Harry Kimani: Finding myself after addiction and depression

Harry Kimani

Musician and composer Harry Kimani during the interview at City Park C12 on February 18, 2022. Thomas Rajula | Nation Media Group

Photo credit: Thomas Rajula | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The award-winning musician determined to pursue what he loves most — music. 
  • The 40-year-old musician is working on a book about his own story.

On February 10, famous musician and songwriter Harry Kimani performed live at Alchemist, Westlands, Nairobi. In his own words: “I haven’t performed in so long, I’m surprised we’re doing close to two hours and I’m not feeling like I’m straining.”

Harry took the audience through his catalogue of songs over the years, which included his famous African Woman and Haiya hits as the opening and closing songs.

It was a very nostalgic, sweet and triumphant moment for both Harry and those who remember the artiste thrust into the limelight almost 20 years ago; still rocking the signature cornrows, stellar on the guitar and holding the high notes he is known for. All that with a group of instrumentalists with whom he had practised for a few hours the day before.

Harry has been fighting a battle with alcoholism, but right now he is on the winning side of that battle.

The 40-year-old, who is working on a book about his own story, was born in Nairobi to a banker father and an entrepreneurial mother who ran a curio shop. The family moved to Kiambu and he got a rude welcome from village boys.

“As a child, you don’t realise that you are privileged; you just want to play with the other boys. There were only two cars in the village, one being ours, and very few televisions. People used to come to our house to watch TV. One day they threw me in a river and I almost drowned. I was saved by a tiny boy who realised from my reaction that I couldn’t swim,” he says, feeling the incident was inspired by jealousy.

He can swim in the ocean nowadays. 

Musically, he started with the guitar at the age of five before learning to play the piano at 11. But he stuck to the guitar as his primary instrument of passion.

“I have a feel for music generally, whatever the instrument. I can play a little bit of bass and drums; which gives me an advantage when it comes to producing. I can guide the producer and then he can add his touch to my songs to make them even more awesome,” says Harry.

When he was at Kirangari High School in Lower Kabete, he started writing songs as well as playing rugby, handball and weightlifting for the school. By Form Two, he already knew he wanted to be a musician because everything else came secondary to him. He would often be working on lyrics and would be late for meals. He also wrote songs in class during lessons for his least favourite subjects.

Harry Kimani

Musician and composer Harry Kimani during the interview at City Park C12 on February 18, 2022.

Photo credit: Thomas Rajula | Nation Media Group

One night, while in Form Three, he sneaked out of school to end up at K1 Clubhouse, where he glanced upon Victor Seii. He had seen him “killing it on stage with his group Five Alive”. The group also included Eric Wainaina, Bob Kioko, Chris Kamau and David Mageria (who was replaced by Joe Kiragu). He saw this as a sign. He walked up to Victor and asked him to gauge his talent.

“He told me, ‘I can’t do this right now’. And I said, ‘I’m not leaving this place until you listen to me. Just tell me if it’s not good and I’ll go.’ So I sang to him Just Hold On by Boyz II Men,” remembers Harry.

Victor put his beer down and asked him his age. He was taken aback to find out Harry was 16 and in a club. But he told Harry that he could really sing and he should look for him after completing high school. That’s when he started writing even more mature music because there was a ready market for him after he was done with his education.

“I knew I needed English literature for my craft and I would make extra cash doing fine arts practicals like wood carving and calligraphy for the rich Form Four children who weren’t as talented,” remembers Harry about his final year. The school even has a path named after him.

At Samawati Studio, where Victor had told him to look for him, the owner tried to control Harry’s sound by making him sound like the artistes who were in the market then. That’s when he took his talents to Next Level Productions, then owned by Maurice Oyando (radio presenter Talia Oyando’s father) and his first producer was Chris Adwar. Within nine months of making his first album, Harry had been accustomed to productions. That year 2000 album, which had African Woman, wasn’t released, however, due to unknown issues.

