***** In 1978, a young lady strolled down Luthuli Avenue in search of a music store to buy a guitar. She had saved up for it and was eager to get one, only problem was she couldn’t find such a shop. She found herself inside a recording studio and a gentleman offered to take her to a guitar shop where she bought her first guitar. That gentleman ended up as her husband.
I’m in Wangai Wanjuhi’s office in Kikuyu town. I marvel at the guitar Wangai hands me, the same guitar the lady bought. On it is a signature by the great Kamaru. You see, Wangai comes from a family of creatives. His mother was passionate about art, music and was a renowned filmmaker herself. The father was a music producer who produced many songs for the late Kamaru and co-wrote some of the songs with him.
Growing up, what did you want to be?
‘A lawyer.’ He says. He’s pretty confident and well dressed in a grey suit. His office is nicely done with a metallic wooden desk, paintings and artefacts arranged all around.
‘When I was in class two, a family friend came visiting. He drove a purple Pajero that was parked up front. I was fascinated beyond words. I guess he noticed because he offered to give me a short ride. I later learnt he was a lawyer and that’s where my pursuit of becoming a lawyer was birthed.’
Wangai showed strong artistic traits, in primary and secondary school he took to drawing and calligraphy. While in form three at Upper Hill, he took up music as his second nature. Despite being good at it, he chose not to pursue the art life. His heart was sold on being a lawyer. He joined Catholic University and shortly after graduating he landed a job right before he was admitted to the bar.
How was it working for the insurance firm?
I was a legal officer and the money was good. I’d managed to become a lawyer, to get a car, money and girls but somehow after two years in, I felt empty. I wrote my resignation letter in November and only managed to hand it in seven months later on my 26th birthday. It was a gift to myself. I then took a whole year break from employment just to find myself.
You must have had a lot of savings to stay off work for a whole year?
Not quite. During my employment I’d managed to buy a laundry business that wasn’t doing so well but it kept me afloat for the one year. Besides, I didn’t have much expenses.
What was your schedule like during the break?
I used to wake up late. Walk my dog, listen to lots of sermons and podcasts, mostly sermons. Basically I was searching. In that time, I believed and got saved.
The year-long break helped him regain focus in life and get a renewed purpose. He got back to employment for three more years before quitting to start his own law firm, Wangai Wajuhi Advocates located in Kilimani with the second branch being the office we are at, 902 Street in Kikuyu.
During his last job, he got a chance to tour Europe for two weeks visiting a friend who was on leave. Wangai’s face lights up as he narrates to me how the trip gave him a new perspective on life and art.
“My friend and I got to tour Europe for two weeks. We’d drive to Belgium, Paris, Amsterdam then back to Belgium. Throughout the trip I was wowed by how much art was openly expressed in those places. Art was everywhere in display, around the streets in an out of buildings, singers and instrumentalists on the streets, everywhere. A seventy year old man painted my portrait. In Kenya it’s very hard to find an elderly artist. I witnessed a ten day festival in Belgium. I kept pissing my pal off because I’d stop at almost every artist to see what they were doing.”
The trip was life transforming. “Art is life, it is the best way to share and create culture,” he says. “I saw the power of narrative and history and what it could do to a society.” Coming back home made him sad, the contrast to how Kenya appreciated art openly was staggering. He knew he had to play a role in being part of the change, only problem is he didn’t know where to start.
His first attempts to encourage Kenyan artists to take art to the streets was met with a cold shoulder. Once in Kikuyu at a local restaurant, he got the light bulb moment to start a creative’s hub in Kikuyu town. In the grand scheme of things, he met Wambui (now his fiancée) a lady who was planning an event called Sundowner Kikuyu 902 and they got talking. She was a poet and musician herself and through planning the event, the creative’s hub called 902 Street was founded. (902 is the official code for Kikuyu town.)
It started as a WhatsApp group inviting interested creatives to join a movement of sorts in changing the art narrative in Kenya starting from Kikuyu. The idea was well received and rappers, poets, writers, painters, visual artists, music producers and filmmakers joined the group. They later opened an office located on the first floor of Kikuyu Post office where they offer support to creatives.
At 902 Street creatives can get training, a networking platform between creatives and clients, work space at an affordable price, legal services to help them secure their work and make the most of their art, and hosting major creatives’ events that showcase artistic prowess such as the Ubuntu Live event.
At one point Wangai thought he had escaped the art life pursuing his law career but he found a way to merge his two passions. ‘It was by God’s design, I hadn’t seen it this way.’
Do you think it would have been easy to talk to your parents about pursuing a career in arts?
My Mum used to say something in relation to the art life, ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss.’ She used to say that people in the creative industry are constantly moving and their lives sometimes lacks stability. She never stopped us from pursuing that path, my brother and sister are musicians themselves and my other brother is in the industry still. Our parents only cautioned us against the hurdles we would face if we chose this life.
Wangai admits that life as a creative is somewhat unkind. He says that an artist has to die to birth genius work and in the process we only focus on the art produced and forget the artist. Through 902 Street, he hopes to make the creative’s path a little less strenuous for the artists he works with.
Check out 902 Street on Instagram for more details.
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