Interview: Muthoni Drummer Queen

When you first meet Kenyan Muthoni Ndonga, A.K.A. Muthoni Drummer Queen (or MDQ, for short), you do feel like you are in the presence of a queen – a queen with a lot on her mind, a lot to attend to and a lot she desires to accomplish during her reign. She is smart, funny, self-confident, full of energy and passion, and doesn’t suffer fools lightly.

One of her other nicknames is “boss lady.” She is not only a singer, but also an entrepreneur who launched one of the most successful music festivals in Africa, and uses her music to promote social and political awareness and change. In many ways, she epitomizes the 21st century African woman, which may be why she was recently asked to give a TED talk which will drop online Sept. 20. But she was also very happy to share her time with us as she prepared for what would be an amazing set of singing, dancing, and yes, drumming, at this year’s Festival International de Jazz in Montreal.

“I wanted to be an entertainer quite early,” Muthoni says, “but that was just a thing that could be a thing. Then, over time, that kind of got stifled, and you convince yourself you want to be a lawyer, or whatever else the world needs. But then around 21 or 22, I was like ‘O.K. Let’s just go for this thing and see what happens.’”

But to become a music professional in Nairobi in the early 2000s was a challenge, not so much because she was a woman, though she admits that must have been some part of it, but because “the gatekeepers,” as she likes to call the managers, producers and such, weren’t interested in the music, sort of a neo-soul thing, she was doing then.

“The music back home really leans towards Western pop,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with pop. I f***in’ love pop. And then we have a localized version of benga that we got from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the ’60s. This style is very integral. But because I didn’t fit anywhere between these two things – and the mainstream was very dedicated to this – it was either quit music or try to figure out how to exist.”

Muthoni decided to take matters in her own hands, found a “dive bar” and made a deal with the owner for a cut of the door on top of what he would make in liquor sales. Soon, she was proving “the gatekeepers” wrong and was packing the tiny place.

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