Artist Spotlight: Jason Dunford ’09 on creating music for the pandemic and racial justice

June 22, 2020, 4:00 p.m.

Life is unpredictable. Everyone knows that all too well now, the feeling of the world standing still for the pandemic while many raise their voices for racial justice. Although nobody knows what will happen next, the unknown future can be used towards our advantage, opening up more opportunities for exploration. 

Jason Dunford B.A. ’09 M.S. ’12 M.B.A. ’18 knows exactly how an unpredictable path can lead to the discovery of new interests that can shape a life. He grew up in Kenya, eventually representing Kenya as a swimmer in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. Later, he joined the BBC reporting for Africa, founded several companies including Safi Analytics and Baila Entertainment, and started his own talk show J-TALK Live. From student, to swimmer, to entrepreneur, to journalist, Dunford continued exploring all that the world has to offer. 

Today, in his most unpredictable turn, Dunford calls himself a musician. “My experiences on the Farm helped me confront my fear of failure, which has enabled my career to take directions that would never have been possible had I always followed a ‘safer path,’” Dunford told The Daily. At Stanford, he studied Swahili language and literature under Professor Sangai Mohochi, allowing him to express himself in his music in more profound ways than if he was limited to one language.

“I would argue it is one of the most beautiful languages in the world, but of course, I am biased,” he said. 

Dunford’s stage name is Samaki Mkuu, a Swahili reference to his time spent in the water as a swimmer. His musical journey started when he met Romantico, a pioneering Mexican reggaeton rapper who melds African and Latin music not only through style, but by meshing Spanish and Swahili in his songs. Dunford and Romantico now perform together as a rap duo, gaining acclaim for their ability to seamlessly combine English, Spanish, and Swahili through music.     

As the founder of Baila Entertainment, Dunford produces most of his own music videos and songs. Although he could have chosen to work under other production companies, Dunford says that it became increasingly important to retain editorial control of any work in which he is involved because it is difficult to create content when beliefs and values misalign.

“I am able to move faster by driving my own productions through my production house,” Dunford explained, although he still collaborates with other companies including Rukuz Productions, Culture Hub Recordings and 64HipHop to produce his songs and music videos. His collaborations extend to artists, as he often features or is featured in the songs of well-known Kenyan artists like Jua Cali, Sanaipei Tande, and the band Jabali Afrika.

Dunford’s latest album “Unified: Un Ultimo Ulimwengu” was released just a few months ago through his production company and is available on Spotify and other music streaming services. The album includes some upbeat songs, some gentler and grooving. Each uniquely melds reggaeton and genge styles, acoustic drum sets paired with mellow traditional African drums, jazzy Latin brass lines interspersed with electric guitar. 

The first title “Bila Baba” celebrates the role of the father in a child’s life. Featuring Jabali Afrika, this song invokes a nostalgia for childhood and captures the pain of having an absent father through the echoing of pained Swahili words like “uko wapi” (where are you?). Alongside the feeling of pain, however, the loving feeling of having a father present is emphasized through the repeating of “kukumbatia” (to hug) throughout the chorus.

The second song, “Limitations,” continues the use of open, breathy harmonies heard in the first song, but this time the voices emanate joy and encouragement. The beginning features a gentle groove, like strolling down a bustling street on a sunny tropical island. The confident, yet laid back saxophone solo at the start of the song makes way for joyful voices singing in open fourths, creating a light and upbeat sound. Later in the song, the call to “rise up” and attain “victory” complement the optimism found throughout the song.

The next song is energetic from the first beat. Titled “Maisha,” this song features Yawezekana Strong whose words, along with rapping by Samaki Mkuu, express the hard work that must be accumulated to achieve one’s goals.

“Freedom” is the longest track in the album, and it sends the message that everyone deserves love, peace, and freedom. Dunford noted that his musical collaborators are multiracial and international, and as a result, political themes arise in the music they make together. Dunford explained that his song “Freedom” is about “the way movements for freedom in each of our home countries have created more just and equitable societies, but reminds us that we still have much more work to do.” He pointed towards the amazing global support surrounding Black Lives Matter in the present moment as an example of the movement towards freedom that he encourages in this song. “Our struggles for freedom are so interconnected — and when we fight for each other and stand in solidarity with each other’s struggles for freedom, there’s no stopping us,” Dunford concluded.  

“Cease Fire” denounces violence and war, asking for a stop to abuse, rape, fighting, killing and suffering. The sharp intakes of air in the last few measures of the song create a sobbing quality that amplifies the immediacy of the message to cease fire and bring about peace. This song has a message with which many people around the world can relate, especially those who have experienced oppression or physical violence. Considering the racial injustice and violence still seen today, especially in recent times, this song may strike a chord with audiences.

The issues brought up in the next song, “Covid-19,” are also largely on people’s minds today. Many current realities are reflected in the song, like how we are faced with an “invisible enemy.” It speaks to the troubled minds of many people today, including doctors, scientists and everyday people. The song ends with a saxophone playing on the third, never fully resolving to the root of the chord, just like how we still do not know when and how the COVID-19 pandemic will end. Dunford released this song for the UNESCO-supported #DontGoViral campaign, which, in partnership with the Innovation for Policy Foundation (i4Policy), seeks to stop the “spread of disinformation and misinformation” about COVID-19 in Africa. In accordance with the goals of this campaign, Dunford released his song under a Creative Commons License, meaning anyone is free to use it. He appreciates i4Policy and UNESCO for encouraging artists to openly license their content, and he hopes that this content will help in “amplifying the message around social distancing and mask wearing, as well as spreading education about the seriousness of the virus and the devastating effects [COVID-19] had already caused.”

Next on the album is “Africa,” which, as the title suggests, celebrates the experience of being in Africa and the contributions of Africa to the world. The song starts with a tune from a kalimba-like instrument, which creates a sound like rubber balls bouncing off of musical notes. This animated, happy intro sets up the mood for the rest of the song. The upbeat and cheerful rhythm is perfect for dancing and smiling, which reflects the culture and communal nature of African music. This song includes another African musician, Achieng Guyo, who provides a higher pitched voice that helps the song more fully represent the voices and timbres of African songs. 

“Ni Wewe” and “Sunshine Queen” express love for loved ones — especially women — in our lives for their beauty, contributions, and presence. Next are “Tingisha Nywele” and “Kale Kale Bunge,” two songs that make getting up and moving to the beat irresistible. The repeated Swahili lyrics mixed with the semi-English and Spanish rap sections give the song a very danceable rhythm and fully highlight the musicians’ natural ability to seamlessly switch between languages. “Kale Kale Bunge” in particular acknowledges each of the artists and their identities in turn. Near the end of the song, the artists experiment with new sounds that contribute to the undulating rhythm.

The last song on the album is a remix of the traditional Kenyan song “Aoko,” effectively melding traditional African music styles with modern rap. This ending demonstrates that there is an immense amount of potential in melding different styles, cultures, and languages in songs, connecting audiences and musicians alike. Our world can seem divided in so many ways, but Dunford’s album gives hope that beauty and reconciliation can emerge when we bring our experiences together and listen to one another’s stories.

Contact Jocelyn Chen at jocelyn8 ‘at’

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