Daniel Muli gives good conversation. No, make that excellent conversation. Talking with Daniel is so trippy that you have no idea where you started, ended or swirled around in between those two. Except there is no end. You just swirl around in a universe of existentialism, triviality, politics, life matters, love matters, practical matters, funny things, inspiration and a never-ending the state of things brain gym. It’s a lot of fun. It is completely utterly entirely impossible to imagine this guy having a “normal” 9-5 job, or even just one job for that matter. It is however entirely possible and easy to imagine Daniel showing up pretty much anywhere in the world in any context having an interesting and unusual perspective on whatever is going around him. We have been looking forward to taking a sightseeing tour in this creative brain together with you for a long time so it’s a great pleasure to finally be able to say… Meet Daniel Muli!
How would you describe yourself to someone who is not familiar with you and your work?
DM: I’m Daniel Muli (sometimes Nairobidhobi).
I’m probably best known as a member of Just A Band, which is a Kenyan multidisciplinary arts collective that is also a band that plays a wide variety of pop music with heavy leanings towards electronic music. (Wow, if that’s only the beginning!) I make music and visuals and I’m the stage DJ. On my own I’m involved with animation and illustration.
How does being a creative with different roles and ways of expressions inspire you? And does it sometimes have a negative effect? (By the way, are you a synaesthete?)
DM: I find that when you have a lot of avenues open to you, coming up with ideas becomes a fluid cross-medium process, which for me is super-fun, I could sit around and talk ideas all day! But at some point I have to get down and actually make the things, sigh.
I think that being able to work this way actually avoids the possible negatives of having one avenue, as sometimes an idea doesn’t fit one medium. For example, I tend to create complicated worlds for visual stories which always gives me issues when making music videos which as a mediumrequires simplicity. I can save the more complicated ideas for other things, and then I can save the simpler ideas for videos. Also I feel kind of restless about all these media, which is a trait I share with my bandmates, and is what leads all of us to do so many things.
I wish I was a synaesthete, though! It sounds like it would lead to some very visceral art-making.
Does inspiration for music and illustration come from the same things?
DM: They do in the sense that fundamentally all of these modes are about storytelling, or communicating ideas. The process is all about stumbling upon something that stirs a feeling in you, that puts you in a headspace that you want to linger in for a while. And then it starts to combine with other images and ideas floating around in your head, and after a while it gets more fleshed out to the point where it feels ready to “take a form”, which could be an illustration or a series of illustrations or a little ditty.
The main difference for me is that my music making process is very random whereas the illustrations and stories come from a lot more contemplation and discussion and argument.
Is there any other form of creative expression that you would like to explore?
DM: It would be cool to do a theater show using a lot of the stagecraft and performance ideas we’ve been accumulating through our performances in the band!
JAB tours a lot internationally. How has that affected you as an artist? Is being “a Kenyan band” (or African) important to you and does the traveling change anythig about that? Also, are audiences in different places different or does JAB attract a certain type of crowd that finds you guys everywhere? (Sorry, that’s not really one question.)
DM: Perspective is the biggest thing we get from the band’s travels, in terms of seeing how people respond to the music, checking out different scenes, and just experiencing more of the world. When we’re in other countries our regionality does become more of an issue but we have always wanted to be more of a band that happens to be from Kenya as opposed to using it to define us. We feel that our work should be good enough to stand on its own against work from anywhere else and command respect.
In keeping with that we’re always trying to reach out to new audiences and so they really are pretty different from place to place, which is cool, all the time so we’re often playing to people who don’t know us. Sometimes the crowds are tough and sometimes the crowds are so open and so live, it’s awesome to see!
Which song is your favorite one to play on stage?
DM: It used to be Huff and Puff or that electro-twist vibe but nowadays I like a new one called Ambapo quite a bit, it’s a huge sing-a-long. And Ha-He is a good excuse to mosh on stage a bit! We’re adding a lot of new songs to the set in coming months so I see these songs changing soon! (Plug, plug! Come to our shows!)
You guys get interviewed a lot. Do you enjoy doing interviews? And is there a question that you always hope they will not “ask again this time” and the opposite – a question you hope you will get?
