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A dawn of a new day
Neema Ntalel talks to Judy Mumo about her rise to fame, her spectacular fall, and how she found healing and restoration.
When most people hear the name Neema Ntalel, the first thing that springs to their minds is “gospel singer” and “Kora award winner”. Sometimes, depending on who you are, it can also mean the scandal of a pregnancy out of wedlock and a miscarriage. Or, according to the rumour mills of the day, a convenient abortion.
However, not many know the story of despair, reckless living, suicidal thinking and the healing and restoration that make up the miracle that is Neema Ntalel today. When she won the Kora at just 19 years old, for her hit single Jiwe, Neema confesses she went “a little crazy”.
“The year I won the Kora, I was feeling very accomplished. I look at 20-year-olds now, feeling the way I felt and I just …” She shakes her head, at a loss for words. “I was foolish. I wanted to be the authority in my own life – I distanced myself from wisdom and between the age of 20 and 22 got myself into a lot of trouble. “I was performing, I had money and I thought I had no responsibilities so I lived life the way I wanted to.”
Now 27, Neema explains that she was miserable in her rebellion. “I was lonely and my friendships were superficial. My heart, my soul knew better.
I became depressed but felt I had gone too far, that it was too late and I was too bad.” By the end of 2006, Neema was depressed to the point of being suicidal. “There was nothing I could do to make it better.”
Her flirtation with rebellion didn’t start at 19 – it was the result of a life lived on her own terms for many years. “I have always been strong willed,” she explains, referring to herself as “a bit of a bulldozer” at some point in the interview. “I was the child who was suspended from school three times [for disobeying a teacher, threatening to beat up another student and leading a strike over bad food].”
Today she is the artist who can get paid a bit more than others in the industry because “I know how to ask for what I want”. Her strong will is what saw her rise so fast to stardom, but it is also what brought her crashing down a couple of years later. Interestingly, that will, and God’s grace, are responsible for restoring her and elevating her once more.
Neema is the first of five children born to Josiah and Sarah Kirisuah. Her father is well known in Christian circles for his work in Bible translation and literacy. The Kirisuahs run a children’s home and a school in their rural Kajiado home where Neema grew up.
“My upbringing was a very regular, middle class one. I went to school at St George’s Primary and then to Mary Hill Girls’ High School.” After that I joined Daystar University,from where she graduated in 2006 with a degree in communication. “I loved college. I loved my communication studies and singing.”
She won the Kora for best female artist in Eastern Africa in 2005, just before she graduated, and that’s when the drama began. The success went to her head and she figured she was old enough and independent enough financially to not have to answer to anyone.
Before long, the missionary kid was living a decidedly unmissionary life. Booze, cigarettes, sometimes even a joint … and the more she indulged, the emptier she felt. But God is a God of grace, she acknowledges, and her turning point would come two years later, one New Year’s Eve.
“I had just finished performing at Totally Sold Out, an annual Christian concert held to usher in the New Year. After my performance I left TSO because I felt suffocated by the atmosphere there. There was so much excitement around me with the New Year coming in – the lights, the crowd – it was a stark contrast to what I was feeling inside and I just felt that I needed something more solid. So I went to the Nairobi Pentecostal Church Valley Road for their New Year’s all-nighter,” she says. The preacher that night was Reverend, now Bishop, David Oginde.
“I remember him preaching about God’s solid character and that His love is not based on our character. I felt faithless but it’s as if God was saying, ‘Hey, hey, hey, I’m still the same God. You may have surprised yourself but you didn’t surprise me.”
That was the balm Neema’s wounded spirit needed. And when Rev Oginde invited her on stage to lead the crowd in worship later that night, she chose to sing the old hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness. “I cried all through it and I like to say that it was the moment I truly got saved.”Her healing had begun.
Once she understood how much God loved her, she set about making things right with Him and His people. And her strong will, now under God’s control, would help her do things that the average person would balk at doing.
“I realised that I was responsible for and to the people in my life, to the people who listen to my music. Because of that I knew that I had to make a public apology, which I did. The media picked that up very quickly. I gave interviews because I wanted to be transparent.”
As she was rededicating her life to God and making amends with her public, she had no idea she was pregnant. When she missed a period and it was confirmed that she was indeed in the family way, Neema had another tough call to make: either keep things quiet or confess, yet again, that her life was less than perfect.
Again, her strong will prevailed. “I told my parents first. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.” And then she had to go and break the news to the church and to the public.
“My church family (Mavuno church in Nairobi) was very supportive. They didn’t pretend that I hadn’t done wrong, but they loved me through it.” Once she came to terms with her pregnancy, Neema was thrilled at the thought of being a mother. She felt that having the child would signal the beginning of a new phase in her life and she was really looking forward to it. The father of the baby was also a Christian and single but, “There was no real relationship there.” When he found out she was pregnant he tried to do the right thing and support her, but she was not in the right frame of mind to accept his concern. “I was very distant and let him know that I was going to raise the child on my own.”
So imagine her heartbreak when she miscarried at about three months. “Losing the baby was the most depressing moment of my life,” she says. “I remember waking up in hospital after the D&C and thinking, ‘My child is in the trash’. After my baby died I was sure I was broken forever. I didn’t think I’d ever recover from that. But hope is back and that is a work of God.” She was at church the day she lost the baby.
“I started bleeding and my church family rushed me to hospital. I don’t even know to this day who paid my bills. The church rallied around me in an amazing way.”
