I like to think of opening acts at music concerts as starter meals. Typically, starters are consumed in anticipation of something else. They are meant to whet your appetite in preparation for the main meal. But what happens when the starter is so good that you want to have more and more of it at the risk of spoiling your appetite for the main course?
Anybody who attended the Charisma Live Concert at the Alchemist on September 7th will tell you that one of the opening acts in the shape of a trio of impossibly talented, soulful, and bubbly singers were so good that they threatened to overshadow the main course that was Charisma.
On stage, vocalist Zalali, her long flowing dreadlocks dyed brown at the edges, snapped her fingers, swaying her hips to one side, as her counterpart, Zawadi, followed suit. Furthest to their right was their guitarist, Ric Gikonyo, who strummed his guitar, sending a ripple of ecstasy to the already electrified crowd. Standing slightly in front of them was the man in the spotlight, Clark Keeng, with a wide brimmed hat perched atop his head like a crown.
Admittedly, I have been trailing Clark Keeng for a long time now. There’s something inexplicable about his live performances. It has everything to do with how he and his gang snare their audience with their harmonies and transport them to a musical heaven of sorts. You only need to listen to them once to get hooked.
Clark Keeng is a young, fast-rising, multi-faceted singer and songwriter from Nairobi. He plays the piano, the guitar, and is currently mastering the drums. Apart from recording and producing music, Clark is also a live performer and has shared the stage with various artists such as Hildah Watiri, Kinoti, and most recently Charisma. On October 14th, he scooped the “most promising artist of the year” award at Tamasha’s People’s Choice Awards 2023.
When asked to describe himself outside of the music and live performances, he says, “Clark is a normal, lazy, introverted human being who enjoys being comfortable at whatever he does. He is a philosophy and film enthusiast. Sometimes he paints, but it’s nothing you’d want to see.”
Curious about his name, I ask him whether Clark Keeng is really his government-recognised name. “The day you Mpesa me, is the day you’ll know my ID names,” he says with a laugh. “I grew up on Marvel and DC movies. The characters therein somehow spoke to me in the sense that most of them were nondescript personalities who rose above their weaknesses and struggles to help humanity using the gifts they had. That’s where the name Clark is from. Keeng is simply an amalgamation of the words King and Queen. The name Keeng speaks of the royalty that lies in service to a higher self.”
While preparing for this interview, I found it hard to describe in which genre Clark Keeng’s music falls. “I like to describe my music as Clark Keeng music, a cocktail of everything on the music menu. I really don’t tie myself down to a single genre. I just wake up and make music depending on what I feel at that particular moment. You’ll find some pop here, some rap there and a bit of Blues all mixed up. Generally, my music draws from a wide range of influences, musical and non-musical.”
A good example is the song Dear Noah from his album MDC, Part 1. While the song might sound like a narration of Noah’s story from the Bible, Clark says that it is far from that. Instead, he says that through the song, he was trying to break down a philosophical concept known as social entropy. Going to great lengths to break it down for me, a layman, he says that social entropy is a three-step process involving: 1) Absence of structures where everything is in a state of potential. Then structures start to be built and everything becomes functional 2) People start to experiment with the existing structures and try to find meaning 3) Everything crumbles and nothing is left which takes us back to step one all over again. That the biblical account of Noah’s story coincides with this concept was the main driving idea to his creation of the song Dear Noah.
While some people can tell the when they knew they were gifted musically, Clark Keeng says that he can’t pinpoint the exact moment when he discovered that he could sing, however he acknowledges that he grew up listening to different genres, consuming a lot of Don Moen and Solomon Mkubwa songs in his early teens. When he joined high school, his taste grew and his consumption was widened to dancehall music, hip-hop, and a little pop and blues. While telling me all this, he pauses for a bit, lost in thought.
“Around 2017, I spent some three months in the UK. My hosts had this grand piano and I would just sit there playing and humming songs that I liked. That experience brought me closer to music. I became conscious of how it made me feel and think. When I came back to Kenya in 2018, I sort of dropped out of school and decided to lend myself to music wholly.”
Since getting into music full time, Clark admits that it has not been easy to position his music. From his observation, he knew and saw that only a certain type of music got played on Kenyan radio and TV. This left him torn between making music that would get airplay and making music that appealed to his artistic preferences. He opted for the latter, a decision he says he does not regret. The manifestation of all that has been his album MDC Part 1.
In the ten track album, Clark walks his listeners through different experiences. He sings of broken romantic relationships, self-searching and introspection. So well received was the album that he had to release a music video for the song Sinners Only, while the music video for the song Heaven is in the works.
Of his favourite song off the album, Clark says, “It has to be the song Alone. I wrote that when I was going through a rough patch in my life, it’s a song that speaks to me very deeply.” There is something in his voice when he speaks of the song, something like certainty.
Clark plans to release MDC Part 2 either in December this year or early January next year and do more live performances in between. One thing he is appreciative of is how 2023 has been an absolute adventure for him as far as music is concerned.
Of all the venues he has performed at in Nairobi, the Alchemist has a special place in Clark’s heart because it is there that he held his first solo show back in May, an experience he describes as “religious”.
“For two hours straight, I performed songs entirely from my discography,” he says, nostalgia plastered all over his face. “What I found more exciting was how a crowd of such diverse people, culturally and racially, related to the music and how excited it got them.”
Clark thinks that presently, the world is not one thing; it is not necessarily a horrible place to be in, nor is it in the greatest shape it has ever been. He, however, admits that there is a lot to be grateful for and a lot to learn and improve on. He envisions his art as a conduit for conversation and thought. He wants to learn from and also educate people through his art, to help people think through things, feel things while also entertaining them. He believes that his is a gift from God and he is only a vessel to communicate it to the world.
Before letting him go I inquire whether the coming together of Zalali, Zawadi and himself could be signalling the formation of a band to which he responds, “We are not really a band. We are three different artists supporting each other. Being in a band would mean that we’d have to operate as a single unit working towards a common goal, which would be limiting for each one of us.”