Nairobi-based rapper Juliani(born Julius Owino) spoke to the Saturday Nation about his musical journey, his relationships with Brenda Wairimu and Lillian Ng’ang’a and more.
Here are the excerpts from the interview;
Who is Juliani?
My name is Julius Owino and I was born on April 22, 1984, in Dandora Phase Four, which is next to an area called Awendo. I am the third born in a family of seven, six boys and a girl. My parents are called Alice Auma Midenyo and Killion Ooko and both are still alive.
I went to Wangu Primary School and then Dandora Secondary School, all in Dandora. We grew up when Dandora was still a “cool place”.
Growing up, we had no role models as televisions were rare. It was during the height of Kamjesh and Mungiki criminal groups. So the people we looked up to were not such good.
But when Kalamashaka happened and Tafsiri came out, they became so big and we started having alternative role models, people we could look up to.
How did your musical journey begin?
I trace the start in 2000 when I was in Form Two where my desk mate, Roba Mwenyeji, happened to be part of Ukoo Flani. He introduced me to music by sharing some hip-hop tapes. The first one was of DMX and Wu-Tang Clan.
So I used to hang out with Ukoo Flani guys and wanted to be like them. I began writing some lyrics but it was years later after secondary school that I thought of taking music seriously.
It was a song known as Si ndio with a guy called Orezo Kenyatta around 2002 or 2003. He was part of a group known as Watume. Beyond that, we used to write lyrics faulting the government and we would perform the songs at Florida 2000.
We recorded the song around the same time Dandora L.O.V.E was produced. Producer Musyoka (Decimal Records) did it. He sent us several beats to choose one. He had no studio, so we would go to his parent’s house in Eastleigh and use a computer to record and practice with the beats.
For audio production, we used to hire a studio. At that time, a session would go for Sh1,000, money that we would contribute.
When did you get your big break in the industry?
I never had a big break because my career progression was gradual. Fanya Tena was, however, my first single that made people start noticing me as it played on several radio stations and The Beat. But before that I was underground, doing club tours.
You seem to attract high-profile ladies…
I don’t go out seeking people but the truth is nothing is accidental. I cannot say that I have the best vibes or I am the most handsome, though I know I am. What attracts people to me is simply the word of God. I feel like my life is by design; God has already designed it and things are just falling into place.
How did you meet Brenda Wairimu, the actress?
We met online. She saw some work I was doing in Dandora and she wanted to volunteer. I met her physically in USIU where I was doing a tour and she told me she was my fan. We started having conversations and then things fell into place. She is beautiful.
Was it a struggle to convince her into the relationship?
How can you convince someone who is ready? (Laughs). She loves Eminem and also liked how I rapped. I went to South Africa for a tour for a month and then when I came back, we hung out and the rest happened.
Was the attraction between you and Brenda mutual?
Yes, I was attracted to her, she was beautiful, she was fun and she was grounded. She was also going through her own stuff as a young woman trying to make it in Nairobi. Plus we would not have stayed that long if we weren’t attracted to each other.
Did you have plans to marry her?
Yes. We had all those plans but life happened. God has a way of making things lovely. We have a beautiful baby together.
When did things start going south between the two of you?
I was a good person but not godly. Relationships should be nurtured not for selfish reasons. The other person should not feel like they owe you to be in the relationship. I was in a transition, only 25 years old and had achieved a lot. I had a lot going on which did not serve her well. When in a relationship, you are in a place of service. I did not have this mindset then.
How is co-parenting?
Initially, when we broke up, things were hard because there was friction here and there. But if there is understanding and stewardship, then everything falls into place. We still see each other; I was even with her on Tuesday.
How did you meet Lilian?
Before I met Lilian, I was on a journey to celibacy. I was excessively meditating, spending more time in the house, and I was in a beautiful and amazing place.
When did the celibacy journey begin?
(Laughing) When I was left by Brenda. But it was a beautiful thing because I was a good guy, but I wasn’t a godly guy. When Brenda left, it was one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me.
It was like a moment of transition. Now I get to see Brenda as a human being, and not as my ex-girlfriend or my baby mama. You get to see the beauty that God has created in them.
Why celibacy in the first place?
I didn’t have good relationships with women. My perception of things wasn’t right. I thought I was a good person because I went to church but I found out I was a good person but not a godly person. My interaction with the world was based on selfishness. I wanted to take everything. My celibacy had nothing to do with the other gender but had everything to do with me and my relationship.
When was the first time you met Lilian?
At a hangout organised by Boni (Boniface Mwangi). Beyond that, I had never talked to her. I had no agenda with her and I never went out to have her.
Who took the other’s phone number?
It’s obvious she took my number first (laughs), but it was from a point of conversation we were having at that hangout. I showed her materials of what I was talking about and I think she wanted to know more.
How did things start between you two?
She sent me a message on my birthday and we started having random conversations. I think she was attracted to my conversation on philosophy and she wanted to find out more. However, we hardly met thereafter.
