Podcast 680: Coco Em
African rhythms to make you feel good.
Podcast 680: Coco Em
African rhythms to make you feel good.
Coco Em is one of Africa’s most exciting DJs. Born Emma Mbeke Nzioka, she’s crafted a stellar reputation across the the continent and beyond through her thrilling sets on some of the largest stages, from Nyege Nyege in Uganda to Terra Negra in Tunisia. More recently, she’s started to play as far afield as Switzerland and Canada, pushing Kenyan house, old school kwaito, kuduro, and lingala, from the north-western part of Congo. In December 2019, she performed at Rennes’ Trans Musicales, known for having discovered artists such as Lenny Kravitz and Björk, among others.
Coco’s star has risen extremely quickly. Growing up in Nairobi, she was inspired to work hard by her mother and father, a lawyer and architect respectively. Rather than following her parents, Coco began working as a photo- and film-journalist, but it was always clear to her that music was going to play an important role in her life. Often she’d consume it as a means of therapy after a hard day of work, but she also began to enjoy the more upbeat territories of hip-hop and afro-electro.
Besides digging in record shops, Coco became a “YouTube junkie,” she says, and in 2017, inspired by a production workshop in Nairobi, she decided to learn to mix the records she was uncovering. After a few local bookings, she broke through in 2018 by headlining a Boiler Room edition. International gigs ensued, cementing her status as a talent to keep your eyes on. When she’s not touring, she’s working on Sim Sima, a music production initiative for women, non-binary persons, and persons of Nairobi’s LGBTQ+ community.
Recorded last week, Coco’s XLR8R podcast is a journey through her favorite African rhythms, and it fuses tracks from artists you’re sure to know and many others you’ll likely discover here. With the freedom to plan, Coco composed a set that builds slowly—beginning with a jazzy number from Shabaka Hutchings and Brownswood Recordings—before traversing styles and tempo, but with one common objective: to make you feel good. At the time of recording, Coco had just come out of hospital and she needed a pick-me-up; this set got her back on her feet and, with the world in disrepair, it’s sure to do the same for you too.
01. What have you been up to recently?
Staying sane! 2020 was the year big moves were to be made. I was even set to do a European tour, then Covid happened. I worked on a couple of live streams at the height of the pandemic. These helped to calm my anxiety about the future but they also heightened my anxiety about the present. I convinced myself that staying busy was the way to go, that it would somehow pay off, but figuring out a live stream every time was majorly kicking my ass.
Later on, I teamed up with a community-based organization called Santuri who supported a project I had begun with my partner, to facilitate music production training for women and the LGBTQ+ and non-binary community. We were fortunate enough to get monetary support from Music in Africa and the whole project was successful. The group is still producing and we are working on a few showcases as well as establishing a music bootcamp and starting activities with the beat-club, once I complete setting up the common space we will be sharing!
02. How was your Christmas and New Year’s Eve?
Surprisingly busy. I managed to get a few shows in over the holidays, and because the year had been super dry I decided to do them all!
Christmas didn’t really feel like Christmas. People cut back on the decorations; the spirit seemed to be more focussed on just getting by and seeing the end of the year. We crossed over into the new year at 8pm at a show in Nairobi, and then we all had to dash home before curfew.
I unfortunately landed in hospital a few days into the new year, which to me felt like a culmination of all the intensity 2020 had presented. A mental toll sometimes manifests in physical symptoms. I’m getting better and I’m trying to maintain balance in my life.
03. How did you find your way into electronic music?
I had a friend in South Africa called Muema who emailed me some music. It was house music and it was amazing. This was in 2009 when I’d just gotten back to Kenya from my university studies. Before then, I really wasn’t really into electronic music. It was later in 2016 when I took part in a music production workshop facilitated by Alliance Francaise in Nairobi. They had invited two electronic DJs from Ghana—BBrave and Gaffaci, both of whom form a collective called Akwaaba Music. I remember little from the production workshop because it was my first official Ableton class, but I remember all the music they played. It was great to see how confident they were in mashing up all these genres. I also met Kenyan DJs Monrhea, Fluid, and KMRU, who at the time were playing electronic and ambient music. This whole workshop experience inspired me to experiment with different sounds while performing. Then I played a showcase presentation with the wonderful DJ Shock. Before this, I was playing a lot of hip-hop and kwaito, and the only other electronic music I liked to listen to was a random Pete Tong mix that landed in my hard-drive after a mix swap!
04. Which labels and artists have been inspiring you recently?
The Hyperdub label has been holding on to me with that music fix. Angolan artist Nazar, in particular! I discovered him accidentally while stalking my other favorite artist, Cooly G, also from Hyperdub. Focalistic and Kabza De Small from South Africa are also truly amazing. Actually, South Africa as a whole! I don’t know what they eat out there because the music that comes out is so good; I can hardly put words to it. Artists Megatronic, Maga Bo, Nairobi’s Xprso, and DJ Malkia are really inspiring. I’ve also had the same gengetone song on re-play for weeks: “Bad Manners” by Gwaash and K4kanali. It’s a sure fire way to start a party in Nairobi!
05. Where did you record this mix?
I recorded this mix in my living room in Nairobi on a Wednesday night.
