Part 1

Name: Coco Em
Occupation: Producer, DJ
Nationality: Kenyan
Recent release: Coco Em's Kilumi EP is out via Infine.
Recommendations: Books - The Soweto uprising by Noor Nieftagodien, The Death of Vivek Oji by Awaeke Emezi
Album/Artist I enjoy - Nazar’s album Guerilla.

If you enjoyed this interview with Coco Em  and would like to find out more about her work, visit her on Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud.

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I started playing music (from what I recall) when I was in primary school around the age of 10. I was really into the music my mum was playing from earlier on and had lots of favourites growing up, from Lingala music to Reggae and Soca sounds.

The actual playing however started much later when I was able to figure out how the cassette tapes worked, and thereafter when a close friend introduced me to Facebook and the world of the Internet. I would look for music on Youtube and repost it on my Facebook page for my friends to listen to. Earliest influences include Wutang Clan, The Roots, The Fugees, Lucky Dube, Nimon Toki Lala (Lingala) Madilu, General Defao, and many many more.

Writing and producing came way after in my early thirties during the pandemic period.

What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

Early on I felt what drew me to the music was the grooves. I like the sound of multiple drums and percussion playing at the same time and this is what was happening within Lingala music.

In more recent times especially during the pandemic, I find myself drawn to lots and lots of bass and harsher noise sounds - think Nazar or Slikback (or both on the same track called ‘Clan’). It’s heavy but still has an intricate and complex groove. My mind lights up when I hear this.

When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?

This really depends on what I am listening to. Sometimes when I listen to music, I have an irresistible urge to move (either my butt, nod my head, or scrunch my face up because the beat is so good it’s disgusting.)  And sometimes, music such as the Shawshank Redemption theme tune, can bring me almost to tears in emotion. I want to just sit, close my eyes and let the melodies engulf me.

When I was producing my track "Pace", it would make me see the feet of dancers, drawing patterns in the dust and the dust leaving a trail behind them.

How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

I only recently started referring to myself as an artist, but I believe I have been one in the making for quite a while.

In terms of interests, I feel like the spectrum has been very broad throughout my life. When I was younger my interests were swayed quite a bit by what those around me were listening to and what I picked out as interesting to me.

I grew up with Lingala music and this interest moved into hip hop music.

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

I am a very curious and reserved person. I also go into phases of deep introspection within my daily life. As an artist, this makes me more drawn to working on music alone. However this is changing as I am learning to be more vulnerable among like minded artists I can collaborate with.

As a listener, music is a deeply personal experience for me and I like to take my time exploring new sounds. I also really hold on to the music that I love and can find myself playing the same song in my sets for years as long as it still works and creates interesting blends with other pieces.

This has its pros and cons because as much as the song is amazing and I will find more and more people exploring works from the particular artists I over-play, it can start to sound monotonous to an audience if I push it too far.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

I approach every piece of art with objectivity. I don’t usually make an assumption of something being good or bad until I have tried it out. This allows me to reach depths I would have otherwise remained out of simply because I decided not to give it a chance. It allows me to surprise myself when I am exploring.

My mood also changes quite often and this influences what I am drawn to in a piece of art. Sometimes I feel like I need the sounds to be darker and full of intense bass and other times I feel like bass is too harsh and I want something melodious, light and soulful to add to my collection.

Similarly when I create a piece of art or music, I start of with a completely empty slate and layer an idea I may have run across a while back and wanted to try out. I don’t restrict myself to this idea and I allow myself to flow as the ideas pop into my head in this creative process.

I love to draw and I doodle as a means to zone out so I feel that this also affects my music making process. I have the general overarching ideas, but the means to achieve the ideas are varying and lead me to new territories.

How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music?

Originality and innovation for me is something I feel is a bit of a lie. (laughs) We are over 7 billion people in this world and everyone is influenced by everyone else in their creativity and decision making. They are influenced by the past and make projections of the future. At some point I believe that ideas we find to be truly original have already been thought of and tried out at some point in the existence of the people who have been in this world.

