On the 4th of July, just after lunchtime, Ian Kamau sent out a tweet: “coming to South Africa was the best decision I have made in years #iankamausouthafrica.” If you have been following the hashtag, you would know that the Canadian rapper/poet has been in the country performing from Cape Town, Grahamstown, East London and even Durban.
If you’re in Johannesburg and Pretoria, your chance to see him perform is coming soon with a show planned for Joburg this weekend. But really, who the hell is Ian Kamau and what is he doing here anyway? It was with this question in mind that I met the artist for an interview at a coffee shop on Long Street. The short answer is that he is promoting his latest album One Day Soon, which he wrote and produced.
The long answer is that he’s been planning on coming here for a minute but he just never had the money and when the opportunity to be a delegate at a conference held in Cape Town arrived, he grabbed it. “More than any other country on the planet, people from South Africa hit me up more than any other place…I spent the majority of my time in Toronto, I’m not saying it is anything bad but I feel like I need to grow or stop…” With this bit of context it is already becoming easier to understand his July 4th tweet.
Shortly after arriving in Cape Town he performed with poet Stacey Ann Chin at the Waiting Room on Long Street; had another gig with rapper, Khanyi, at Zula before ending off with a June 16 gig in Gugulethu. His performances are a mix of rap/poetry and even a bit of singing. Some of the songs are from his latest album One Day Soon which was released last year. Some might remember his mixtapes; September 9 Mix Tape; September 9 Mix Tape Volume 2 and Love & Other Struggles (Vol. 3).
He also featured on Tumi’s (from the Volume) album Whole Worlds.
His music career started when he released his first album in 2002/3. He recorded it during a year when he was going through a tough time. His dad had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, he’d just been kicked out of York University in Canada and there was a three month strike also taking place at the university. His friend Canadian rapper/producer, K-os, was going on tour during this time, “so he gave me keys to his studio and he left to go on tour. I spent every day in the studio for about three months and recorded my first album. I called it First because I couldn’t think of anything else to call it,” he says with a laugh.
I ask whether he prefers to be called a poet or hip hop artist. “Poet or hip hop artist. Either one. Whatever people want to call me. When I hear a hip hop artist or a poet, I hear the same thing,” Kamau says. “People started calling me a poet because I would go and do my songs without music at poetry shows.” Kamau also says he is not Kenyan as some people wrongfully believe. His parents are both from Trinidad and he was born in Toronto, Canada.
“I love the place though (Kenya). I have been there three times. I have friends there. In Kenya people didn’t know I wasn’t from there until I spoke. So I had that conversation 10 or 15 times a day,” he says about people thinking he’s Kenyan. But one can hardly interview an artist these days without asking about their relationship with social media. Since Kamau was in Cape Town for the same conference attended by other social media-savy people like Ferrari Shepard (@stopbeingfamous) and poet Warsan Shire, he admits that he’s not terribly active.
“I am not one of these people who make these statements, several times a day, get retweeted…predominantly my twitter is just about my music. That’s why I am on all of that stuff.”
“I think if you’re a business, artist, social entrepreneur or an entrepreneur period. If you’re in media, doing anything independently, it’s a great way to build your profile. I think if you’re on it (Twitter) just to be on it, I don’t know if there’s a purpose.” — *catch @iankamau live at Word N Sound on 21 July. From 12 – 6pm