Track-By-Track: Xenia Manasseh Breaks Down Her Debut Album, ‘LOVE/HATE, Pt. 1’

“for people to know that it’s okay to be vulnerable.”

Xenia Manasseh’s debut album ‘LOVE/HATE, Pt. 1’ is out in the world only four short years since the Nairobi-born singer/songwriter returned to her home country. She had spent close to five years in the US, studying at the Berklee College of Music and chasing a songwriting career in Atlanta. ‘LOVE/HATE, Pt. 1’ is a culmination of all of Xenia’s experiences whilst contemplating self-love and affection for others. 

“The number one lesson that I learned a long time ago was that I was supposed to do music, and that that was the path that I was supposed to follow and that was the thing that brought me the most joy,” she tells the NATIVE. “To just follow my heart and just see where it takes me.” Xenia’s album is a combination of her honest, clear-eyed observations and hers as well as the producers’ mastery of music techniques. The project, which features Karun, Tay Iwar, Shalom Dubas and Xenia’s grandfather Edgar Manasseh, traverses topics of new love, hope, hurt and belief in one’s greatness. 

‘LOVE/HATE, Pt. 1’ is Xenia’s gift to every listener, an album for “people to know that it’s okay to be vulnerable.” Speaking with the NATIVE, Xenia tells the stories behind each song on the 11-tracker, breaking down the feelings, motivations and human connections that breathed life into the album. 

Her words, which follow below, have been lightly edited these words for clarity. 


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This is the song that I recorded last. I recorded it this year about a month and a half ago. So, my grandpa, my Babu, and I have a very interesting way of speaking when we’re not in the same place and we just communicate by sending each other music. And so in May, I woke up to some lyrics from him and then a voice recording of him singing the song and a message that said, “You can perfect this song.” Anybody who knows him knows how he comes off as stern but he’s so gentle. He’s at that age where it’s just like “I know what I’m talking about.” So he sent me a voice recording of him singing [the lyrics], and 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.

I already had the structure [for the album] before so everything that you see now [from] songs 2-11 was the original version of the project, which I loved. But then, once he sent me that, I was like, “Oh my God.” One, it’s in Swahili, and he is from the coastal region of Kenya. I’ve grown up there most of my life, by the beach. I went to high school In that city. Our ancestors are from there. And it’s a song that we’ve sung for so long. So it’s called “Zilizopendwa,” and it basically means “the songs that are loved.” And, I’m sure you guys have those songs as well that you sing at your traditional ceremonies. At least for our culture, there are songs that you sing at weddings, you sing at funerals, you sing at celebrations [and] you sing whenever the family comes together.

And yeah, I went to the studio and I just recorded over [his] singing. So G.I is his nickname. His full name is Edgar Ivan Manasseh, but he’s been called G.I for a long time and as somebody who’s contributed so much to my musical journey, everything about it feels so real. I feel like I’m also fulfilling one of his dreams and putting a stamp on the fact that I’m Kenyan embracing my culture and embracing where I’m from and giving back in a way to him and those that came before him that made the way for me.


I can’t remember at which point I wrote it, but I feel like that was also the name of the beat. I had started working with a label in Atlanta [in 2018] as a songwriter so I would always get beat packs sent to me pretty often and if that wasn’t happening, I could just reach out to the producers that were also under the label. So, this guy—he had just been signed after me—his name is AVB. He was the youngest one that was signed to the label but I just kept gravitating towards his stuff; I was just like “This guy just has so much magic that he’s doing.” He alongside the other producer Sangria who had been signed just right before me. 

And I heard this beat and I just remember feeling like I was floating. I was classically trained so it just was a culmination of that plus the R&B direction that I had started taking in my music. It was like a no-brainer and the song just flowed out of me. It took me maybe an hour to just write it and send it. And then after that, I’ve just had it this whole time. So the fact that it’s coming out feels so good. It feels so good.


This is also another one that is produced by AVB  [and LNK]. It was just another beat that I found in the folder. This one, I can’t really remember the space that I was in. I feel like I was describing my hope for something new. I was writing all these things in the middle of the night. I truly think that I was a nocturnal creature in another life because I was writing in the late morning hours. After midnight, I’d be up until six, seven or eight a.m. sometimes. 

I think I was just sitting there thinking about how I miss being checked on in the evening because the person that I had just gotten out of a relationship with was in the US. So there was a time difference. So whenever they would wake up, it would be in the evening for me. And I guess I kind of just trailed off in that direction and was just describing how it felt in the beginning. It’s like the feeling of having butterflies, the feeling of “Oh my God, this person has messaged me” in the middle of the night [and] morning for them. Somebody’s checking on me and this is something new and I’m excited and it’s so clear to me that this is somebody that I have some sort of future with, and I think that that’s the space that I was in when I wrote my section. 

And then, in 2021, we went to Nigeria for the AFRIMMA Awards and that’s where I met Shalom who my manager Faiza had been telling me for the longest time that she had sent “Late Night Check Up” to and we hadn’t had a chance to connect before that at all. And of course, we never knew that we were going to end up being nominated for AFRIMMA or end up in Lagos. So we had multiple sessions, but this was the very last session that we had before we left and went back to Nairobi and it just felt so surreal. It was the first time I was meeting her but we were in the studio and I was engineering for her. I remember crying—I’m pretty sure we have video evidence—but I remember crying because I just couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wow. somebody has finished the story. You couldn’t have told me that this is where I’d be in the world when this song was going to be finished or who would be doing it,” because we had so many ideas before. And I feel like she completed the story.


