By Eric Scharf & Matías Muñoz
Photo source: Ottawa’s Own
The current music climate is not exactly peachy right now. Live music has basically ground to a halt, recording and releasing new music has become much more difficult for artists, and the industry as a whole has been dealt a critical blow by COVID-19.
But it’s not all bad news.
Nambuusi Kyeyune, also known by her stage name Nambi, is an Ottawa-based artist who reminds us that music is still a force for good, and that we can learn a lot from each other by listening and learning. Even through a pandemic, civil unrest, and divisive discourse following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor—and countless others—Nambi offers a powerful message of defiance and optimism for the future.
Nambi recently announced that she reclaimed her ancestral Ugandan name in a Facebook post last month. She had formerly gone by the name Rita Carter, both on stage and off, but proudly decided to embrace her heritage and ties to the Baganda tribe in her decision.
Not long after, Nambi made another big announcement on Facebook that she would no longer be seeking paid work and representation from non-black people in her music career. Eric and I were privileged to talk with Nambi recently and dive deeper into what led to these monumental decisions, and gain a greater understanding of her perspective and experiences.
Read our interview below, and don’t forget to grab tickets for a rare live performance by Nambi and others at #CanadaPerforms Bluesfest at the Drive-In this Saturday, August 1 at Zibi.
In last month’s Facebook post, you announced that you will no longer be paying non-black people for services (recording, mixing, photography, etc) that black people can also provide in relation to your music career. Can you discuss what led you to making this decision?
A lot led to it, but the most important thing that led to it was my education. I’ve always thought about doing this, but I didn’t want to be exclusive. I’ve always been very open and wanting to include people from all walks of life, and that’s how I’ve lived my life growing up with so many different types of people.
But after doing research and reading (and reading and reading) to educate myself on what systemic racism entails, I found that a common factor is economics and money.
I still go to McDonald’s for a coffee, or shop at Winners for clothes, and I still have to go to Walmart to get things for my family. But I thought that with music being something that I can control, I’m going to use this platform to keep the money within the black community so that we can enrich the black economy as much as possible.
The main thing I found while educating myself was that desegregation in America—and Canada too—kind of burned us in a way. Before desegregation, black people had their own banks, schools, barbershops, grocery stores, and they just circulated their money within. After that, the black economy sort of collapsed.
I read about Jewish, Italian, Chinese, and Irish people working within their own communities and thought, “if everyone else is doing this, why can’t we as well?” And some of us do, but just don’t announce it. And the reason I announced it (I could have done this without announcing it) is to encourage other black artists to do the same. I wasn’t telling them to, but maybe they’ll see what I’m doing and search for ways to keep the money within their community.
Does this mean you refuse to work with non-black people in the music industry?
Not at all. There’s three new singles coming out where I’m working with non-black people.
Have you heard of FemmeVox? We were supposed to do a big showcase at GCTC with them but then COVID hit. They pair female musicians together to write a song and perform with each other. I have a song out with Aspects, and another one coming out soon with Cheko Salaam.
I’m still writing and working with them, but I’m not going to pay. I’m not going to go out-of-pocket unless it’s for the black community. I said that at the bottom of my post, the idea that when I decide to pay for my services, I’m going to to pay black people.
How has the response been so far?
The response has been amazing. I did have to send someone a private message before I posted the announcement so that he wasn’t shocked when he read it. At first it was taken with a little animosity, and his response was “if you don’t want to work with me, don’t use the colour of my skin as a way out.” That line was crucial for me because that is something that we go through all the time.
I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve heard stories of black people being dismissed from their jobs due to their skin colour, or that I was followed in Walmart because of my skin colour. It’s been tough, but like I said in the previous post before this, I am changing.
The more you educate yourself, the more you can change. You can take that knowledge and just sit with it, or you can take it and do something with it. I think that because of the knowledge that I have, I need to use it. I’m raising two young black sons. I need to show them by example that it’s important to work within your community and uplift it. We need to do it to lift out of this systemic racism, and we’re all experiencing it—all colours. And that’s why Black Lives Matter is so important. It doesn’t mean all lives don’t matter, it just means we need to do this. Just like how other ethnicities fight for their revolutions as well.
It’s been tough, I’ve gotten mixed reviews. But mostly positive because people know my character—I would never exclude, it’s not in my heart to do that, I’m always trying to include everybody.
There are a lot of black pioneers in music, in a lot of genres. Anybody who’s making music—especially deep rooted music like hip hop, blues, and soul—you’ve gotta understand what I’m doing. And if you don’t, that’s OK. Hopefully one day you will.
What challenge do you anticipate from narrowing your scope of collaborators? How will you overcome these obstacles?
No. I don’t have any concerns. It will work out just fine as there are black people doing the work but they just may be a little harder to find.
Diversity in the wider music industry—particularly with respect to the lack of black-owned businesses—is an ongoing problem. What do you think musicians and fans can do to help elevate and encourage more music industry representation from the black community?