In 2004, in a bid to move his music career forward, Harry founded his own label, Underground Records. He recorded Haiya at Ace Communications in a studio owned by Raphael Tuju’s son Mano, who was a rapper. From composition to playing guitar, the vocals to the harmonies, the song took only an hour to be created.

“Bamboo, Attitude (Malimo Chahonyo Andega) and I had formed TGC (The Grass Company) and we had a very nice office in Nairobi West. I knew Haiya was a hit when a secretary from the offices upstairs came to listen to the song. We played it for her four times and she brought more people to listen to it,” says Harry.

He released the video of the song on January 1, 2005 based on psychological play that people tend to hold the first thing they come across in a new year the longest. By the end of the year, the song had scooped the 2005 Kisima Award for Best Song of the year and Best Music Video Of The Year.

“The song is the showstopper at all of my shows. I probably have 74 songs that are unrecorded,” says Harry of the song that was in his Unborn album.

The singer says he has always been very reserved and with the fame, everyone knew his name. His depression started when he felt the media wasn’t treating him fairly. He would perform at shows and get very positive feedback but that wasn’t what the papers would say. He would give interviews and what was printed out wasn’t the responses he gave.

Slipped into depression

“I started getting frustrated because five million people have read this and my mother has heard the story from friends reading that I did this and that. Being the last born, my parents love me in a really special way. I went through some deep depression,” says Harry.

Around 2007, he turned to indulging in alcohol for comfort. He used to live in Runda at the time and the house had a well-stocked bar. He ended up being taken to a health farm for three months; eating and drinking healthy, and exercising a lot. He still had his talent and would continue writing songs.

He says he tried getting his act back but the media was still relentless and he slipped into depression again, feeling all alone. He couldn’t sustain relationships because he mostly wasn’t himself.

He did lots of things he is not proud of, including breaking women’s hearts by either pushing them away or them having enough of his turbulence. He doesn’t remember much of his time in addiction. He developed “a skill” to forget the bad times.

“Bad memory isn’t bad, especially in my case. It’s a good thing I can’t remember everything and I’m trying to start afresh,” says Harry, whose recent releases include It’s Never Too Late; a song about taking the next step any time.

Fortunately, he had invested his previous earnings in real estate. He had put up houses in Nairobi’s Babadogo suburb and would collect rent every month. Unfortunately, it meant that he wasn’t running out of money to buy the alcohol.

He jealously guards the good memories. He remembers performing in front of 7,500 people at the Sawa Sawa Festival in 2007 alongside the late Hugh Masekela. He brought 18 street girls he had mentored from Mombasa.

“I made a speech before my performance about the girls; that they have slept hungry, they have been abused, but look at where they are now. When they started singing, in the middle of the emotional performance, Hugh came to my mic with his trumpet,” says Harry.

In 2015, he was scheduled to perform at the New World Passover Festival in Israel. He had been recommended by Dana Kobanda, who is also musician Mercy Myra’s aunt. He had to replace his ID card for the first time in four years in order to apply for his passport. With his ID, he could access his bank account and he was astonished that he had so much money in it. He says he had “forgotten himself” that much.

With his guitar, he could get just as much cash as he needed for his cold drinks; he didn’t require much else than a couch at a friend’s house to lay his tired self. He would even go without a shirt on cold nights as long as he had his drink in hand.

Harry Kimani

Harry Kimani performs at a past event.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The money in his account had been from a show he did at Galileo Lounge, but he had brought on Kwaame Rigii and another female artiste because he was having trouble breathing. He had lost more than 20 kilos of his normal weight of around 70 then. He didn’t know what was happening to him.

He secured a passport and new clothes and flew to Israel. The weather, being too hot, became too much for him to bear and he was taken to hospital. He was diagnosed with pneumonia, acute bronchitis and tuberculosis at once.