DM: Interviews are an energy exchange. As an interviewee you’re only able to control about 50% of it, haha, so you know, there are good ones and not-so-good ones. The best interviews end up being opportunities for you to reflect on what you’ve been doing and that is very special! Incisive interviewers will reframe things in ways we’ve never thought of and that really opens up our own process even to ourselves!
Hopefully one day we’ll be asked about our dream projects so that we can put them out there and hopefully magic will happen around them and we’ll find ourselves making them! (MiKe: Well well….what do you know…)
When you feel uninspired, what do you do? Embrace the feeling or try to find inspiration and if so where/how?
DM: I mostly sleep! Haha… That actually helps to reset sometimes, but also things like exercise and proper rest and eating well helps. I’ve been finding that care of oneself really pays off when it comes time to sit down and work.
Outside of that, I try to surround myself with inspirational material, in this case shelves stacked with books and comics and some good films to see, conversations with other artists (some of whom happen to be my neighbours, and intentionally so) and so forth (a lot of ideas come from ridiculous conversations with people). You could build a whole lifestyle around staying inspired and excited about work!
Tell me about The Wide Margin. How did that happen and how did you approach your participation, the topic and the creative work?
DM: The Wide Margin is a digital collection of African Feminist thoughts in different forms. Primarily the written form but the long term plan is to explore other forms of discussing feminism. It was created because there aren’t very many such platforms/spaces on the continent. The first issue, Feminist While African, discussed what it means to be African and feminist, it also challenged the notion that feminism is un-African.
The first strip I did for the journal is basically about the influence my mother and sisters had on me. Later on in high school a friend of mine and I would talk about how girls were socialized different from us guys. And that type of conversation continued as I grew older and I started to understand things better. I had these conversations about feminism with Nyaboe and she suggested that I could do a strip for a journal that she was working on with Varyanne which turned out to be TWM. They’re doing awesome work about addressing issues of African Feminist Thought, I’d recommend it for everyone to go check out the essays and see what’s going on because it’s such a huge aspect of building societies that are just and free of oppression.
About the Unfemiliar Territory strip in particular, I was both scared of and intrigued by the possibilities of contributing to the journal, which I guess is a good sign when taking on projects.Feminism is a huge and complicated issue, but the core ideas of addressing the unfair ways society treats women, that’s the basic start of it and the hope is that if you agree with that then the strip that I do can help guide people (when I’m writing it I have a very specific real life person that I picture myself talking to which helps me figure out my approach to the strip) through the discussions about all these more complicated aspects of it. It can feel very threatening for a man,from dealing with how men unknowingly are complicit in issues of sexism, to all the details of how to understand the different schools of thought around Feminism and how to navigate conversations around the topic. I put myself out there as the guy who is being educated as well because it’s true: as much as I care about the issue there is a lot of stuff that I haven’t understood yet, mistakes that I am making/will make and so forth, and hopefully by being open about these types of things we show that it’s fine to go through these types of experiences and to be OK with the sometimes painful process of learning. Otherwise, we’d never grow.
The fact that it’s a cartoon strip helps, I hope, to make it feel more accessible.
As a public person in the creative industry, do you feel a responsibility to be a role-model or a louder voice for those who don’t have access to the microphones?
DM: I do think that there’s a responsibility, but in a very specific sense, because if you take on too much of that it just becomes undue pressure which can make the creative process difficult. But at the same time it’s important to think about the messages we’re putting out there. I look at the work, whatever the medium, as part of a conversation, because there’s stuff that you can do for yourself but if it’s truly just for you, you wouldn’t want to put it out. That means it’s FOR people, and if you’re having a conversation with someone, you want it to be worth their time.
Let’s clarify some terminology. Illustration, animation, digital art, cartoon, comic. What are the differences?
DM: Digital art is a broad term for creativity expressed via computers and digital media. Cartoons are a general term for drawings that are simplified versions of reality (although sometimes it’s also a term for animation).
