Elsy Wameyo on learning her roots: ‘I felt I had this coat of power. No one could touch me’

The Adelaide artist’s debut EP is a dizzying assemblage of rap, R&B and soul which celebrates her Nilotic Kenyan heritage, and her spirituality

In 2019, while studying a media degree at the University of Adelaide, Elsy Wameyo had to make a call: do her exam or go to a music festival? That decision is practically a rite of passage for young Australians – but for Wameyo the stakes were higher. She’d been invited to perform.

At that time, the Adelaide-based rapper, singer and producer had only released two singles, but it was her dream to be a journalist or news anchor – and she was keenly aware of the Sliding Doors of it all. “I was just sitting there going, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the day I have to literally decide what I’m doing with my life.’ Of course, I played the festival,” she says, slipping into a semi-sarcastic drawl: “’Cause I live life on the edge.”

In truth, playing Groovin’ the Moo was a no-brainer. “When you know the purpose that you have for your life, making decisions becomes very, very easy,” Wameyo says. “You can’t go wrong.”

‘When you know your purpose, making decisions becomes very, very easy’.
‘When you know your purpose, making decisions becomes very, very easy.’ Photograph: Leon Tran

Wameyo spent the pandemic learning how to self-produce her own music, while finishing her degree – and this year she has already played Vivid Sydney, Dark Mofo and Splendour in the Grass, and is about to embark on a national tour before playing the full series of Falls festivals.

It’s an impressive schedule for an artist who has still only released one EP: an arresting assemblage of rap, R&B and soul titled Nilotic, in tribute to her heritage as a Kenyan Nilot. Upon release, the EP was made feature album by Melbourne’s Triple R radio, with the EP’s title track getting airplay on Triple J.

Born in Nairobi, Wameyo and her family moved to Adelaide when she was six. Although nobody in her family is particularly musical, Wameyo quickly took to her primary school’s compulsory music classes. “I [was] the kid that enjoyed it that little bit more. I was there during recess and lunch making music,” she says. Wameyo still lives in Adelaide and, as we speak over Zoom – Wameyo responding to my questions with the charisma and poise of someone with newscaster ambitions – I hear the clatter of pots and pans in the background, which she attributes to her aunty: “Ethnic families,” she laughs. “Gotta love ’em!”

Growing up, Wameyo loved soul singers (she made her dad buy all of Adele’s singles on iTunes) and when she got a bit older, would rap along with aughts crews including G-Unit and Young Money. She found Justin Bieber fascinating, too. “I was really inspired by how someone so young was able to captivate so many people’s hearts and attention,” she says fondly. “I think that was where I was like, ‘Yeah, this is something that I dream of doing, and I could see myself doing.’”

When Wameyo was a teenager, her father took her to Northern Sound System, a music-focused youth centre in Adelaide’s northern suburbs that Tkay Maidza, Teenage Joans and George Alice have spent time at. She was there as Maidza recorded her first single, Brontosaurus, and eventually struck up a working relationship with the song’s producer, Mario Späte. They made a handful of songs together, including Wameyo’s early singles Outcast, Pastor and Never There.

Elsy Wameyo
Elsy Wameyo’s debut EP Nilotic is self-produced, and ‘dizzying in scope’. Photograph: Leon Tran

During the early days of the pandemic, Wameyo began to take part in Zoom calls hosted by the popular Kenyan band Sauti Sol. During one session, her mother popped her head in and began talking about Nairobi with the band’s guitarist, Polycarp Otieno. Amid the flurry of conversation, Otieno said the word “Nilotic”, sparking Wameyo’s interest. “I just hadn’t heard that word for a very long time, and I really just pondered on it for quite a bit,” she remembers. Over the next six months, she began researching the Nilotic people Indigenous to the Nile River regions, steeping herself in Nilot history. From there, she wrote Nilotic, the EP’s title track – a simmering, bass-booming rap song about the powerful, winding history of the Nilots, and their continued presence in the modern world.

“[After doing all that research] I knew who I was – I felt like I had this coat of power that I had been wrapped in, and no one could touch me,” she says. “I feel like, as Black people, we’ve gone through so much, from slavery to today, where the moment you step outside of your house you’re being attacked by everything. And it was just ironic to me that, even after all of that, we still remain on top. That’s what made me say [on Nilotic] ‘I’m such a Nilot G’, because you’re fighting against all odds but [Black people are] still on top, and [the rest of culture is] still copying you – they’re still trying to replicate.”

Nilotic was released on Music In Exile, a Melbourne-based label and artist services not-for-profit that aims to amplify culturally and linguistically diverse musicians and connect them with the industry. Over email, label director Joe Alexander praises the auteurist bent of Nilotic. “It’s Elsy, expressing what Elsy is, how Elsy feels, in the way that Elsy wants,” he says. “Viewing from the outside, it seems like it’s been such a cathartic process [for her] to make this EP and finally be able to have the space to do that.”

The Nilotic EP is historical and timely, meditative but frantic in its genre-hopping. Its scope is dizzying, especially considering it comes from a first-time producer. Wameyo, who is devoutly Christian, sees it as spiritual duty. “A lot of [Nilotic] wasn’t something I did with my physical self. I think a lot of my work comes from pre-meditation, pre-prayer, pre-crying – it’s me going to God first and asking: ‘What is the purpose that you have for me? What do you want me to say?’ Because if Elsy said what she wanted to say, oh my gosh – it wouldn’t be it,” she says.

“As a human, I’m so limited to, and so bound to, this world. So for me, I think it always really starts with first, just being in prayer and just asking God to guide me in that sense,” she continues. “I find that it always lands me in the right places, with the right people, in the right kind of conversations. God always reveals something – it’s just up to me to be ready.”

  • Elsy Wameyo is playing in Adelaide, Melbourne, Darwin and Sydney through August and September, before sets at Falls festival over New Year’s Eve. Nilotic EP is out now through Music In Exile


Shaad D'Souza

The GuardianTramp

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