Suzzanne Owiyo – Thick-skinned songstress who brought global fame to lakeside town

Suzanna Owiyo is a multi-award winning musician. She has won the Kora Award and Kisima Award for Most Promising Musician and nominated Best Kenyan Female Artist at Pearl of Africa Music Awards, and has performed before numerous Heads of State, including Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.

In December 2001, President Daniel arap Moi, Tanzania’s Benjamin Mkapa and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni joined by Nyanza residents, gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the railway line in Kisumu.

There was entertainment galore, and on stage was Suzanna Owiyo performing Kisumu 100, the song that propelled her to stardom. It was a dream come true for Owiyo. She says of the centennial celebrations: “I was so full nervous energy. I had never performed before such a big crowd, let alone before three Heads of State. I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “I could hear screaming in the background, especially when I mentioned boda boda. I thought, ‘Wow, they’re actually listening to me’.”

That day Owiyo was all over the news with people asking where she had been all this time.

My greatest motivator is people approaching me to say how much my songs have touched them and the fact that I can share my music with the rest of the world

She first worked as a receptionist in a beauty salon, as a casual worker with a firm in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, as a background vocalist in Sally Oyugi’s band and as a dancer for Congolese bands. Kisumu 100 was her big break, winning her a Kora Award nomination in the Most Promising Female Artiste category in 2002. Owiyo won in the same category in the 2003 Kisima Awards. She has released three albums and a number of singles since then.

Her rise to fame has not been entirely smooth. She has known adversity, overcoming stiff odds.

Born in Kasaye Village in Kisumu County, Owiyo knew at a young age that her passion was music. She grew up in a polygamous family with 14 siblings, but the only other musician in the family was her grandfather who was a prolific nyatiti player.

She was active in the church choir and school music festivals, winning her school many trophies. She grew up in Thika, “… a perfect opportunity for me to learn different cultures with many communities around me,” she says.

She dreamed of a life on stage, always watching music shows on TV and imitating the singers in front of a mirror. “I remember imagining I was on a big stage singing before a big, cheering crowd,” she says.

After high school, she decided to pursue a career in music, but her family had different ideas. They disapproved of her choice. Her father wanted her to be a teacher.

But there was no stopping her. “This is what I wanted to do. The desire to pursue music was so strong! The passion for music gave me the courage and determination to face all the odds against me,” Owiyo states.

Once, in 1998 while working as a receptionist at her brother’s stationery firm in Nairobi, she read a newspaper article announcing that a Kenyan Afro-jazz musician, Sally Oyugi, was to perform at a major hotel in Nairobi.

Owiyo called the hotel to express interest in joining Oyugi’s band. “She said she’d accommodate me as a background vocalist, which I’d never done before,” Owiyo says.

She worked with the band for two years before Oyugi left for the United States, leaving Owiyo with a piece of advice: “She told me that I had great potential and that I could go far. Excitedly, I thought, ‘I can be Sally Oyugi and not just a background singer!’”

She later joined several Congolese bands as a dancer before joining Bora Bora Sound Band in Kisumu as a background vocalist.

Words of Wisdom

  • “Aspiring musicians should not stop in the face of opposition.”
  • “Parents, if your child is gifted in something, you should be the first person to offer support and nurture it.”

When the organisers of Kisumu Railway line’s centennial celebrations auditioned her, she got a slot to perform Kisumu 100 as her theme song. Other opportunities soon followed. Guided by music producer Ted Josiah, she released her first album of the same name.

Owiyo’s music is influenced by everyday happenings in society. She cites Miriam Makeba and Rokia Traoré as some of her musical inspirations. “I heard Rokia play the guitar and was amazed by how good she was; that inspired me to learn how to play my guitar.” She went as far as learning to play the nyatiti, an instrument usually played only by males.

