Just A Kenyan Band of Superheroes

MTV Iggy, November 15, 2011

It took a superhero to bring Just A Band back from the future.

His name: Makmende. His look: Blaxploitation chic—sharp tan jacket, flared trousers, broad-rimmed shades, Afro pick. His modus operandi: Appears in the streets of Nairobi to beat down miscreants, send robbers fleeing, fight off masked kidnappers, rescue a lady in distress and leave her swooning as he coolly walks away.

These heroics—complete with fabulous comedic touches, like when Makmende swipes his opponent’s necktie and refashions it into a bandanna—unfold to the beat of “Ha He,” a catchy electro-pop delight off 82, the second album by Just A Band. The Nairobi trio are filmmakers, animators and comic-book buffs as well as musicians, and when they gathered some friends to perform in a video for the song, they looked for a fun storyline and came up with Makmende. The name was inspired by an old street-slang term, of obscure origin, to describe foolhardy or adventurous behavior.

What they didn’t expect was that Makmende the superhero would become a cult figure days after the video’s March 2010 YouTube posting. And in so doing, turn Just A Band from an ironically-named, arty purveyor of avant-garde sounds to Nairobi hipsters into something like a national pop sensation.

Released on the Internet, the song spilled out and found its way into shops and buses and the street. Images of Makmende, modeled on the look and outfit of the hero in the video, appeared on T-shirts and other merchandise, none of it licensed by the band. Fan videos and animations popped up. Makmende jokes made the rounds. The media reported on the trend, amplifying it. It even earned a clip on CNN International. As local blogger Moses Kemibaro put it, Makmende became “Kenya’s first viral Internet sensation.”

A few months later, for instance, an editorial in a Kenyan newspaper venting frustration at the country’s epidemic of lethal road accidents ran under the title: “Only God, Makmende will save us.”

On a warm day in late August, Just A Band is relaxing in a back yard in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The band consists of guitarist “Blinky” Bill Sellanga (who is nicknamed for an Australian cartoon koala), keyboardist Jim Chuchu and drummer Daniel Muli. With them is fourth man Mbithi Masya, a kind of D’Artagnan to their Three Musketeers. Roles in JAB are imprecise; everyone shares in the music production and contributes in some way to the videos and art.

This is their first trip to the United States, and they’re playing a few gigs, taking a few meetings, making the bohemian art scene in New York, and visiting the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College in the Hudson Valley.

Makmende, however, did not make the journey.

“He rolls one deep,” says Jim.

“He’s too big to fit in the plane,” Bill says. “They need an extra compartment for him, in the VIP. In the VVIP! They have to make another plane!”

Jokes aside, the band says they quickly realized that with Makmende, they’d hit a nerve.

“Something about him made everyone want to join in,” says Daniel. “And I guess it was important, because Kenyans felt that they had a superhero, that they were represented that way. I guess it was an empowering symbol.”

“Instead of the usual depressing symbols that we have,” Bill says.

Unleashing Makmende to uplift a needy populace wasn’t something the band planned. The word “makmende,” they explain, comes from Sheng—the blended, ever-changing Nairobi street slang. It was an old expression, Jim says, that had fallen into disuse.

“It was used in the context of trying to be a hero—don’t be such a makmende! Like, used on kids who were a bit too aggressive or adventurous. They’d be told to calm down. So it was almost like an insult. But no one remembers where it actually came from.”

One theory is that the term came from the Clint Eastwood line, “Make my day.” Another has to do with “mende” meaning cockroach. Jim says he was once told of a comic book character called Mark Mende.

At any rate, it was Bill who, at some point, came up with Makmende as a goofy name for his DJ persona. “I called myself DJ Makmende for the space of, like, a month,” Bill says.

But after “Ha He” and the video, none of this mattered. Whatever his roots, Makmende was reborn in the image that Just A Band created. And as their creation went viral, they found themselves suddenly in the public eye—when previously they could barely get any radio or TV play, as they were judged way too futuristic and abstract for the mainstream.

Makmende’s viral success certainly empowered Just A Band, in ways that they neither intended nor possibly even desired. Until then, they had been comfortable making music for a niche audience of Nairobi nerds and hipsters, people like themselves. “It was the early adopters who would come to our shows,” Jim says. “You know, iPad is out, they have it; they’re on Twitter. It was a certain segment.”

Their first album, Scratch to Reveal, had established them far outside the main currents of Kenyan pop culture. On Kenyan radio or blaring in Nairobi minibuses the principal fare consists of gospel music, local hip-hop, reggae and R&B variants with the usual Auto-Tune and synthetic beats, and the like. An older crowd might favor Congolese soukouss.

“And we didn’t fit in any of those categories,” says Bill. He is putting it mildly. As a guitarist, he says he most admires jazz players, from Wes Montgomery to Pat Metheny; his chief vocal inspiration is Sly Stone. Daniel cites the acid-jazz era of Talking Loud records and the deep house of Louie Vega. Jim invokes Radiohead and Björk.

As for Kenyan artists, some of their favorites are futurists of bygone days: Ogopa DJs, who innovated in local electronic music a decade ago, or future-funkateers from the 1970s such as Ishmael Jingo or a band called Mighty Cavaliers—groups that were ahead of their time and vanished into obscurity.

