Agenda Kenya
Pioneers & Transformers

Joy Mboya – Architect turned musician impacting the Kenyan art scene

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Joy Mboya is the executive director of GoDown Arts Centre. She was a member of the band Musikly Speaking, remembered for ‘Jamriambo’ – the hit song that raised the profile of Kenyan music in the early 90s. A trained architect, Joy continues to influence the art scene through research, study, and training.

An encounter with GoDown Arts Centre boss Joy Mboya leaves no doubt that she is a busy yet charming person.
An improvised wooden staircase leads up to her modest office above the reception area. The office gives a wide view of the Performing and Visual Arts Centre Ltd, popularly known as the GoDown Arts Centre, of which Mboya is the Executive Director. The Centre provides the space and enabling the environment for artists to nurture and showcase their diverse talents.

Mboya often shrugs off compliments about her looks. Now in her 50s, she could pass for a woman in her 20s. With no make-up and minimal African jewelry – just a nose ring, earrings, and a bangle – she looks natural in an ankle-length piped black-and-white skirt and black vest that sit comfortably on her lean frame.

Her clean-shaven head stands out against her Mohican-Turkana locks that are partly hidden by sunglasses flung atop her head. There’s nothing to her grooming and fitness regime, she says, having sorted her hair with the low maintenance hairdo. “I jump into the shower, wear my jeans and T-shirt and leave. Occasionally I need to clip my nails and yes, I cut my hair every three weeks. I don’t go to the gym or jog.”

Her trademark hairdo is striking. “When they were younger, my girls would notice people staring or whispering after us, but I urged them to learn to ignore such attention. She does not consider herself any different from anyone else.

Mboya considers herself an introvert. “Left to my own devices, I’d spend time alone reading and would not feel lonely. But my work has made me a little outgoing,” she says, adding that she has tunnel vision and will often not notice what is happening around her – like attracting attention.

Mboya is alert and eloquent as she discusses her life. The fourth of the seven children of Elmad and Catherine Mboya, the artist grew up in Nairobi where she attended Kilimani Primary and Alliance Girls’ High School. She faced the usual early life challenge of choosing between a career rooted in her talents and interests and “what would eventually give me a job.”

She loved both the sciences and the arts, specifically biology and music, which she studied throughout high school. Still, making a choice on what to pursue her university studies posed a dilemma. “I would have chosen music, but it wasn’t well developed in Kenya. With my liking for science and arts, architecture was the better option.” And so she took a degree course in Architecture at Princeton University in the United States of America between 1980 and 1985. While in the US, her interest in music deepened, an interest she pursued when she returned to Kenya.

Kenyans of age in the mid-1980s to early 1990s will recall Mboya from Musikly Speaking – the all-girl band that produced well-blended music and staged scintillating shows. Musician Suzanne Gachukia started the band in 1985, having studied music at a time most parents scorned the arts as a career path. Gachukia, together with Mboya, Susan Matiba, and Ciru Gecau, helped popularise Kenyan music at a time when local entertainment enthusiasts shunned local creativity for western sounds they equated with sophistication.

With songs like Jamriambo and Saturday Nite dominating the Kenyan airwaves, the group helped revive contemporary music by adding an urban sound to their work. To some extent, later bands and solo musicians such as Hart, Five Alive, Jimmi Gathu, Kalamashaka, Zanaziki and Gidi Gidi Maji Maji owed their success to the trend-setting Musikly Speaking.

“We enjoyed ourselves. I love expressing myself through music, and each of us girls brought something special to the band,” she recalls.

Apart from composing, recording and promoting music and running a studio with her band, Mboya also wrote, acted in and directed musicals with the Phoenix Theatre group. Full of zest and energy, she continued to hold a day job as an architect in Nairobi for nine years. “I never dropped the arts, which I liked more,” she says.
With parental support and curiosity to see how far she could get with music, architecture eventually took a back seat.

Musikly Speaking’s high point came when the band undertook a three-month study tour of the US’s music industry. “We looked at music labels, publicists, lawyers, and studios, among other things, to see how we could improve the industry in Kenya,” Mboya says.

After a decade in the limelight, Musikly Speaking disbanded. “We started to look at the future, family and life-change decisions,” explains Mboya, who moved to Australia in 1993. She joined the University of New South Wales in Sydney for a postgraduate degree in Voice. While there, she had a stint teaching Voice Study to broadcasters, stage actors, and musicians.

Mboya returned to Kenya in 1998 and through Fame Trust, she launched a training programme for high school students keen on the performing arts. “I looked at my own journey and felt motivated to give young people a chance at my earlier desires.”