Neema is currently single. I tell her that it can’t be for a lack of suitors and she looks abashed before shyly accepting that she has been approached but doesn’t feel she has found “the one” yet. I ask what she’s looking for – does she have a list of qualities? Again, that abashed look that says, “It’s not my place to give a list. I will wait for the one God sends.”
“What if he is somewhere making a long list of what his perfect bride should be? Would I be able to meet those expectations/ qualifications?” she poses.
The loss of her baby put her, once again, in the public eye. Exhausted from all the drama, Neema retreated from the limelight, stopped singing and … got a job! “I’m not cut out for offices, but I took a job in advertising with Access Leo Burnett and I loved it. I had such a good boss. I slowly began to feel alive again.”
Though she loved the advertising job, Neema says she knows she is “called to be singing” and so she left advertising after a year and joined the cast of MoFire, the critically acclaimed play by Eric Wainaina, playing lead lady alongside Dan Chizi Aceda the musician.
At the end of 2009, Neema auditioned for Daughters of Africa, a production of The Theatre Company which comprises 12 artists drawn from eight different African countries. “It was such an amazing, career-changing experience! I loved it. We did 86 shows in the Netherlands and Belgium, directed by Leonie Jansen whose teaching methods I loved.”
Because of her exposure and networks there, Neema soon met a representative of Africa Unsigned, an initiative by producers, artists, music promoters and managers who believe in the future of African music, and was signed on. Funding was raised in a most unusual way.
“A number of artists were showcased on the site and people were to vote for who they felt should get the funding.” She was up against popular boy band Sauti Sol. And she won!
The album, which was recorded with Onno Krijn – “He’s a really good producer” – was launched in Amsterdam in June last year and in Nairobi three months later. What is not yet in the public domain is that the album is named after the child Neema lost. “I was sure I was getting a girl. I was just sure. And I was going to call her Dawn, to signify new beginnings,” she says. “Dawn is very personal. It is a journal of my life.” Neema knows that she has come so far but is also very aware that she hasn’t “reached”.
“I understand the value of my life story. I am growing in hope.” Neema lives in Lang’ata with her sister and supports herself von the earnings from her music and performances. “The performing arts are able to sustain people in Kenya these days,” she explains, adding that she is passionate about education in the arts.
“My middle class upbringing meant that I couldn’t afford to go to an art institution so I carry dreams of starting one in Kenya one day to make sure that those coming after us have a place where they can learn and perfect their art.”
The response to her album has been good.
“I’m still figuring out my style. I’m very eclectic which is why I call myself a fusion artist.”
In 2010 Neema had the best shows of her life. “I opened for Cece Winans who is an icon for me. I also opened for Israel Houghton, Deitrick Haddon, Donnell Jones and Vivian Green.”
My colleague and Drum editor Carol Odero remembers attending the Vivian Green concert. “Gosh, I felt sorry for her coming after Neema. Hers (Neema’s) was the best performance of the evening.” That, coming from Ms Odero, is no small compliment.
Now, Neema is focusing on pushing forward and living the life she ought to never have left behind.
“The consequences of my behaviour are so fresh, I don’t want to go back there again. Also, I’ve come to understand that God loves me and I really want to love Him back, put my best foot forward. Those two reasons are enough to make me chill. Nime chill!”, she quips and flashes the “chill” sign.
We take stock of the lessons she has learnt after going through all she did. They are two and they are major. The first is that we are all loved and accepted by God and that we should just accept that and relish it and live!
The second is grace. “I learnt that I should give grace to people around me and to myself. I was intolerant of people’s failings, just as I was intolerant of my own failings. But failing, and being restored, has taught me to give grace.
“I have been protected by God,” she acknowledges softly, “I was so careless, I could be dead. Now I can’t wait to see what my life is going to be.”
NUGGETS FROM NEEMA
- Live and Love, her first album, was launched on her birthday on 24 February, in 2009, and she has a tattoo with that same message across her back. Her message to everyone is, “Be encouraged whether you’ve had a difficult situation or not, you are not a mistake. Release yourself to live and love. Enjoy life!”
- She is the first girl from their conservative Maa village who was not circumcised. “It was quite dramatic and exciting,” she says of the time. “I was expected to live a cursed life because of it.”
- A newspaper once referred to her father as Mr Ntalel after assuming her middle name was her surname. “These Bantus,” she chortles, remembering, “We all covered our faces in shame …”
- She doesn’t know what the name Ntalel means.
- When she was in form two, she lost a cousin through circumcision. “That completely changed the way I looked at female circumcision, which is why I campaign against it.”
- She loves to be comfy. “No super high heels for me. I’m a boots and ‘ngomas’ girl. They’re comfy and cheap.”
- Neema “never, ever wears T-shirts. Never!” (Carole Mandi would approve!)
- She resists what she calls opulence. “My most expensive boots cost about Ksh6,000, and I am the kind of girl who, if I was given a Mercedes, would immediately sell it and buy a double cab pick up.”
- She is conscious that there is lack in the country and thus is an ambassador for various charities, including her father’s school and children’s home. “I help raise funds for them. I am also an ambassador for the Protecting Life Movement Trust which takes in girls who are pregnant and gives them a home until they deliver.”
- To relax, she often goes to Kajiado. To be with mum and dad, I ask? “No,” she says impishly, “to be with the trees and nature. Mum and Dad are like me, they have stories!”