For The Girls: Xenia Manasseh Is A Polished Creator On New Album, ‘LOVE / HATE Pt. 1’

“all these different emotions that come and go”

In 2019, Xenia Manasseh arrived on the Kenyan music scene with “Niambie,” a Swahili-and-English-delivered syrupy R&B song of love and commitment. Although she was born and raised in Nairobi, Xenia had just returned to her home country after years spent at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts and as a signed songwriter at a music label in Atlanta, Georgia, where she had written the song in 2018. Before releasing “Niambie,” Xenia feared whether it would be well received by the Kenyan listeners. She didn’t need to worry; the song got instant acceptance.

“It blew my mind,”  Xenia tells the NATIVE. “I couldn’t believe it because I felt like people were going to tell me ‘Ah, this girl is just trying to bend. She’s just trying to bend this Swahili thing, like she’s still not really doing the local thing…she’s not really in the space of the music that we’re used to,’ but it just blended my influences and when I say the way it was received, I don’t mean even just at home, a lot of people in the US tell me that that’s their favourite song of mine.” 

That incident solidified Xenia’s belief in her craft. She decided to become an artist and do so on her terms, without fear and with confidence. Xenia’s sky-high confidence has spurred her through many singles and two EPs—2019’s ‘Fallin’ Apart’ and 2022’s ‘Maybe’ with Ukweli. Four years later, “Niambie” is part of the tracklist of Xenia’s debut album ‘LOVE / HATE Pt. 1,’ which features Karun, Tay Iwar, Shalom Dubas and Xenia’s grandfather Edgar Manasseh. It is a project that traverses the places Xenia has lived in or visited: Nairobi, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Lagos.

“I feel like I’ve always been where I’m supposed to be when I’m supposed to be there. I think I’ve always been in the right place at the right time,” Xenia says about her commitment to music. “It has never felt like there’s been a struggle or a push and pull like one place is calling me and I’m in another place. I felt like that when I had just gone back home from the US because I was in such a rush to come back, but I slowly settled into being home and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is actually where I needed to be to start and actually commit to being an artist’.”

Home, whether as a geographical or an emotional concept, is the livewire of ‘LOVE / HATE Pt. 1.’  As a child, Xenia grew up listening to the vast musical collection owned by her grandfather (who she calls Babu)—an eclectic mix including old-school traditional songs, instrumental albums, Brenda Fassie’s music, Norah Jones’ music, E-Sir’s music and Nameless’ music. At Berklee, she focused on entrepreneurship under Music Business/Management, and after relocating to Atlanta in 2018, she honed her songwriter skills with multiple producers. Xenia’s emotional state of mind is also her greatest asset. It is where the magic stems from, where she sieves both joyful and troubling experiences for musical gems. 

On the title track of Xenia’s album, she describes the tumultuous moments in a relationship full of highs and lows and those moments impact her views on companionship. “When I wrote ‘Love/Hate,’ I felt like it was the one song that described the range of emotions that I had written about [on the album],” she says. The song represents a time in Xenia’s life when she wasn’t willing to uphold boundaries because she felt love was a necessity superseded right or wrong. “I can admit that it’s toxic but it’s so good when it’s good, I don’t want to let go, I don’t want to be the one that ends things even though I’m aware that this isn’t healthy. And of course, I’ve grown from that, and I’m grateful for that experience because it helped me translate that into music.”

The cheery moments on ‘LOVE / HATE Pt. 1’ are bright and sparkly. On “Late Night Check Up” with Shalom Dubas, Xenia sought inspiration from the mushy feelings she had felt during a past relationship where her lover lived in a different timezone and would check up on her at night while it was morning where they were. She and Dubas had linked up when she came to Nigeria for the AFRIMA Awards. “Southwards,” with its croons of “Let me love you right/Oh/Baby,” had initially been written for another artist before Xenia’s manager shared the song with Tay Iwar when he was in Nairobi for a show.

“A lot of this project has been emotional [as regards the] features because it’s really somebody else coming into your space, bringing in their own experience and helping you finish a story that you started,” Xenia says, “and when it feels right, it’s just emotional.” On “G.I’s Intro,” Xenia’s Babu had sent her a voice recording of him singing “Zilizopendwa,” a Kenyan traditional classic Xenia had listened to and loved as a child. “I was like, ‘Wow, I have no idea what made you wake up and do this,’ and it was such a clean recording as well. And I immediately knew that I wanted it to be on my album.” Xenia considers the track as a way of affirming her Kenyan culture and immortalising her beloved grandfather.

The producers of ‘LOVE / HATE Pt. 1’ also have a special place in Xenia’s heart. MOMBRU, for instance, had worked with Xenia on ‘Fallin’ Apart’; on the album, he single-handedly produced “Southwards,” “Lowkey” and “Niambie,” and co-produced “Temporary Love” with Adrian Forbes and “Love/Hate” with Lambirth. Mbongua Mbongua Mbongua is the only Kenyan producer on the album and has known Xenia for the longest time. AVB (on “Late Night Check Up” with LNK), Cee B (on “Anticipate” with Stoopid Lou) and Sangria (on “Soul Lovers” with AVB) were producers Xenia first met during her time with the label in Atlanta, which had signed them too. Joshua Choo and Troy Bourgeois (on “Cheza Chini,” which Xenia also produced) had been schoolmates with Xenia at Berklee and bonded over the times they realised they were in the same class and never spoke to one another.

“I’m really happy to know that everybody that’s on this project are the people that I started my journey with,” says Xenia. “[From] the producers on the label…and just carrying that through to now and all of them having the patience. When I look at the tracklist and I just see their names, I’m like ‘This is everybody that’s been there from the beginning.’ It just makes sense. So It was meant to be.”

While ‘LOVE / HATE Pt. 1’  Xenia’s current masterpiece is emotional purging, there was no easy ride in making the album. She had to fight off feelings of fear and shame just so she could tap fully into her experiences in their purest, most honest forms. When she returned to Kenya from the US, she suffered writer’s block for six months. She had a space and equipment to record but the words refused to come forth. “I just sat down and I was like ‘Okay, how do we feel? How do we feel because I know how I feel but why am I avoiding talking about this? What exactly would be the problem with me doing this?’” she remembers. Finally, she wrote a song and it unlocked the well within her. “Every day back to back, I was just like, ‘Okay. Let’s just let go of all these feelings. Just let go.’ And I just kept letting go and I’ve never had writer’s block ever since; it’s never come back at all. 

“It became very clear to me that the only way that I can do this is if I’m always honest with myself, and not being honest with myself would cause a block. And I feel like that’s not even just in music, that’s just in life. You’d always get stuck unless you’re able to confront what’s actually happening. Take accountability, reflect, have that internal dialogue – not judge yourself for choices that you’ve made but see your experiences as experiences.”

LOVE / HATE Pt. 1’ is the first instalment in the series, with a second one bound to drop anytime soon. The album is four years in the making and has changed Xenia’s perspectives on love and life. It has allowed her to “explore all these different emotions that come and go” and emerge as a refined and mature woman with new ideas and an appreciation for every facet of life.

I hope [people] get to take away what I got to take away from listening…that they don’t feel like they’re alone,” Xenia says. “[The album is] just for people to know that it’s okay to be vulnerable and to confront how they feel and see that there’s a lot of beauty that can come out of that. For me, [this album has] created so much beauty internally for me; my internal world is so much more peaceful just because I have spent so much time talking to myself.”


Featured image credits/NATIVE