NATIVE Exclusive: How Domi Shanja & ‘LWKY’ are giving a platform to Kenyan creatives
“LWKY is the place to go when discovering new artists”
“LWKY is the place to go when discovering new artists”
The day before our Zoom call, Domi Shanja sends me a brief message to confirm whether the interview is still happening. His hunger, passion, discipline, and dedication are felt through the two-sentence text. You would expect since we are in the same country it would be easy to schedule a face-to-face meeting but between him balancing an office job and his creative endeavours, getting free time is quite the task.
An increasingly integral part of the Kenyan music industry, Domi Shanja is something of a masked superhero—like the Spiderman character, if you will. Apart from the fact that no one knows the face behind the mask, there’s the evident genius-level intellect and super intuition to seek out greatness before the rest of the country becomes hip. While Spiderman is a fictional superhero, Dominic is a real-life superhero helping to expand the purview and perception of the Kenyan music industry.
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Domi Shanja is a Kenyan creative who owns the infamous LWKY channel, and found his love for Kenyan music as a child in the early aughts. A huge fan of Kleptomaniax, Jua Cali, and other revered urban music acts of the time, Domi has always felt the need to have the full range of Kenyan music represented on a consistently widened basis, an agenda that hasn’t always registered on a mainstream level, but has now made his personal mission. The slow adaptation of East Africa to platforms such as YouTube did not favour his mission, as he often felt only mainstream artists such as Khaligraph Jones and Octopizzo were often given the media spotlight.
Immediately we jump on the Zoom interview he tells me of a live recording session they are having on the 4th of September breaking down the nitty-gritty details. His tone and excitement make it easy to decipher that LWKY comes first. You would think having a social media presence is important to him but he shrugs it off stating that the only social media presence needed is LWKY’s growth and coverage. Domi has always been keen to start something that would provide a platform for artists specifically upcoming artists since no one ever pays attention to them. That is how he birthed the idea of creating a YouTube channel for Kenyan artists to perform their songs. All he needed was a camera, a Bluetooth speaker, and the artists.
Since 2019, he has been slowly building a catalogue for underground Kenyan artists regardless of their sound. To him, any sound can be regarded as a Kenyan sound and there is no limitation to what or who needs to be put out. Domi Shanja has become one of the most trusted tastemakers in music for many reasons but one stands out: his keen eye for what is going on in the entertainment industry. His artistic vision and creative realm have catapulted stars such as Groovy Jo, Jodye Faneto , Swahili Papi, and much more into the public eye. Giving underground stars a chance to shine has seen LWKY create multiple outlets for discovery, from performance sets to to the LWKY live DJ sessions.
In the conversation that follows below, Domi Shanja explains his motivations for LWKY and how it plans to continue supporting Kenya’s growing creative scene.
NATIVE: When did you first get interested in Kenyan music and entertainment?
Domi Shanja: It’s been so long that I don’t think I can draw out a specific timeline or year but it must have been when Kenyan music was big in the country. When the Chaguo La Teeniez award show was something to get excited about and E-Sir, Jua Kali, etc were a big deal in the country. When songs like “Ninanoki” were coming out, I was in pre-school and I remember jamming to that.
How did this interest then lead you to start your own original Youtube channel?
I saw there was no space. There was no avenue to discover new music. The Western side has SoundCloud, we had nothing like that so it was impossible to find new Kenyan artists and even African artists in general. People in the diaspora never knew who is on the come up because the mainstream media only broadcasted the breakout artists. Most artists don’t have platforms to showcase their talent. There has always been a lot of gatekeeping in the mainstream media, and funding is always an issue. LWKY can be used as the stepping stone for the artists to show the public what they can do. At LWKY, we don’t charge artists for anything.
What were those early days were like for you and your business partner? Was it easy starting off your channel? How did you get the equipment and resources you needed for production?
It was pretty easy to acquire equipment because I met my production manager through my partner since he used to shoot cover videos for her. I also contacted my friend from high school who was pursuing music to help me out with the basics. The only challenge was pitching ideas to businesses so I could get a recording space. Luckily I got help from Supersonic Studios and I shot the first four episodes which were dubbed “A LWKY special”. Once people saw the vision, I got sponsorship from various spaces.
What does LWKY stand for?
It’s really not that deep. I removed some letters from LOWKEY and ended up with LWKY to symbolise Lowkey or underground artists. LWKY is the place to go when discovering new artists. It’s not for everyone, though. Not everyone appreciates art in its raw form. You actually need to be lowkey be on LWKY.
Who were your inspirations to start?
Coke Studio actually inspired me to start the page. They are extremely phenomenal. Lyrical Lemonade by Cole Bennett is also huge to us and I can’t stop emphasizing it. He’s built an empire. Elsa Majimbo is also an inspiration since she showed us the power of digital marketing.
LKWY started off during the pandemic in 2020. What were some of the things you were dealing with at the time that led you to create this platform?
It actually started before the pandemic when I worked with a digital marketing company. I had created such a concept but it eventually collapsed since I left the organization and the show wasn’t run properly. In 2019 I was pitching to partners but I started shooting right before the world was locked down. By the time Covid hit we had already shot our pilot episode.
What are the difficulties you’ve faced since starting off LWKY?
Building up a team. Initially, we started as two people but we are currently a team of six. Financial capital has also increased because we need to also invest in marketing and production. We are lucky that we have had people supporting the channel financially and believing in the vision.
How would describe what LWKY stands for in the Kenyan music space?
It gives people an avenue to be co-signed. Once we co-sign a creative, the larger society pays attention to you because we are verified tastemakers. We are trying to make the space more inclusive, we don’t want to stay supporting only music artists. We need to expand our brand to influencers, designers, DJs, and other parts of the creative industry, so we work together as a whole and from there we can spread the gospel to a wider audience.
You not only provide a space for people to learn more about Kenyan artists but also provide a platform for them to showcase their music in a different light. Why is it important for you to play this dual role?
One of the things creatives face in Kenya is no one is ready to sponsor the business side. I feel, as much as we offer platforms to these artists, we also represent them on the corporate side. Previously, there were players that ensure the ecosystem survived but at the moment it’s every man for himself. What LWKY does is introduce the artists to brands. We handle all the logistics because most artists do not understand the business side of music. The fact artists trust us brings a synergy since we are also creatives of our own accord.
What’s next for LKWY?
We want to venture into live concerts. We have already started live Dj sessions with a small crowd which has been successful so far. We also want to support artists by holding listening parties to show their various bodies of work. We want to expand our services beyond Kenya. We want to tap into Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria, and so on. We want to nurture creatives so they can treat the entertainment sector as a business and not a part-time hobby. We are opening more spaces for creatives. LWKY is no longer going to be just for music, it’s going to be a creative hub. It will be a go-to shop for all your needs.