to talk about the importance of gender fluidity in his persona. “I’ve grown up with two sisters and I have a feminine side. It was very automatic for me to fall into that; for me, there wasn’t any clear distinction. Of course, I would hang out with boys, but at the same time I would be in the house: my sisters would hang out, enjoying whatever they were enjoying. Being sheltered in that warmth, it’s very natural for me to create something that embodies what it’s been like for me enjoying both sides.”

The wonkiness Kabeaushé reveres from older music is present in songs such as ‘Dichotomous Key’, where stuttering, stumbling drums accompany Kabeaushé’s steady voice. On other tracks, the delicate nature of their backstory trickles out: ‘Potassium’ features pondering harps that ascend above crashing, jilted cymbals. The album, however, belies Kabeaushé’s star power on stage. They’re entrancing and totally engaging: they’ll jump into the crowd, dance, all in their sparkly get up. It’s here where the persona is revealed in full force. “The character on stage is like this animal that comes out, not afraid of approaching people and cracking jokes,” Kabochi explains. “There’s some jokes I cannot say when I don’t have a wig on!”

The Coming Of Gaze is the first step towards Kabeaushé’s vision of global pop: “If I can make a song that’s as infectious and as danceable as ‘Rock With You’? That’s my goal. I’m still trying to crack the code, but I have no intention of being niche.”

Kabeaushé's debut album The Coming Of Gaze is out now via Hakuna Kulala