An illustration is basically a visual representation of something that isn’t a photo, so if you make a picture by gluing pieces of paper together that’s an illustration too. The whole point is that the picture stands by itself, such as this one which could stand on its own to be an illustration of Fright:
Comics are a medium that uses a series of still images, and often text as well, to tell stories. If we were going to use the Fright theme in a comic it could look like this:
Animation is about taking an image and making it move, animation is defined by creating the illusion of movement. And so…
Is the visual art a personal thing you do with project you choose for fun or do you also do freelance projects for clients?
DM: I do work for clients as well.I like that it has such a different experience from the band stuff, drawing and animating is quiet and solitary, and on the other hand the band stuff involves jumping around on stage and being very much part of a group setting in which every single aspect of a show is a collaboration, it makes for a really cool balance between the things I call work. And the two sides of my brain!
How is the illustration scene in Nai?
DM: There’s a good number of illustrators out there mostly working freelance in an uncertain industry. There’s a couple of schools that one can go to, like the Buru Buru Institute of Fine Art, and a couple of places that teach animation. (Shouts out to Nairobi Institute of Technology, where I used to teach! BRAP! ☺) It’s growing, though.
NAICCON, the Nairobi Comic Convention, which is Kenya’s first ever such gathering, just started late last year and there’s been a hugely growing crowd of people who are into anime and cosplay and comics and hopefully now we can start making stuff for that audience.
And some of my friends and I just banded together to form a new initiative called Comi(K)ment Issues. We’re basically a combination of a brain trust and a work support group and eventually a co-promotion group. It’s been super fun to relate to a whole bunch of artists and writers because when I was growing up it was mostly just me and my cousin showing our pictures and stories to each other, feeling like an island and wondering if we’d ever be able to do this for real. Now we have a gang ofsuch positive and creative people with us and all these opportunities for our work; it’s quite exciting!
Nairobi has a very unique creative climate. Things are happening all the time and it does appear that creatives from both the same and different fields are very supportive of each other. Would you agree? How does this creative climate influence you? And do you have any advice on how to stimulate this kind of dynamic climate in other big cities?
DM: For a long time there was barely any creative scene in the city and we were just absorbing imported material, and then when computers became cheap and the internet became accessible then everyone could afford or bootleg software, there was bound to be an explosion of new expression. A lot of bigger cities which have more developed scenes have gotten to the point where everything is much more codified and the scenes and movements become very insular and that definitely kills the vibe. Since things are so new for us we can keep it loose and fun.
Having said all that, there’s still so much more we could do by way of unusual and inspiring collaborations! There’s so much potential because the whole scene is so fresh and new! The excitement of exploration is probably where the buzz in the scene right now comes from.
What gives you confidence? And is personal confidence and creative confidence the same?
DM: I like this question. ☺
When I’m struggling with my confidence in both my personal and professional life, I find that I’m at my best when coming from a place of humour and fun and curiosity. This work we do is all about spreading joy (spreading knowledge, too) so if we can keep our own headspace clear and positive then we can forge boldly forth!
What is your best general advice? (I like t h i s question!)
DM: Lately I’ve been finding out how important it is to hold on to life with a light grip. ☺ By which I mean, not takingoneself so seriously that you can’t empathize with someone you care about, or that you can’t see past whatever issues you may be going through at the time, or that you can’t see beyond your ego. Free yourself, homie. ☺
Do you have a dream project?
DM: Well, hey! I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for this question! ☺
By dream project you mean something that requires an outlandish level of success or connections to make it happen? In which case, Yes! I’d want to collaborate with the Japanese composer Yoko Kanno to make a cartoon out of this song, which I know sounds a bit goofy but yo, that’s exactly why it works for a huge story about family, ancient history, aging, and cats in space!
Why do you love doing what you do?
DM: It keeps me happy and inspired and on a frequency I like. When I was younger I practically drowned myself in cartoons and comics and drawing and music as a kind of an escape or search for hope that was stronger than what I got from the situations I saw around me at the time. These art-forms gave me energy and sparked my imagination in a really powerful way. I always wanted to become a part of this continuum, to pass on that energy, and hopefully at some point I’ll be able to make work that can have such an effect on other people.
What do you wish the world knew about Kenya?
DM: I’d like it to be a surprise. ☺
Asante sana Daniel for your time, for sharing your creativity and for many surprises na mind trips!
We leave you with the latest release from Just A Band, have a great day!