“… everyone has a reason why they do the things they do. Even Judas had a reason for betraying Jesus, alitaka kuomoka” – Juliani
Masterpiece – the album
I first met Juliani in April 2018, when I attended #IAMJULIANI, a four-day concert (yes, 4 days), where fans could interact with the chronology of Juliani’s musical journey.
Day one was an ode to Mtaa Mentality (his first album, released in 2008);
day two was to pay homage to Pulpit kwa Street (his second album, released in 2011);
day three was an adulation to Exponetial Potential (his third album, released in 2014);
and the event culminated on day four, with a listening party of his then upcoming album, Masterpiece.
In addition, Juliani launched his own digital currency – JHela, a points based system (1 Juliani Hela = 100 KES), that fans could use to shop on his website juliani.co.ke, for tickets, albums, and merchandise!
A four-day event may seem like a lot to lead up to a listening party, but to know Juliani is to know that he has an interminable need to grow with his audience. It is pivotal to him, that his audience understands where he is coming from, in order for them to grow with him.
After #IAMJULIANI, we didn’t hear much about Masterpiece, until almost two years later, in early 2020, when he unveiled the project’s artwork, and announced that the album was imminent, and was to be expected later in the year.
Shortly after the announcement, Juliani held a ‘lyrics reading’ event at PAWA 254 in February 2020, where he invited his supporters to come listen to him literally read the lyrics to the songs on the album – in a sense to review the album before its release. So, a listening party, but instead of listening to the songs, he read the lyrics out. He also allowed for a Q&A session, where the audience had a chance to comment on the lyrics, and ask questions.
At the time of writing this, in August 2020, Masterpiece still hasn’t dropped, and as you can imagine, I have some questions for him.
Q: Creating and curating an album is an arduous job, I’m sure. What to you, determines the right time to release a project to the public?
Juliani: “The thing about music, is that once you release a song, you can’t unrelease it. When I put out work, it has to be impactful. It’s more than music for me. The way I think of an album, and how I write an album, is in a sense to package the experiences I have gone through in a certain timespan. When I release an album, I’m in a certain state of mind, and I need to feel authentically present in that moment. I was in a certain head space during Exponetial Potential, and this album will come with its own undercurrent when the time is right”.
I tell him that I am writing this blog post for my generation, those of us who might not have known him pre – Exponential Potential. Juliani has a lot of day ones, but I, and a lot of us of my generation, would probably be his day threes, but that’s still okay.
No matter what stage in life you discover Juliani at, his music stands the test of time.
An unorthodox approach
So, from hosting a four-day event, his own digital currency, to lyric reading sessions, it is safe to say that Juliani’s artistry, and his style of connecting with his fans, deviates from the norm.
Q: What inspires you to continue to find unconventional ways of connecting with people?
Juliani: “It’s a simple mentality, the more you do something, the better at it you get. Not everything I do works out, but I am able to understand processes better, and understand people better. I have the privilege of being able to sit, think, and create, more than most people. The least I can do is share my ideas with the world.”
So far, we’ve learnt that Juliani takes pride in investing in his audiences. So much so, that there’s a Juliani community, better known as Juliani Jeshi, a community of Juliani’s loyal supporters.
Q: Being an artist myself, I sometimes struggle wondering whether fans will go out of their way to interact with my work. You seem to have a team of loyal supporters who stand by you constantly. How did you achieve this, and how important is it for you to connect with your fans?
Juliani: “With my artistry, I strive to build a community. That’s the key word, community. A lot of people will claim to be your fans, but the truth is, fans get distracted easily, and will rarely go out of their way for you. They will listen when it’s convenient for them. For that reason, I saw it important to invest in building a community of people who I can grow with spiritually. These are the people who I can share my work with, in its rawest state, and I can count on them for honest feedback. These are people who will understand where I am coming from. I can only serve people when I know what they want, and when I have taken time to allow them to know me. If I invest in them, they will invest in me. Even Jesus had only 12 followers”.
Jesus had a small circle, I say to Juliani, but he was still betrayed by someone in his small circle.
Juliani: “That’s true, but we give thanks for Judas, still. Jesus would have never been able to fulfill his destiny had it not been for Judas, and the Church would have never been founded had it not been for Peter. We need such people, ndio injili iendelee. Through them, we were able to know the mind of Christ. The point is this, even with a community, there will be people who don’t see the vision, and there may be those we lose along the way. That’s okay, because it’s part of the building process”.
Q: What is Juliani’s take on the music industry in Kenya today?
