Bill Sellanga (a.k.a Blinky Bill) is a Nairobi-based producer and songwriter. The frontman of pioneering African indie group Just a Band, Blinky Bill has collaborated with Red Bull Music Academy and was recently named a TEDGlobal Fellow. Blinky Bill talks with Found Sound Nation’s Kyla-Rose Smith about working with video directors, Kenya’s underrated music scene and how going solo made him more collaborative.
Blinky Bill: It happened in 2013 during OneBeat [at the Atlantic Center for the Arts]. Myself and MITYA had been jamming and Kasiva came in with her drum. MITYA laid down the beat and I wrote to it that night.
What inspired you to release this track with a video four years later?
It hadn’t been released before and a lot of coincidences happened. The directors had shot a video but didn’t have a soundtrack for it. They came to my studio saying they wanted something African but futuristic. I played them a bunch of stuff but when I played [“ATIE”] it fit exactly! We were all like, “Wow” — they were a perfect match!
Tell me about the League of Extraordinary Supergrans — what’s the story behind that?
So, the photographer Osmond and the other video director had come up with a story about these ladies who were circumcisers. When we put the track together with the video the vibe was like, these ladies are preparing for war. The lady playing the drums in the beginning of the video seemed like she was calling the other ladies for battle.
It’s an interesting approach, to make a video before you have a song. Why did they do that?
They are photographers by profession, and I don’t think it was their intention to make a music video, but once they had shot it they felt it needed a soundtrack. When they came to me and discovered the track — it all made sense together. It’s a great meeting of these two completely separate creative projects.
There seems to be a strong scene of cutting edge cross disciplinary work coming out of Kenya— a scene which you seem to be quite immersed in. Can you tell me about that and why you think Kenya seems to be a touchstone for this kind of work?
Nairobi probably has one of the most interesting alternative scenes on the continent. It’s been growing in leaps and bound, there are a lot of guys who are my peers and a lot of guys also coming up who are very adventurous with their work.
Any theories as to why that is?
Maybe it’s because we are a small country and small countries tend to absorb a lot of ideas from elsewhere. A country like the US could be very insular because you have everything that you need, but Kenya has always absorbed a lot of things from outside. And now we’re in that part of the process, where after absorbing for many years, we are moving into a phase of creating our own thing. We are not super steeped in the past or tradition, at least with the city — it’s just let’s make some cool things!
It’s very exciting to see work that is being produced on the fringes and particularly across our borders, outside of South Africa (where I’m from). Given the very diverse scene that you are part of in Nairobi, what is your personal take on the future of African music?
The majority of the continent consumes is very much pop music. We don’t have as much of an alternative scene as other places. The radio on the continent is skewed to what everyone likes rather than what is more adventurous or what is trying to reimagine who or what we are, or what we will be. There is still work to be done but I feel like introducing complex ideas in ways that people could understand… it’s like where you have a wall and a hammer, you need to be very strategic in how you hit it so the wall comes down. But if there are many more people with hammers, it will make the work easier. Right now, all the artists who are trying to reimagine the scene in a way that is not necessarily mainstream have to put in more work.
You’ve been a TED Fellow and you were also recently a guest speaker at the Design Indaba in South Africa. Did your experience at OneBeat have any influence on how you think about your work and your current trajectory?
Definitely! I was exposed to a lot of really hardworking musicians at OneBeat, like MITYA. Just being able to see other people and how they work and how intense their regiment is, was an eye opener for me. So when I came back home, I was not trying to be tentative anymore. It gave me a lot of confidence in my work. And right now I am really excited about my new project, something that I would not have had the confidence to do if it wasn’t for OneBeat .
What drives your own music making and why is collaboration important for your practice?
I just want to put out ideas that I feel strongly about and share those ideas with people. Collaboration has become a key component, now more than ever, now that I understand everything a bit more clearly. People add so many other nuances to the work that makes it more alive. I generally tend to work on a lot of the beginning ideas on my own, and to be able to sometimes just have the trust in another producers’ work— I am not going to make this beat I am just going to rap or sing on it — is something I am enjoying a lot more. On my new project there is a lot of collaboration — on the production, the songwriting, the mixing and mastering. Even this new video was such a good example.
Have you collaborated with MITYA on your new record?
There is a song he sent me after Pop Tech in 2015. He gave me this beat and I forgot about it, but then I was listening to it last week and I think it is something I need to revisit and send to him. Also, we have a lot of material we created at OneBeat, including the song which we shot a video for. The range of the stuff that we can do is so wide. I want him to come to Kenya. To be honest, he helped me change my perception of Russia, before that I had never met anyone from Russia and had no idea what to expect. Meeting someone from a different country gives you a glimpse of that country and a better understanding outside of your preconceived ideas.