15 Nov 2023 ///

Namakau Star on Music as Her Greatest Companion and Education as Her Greatest Weapon

There are certain artists for whom their creative calling or skill has always been present. For Rhema Stephanie Namakau Socika AKA Namakau Star, music has always been her greatest companion – this acute sense for the sonic has been the singular most present force in her life, and it is a rare and precious thing for an artist to be almost inseparable or indistinguishable from their craft. I am amazed to learn that Namakau Star’s foray into music as an artist has only been for the last few years. In that that time, since her breakthrough EP ‘Landing’ hit the scene in early 2022, Namakau Star has toured in Europe, reached milestones on streaming platforms (200,000+ on Apple Music and more), interned in Germany – all the while, refining her afro-futuristic, cosmically aligned artistic vision. While these are sure signs of deep success in the making, Namakau has also begun to weave an incredibly beautiful adjunct to her career – that of a public speaker and music educator, as part of panels and discussions around the world on what a developing music industry with all its changes and advancements, could be in the future. Sometimes, someone’s life is truly fated – and the world is so much better for it. Namakau Star isn’t the ‘Vibe Goddess’ for nothing. 

On how music has always been part of her life, Namakau explains that “the gravitational pull to music began when I was about 5 years old. I always had an inclination towards music but I wasn’t old enough to be vocal about it to my family. My little sister and I were always putting on fake concerts. There was this ringtone on old Nokias, and I would sing and harmonise to it – I didn’t even know that was harmonising at the time!” This childlike innocence of her first encounters with music and its closeness to her, Namakau reminisces, “I remember this one, specific moment: I was watching Sister Act with my brother. In the scene where they sing ‘Oh Happy Day’, I was singing along and my brother suddenly turned to me and said, ‘wow, you can actually sing?’. That was my spark of confidence. I went on to be the youngest member of my school choir. I always had this pull to music. I didn’t have a lot of friends when I was younger, so I had a lot of time to immerse myself in music, poetry, reading and writing. I’ve always been comfortable in my quirkiness and craziness.”

Namakau Star is not only a rising musician, she has become a mentor – along with her label Paradise Sound System, she has hosted workshops, given public talks and is intrinsically focused on the notions of artist development. It’s not surprising that Namakau owes her understanding of the power of a profound teacher, saying that “I had a teacher, Ms. Oswald, who encouraged me to step forward and sing louder. I think her role in my creative career is really fundamental, and she helped me develop the confidence as a shy, quirky person into someone who could share openly through music.” Music was not something Namakau set out to do until her university years; it always just was – part of her life and story, “back then, music was this really fun and beautiful thing – it was friends downloading beats for me to sing on, or me figuring out harmonies and remixes across a wide range of genres and styles. I think those years laid the foundation for me to pursue music as a career, knowing that I always return to the pure love for it. Back then, I was studying artists like Frank Ocean and trying to figure his mind and thinking, how he wrote the way he did – I think my curiosity for learning is also why music education is so important to me alongside my career.”

Although nudged towards a career involving practicality and security by her parents (as so many creative people are), Namakau staved them off with plans to at least do something centred in the humanities – whether it be psychology or advertising, and so on. During her gap year, Namakau met up with an old friend who encouraged her to release two songs she had recorded onto SoundCloud – as she says, “I couldn’t believe it when 400 people listened to one of the songs, I was like – woah, that many people listened to my songs?” As Namakau explains, losing her mom during her university years – all the while the decolonial Rhodes Must Fall movement was taking place – she found herself with her back against the wall, unsupported in how to make a difference to her own life or the lives of others around her. This pain is part of Namakau’s alchemy into who she is today; as a musician and a mentor, someone who has committed her life’s work through music to bringing about change and opportunity for South Africa’s youth, aspiring to bring music as a pathway that is sustaining, secure and magical. As Namakau says, “I was really helpless during that time. I didn’t have the energy or motivation, so I dropped out of university. I realised that music was the one thing that had remained a constant in my life and I told myself, I had to pursue my music career – since then I haven’t looked back.”

Namakau Star as an artistic character or expression is constantly evolving. Weaving together cosmic musings, Afro-futurism and neo-soul, Namakau stands in the realm of Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Jhené Aiko as Black women whose sonic ability holds a kind of medical quality. Namakau says, “being a Black, queer woman in this world has always shaped my writing whether I knew it or not. I’ve always found myself representing something because my music documents my lived experience. I have always been a very reflective person and that depth has been something that has always been part of the way I’ve expressed myself. Spirituality informs a lot of my writing because I believe we are spiritual beings experiencing a physical world. I let my voice be my compass in how I need to be present and honest in letting music pass through my body.”

Collaboration is key to Namakau’s pathway. The Planetoids, an indie-pop band from Hanover, have become part of Namakau’s story and demonstrated the power of collaboration to her; “The Planetoids have become great friends and like brothers to me. You never know how far a shared link goes – I think people often undermine the power of sharing their favourite artists link and the ripple effects this can have. The Planetoids caught wind of me from my first projecting ‘Landing’. They sent me a DM and asked me to be on their album ‘The Aerodynamics of a Cow’. We ended up connecting, having a lot of Zoom calls and making music together continents apart. We always said that I should come to Germany – not knowing that would actually happen!” Namakau would go on to have an internship opportunity in Germany, which she took full advantage of in creating bridges with the music scene there. Namakau comments on the power of collaboration to get one out of their comfort zone, “they really brought me into their world. I had never done pop music before – I love pop music, but it just wasn’t a genre I had explored. So they really held space for me and pushed me as vocalist, and I pushed them to add range to their compositions. I am so grateful for the internet – that was the first time I’ve crossed over in my career and our song ‘Make Up Your Mind’ was my first international playlist. You don’t realise how each little moment or opportunity has the power to open up the world and future to you.”

Namakau Star is not only focused on her artistic career and expression – but how education and infrastructure can foster the possibilities for many more artists present and to come, in South Africa. As she says, “it’s important to be in a position where you are able to think of your music career as a community-building project. It takes so many hands and streams to sustain it. As an artist, I always want to lean into the strengths of the many people that I am lucky to meet and the collaborations that I get to do. Yes, we can bypass labels in order to have a career and rely on streaming platforms – but that doesn’t matter if you don’t have people supporting you. It’s not sustainable for an artist to double as a label, as a creative director, as an A&R to find collaborations. I think there is so much exhaustion that arises from the stats we see from Spotify, for example – 5 millions songs are released every week. Those songs still have to filter through an algorithm. I think focusing on artist development, speaking and educating in the ways that I am – is because I know firsthand the value of a community, of having a label or network that can share your vision with you.” 

Next up, Namakau Star is heading to speak in Italy and Saudi Arabia to share her insights, alongside some other incredible projects to come – one of which is a culmination of another collaboration in Germany. Namakau has just gotten started and the road is so, so bright – to end off our conversation, I ask what keeps her going, to which Namakau says, “the road has been quite treacherous, but I’m willing. I think that’s what separates most artists: that willingness to push on and to be resilient. I can only hope and pray that I can continue to be an artist that can lead by example, to inspire people to keep going for their own dreams within music. Music passes through me, I tell stories – I paint pictures and build worlds. If I think about the little girl whose whole world was music, I just know that I have this fire in me that can’t be put out.”

Written by: Holly Beaton

For more news, visit the Connect Everything Collective homepage www.ceconline.co.za

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