Kaman Wainaina aka mau from nowhere is a Kenyan self-produced musician, rapper and multidisciplinary artist. Born in Nairobi and raised between Kenya, the UK and the Netherlands, mau from nowhere depicts his multi-cultural realities into perfect loops.
Influenced by genres such as hip-hop, R&B and indie sounds, he translates honesty into sonics and subject matter, carving a sound from what may appear foreign to some but is true to himself as an artist. This rings true in his debut album The Universe Is Holding You, a 15-track project that is fluid, carrying you between songs with an effortless ease.
Expanding on this honesty, mau shares, “I think I just aim for authenticity, focusing on being true to myself and my Blackness by extension. Speaking for yourself and honoring your voice as a Black artist is so important. Like most (if not all) Black people, my narrative is a blend of different cultures, but I’m here to represent myself, and not necessarily all those cultures separately. I think I honor that diversity by being honest about the things I do and don’t carry.”
Authentic in his expression, mau from nowhere is true to himself and his Black identity. Exploring new sounds and storytelling, he beautifully synthesizes electronic sounds with warm vocals and introspective lyrics. It is important for him to honor his own narrative, creative process and the multitude of cultures that influence him. Honoring his diversity is coupled by his numerous influences such as Obongjayar, Little Simz and Bloc Party. I’ve always found his sound to be super eclectic, experimental and melodic.
When asked how he sets himself apart from other artists, mau states: “I think potentially my writing? I think my process is a lot of excavation and following a trail. I’ve had to find a balance between mapping out my thoughts and emotions in a way that reads more like one long verse and an actual song with a structure that lends itself to people engaging with it, singing along, dancing, etc. Still I think I love to make these detailed maps with words that can create a kind of collage for the listener.”
Mau does not sound like mainstream music, and this is his greatest strength. His unique sound is serene, airy and delicate. With raw, honest and visceral lyrics he demonstrates his ability to balance melodic raps with singing verses. It is a breath of fresh to discover an artist whose expression is pure and unlike what is saturated in the media. The first single off the album, “I Like”, is emblematic of his unique storytelling over beautifully crafted beats.
Unpacking this unique songwriting further and how it reveals itself on “I Like”, mau shares how “‘I Like’ came together quite naturally to be honest. Sometimes I’ll write the hook for something first but in this case I literally just went line by line, and I really love how the song structure (and the hook especially) came together. For a few weeks it was just the hook and first verse because I wasn’t sure how to follow it up and whether I wanted to rap or sing. ‘I Like’ is one of the few songs that’s just singing and I kinda love that. The story lends itself to something sweeter and more melodic.”
“I Like” is serenading, perfect for envisioning yourself in an indie film with an all black cast and production team. The music swirls in your ears, turning something within, making you want to find your other half and share all of the small moments in life. The new album also sees mau re-releasing fan favourites like “Dogtail”, “Try” and “Haba Na Haba” (extended version with some features).
When asked why he chose to re-release these tracks, mau reveals that “All three of these songs were huge breakthroughs for me. Moments that really solidified my self belief and my artistic integrity in a lot of ways; that showed I was doing this true to myself. I wanted to give them a chance to have a second life on the album. Over time I think I’ve become a lot more comfortable with letting go of rigid ideas and control in terms of a specific sonic direction and I really appreciate the songs that allowed me to plot my sound in an expansive way, free of limitations.”
He is often vulnerable in his music writing process. Originally from his EP, MFN, the re-released “Dogtail” reveals this vulnerability even more, with lyrics like “I’m not fine. Can’t say my peace, I need time. Can’t break release, the gears grind. Like I can’t unmake the mold that’s inside” speaking to the deeper spiritual practice of expression and healing through music.
He expands on this by sharing, “It’s definitely a place for me to meditate on where I am both internally and externally. The beauty of music to me is how intangible it is. All of your thoughts and feelings are translated into their own language that makes you feel, acknowledge and speak so much more. This year I’m realizing that I actually struggle with outward spirituality more than I thought, so I’ve found music to be a good place for me to practice that faith.”
On “Dogtail” he also says, “Where did you leave your heart? And where did you forget it in the first place? I took space, and you took me apart, we were doomed from the start if we never learned to show face.” These lyrics really spark one’s imagination. He personifies the heart as an object that could be misplaced to speak to the greater lamentations of heartbreak.
“Well generally speaking it’s about a breakup, and a realization that came with time – that the relationship had ended earlier than either of us realized. The song is actually named “Dogtail” to reflect the action of a dog chasing its tail round and round in circles, which felt like an accurate representation. Writing “Dogtail” made me realize that distance does give clarity – and there’s a lot more that can be understood if you look at things from a place where they have long since ended, especially if there’s no malice involved.”
The metaphor of a dog chasing its tail round and round in circles is a perfect way to describe the cyclical nature of relationships, especially when caught in a toxic cycle that seems liminal as if it would never come to an end, until it abruptly does.
One of my favorite songs from the album is “I Would Hope”. It is difficult to pinpoint the instrumentation. Knowing that mau is extremely innovative, it is always likely that he creates beats with the sound of cereal boxes or something super random. The same is true for “I Would Hope”. There’s a sound in the beat that sounds like tongue clicking. We ask mau about that and about the secret behind his production process more broadly, to which he responds:
“Haha it does sound a lot like clicking my tongue but honestly it’s a bunch of different textured samples. I really love unorthodox percussion that can create an interesting texture in a beat. One of my favorite producers is Monte Booker and I actually used some sounds from his sample pack in the song’s drums. Sometimes I like to look at drums like a puzzle, where I start with the corner foundations and then fill in spaces.”
The vulnerability in mau’s music also carries through to the album’s final song and title track, “The Universe Is Holding You”, which pushes us as the listener to find out what parts of our truth we are trying to grapple with, and how we feel the universe is guiding us. Both questions we pose right back to mau, to which he responds candidly, “A friend of mine put it quite well while giving an overall review of the album the other day. I won’t quote exactly, but there’s this conflict between wanting love and the fear of actually being seen.”
Unpacking things further, he adds, “I know that one thing I’ve always grappled with is people pleasing, and although I found a space to be myself and fully vulnerable in my art, there’s a lot within me that I don’t outwardly present around people – even those close to me. I think the final song is at a particular low point where I’m kind of getting it all out, feeling guided in that honesty, that only through authenticity and vulnerability will I reach where I’m supposed to go.”
As for what we can expect from mau from nowhere in the near future? “Honestly it’s a bit unclear, I don’t see myself making another album right away and I think whatever comes next is definitely going to be more on the multidisciplinary side. I really miss exploring stories in my art and I think it would be nice to still use music, but more as a tool to build out a world rather than the main material of the world itself, if that makes sense.”
However, that’s definitely not to say that there’s no more new music this year, as he adds, I also want to get a lot more into collaboration, and so far this year has been great for that, honestly. I’ve had a chance to work with some incredible artists from Kenya and beyond, and I’m really excited to work with more. This album was really important for me to understand my sonic universe, but now I’m readuy to explore other peoples’ and let more people into mine.”