Music

Kenyan Electro-Funk Rocker Bill "Blinky" Sellanga On the African Music You Need to Hear

by Khalid El Khatib
Photo by Paul Munene

Bill "Blinky" Sellanga is a member of Just a Band, a Kenya-based art and music collective that has gigged from Abu Dhabi to New York. The exposure comes from incredible talent but also savvy Internet marketing: their video for "Ha-He" (which looks like it was shot by Taratino on a Kickstarter budget, in the best way possible) was the first Kenyan YouTube video to go viral. Beyond the views, Blinky Bill's been interviewed by the likes of the Wall Street Journal and is a TED Fellow.

But what's equally impressive as his music and web marketing is Blinky Bill's genuine enthusiasm for the sounds coming out of Africa right now -- music we're not likely to hear Stateside. Homegrown or UK-born talent dominates our airwaves and while nearly a quarter of the top 50 Singles on iTunes in late June featured artists born outside of the US, none were born in Africa. Just a Band's popularity echoes this: they have yet to chart here despite being one of the most popular acts in Kenya. 

Of course, digital platforms like Spotify and YouTube are making it easier than ever for artists and listeners to connect. In Blinky Bill's ideal future, Just a Band's song "Huff + Puff," which now has over 250,000 streams on Spotify, will someday cross seven figures, and his African peers will see similar success. I spoke with him about what it's like to be a viral video star in Kenya and the African music he hopes will go viral here in the US.

You're Kenyan, but you're often dubbed an "African artist."

I think in terms of country, no doubt. But there's a lot of exchange in terms of music across Africa. The most dominant influences right now are Nigeria and South Africa. South Africa has had house music for forever, which they infused with traditional sounds to make a unique groove. I've never been to Nigeria, but their music makes it feel like a very party-oriented place. Just a Band's music is Kenyan because we live here and we grew up here, influenced by our Kenyan-ness. Musically, compared to other African countries, guitars and drums are key.

Which other African countries are churning out up-and-comers?

Music from Congo and Mali is incredibly soulful and both countries are on my bucket list of places to party. Angola, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana are definitely on the up-and-up. More and more countries surprise me. I was in Namibia earlier this year with the Red Bull Music Academy and the music was insane.

A lot of people in the US know Just a Band from "Ha-He" -- the first viral video from Kenya. What was the reaction back home?

Was madness. We were a band that was being kept alive by our friends and fans who became friends. When the video went viral, we were everywhere. It taught us a lot about how rapidly things can change -- and how much love and spite you get from being popular. 

The world is more connected than ever. How has that changed your audience?

There are literally no musical borders. We have played in venues across the world. It's crazy to think that a band from Nairobi would play in a far-flung place like Corsica, France, and still get an audience. It's one of the greatest things about being a musician today: you can make music in your bedroom without big money funding and get an audience anywhere.

Why does more of the world -- especially the US -- need to listen to more African music?



The US has contributed much to global music culture, but there's a lot of exciting music being made across the globe. When I'm in the States, I rarely hear music from elsewhere, which is in total contrast from what I see in other parts of the world. American music is great but could be greater if it paid attention to what's going on in Africa now. The grooves that African music has are insane and just waiting for innovative producers and musicians to merge both worlds to get people on their feet.

Great producers and artists have done that before though, right?

Yeah! There's a lot of examples of producers who have sampled African music to get funky beats like Missy Elliott and Timabland sampling Fela Kuti for "Whatcha Gonna Do" and J Cole's "Can't Get Enough" sampling "Paulette" by Balla et ses Balladins from Guinea. More of that! There have been a lot of traditional musicians who have had a huge impact on music in the US and elsewhere. And now, there's a new generation of musicians doing their thing -- lots of experimental artists, lots of music that is more pumping.

Who are the traditional musicians you think have had the biggest impact?

Off the top of my head, and there are too many to mention, Hugh Masekela, Manu Dibango -- who was sampled by the King of Pop on "Wanna Be Starting Something" -- Miriam Makeba, Sam Fan Thomas from Cameroon who is a legend -- and Fela Kuti, obviously. I just discovered Solomon Ilori and His Afro-Drum Ensemble. They were signed to Blue Note Records in the '60s. There must be some crazy story there.

And the new generation -- who are the artists we'll be listing off in 40 years?

Wizkid from Nigeria is brilliant. Spoek Mathambo is creatively pushing the boundaries of African music with his new project, Fantasma. I just got hipped to Ethiopian electronic music through Ethiopiyawi. [The movement] draws on Ethiopia's long history of jazz music while paying homage to electronic jazz pioneers like Flying Lotus to come up with a fresh sound. Stromae, who is Belgian-Rwandese. So much dope music being made... so many new artists I probably have no clue about. 

It's summer. Everyone needs new music. Name five or six African songs everyone should hear right now.

"Ojuelegba" by Wizkid is a dope song. "CaraCara" by K.O. featuring Kid X is one of my favorite songs. It's from 2014, but still a fave -- grimy but funky and street. Culoe De Song's "No Contest" is a house track from one of my favorite producers and DJs. Aero Manyelo's "Tshunga" kicked off a DJ set I went to last week and the night rocked. Muthoni DQ's "Feelin' It" is one of the best Kenyan songs in recent history, what it would sound like if Missy Elliott landed in Nairobi.

I love that.

Can I do a special mention? "Ijusi" by Okmalumkoolkat. Progressive and forward-thinking artist and sound. And these new school African musicians from Ghana called FOKN Bois. They're irreverent, smart, shocking and funny.

Great. Back to Just a Band...

Wait, final addition: TemiDollFace, a Nigerian songstress who's soulful and quirky. And listen to "Weka Weka" from Kenyan artist P-Unit. It's one of my favorite tracks of the year.

You have a lot of favorite tracks of the year. What about Just a Band? What will we hear next from you?

We have three albums out now, and we're working on the fourth slated for later this year.

If you had to describe your fourth album in one word, what would you say?

Glistening.

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