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Kenya, conservation and music: Q&A with singer Barbara Guantai

  • “Music is a powerful, non-invasive means of disseminating information,” musician Barbara Guantai tells Mongabay in a new interview.
  • Based in Nairobi, whose outskirts include a national park where rhinos and more remind one of the country’s deep natural heritage, she is passionate about finding home-inspired solutions to African problems.
  • These problems include environmental degradation and climate change, and she spoke with Mongabay about how music can be a tool for conservation.

Musician Barbara Guantai fuses Afro-jazz, pop, and soul, a combination that blends well when she unleashes her artistic expression as a Kenyan singer, songwriter and performer. Based in Nairobi, a city whose outskirts include a national park where rhinos and more remind one of the country’s deep natural heritage, she is also a social researcher and is passionate about finding home-inspired solutions to African problems.

These problems include environmental degradation and climate change, and she spoke with Mongabay about how music can be a tool for conservation.

Why is music important in communicating problems troubling our planet like climate change and environmental degradation?

Music is a powerful non-invasive means of disseminating information. It soothes, inspires, instructs, supports and elevates humanity. This is the logical reason I chose to hang tight no matter the challenges in the music industry.

Now to the more spiritual and perhaps inexplicably powerful reasons why I am a musician: I am a firm believer in humanity. I have been exposed to different cultures from mine, and these experiences have not only inspired me to look inward, but also challenge me to face my issues as an African with a critical eye, so as to understand exactly why we are where we are as a people and a continent.

Why is this important?

I believe in my home, in my research of self and my roots. I got to understand that we are a rich and resourced people. However, something happened along the way that made us forget our value and the responsibility that comes with being bestowed such immense wealth.

I have respect for being African. We had sustainable ways of living. We took care of our environment and were in sync with the changing climates. My music emphasizes looking back to who we were and the ways we took care of ourselves, land, and others. My musical journey has taught me compassion. The negative and harsh talk we were taught as an effective way to make people obey rules is no longer working. It is time to be kind to ourselves, and that will flow over to neighbors and the environment.

How can music change perceptions and stereotypes?

I have courageously explored all aspects of self, and my music expresses that.

What do I mean? When all is said and done, it all begins and ends with the human being. How one views themselves has everything to do with the choices they make, be they political, career-related, or personal. When we talk about change, it is the individual we are talking about. That is where change begins.

Kenyan musician Barbara Guantai. Image courtesy of the artist.

My music makes the connection between the self, self-respect, choices we make and taking care of the environment. It explores the reasons why we are where we are from my personal story. For I cannot speak of Africa without speaking of myself.

See related: In Kenya, the indigenous music of Afro Simba promotes environmental stewardship and peace

What is your message to audiences?

I hope to encourage each audience to begin introspecting and understanding themselves and surroundings. To courageously begin to let go of old thinking and begin to embrace our full potential. To look in the mirror and begin to appreciate ourselves and what we have. To change how we address ourselves. To ignore the old narrative about us and to tell our own stories with our own solutions.

What I have seen so far has been encouraging. I am meeting more and more people who deeply care for Africa.

What are we planning to leave behind for other generations? We must work on it now.

Rhinos, giraffes, zebras and more can be commonly seen against the Nairobi skyline from the vantage of its national park. Image courtesy of Nairobi National Park.