By the time we got to June last year, she told me a little bit of where she was in her life and the decision she was trying to make. Whatever she needed, I was just being helpful.
Was everything planned?
No. It just happened. Where I am currently in life, I let God take care of everything.
Did you care about what other people would say about you knowing who Lilian was?
Life happens every day and it has nothing to do with other people. It is not like I was doing anything bad but unfortunately, people would want to talk. That is life.
There were some threats to your life last year, are they still there?
I don’t know if they are still there but I am more careful now and I also rely more on God’s word, clinging to that the whole day.
Can you remember what types of threats they were?
There were in terms of short messages, cars trailing me, and phone calls.
Why do you think the two of you have stuck together despite the threats?
She loves philosophy just as much as I do. She is curious about stuff just as I am. I get edified every time I hang out with her.
The more you spend time with somebody, the more you realise you want to spend more time with them. She is a good human being and funny in her own way. These are the things that make me want to be close to her.
Have you taken her for a formal introduction to your parents?
I will not talk about that.
Only God knows that.
Is this relationship just showbiz?
I don’t do showbiz bro.
Social media users often say that you only attract women perceived to have money and they are the ones financing your lifestyle…
I am not the type to look for money from anybody. What money will I be looking for? Since I was 20 years old, my life has been in public and I am not the kind of person who is flashy. I don’t want to have more money than the next person. I just want money enough to serve my God and my community. But like I told you, people see things from their point of view and knowledge. I don’t want to look at anyone in terms of what I am going to get from them in the relationship.
Back to music. You went gospel after a while…
In 2005, I got born again before I released Jesusnosis which got played on Christian radio stations. That is how I met DJ Moz and through high school tours, I met A-star who introduced me to Kijiji Records where I did my first Mtaa mentality song.
Then I got introduced to live bands by Kanjii Mbugua. Then Jaal from UK saw one of my concerts and signed me to his label and that is where I produced my first studio album, Mtaa Mentality.
How did you go commercial?
That was with my second album, Pulpit Kwa Street, where I experimented a lot with my music. It carried songs like Bahasha ya Ocampo, Exponential Potential, Pages za Bible and others.
I wanted it to have a different feel from the first album where I did not have commercially viable songs. I decided to change how I wrote my lyrics and infused rock beats into the songs. I was now getting famous.
What are the highs and lows of your life?
I don’t have lows in life, everything has been high (laughs). I never have lows because even being here now is a high. Growing up, I could never have imagined being what I am now, so lows are not for me. Beyond Dandora, everything has been high in my life.
What have you been up to for the last four years musically?
I stopped doing mainstream music. I wanted to find myself. Imagine I was famous at 20 and by 24 I had my first car.
I was Juliani and everything I did was because of the reaction people had around Juliani. By the time I was 30, everything that I had ever known flipped. So I went through the four years trying to figure my life out. I felt I needed to figure out who I was and that only started to make sense when I was 33 years old.
However, I used to go out to perform at events, I was also doing community projects with Dandora Hip-Hop City and Taka Bank.
What can you say about the state of Kenyan music?
The creative industry has grown. People now appreciate and consume more content, and more platforms are growing thanks to technology and social media.
The only thing I feel is that there are impactful songs that can shape conversations. Currently, we are just doing songs to get more views on YouTube to earn money. But above all, the industry has grown for the better.
What about the gospel industry?
It is still vibrant and it has amazing gospel artists like Tosh Kiama, Willy Paul, Timam Evans, Guardian Angel and Bahati, among others. But my favourite is Timam.
Do you still live in Dandora?
I left Dandora when I was 20 but I still do a lot of projects there. Through Dandora Hip-hop City, we bought land, a house and converted it into a space for young people. We have to give resources to the youth and women groups to grow.
There is also a waste management project called Taka Bank. Here, youths bring their plastics to a shop we have set up.
The plastics are then converted into points, which one can redeem to buy food. It is currently in Dandora but we hope to roll it out to other neighbourhoods. Recyclers are willing to buy. All my projects are self-sponsored.
What is your relationship with activist Boniface Mwangi, former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and the late Bob Collymore and how did you meet them?
For Bob, I met him through a Safaricom Live concert in either Eldoret or Mombasa and from there on we began to hang out. He would invite me to his house parties, we would hang out a lot, and I would also invite him to church.
I met Dr Mutunga through Boniface. He liked my song Utawala and wanted to know more about it. He even contributed towards Dandora Hip-hop city.
And for Boni, I met him at KICC during a Picha Mtaani Exhibition and he was also in the process of setting up Pawa254 so he needed creativity. We would then hang out more.
But significantly, if you have positive vibes then you will attract many people.
Your recent song ‘Mabawa’ and the YouTube channel. Tell us more…
The song is a single off my fourth studio album, Masterpiece. I released it last year but just did the video recently.
My original YouTube channel had an issue because of registration. When we registered we were working on with Google and Google+ and when the latter was discontinued, we lost the emails. We tried to retrieve it in vain but we are still trying to get it back.
Any musical plans?
I want to promote the album and hopefully, I will be releasing videos every month.