I don’t want to say that filling a quota is good, but I do think that event organizers and promoters should have artists from every background. My big thing is visibility, for young kids to see people on stage who look like them. It’s so important to them.
I’ve worked for Bluesfest and one of the things I did was trying to recruit volunteers. I had set up shop at a Youth Leaders Advisory Council, who mainly focused on working with black African and Caribbean young students who aspired to be leaders in their communities. I asked them if they knew that their Bluesfest volunteering counted towards their high school volunteer hours, and a lot of them didn’t know that there were black people who worked at Bluesfest and became interested. They realized they could do it with their natural hair, without weaves or relaxers or anything like that. They realized it’s possible.
For my son’s Remembrance Day assembly, they decided to put on a random YouTube video with absolutely no women, no other ethnicities but white soldiers on the screen. Afterwards he asked me, “Mom, can I be a soldier?” because he didn’t understand. I said, “Of course you can!” I had to email the principal and ask him to please try to pick a video that is more inclusive so that our kids can see themselves in other people. I don’t believe in teaching my kids not to see colour. You have to see colour. If you see colour, then you can understand what’s going on. You can understand why your black or muslim friend is being bullied.
That’s important for me, and something that can be done by promoters and organizers in music. Be as inclusive as you possibly can. And that doesn’t mean just picking anyone, like “Nambi is black and a woman, let’s pick her because she fills two quotas.”
No. Search. Connect with people. And it’s not just black people. We need to see indigenous people, asian people, latin people—we need to see people from all different walks of life. Let’s try and get everybody up there.
Do you know who Maria Hawkins is? She’s the first black woman in Canada that I saw up close commanding a microphone and singing the blues when she was working for the Blues in the Schools program. She’s still my mentor to this day, and we’ve written songs together. I was nine years old when that happened. It’s very important.
Recognizing your Ugandan heritage, you also recently reclaimed your African name—Nambuusi Kyeyune. Did this decision factor into your announcement?
It makes me smile when I think about it. I realized I just can’t fake the funk, you know? I realized that if I’m writing about real historical or current issues, preaching about being yourself and being who you want to be, that’s really important. Your name is such an important identifier of who you are.
What if one of my singles is on a Netflix documentary, or gets placed in a commercial? What if I’m asked to go on stage to accept an award as Rita Carter? That’s a slap in the face to my ancestors, and to the African Americans for it’s meaning—the man who would pull cargo (as a horse would).
It doesn’t represent me at all, and it never did. That was a huge step and I still have to remind people of the change. Even my own mother! She has to correct herself sometimes too, because my parents got so used to trying to conform. They got here in 1978, and they’d be sitting on the bus alone. They’d be handed a banana when my brother was in his stroller, and be told “here’s a banana for your monkey baby.” This was on Altavista.
So this is a big deal. I wanted to honour my culture, my family, my ancestors—all the people I know who have European names. They can’t go to ancestry.ca and trace their past, it’s more difficult because they tried to erase it.
So I do this for all of those reasons, for my family and my sons. And I just feel so much more empowered now. It’s like there’s something else running through me, that’s why I’m smiling so big right now! I made the right decision, I know I did. It’s 2020—why not? I’m 33 years old, there’s no better time.
Can you tell me how the shorter stage name Nambi got adopted?
Nambi was a little mini nickname that I’ve had for a couple years. I’ve always known my Ugandan name, Nambuusi. I’m still learning how to reclaim my own name!
Nambuusi is my given clan name, but the short-form is important to me because Nambi was the founding mother of the Baganda Tribe that I come from. She was a leader, a nurturer. So I chose that as the shorter nickname because yes, it is shorter and rolls off the tongue better on stage. But I also want the separation of me at home and me on stage. I’ve been told that I’m so much more confident and secure on stage, so I’m happy to have both names.
What are you working on next?
Yeah, we’re releasing two singles back-to-back. The first is called “Shot Anotha Down” and it’s kind of a mourning song. If you can think of a New Orleans funeral where they dance on the street, it’s a reggae track that’s about mourning and the loss of black men at the hands of the cops. But it’s also about celebrating black culture.
The other track we’re releasing is “Hey Black Man” featuring Paula C., and that’s about us black women showing love to our black men as much as possible. Showing them that they’re strong and powerful, that they are worth it. They’re worth the fight. So the songs coincide in that way. There are new videos coming out for both as well.
I’ve got the #CanadaPerforms Bluesfest at the Drive-In show coming up (Aug 1) and we’ll hopefully, hopefully have the full album done for release this fall.
I just want to end by telling people to stay strong, be mindful of each other, and if you want to learn—reach out to people. Reach out to resources. And if you aren’t able to do that right now, it’s ok. It’s a lot on everyone right now, take your time. Be kind to yourself, and listen to positive music. And thank you for calling me and asking me to do this, I really appreciate it!