I am a creator of sounds that are afro and electronically influenced. They are as exciting and as original as the patterns on my thumbs. But then again, there are hundreds and hundreds of afro electronically influenced sounds being created daily.

Perfection and timelessness in music is something I unknowingly have pushed for in my music. I feel that sometimes perfection is a curse as it slows down the rate an artist will put out work on account of it not being ‘ready’ or good enough. However the urge to get to that perfect point just means that what is being produced by the artist is of it’s highest possible quality given the particular circumstances.

This is a great thing for a consumer. It is the quality over quantity approach and I adhere to this. I like for any piece of work I put out to be the best quality of work it can be given what I have access to and what my ability is at any given time.

Timelessness I feel is a by-product of an artist pushing their work to higher limits in terms of quality, originality and honest expression. We are all so unique and different. It is impossible to have replicated work (unless everyone is following the same tutorial on how to create a particular sound).

When artists break out of the moulds they have been taught to understand the basics of creation, there are greater chances of timeless pieces of work to emerge.

Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?

I am interested in continuing a tradition. Music is a powerful medium for information. It can be used to creatively tell new stories, retell old ones, educate people on past occurrences, preserve culture, project ideas of what the future holds and many so many other things. I feel like the act of continuing tradition is in itself a means of creating the future of music.

We all interpret things differently and how we chose to continue a certain tradition is bound to change from generation to generation. One could choose to preserve Indian styles of folk music by infusing more popular electronic music influences that appeal to the masses. In this way, culture is preserved but in its new form a style for the future is created using present patterns and habits.

The future of sound is an exciting concept because it allows our minds to wander, feel unsettled with the unknown - which keeps creativity alive. But there is no way to conceptualize the future without using present influence (from states of being, to exposure to knowledge and technology etc) and being influenced from our own past experiences which shape who we are and how we think.

Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

My most important instruments when creating new pieces of music have been my laptop, Ableton live software, a pair of headphones and all the music I have exposed myself to. All other gear I have had access to via the Santuri East Africa community have been an added bonus ie Shure microphone for vocal recordings, Komplete audio interfaces and the Push 2 units from Ableton.

I usually have a minimalist approach for my creative process. I stick to the gear that I have access to to implement the ideas I have in my mind. I also need to make sure I fully understand what I am using before jumping to a new piece of equipment. I have for example been granted access by Ableton to use the latest version of their DAW (ie Live 11) but I am still using Live 10 because I feel like I have not exhausted its full capacity.

I am not a tech geek and I am perfectly okay creating music with mapping my keyboard as a Midi controller for Ableton. I am usually very focussed on the ideas and if I am able to interpret them as closely as possible to what is in my mind, I am a very happy artist;

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.

Days in my life vary so drastically. (laughs) A ‘typical’ day would involve me struggling to get out of bed (I am not a morning person) to then having a coffee with my partner. I then start having thoughts of what it was I was supposed to do in the day, completely avoiding my calendar which maps this out perfectly but gives me some anxiety on how many things I need to get done. I then settle on a task for the day and after some level of procrastination, I get into it so obsessively that I might forget to do things like eat.

I also like to shuffle between different tasks for example, chip away at a remix project on Ableton for an hour and a half, switch to responding to interviews and emails, hunt for new music on bandcamp then back to Ableton. I also have film work which involves long hours of editing, so I usually find that getting into this in the evenings and nights gets me in a good productive headspace to push out a lot more work.

Whenever I am working at Santuri East Africa, depending on the job I am doing (filming or teaching) this happens with a lot more structure in the day because there are set schedules already planned and set out to the team. So a typical day for this involves more meetings in the day, as well as physically going to the space to either teach or document the daily happenings.

I also find time in my day to go for kick-boxing classes (on a good week I will do this three times) and also to run errands for myself and my family.

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