Naomi Wachira meets me at the Starbucks in the lobby of an office building at Eighth and Virginia. Somewhere above us she works as an administrator for Casey Family Programs, a nonprofit that serves children in foster care. It’s a warm, iced-coffee kind of day, but Wachira has brought a mug of Kenyan tea.
“I write as an African,” she says, “but America has allowed me to become emotionally free. The emotional aspect of my songwriting is influenced by living in America for such a long time.”
Wachira grew up in the small town of Kijabe, Kenya, and had, as she puts it, “a really quiet, pretty normal childhood.” Yet the pace of things for her these days is anything but quiet. Her soulful folk music has been heard on stages from the Doe Bay Festival to a March performance in Nairobi before a crowd of 6,000.
“When I talk about it now, I can’t believe I have all these avenues to perform,” Wachira says—in disbelief, perhaps, because she didn’t come to the States to play music.
After boarding school in Kenya, Wachira studied communications in Chicago and eventually graduated with an M.A. in theology from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. But it was a lifelong passion for singing (inherited from her parents’ choir, The Brethren) and a love for the songs of South African singer Miriam Makeba that led her to an open mike at Conor Byrne in 2011.
There, in a scene that nurtured musicians like The Head and the Heart and Bryan John Appleby, she debuted her gentle alto—a smoky voice with shades of Sade and Tracy Chapman—and began to perform regularly, forming connections with music scenesters like Justin Froese and former Macklemore collaborator Zach Fleury who helped her story blossom.
“I appreciate how genuinely she is in her heart when she performs,” says Froese, who produced Wachira’s EP, African Girl, released last November. “It’s easy to get into a cerebral place when you’re singing, but Naomi speaks from her heart and lets herself be vulnerable. It takes a lot of courage.”
To Wachira, vulnerability is strength. Like Makeba and Chapman, Wachira sings about social and civil issues from a personal point of view. The song “Stand Up,” for example, was inspired by an abusive relationship.
“My philosophy as an artist is to write music that challenges us and at the same time dignifies people, even when you’re talking about victims and perpetrators, because they’re still human,” she says. “In my understanding, they’re still playing out a story that has really affected them, and they end up acting out in ways that aren’t healthy and can sometimes damage other people’s lives.”
This considerate approach to storytelling colors Wachira’s work. Consider the lyrics on what she calls her “soul anthem,” “African Girl”: “I’ve been carrying my father’s words,” she sings over light acoustic guitar and thrumming drums. “That said to me/‘Learn to be wise, walk with integrity, and be honest.’ ” Their simplicity and resilience draws people in—like the one who commented on her Bandcamp page that the songs “left me wanting more.”
“It allows me to open their hearts,” says Wachira of her impact on listeners. “I’m always amazed when people open up to me about their life, responding to a particular song. I love that about being a musician.”
When it comes to opening hearts, there’s work still to be done.When the recent Zimmerman acquittal, a topic of national conversation, comes up, Wachira reflects on race. As a new American citizen and mother of a 3-year-old daughter, her observations are valuable. “Prejudice is alive and well, and it’s important to raise our children with that awareness,” she says. “But in those warnings, we must also tell them of their privilege because of who they are. I believe that I have privilege as a black person. We must remind our children that not every white person you meet is racist, and that not every black person is up to no good. Stories are always two-sided, and I think there’s value in telling both sides.”
The songwriter admits, however, that when it comes to race, her adopted home of Seattle often fails to tell both sides. She adds, “It’s still a great city, and has allowed me to figure out who I want to be. But I really love who I am and what my story is, and I think Seattle needs a lot more of that diversity.”
In the slow jam “Witness,” she offers herself as an example with the lyrics “All it takes is one willing person/To say: I will be your witness.”
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Watch as Naomi Wachira performs at the TEDx SEATTLE