Juliani: “I don’t see a music industry, and even if there is one, I don’t see myself as part of it. People are always trying to do what the rest of the world is running away from. There’s a danger in thinking within the confines of an industry, because it leads to a lot of repetitiveness. You feel that you need to be a certain way to be part of the industry. People then forget that there’s so much else that can be done, if they only think beyond themselves and their immediate surroundings”.
Juliani founded Dandora Hiphop City (DHC) – a youth hub in Dandora, where he grew up, for at-risk youth. Juliani was also part of founding Taka Bank – a recycling initiative that facilitates the collection of trash for proper waste management, and promotes responsible consumerism.
Juliani does and is too many things, that it would be a grave disservice to put him in a box and label him.
Juliani: “Music for me is more than just music”, he continues, “as a person, I believe in growing both horizontally and vertically, it’s called cross-growth.” I ask him if that’s really a thing, or if he made it up. He made it up. “I grew first vertically, as a writer and artist. After mastering growth in that dimension, I then explored growing horizontally, figuring out all the other things I could do, after I had planted myself in my art”.
”Personally”, he adds, “I can say that I have accomplished more than I ever thought I could achieve. Growing up in Dandora, I never thought I would live past the age of 25. Now, I am 10 years past expiry, and still going for more, because that’s what God has decided. I’m living on borrowed time, and I want to be the most fulfilled version of myself”.
Q: As Juliani, do you ever experience imposter syndrome, the feeling that you aren’t competent or qualified enough in your field?
Juliani: “Ha! Wapi? If anything, naona ni kama watu wengine ndio wageni. I can’t feel like a stranger in this field, because I have internalized my own worth, so that it drives my self-confidence. The thing is, you will never be qualified or competent enough, if you measure yourself by other people’s standards. If you constantly try to fit in everyone else’s space, you’ll obviously feel less-than, because you’ll be judging yourself based on what other people are doing. I can say, however, the only time I experienced something close to that, was when I first joined Ukooflani Maumau.”
For those who don’t know, Juliani penetrated his way into the hiphop scene when he was just a teenager, surrounded by some of the most prolific artists at the time in Dandora, i.e. Kalamashaka, and the rest of the Ukooflani Maumau group. Juliani narrates extensively in this interview, that he was exposed to hiphop by sitting in a room with rap artists, who had mastered the art of rapping circles around each other. Juliani concedes that he felt intimidated at first. “I don’t know how I even picked up a pen to start writing; everyone else’s flow at the time seemed complicated and deep”, he said in the interview, referring to artists such as Kitu Sewer. “I was also going through an identity crisis, trying to find my persona. I started writing the best way I knew how, with punchlines. It’s what I did best”. Juliani was ultimately approved as an official member of Ukooflani Maumau in the early 2000s, and the rest is history.
“The goal is not to be the king of the world”, he says, “the goal is to be the king of your own small world, and use that power to negotiate with the rest of the world. My work at DHC and Taka Bank may not be perfect, but it’s something that I can use to negotiate my way around this world. That’s exactly what gangs and governments do. They take the power they have over their small kingdoms, and use it as a way to make the rest of the world listen to them. That’s why collaborations are important, because we are all kings of our small worlds.”
Q: Juliani, what’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Juliani: “Bob [Collymore] used to say to me that ‘You should always ask why. Ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Once you know your ‘why’, you will know your true north’”.
That’s great advice! I say to Juliani.
“Everyone has a why”, Juliani continues, “once you understand someone’s why, it helps in conflict resolution, because you’re able to be empathetic to where they are coming from. You’re also able to know where to place them. Everyone has a reason for doing the things they do. Even Judas had a reason for betraying Jesus, alitaka kuomoka. Also remember that people’s why can change. My why during Exponential is not my why today”.
Q: How did becoming a father affect your artistry?
Juliani: “Honestly, being a father affected me more in the grand scheme as a person, rather than just as an artist. My daughter, as well as my nieces and nephews, challenge me to think beyond my existence. I am more at peace with my current circumstances, as long as I know that the future generation will have everything they need to get ahead in life”.
Q: To wrap up, tell me what a typical morning looks like in Juliani’s world.
Juliani: “My mornings aren’t very uneventful. I don’t eat breakfast, and I try not to pick up my phone for as long as I can”.
Juliani: “The world is always in a hurry. There’s always something that needs to be done. I feel like people always want to put pressure on you in the morning, so I like to spend time with myself first, and set my own intentions for the day, before I deal with the world’s problems”.
Many thanks to Juliani, for taking the time to answer these questions.
I, and many others, look forward to seeing all that this life has in store for you.