The doctors told him he wouldn’t have survived two more weeks had he stayed in Kenya. He didn’t perform and was hospitalised and treated for more than a year at a cost of Sh20 million. The community of Dimona, the city where he was supposed to perform at, fundraised for him to cater for the expenses.

“I just want to get back on my feet and plan a trip with my family to appreciate them,” he says.

In January 2020, Harry met Vanessa Wanjiru, now his wife and manager. This was the start of his current turnaround.

“For all those years, I had been trying to pick up the pieces. The people I had known back then had also become established musicians and had families, so re-establishing myself had become very difficult. Vanessa believed in me regardless of whatever I had been through. She was my lifesaver,” says Harry.

He was almost about to release his Never Too Late track when the Covid-19 pandemic reached Kenya and there were no more shows. His wife, a digital learning content provider, who was also not going to work because schools were closed, got pregnant.

Skylar Mumbi Mungai, now a year and six months old, made Harry realise that there was truth to what people had been telling him before — his addiction was also fuelled by selfishness.

“When I stopped focusing on me, regardless of what everyone else is going through, that’s when I found peace and happiness. Skylar and her mother have needs and I have had to sacrifice some things so I can see them happy. The only other time I had a peaceful time before this was when I volunteered to teach street children how to sing back then,” says Harry, noting that selfishness and taking care of a family cannot go together.

Harry Kimani

Harry Kimani with his daughter Skylar Mumbi Mungai at City Park on February 18, 2022.

Photo credit: Thomas Rajula | Nation Media Group

It has stopped him from having night-outs, opting instead to help out with the baby like warming milk and soothing her if she wakes up crying. He said if he had tried to force and have a family in his 20s or 30s, it would have ended up badly; not being in the right state of mind. He is a very hands-on father.

“I went to the pharmacist the other day and, from how I was describing my daughter, saying I stay with her the whole day, she was shocked because she said her husband doesn’t even hold their baby. I even love cooking for them because I also eat there. I find it interesting when some men don’t love their children. Whom do you love, then?” He asks.

He is an expert in preparing fish, meat and chicken but is still finding his legs when it comes to preparing rice. With a whizzy laughter, he describes his rice as almost ugali-like. His wife currently sustains the family and he doesn’t mind being left with the child.

Harry is now getting back in the music scene. His friend Peng Chen, who runs The Alchemist, last year asked him how he was distributing his music. Harry had no clue. So Peng introduced him to his app, Hustle Sasa, and opened an account for him. People could buy music directly from him at the price he had set. With no middleman involved, the money was coming straight to him. Soon his phone was busy with transactions.

“I also had people inviting me to their houses for private gigs during the lockdown and I had money in my pocket. That’s when I realised that I have always been Harry Kimani and there’s no other,” says the composer of Confused.

Retracing his steps, to correct where he went wrong or what he did that was right. It wasn’t easy going into matatus or walking in supermarkets with people pointing at him but he accepted it, assured that he wasn’t shaming his family in public.

He has now put a band together. His bassist, Ceddy, used to work with Kidum at Cactus Bar back in 2000. His keyboardist is Rahim, who is the main engineer at Andrew Crawford Studios, State House Road, Nairobi.

He is currently trying to put up a studio at City Park C12, an addiction and recovery eco-therapy centre located next to City Park. The studio will help recovering addicts who are talented artistes with free production as long as they are clean. He also wants to demystify the notion that artistes have to get high in order to be good performers. He says once he starts recording, he won’t stop.

“It used to be an organised garden with thousands of species of plants. If you told people that this is still within the vicinity of City Park, they wouldn’t believe you. The restoration of this place means we can also restore ourselves. If you’re a writer, I don’t think you can write where there’s pollution, noise and just too much going on,” he says.

“I choose to focus on those people who love me. Others who hate, it may be in their nature to just do that. Family is the only unit that won’t let you down when you’re down. Addiction is a fight that never ends once you get in. You finish today, thank God, Let’s see about tomorrow,” he sums up.