Just A Band would not have been surprised if the same thing happened to them.

On Scratch to Reveal, they made zero effort to cater to the mainstream: “We wanted to do something that represented us, and what our minds were thinking at the time,” Bill says.

That meant the hard house of “Fly,” the trip-hop of “Maisha” or the indie ballad “Lalalalala.” It also meant painstakingly crafted videos infused with visual influences—from Japanese anime, for instance, or artists Marilyn Minter or David LaChapelle—that made them, if anything, more futuristic and experimental than their sound.

When they took this work to local radio and TV stations in search of airplay, they were summarily rejected. “Iwinyo Pini,” for example, with its gentle, insistent deep-house vibe and its smart animated video showing characters traversing a dystopian Nairobi, left the gatekeepers cold.

“We took it to a TV station and they’re like, ‘No one will watch this,’” says Jim.

“They said, ‘You’re going to alienate our audiences,’” Daniel says. “They said we were too far ahead, like five years ahead. So that’s when we put stuff online. And that kind of shifted the thinking.”

Turning to YouTube meant, at first, dealing with limited bandwidth and impossible load times on Kenya’s Internet—which, the band says, has now improved enormously. They knew the payoff would include exposure among new audiences, such as young Kenyans overseas.

Then came Makmende. And suddenly, Bill says, “there was nowhere we could hide from people talking about Just A Band or Makmende.”

The band was deluged with commercial propositions and unsolicited advice. Various characters offered their services as intermediaries in this or that business venture. When the band rebuffed these offers, they caught flak.

“Everything about that period was weird,” Jim says. “The commercial angle got very aggressive and people were almost angry at us for not taking advantage of it. Like, ‘You guys dropped the ball.’”

But of course good things happened too. As the Makmende trend grew, so did interest in the rest of Just A Band’s work. “There was a conversion rate of people who just knew Makmende and then became fans of Just A Band,” Jim says.

And important listeners came on board as well: their parents.

“Even my mum,” says Bill. “She was not getting what we’re doing. Now she turns on the news and she sees Makmende. When it was on CNN, Kenyan TV repeated that piece for, like, a month. Anytime I’d go to visit my mum, the piece would be playing. Before we’d fight about music, then all of a sudden she’s like, ‘Maybe he’s onto something!’”

Just A Band’s three core members were all born in 1982—a factoid that gives their album 82its name. Though they’ve been Internet-savvy for ages, these are not pampered kids of the local elite, but a trio of middle-class guys who have found a way to act on their art-nerd sensibility.

Bill’s parents are retired civil servants. Jim’s are lawyers, while Daniel’s are writers who for a time ran a women’s magazine. All three men grew up in Nairobi, and met at Jomo Kenyatta University, where they were stuck in degree programs that bored them, with overcrowded classes on a campus that they found unfriendly.

Jam sessions, they found, were much more fun.

“It was this incomparable high,” Daniel says. “All of us liked music and art. But now participating, making it—we were lucky to have something like that, so it wasn’t this energy that has no direction. We decided, after university, let’s make that massive all-you-have kind of effort. If it doesn’t work, then at least we can say that we got it out of our systems. And if it does work, then it would be amazing.”

Score one for amazing, then. Since taking the plunge—moving into a house together, and learning to juggle art and music with freelance gigs to pay the bills—Just A Band has shattered just about every stereotype of what an African pop band today can or should be. They join a select tier of groups—think of South Africa’s BLK JKS, for instance—that are grabbing Western pop and rewiring it to tell stories of their own urban experience.

But it’s their dual identity as visual artists and musicians that separates Just A Band from the pack, and not just for the cool music videos. On their New York visit, they presented a large-format, six-screen video installation at Russell Simmons and his brother Danny’s Chelsea gallery. Germany’s Goethe-Institut has presented their work at its Nairobi branch, and sponsored a trip to Germany, their sole overseas visit prior to this one.

The art has also given the group a tool to step out of the world of beats and animation and engage with Kenya’s social issues. They’re proud of a piece called “Can I Be Forgiven,” which gave voice to troubling and ugly thoughts about fears and controversies in Kenyan society—anti-immigrant panic against Somalis, for example, or the culture of casual sex.

“We got some friends together, and gave them one sentence profiles of who they are in the piece,” Jim says. “So, like, one guy was told, ‘You hate Somalis.’ So he went and came back and released something. It got so acidic that we had to step back and stop shooting for a few minutes.”

“What was really powerful to me,” says Mbithi, “was that these are all things that we hear in Kenyan society. It happens daily.”

So in the same way that Just A Band is a lot more than “just” a band, they’re also more than a group of insular art geeks. Whether they will shatter for good the barriers in Kenya’s music industry is still an open question. They’re still not sure they’ll be able to support themselves and eventually have families by just doing the art that they love.

But for now they’re running with the gamble and channeling their inner Makmende, taking on all opponents with goofy but dogged panache.

“It’s always a battle,” Bill says, but they don’t plan to lose. “Either it works, or it works.”