06. What can we expect with it?
I wanted to create a nuanced set with a slow progression from chilled out to a more vibrant blend of percussion and basslines. Expect controlled chaos, which is my favorite way to DJ!
When I was recording this set I was feeling low on energy and decided to compile a list that made me feel good. The basslines in tracks such as “Umsembezi Wethu” are hectic. I play some more amapiano bangers from Focalistic, Mpara A Jazz, plus an amazing collaboration between Nazar and Slickback which I can’t get enough of! There is also a section of thumpy afro house with Culoe De Song. This mix also features a singeli track by Kadilida and Jay Mita called “Mzuka.” It’s my first time playing singeli. I hope the set will act as a mood booster for whoever listens to it and that it will help you move through your days.
07. How did you go about choosing the records that you’ve included?
I wanted to pace myself with this set. I wanted to start a bit slow and build up the tempo and not restrict myself from any diversion I wanted to take, however drastic.
I heard the song “Black Skin, Black Masks, We Out Here” by Shabaka Hutchings on a day when I was digging for new music, with no intentions of DJing. I knew I had to have it on the set. It starts on a jazzy tip and then blends into some steady-paced amapiano. I’ve become a huge fan of South African artist Focalistic and I had to stop myself from pulling up his entire Sghubu Ses Excellent album into this mix. The tracks “Ke star” and “Sghubu” always have me moving something. A few songs on there, such as Slickback’s remix of Nazar’s “Clan,” explore a style of playing I had adopted while playing live shows, back when we could all sweat on each other in a club and it was no thing!
08. How does it compare to what we’d hear you play in a club?
When I used to play in clubs, I would typically maintain the slower tempos for longer, but I like to break out into faster paced songs earlier on in the set. I mostly move by feeling and I absorb the energy I receive from a crowd. Performing out of the club setting for digital live sets has been a bit challenging, to be honest. We’re hoping to find more ways to stay interactive while keeping ourselves safe in this time!
09. What are your anticipations for 2021?
I believe 2021 will be a year that relies on how far I can push myself towards realizing certain project goals. Most of which have more to do with strengthening the networks around me and improving our music production skills. I hope to be able to create a residency for Sim Sima, and I am in the process of putting together a small home studio for myself and the members. This will help us create and encourage each other towards collaborating more. The goal is to get support in securing music production software and hardware. Other than that, I have temporarily given up on the prospects of touring given the current global pandemic and added travel restrictions. We are in a recession. Jobs are scarce. We are also going into an election year. Given the current political air, a lot of money and energy is going into the campaign.
XLR8R has now joined Mixcloud Select, meaning that to hear the podcast offline you will need to subscribe to our Select channel to listen offline, or subscribe to XLR8R+ to download the file. The move to Mixcloud Select will ensure that all the producers with music featured in our mixes get paid. You can read more about it here.
Full XLR8R+ Members can download the podcast below. If you’re not an XLR8R+ member, you can read more about it and subscribe here.
01. Shabaka Hutchings “Black skin, Black Masks // We Out Here” (Brownswood Recordings)
02. Maga Bo “Neguinho” (Jarring effects)
03. Gaia Beat “Matumbo” (Alvalade Records)
04. Mapara A Jazz “Nyesa Mjolo” feat. Jeez Fuzz Malaria (Open Mic Productions)
05. Focalistic “Sghubu Ses Excellent” (18 Area Holdings)
06. DJ Melzi “Bayekele” (Universal Music)
07. Mpura, Busta 929 “Umsembezi Wethu (Unknown)
08. Jessy Lanza “Fuck Diamond” (Bambounou remix) (Hyperdub)
09. Sango “Luhlaza” (Wright Music Group)
10. SMBD “Gina Jeanz Tropic City” (Bae Electronica)
11. Focalistic “Ke Star” feat. Virgo Deep (18 Area Holdings)
12. Naira Marley “Koleyewon” (My Type Of Music)
13. Sophie Hunger “There is Still Pain Left” (Laolu Remix) (Two Gentlemen)
14. The Busy Twist “London Luanda Part 4” (Africa Ritmo Olha O Pica remix) (Galletas Calientes Records)
15. Culoe de Song “African Subway” (Innervisions)
16. Breyth “Tundavala” (Olukwi Music)
17. Faizal Mostrixx “Omukatiko” (Unknown)
18. Kadilida & Jay Mita “Song Mzuka” (Nyege Nyege Tapes)
19. Nazar “End of Guerrilla” (Hyperdub)
20. Culoe de Song “Bang Royales” (Watergate Records)
21. DJ Boring & Frits Wentink “Oli Coony” (Bobby Donny)
22. Sango “Free Town” (Wright Music Group)
23. Qhizzo “Qhoqhoqho” (Akwaaba Music)
24. Jimi Tenor “Vocalize My Luv” feat. Florence Adooni (Philophon)
25. Styl Plus “Ina Basar Skit” (STYL-PLUS)
26. Nazar “Clan” (Slickback remix) (Hyperdub)
27. Maga Bo “Immigrant Visa Part II” feat. MC Zulu (Jarring Effects)
28. Nazar “Intercept” (Hyperdub)
29. Ase Manual “Wasting Plastic” (Like That Records)
30. Maga Bo “13 Kizomba” feat. Sacerdote (Batida Remix) (Jarring Effects)