Photo: Paddy Gedi (Coco Em)
As a DJ, Coco Em has been a staple the Kenyan scene and recently also debuted as a producer on the KMRU-curated Place: Nairobi compilation for Air Texture’s Place sublabel. There’s more coming, though: 2022 will see the release of her debut EP Kilumi for the French Infiné label, a first taste of which you can get in Coco Em’s mix for our Groove podcast. It’s a multi-faceted set that blends amapiano and afrohouse rhythms with slow-burning techno and much, much more.
First off, how have the last two years been for you?
The last two years have been a journey of self actualization and discovery. I had big plans at the start of 2020 for a European tour, which I felt would mark the “beginning” of my professional career as an international DJ. When all that was canceled because of the pandemic I was crushed. To top it off I lost my booking agent and so I felt like I was back to square one with my career. I decided to focus my energy on music production and it has been the best decision I’ve made. I managed to write and complete a full 7 track EP called Kilumi with great support from Santuri EA and a group of amazing Kenyan artists; namely Labdi, Janice Iche, Sisian, Kasiva, MC Sharon and Wuod Baba. I feel like the pandemic was a double-edged sword. I lost opportunities to tour as a DJ, but I got the time I wanted to take to complete music of my own and to improve my production skills as well as make valuable connections with the music community in my city.
You are a photojournalist, artist and cinematographer as well. What got you into electronic music?
I started DJing in 2015. At first I didn’t take it very seriously and did it mostly as a hobby or for my friends. I used to play a lot of hip-hop music and tried out for a DJ competition in Nairobi hosted by Bad Mambo productions. I made it to the top ten and although I didn’t win the competition, I was encouraged to continue pursuing DJing by one of the organisers. It wasn’t until 2016 that I had my first serious interaction with electronic music. I attended a workshop at Alliance française hosted by Akwaaba music (DJ Bbrave and Gafaaci), who were visiting from Ghana. The music they played and made blew my mind. I finally heard styles of mixing that incorporated the different sounds I liked such as lingala, kuduro and African traditional sounds. They also demonstrated some techniques of music production using Ableton which to be honest were very confusing at the time, however all the music I was exposed to influenced my DJing styles and tastes dramatically.
You are the force behind Sim Sima, a “creative community and safe space who facilitate music production training […] prioritising the femme, non-binary, LGBTQ+ community.” How did you get involved with the initiative and what is your role within it?
I started the initiative in 2020, during the thick of the pandemic. I had been a beneficiary of a femme-led and focused music group called Femme Electronic, which was started by DJ Rachel in Uganda. The idea spread to Kenya with the help of DJ Huilly Huile, who was volunteering at Santuri EA. Femme Electronic KE was home to a number of femme upcoming DJs. Although it did not continue, I liked the ideas behind the initiative and decided to structure Sim Sima with the same core values, but different approaches to learning. I founded Sim Sima with the help of Santuri and in 2020 we secured funding from Music In Africa to host a series of beginner workshops in music production. Ableton has also been very supportive of our work, offering some of our participants free music production software. Because we are still a small initiative with no funding, we operate on a very small scale. I teach some of the beginner workshops with a production assistant, DJ Shock. In 2021, we secured funding for another series of workshops thanks to the NEST collective’s femme-focused group Strictly Silk and Mama Cash Fund (Amsterdam). We are currently looking to secure laptops for our members so that they may continue working on their music production.
Go here to listen to Coco Em’s Worldwide FM Sim Sima radio shows.
You have recently released a track on the Place: Nairobi compilation curated by KMRU. Your contribution is an experimental piece called “2021.” What themes informed it, how did the track come together?
The release of this compilation came right after I had had a serious case of COVID-19. I was housebound for three months, being bed-ridden for about three to four weeks. I had started ideas around the track several weeks before the compilation was due and even used the WIP ideas on a short film I had created with artist, Janice Iche, for the Norient film festival. The track for me was experimental. I remembered a friend of mine, producer KMRU, telling me that sometimes when making music he would switch off his metronome and not pay attention to time or BPMs and instead go with the flow. I used Ableton and the Push 1 to create “2021.” For me it symbolises the honesty and uncertainty with which I was approaching a post-pandemic year. My favourite part of the track is the bassline which I recorded on the flow and in one take. I love the build-up of it and how it compliments the light chopped-up sounds in the song.
2022 will see the release of your debut record. What can we expect from your first release?
My first EP titled Kilumi is an eclectic blend of traditional music, percussion, ambient sounds, lots of bass and an array of amazing vocals, rhythms and rhymes from some of Kenya’s most exciting MCs and musicians. Kilumi is a traditional sacred dance performed by my tribe, the Akamba. I digitally programmed most of the sounds to mimic traditional styles of music and each song is a special genre-bending treat that I feel to my core. This first EP has been quite an experience to build. I initially wanted to self-release it in July 2021 after mixing it myself and sending it over to the amazing Dominic Clare of Declared Sound for mastering. After sending it around to a couple of my contacts and receiving positive feedback, I was encouraged by Adam Carter of Exclusive Promo to work on a better thought-out release campaign and after a lot of work and planning decided the new release date would be November 2021. It was around that time that I got a call from Infiné music – many thanks to Dom! – and was overjoyed to know that they liked the sound and wanted to support my EP release. The EP is now set to release in April this year.
What was the idea behind your mix for our Groove podcast?
As the first mix of the year, I decided to continue exploring different sounds, with a few techno joints jumping through slower paced songs. I have a bit of afrohouse and amapiano as I like to re-play songs that were on heavy rotation the year before, but put a new spin to how I mix them. The mix also features an exclusive single from my EP titled “Land (black) First” featuring Sisian and Kasiva.
Last but not least: What are your plans for the future?
I am very excited for my future in music and in film. The last two years showed me that there are possibilities beyond just DJing – I can compose music, produce and mix it, collaborate with artists, sing and so much more. I am beyond excited for my growth with the Infiné family and am open to all possibilities of what is to come. Similarly, my growth in the film industry is steadily on the rise. I worked as cinematographer with the Kenya-based director Akuol De-Mabior on her feature length documentary titled No Easy Way Home, which is set to premiere in the Berlin Film Festival in February of this year 2022. In the future, I plan to work on more audio visual projects and merge these with my future works.
Stream: Coco Em – Groove Podcast 324
01. Professor – Way Down
02. Aero Manyelo – Bum Jive
03. Nazar ft Citizen Boy – 2 African Sickos
04. Spilulu – Shonta Mu mbingu
05. J-Zeus – Koloni
06. G’Sparks – Pasuka nyama
07. Gaia Beat & DJ Lipiki – Espalha
08. Coco Em feat Sisian & Kasiva – Land (Black) first
09. Gaia Beat feat Fiuk Tutuka – Kimpelequese
10. Floyd Lavine – Skirts and pants
11. One Sounder – Bonke
12. Bookworms – Dehydration
13. TDK Macassette ft Mdoovar & 9umba – Umsembezi
14. Kammu Dee feat Malumnator & De Mthuda – Fastrap
15. Kammu Dee feat Ntokzin & De Mthuda – Malkop
16. ThackzinDJ – Freak like me
17. Just a band – Nakuroga (Koroga mix)
18. Bearcat – Emergency
19. Chris McClenney – Vai funk
20. Samba feat Nagrelha – Game Wala
21. Bad Sista – No caos
22. Ata Kak – Obaa Sima
23. Dean Engle – Butterfly Message
24. DJ Whipr Snipr & Randal Douglas – Vacate tate
25. Badsista ft RHR – Na pista
26. Cooly G – Dis boy Pt4
27. Boogzbrown – Timbila