The programme ran for a year during which the need to offer more in arts, music, and dance became evident. Artists in East Africa yearned for space where they could express themselves and grow their talents uninhibited. The necessity to create a place where artists could train and get exposure through exchanges culminated in the creation of the GoDown Arts Centre.

Mboya’s face lights up as she talks about the GoDown. The center opened in 2003, and yet she feels like she has been running it for no more than two years. According to its website, GoDown offers a creative entrepreneurship course for artists and creative entrepreneurs across all creative arts disciplines.

The course hones trainees’ business and life skills in an inspiring learning environment among peers and facilitators where they can exchange experiences, challenges, and insights. Together, they build a community of like-minded, empowered individuals who form networks of support that not only advance their individual careers but also the wider creative sector.

An unchanging goal of the center is bringing artists and audiences in Eastern Africa together to develop their various artistic expressions. Over time, the artists have had international exposure through regular exchanges with counterparts from other parts of the world.

With East Africa in mind, the Centre hosts a biennial summit that brings together key regional players in the culture sector to discuss and explore ways of revitalizing the industry. Through plenary, panel discussions and workshops, the conference tackles issues that affect the sector including policy, education and training, marketing, arts administration and the creative economy, according to the website.

The Centre has enabled the Kenyan public to relate better with artists as they appreciate more forms of art. Stereotyping of artists as eccentric is reducing, and Mboya states that “art has more vibrancy and is more accepted in many circles. Ten years ago art exhibitions only attracted small groups of expatriates and artists’ circles, but now we see more local faces!” She also notes that artists are more confident in their work and its value as they learn from the GoDown Arts Centre.

In another decade, she hopes to see arts reintegrated into academia, and governance that has ardent custodians to push through policies to sustain its growth. “Creativity should manifest across the different sectors,” she says. “The country needs to identify the value of culture and art and connect it to the wider economy.”
She has plans to grow the Centre further. She is looking for more space for a resource center where upcoming artists can rehearse and perfect their talents. The film is another area she is looking into.

The Dunda Mtaani festival is a GoDown favorite. The project, which has been running for nearly a decade, is a community festival that takes place in various neighborhoods within Nairobi, such as Korogocho, Kibera, Huruma, Kawangware, Buruburu, Riruta, and California. The event gives local youth groups a chance to showcase their talents through music, dance, and acrobatics alongside professional artists.

“Most artists have become famous through these forums,” says Mboya. She emphasizes that a career path in the arts is a life cycle, and ignorance on an artist’s part can lead to failure. “It’s a journey. Stick to it, develop yourself and build your audience by proving to them that you are good.”

Mboya is a trustee of various arts-oriented outfits, including the Gaara Dance Foundation that attempts to consolidate Kenyan dance through research, training, and marketing. She is also a Kalasha Film Awards Trustee and has served on the Board of Trustees of Action for Music and the Governing Council of the Kenya Cultural Centre.

A Baha’i faithful, the artist is also a philanthropist and supports AMREF’s fistula project. She also supports the education of children from underprivileged families.

Family life is a quiet, behind-the-scenes affair for Mboya. With Andrew White, formerly of Scanad – her husband since 1997 – they have two daughters, Tamara and Khadija. Tam and Dij, as they are fondly called, studied in Australia. Dij has a degree in Fine Art and lives with her parents in Kenya, while Tam works in the tourism industry in Australia.

The artist enjoys her role as wife and mother, although she admits to being poor at work-life balance.
“I work a lot, even over weekends, and hardly have time to reflect alone, or with my partner and kids. This can at times take a toll on one’s health.”

During her downtime, Mboya likes to read. She also visits her mother in Ngong or retreats with her family to a quiet place like the Coast. A passionate cook, who has always cooked for her family, she says, “Anything that goes into my mouth, I cook myself, except when my girls are around. They also love cooking.”

Her siblings, too, are inclined towards the arts. Her young brother, for instance, is an automobile mechanic and guitarist.

Mboya listens to classical music for voice training and collects popular music of artists who have evolved in the craft, like Annie Lennox and Angélique Kidjo, “to see how they have changed in the skill.”
The artist catches most music on the radio and reads a lot. Critical writing, history, biographies, finance and business, and scientific journals constitute her reading menu. She has not entirely given up on architecture, particularly the urban planning aspect.

The workaholic regards the challenges she experiences as growth opportunities. “Nothing has been easy, but at the same time, challenges cease to be challenged when they are overcome. With the passage of time, we find ways of moving on,” she says.

She draws inspiration from adventure and the unknown possibilities that lie ahead. People who affirm others also inspire her.

“These are people who confirm that we are more than we display. They have a sense of fun, are generous, smart, open and improve rather than cut down others.” She adds that it is important to have people who encourage you in life, because “they prove that as human beings, we can be amazing if we allow ourselves to be.”

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