The lakeside songbird has performed before big and small crowds. She performed at the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony in Norway in 2004 in honour of Kenya’s iconic environmentalist Wangari Maathai, and at the MASA Festival in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. She also featured at the Yara Prize Awards in Oslo and at a New Year’s Eve Concert in Maputo, Mozambique in 2007.

Apart from the Wangari Maathai celebration, Owiyo considers her greatest accomplishment as having featured in the Nelson Mandela Concert in Hyde Park, London, in honour of the South African freedom hero’s 90th birthday in 2008.

The Mandela extravaganza was also a fundraiser for his HIV/Aids awareness campaign. It is no wonder that the following year, Owiyo won recognition as the 46664 Ambassador – a Nelson Mandela global campaign that promotes human rights and HIV/Aids awareness and prevention.

In 2003, she was appointed UNEP Goodwill Ambassador alongside fellow musician Eric Wainaina. Owiyo was awarded the Order of the Grand Warrior of Kenya (OGW) in 2011. The songstress is involved in a number of projects, including Plan International’s “Because I Am a Girl” campaign. It is a four-year global campaign to support girls’ education.

“I’m passionate about the plight of the girl child and women. I’m interested in any campaign that involves them that would better their lives,” she says.

In 2013, she initiated the “Soko Bila Waste” campaign, an initiative that supports UNEP’s global campaign against food waste: THINK EAT SAVE ‘Reduce your Food Print.’

“My aim is to educate people on the need for food waste reduction at the various levels of the food value chain, especially the market,” she says. “We waste food while there’s someone somewhere going hungry.”

Owiyo is also setting up an art centre under the Suzanna Owiyo Trust with the aim of nurturing and developing talent, citing the challenges she faced in the beginning.  “I met rejection even from my family. They could not believe I wanted a career in music, and I remained isolated for some time,” she recalls. Also finding facilities to help artistes grow their talent was a challenge. “An art centre is my way of ensuring that someone else does not go through what I did.”

She adds: “The government has created the Youth Development Fund, which is a very good initiative. The fund can help youth kick-start their future, which is something we did not have.”

Her key to success is determination and staying focused. If she did not have a thick skin, she says, she would not be where she is today. “I believed in myself and was determined to achieve my goals.” Her will to succeed gave her the drive to go past the disapproval of family and rejection during auditions as she tried to join various bands.

She hastens to add that her family is now proud and happy for her.

“My greatest motivator is when people say to me how much my songs have touched them, and also the fact that I can share my music with the rest of the world,” she shares, pointing out that if you do something you really love, you can’t go wrong.

“It’s all about practice, practice, practice. Once you love something, pursue it; don’t stop. The challenges you’ll face should not stop you but make you more determined.”

Owiyo is happy to see the changes happening in the music industry and the amazing upcoming talent. “When I was starting out, there were few studios and producers. Right now, you’re spoilt for choice. The digital era has also made it a lot easier to create and access music.”


She acknowledges that technology has its pros and cons. “Piracy is one disadvantage. If you pirate an artiste’s music, you’re making it hard for them to survive.” She encourages Kenyans to embrace our own musicians and stop piracy. “If proper structures are put in place, Kenya’s music industry is set for even greater heights,” she says.

The mother of a teenage daughter, Nadia, juggles music, family and ambassadorial roles. “It’s tough, but with proper planning it’s manageable. I’m lucky to have a husband who understands me and the work that I do.”

Owiyo prefers to keep her husband’s identity private. “He’s called Eric and that’s all I can say.” She describes him as “the greatest influence in my life, my Number One critic and the support he has given me is amazing.”

There’s no such thing as a typical day for the artiste, who usually starts her day with a walk or a jog.

“That way my mind is fresh and I get to start off my day full of energy.” In her free time she loves swimming, travelling and listening to all types of music: from jazz to bhangra to reggae.

Does her success surprise her? “Success? I can’t call it that yet. This is just the beginning.” There’s much that she wants to do. “I know there are people looking up to me. I want to leave a lasting legacy, something that can be emulated, starting with an art centre.”

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