This one is so funny because I had a studio session yesterday with the person that I had originally written this song for in 2019. When we were compiling stuff for the album, I was looking up the lyrics and of course, it took me back to the day that I wrote it—June 24 2019—and that person’s name was at the top and I was like “Oh my God. I completely forgot that you’re the reason why I wrote this song,” because they were just looking for songs and I was doing my whole songwriting thing at the time. And this was a song that I actually pitched to them, but they didn’t end up using it.

So I just had it for myself for a while. And then again Faiza, my manager—who has been working with Tay for a while—had actually booked him in Nairobi for a show and I opened for him at that show. And so I got to meet him then. Not knowing that maybe a year later he would send us back the second verse and we were just mind-blown. I don’t think we’ve stopped being mind blown since that day. Every time I listen to [the] song, I’m just like “Wow, the way things come together is just incredible.”


“Anticipate” [was] produced by Cee B and Stoopid Lou. Cee B is another producer that was signed to the same label that I was [in Atlanta]. I had been writing every day but I hadn’t picked anything from any of his folders. So on that particular day, I was just like, “Let me see what this guy has in here for me to use,” and I listened to that beat and I remember it was called Motion, and I immediately started thinking about driving and then, all of a sudden, I had half a song that did use the metaphor of driving to describe love. I just remember sitting in my room and feeling like I was moving, like I was in motion and then [I] totally forgot that I had sent the song to Karun.

And I think she and I had a gig maybe six months later. And when we were saying bye to each other, she was like “By the way, I wrote something to that song you sent me a while ago.” I had no idea what it was going to be but she and I had known each other for a while. We had been roommates in college and then we had come back and I feel like she’s one of the main artists in Nairobi that opened the door to so much of the alternative R&B and soul music that’s being created now. 

So she sent me her verse. A lot of this project has been emotional, especially [with 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, and when it feels right, it’s just emotional.


Karun had been a part of the #emPawa100 program [launched] by Mr Eazi where he was giving grants to a hundred artists on the continent to do a video and a release. And for the one that Karun did, I was in her video. And I remember feeling like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I missed out on this opportunity.” And so it came back around the [following] year and he [Mr Eazi] had reduced the numbers. He’d now made it #emPawa30 where the same amount of money that was originally being given out was going to be split between 30 people so everybody would have more to spend on a video and a release and something else if they could. 

And so you just had to apply by posting one or two video submissions on your Instagram and tagging emPawa [Africa]. “Temporary Love” is the first one that I submitted but even just off that song, I had definitely gotten into the program. I posted a second one but by that time, I knew this one was happening. I just didn’t know when and then on November 5, 2019, I woke up and went on Twitter and Mr Eazi had tagged me in a tweet saying that I was his fifth pick for the emPawa program and I was like “Whoa,” and then [I] came to find out that I was the only Kenyan out of all the 30 people. And it’s crazy to think that though – 30 people out of who knows how many people applied on the entire continent of Africa? 

But yeah, that’s how “Temporary Love” happened. But I think it took me an additional year to write the second verse because we only had to post a one-minute clip for the audition. So I only had the first verse up till the chorus. Between 2019 and 2020. And then I think I finished it towards the end of 2020 after trying multiple times and then finally being like “How should I approach this?” and doing some cool stuff with songwriting.

I think I like to see it now as just relying on my first instinct because I tried to write so many versions of the second verse. And I only succeeded and followed through once I went back to the source. So on the version that’s out, I start the song by saying, “No I didn’t listen/Try to keep my distance,” and I start the second verse by saying, “I know I kept my distance/Wishing that I listened.” So once I made that switch, it just made sense. I was like, “Yeah, go back to the original idea. Of course, you have something to say if you just make reference to that.” And that’s how I approach a lot of my songwriting as well. I don’t like to stray too far from my first instinct because it’s about how I feel. I feel like the thinking should be done to apply the language, but it’s about how I feel.


So “Lowkey” is the song that I ended up releasing with emPawa after I got the grant, and before we got to this version of the album, there was no interlude. And the song came out in December 2020. And I remember just listening to the album over and over again and feeling like I wanted to add something new to it because the song had been out for a while and I was like “Okay, if I put this in a project I definitely want something to break up the first half and the second half,” and so I arrived at “Cheza Chini.” 

So Cheza is Swahili for play And Chini is Swahili for down. So play it down, which is basically keep it lowkey. I was trying to bring in some Swahili but also do something crazy. And I wanted something ambient because I like ambient sounds, I like meditating and I like the sounds of birds. I like the sounds of nature. I just wanted to close my eyes and listen to something and be transported to a totally different world before “Lowkey” started. The version that I had of it [“Cheza Chini”] before was just a version that I made on my laptop. And then, I ended up re-recording it this year, a few months ago, and changed the arrangement a bit to make it feel even more orchestral. We added that long bass that just goes all the way through and “Cheza Chini” is the one song on my album that I had a hand in the production.

So funny how life is: two guys, Joshua Choo and another guy called Troy Bourgeois. We all went to the same college. I actually had a class with Troy and I had no idea that he was in LA. I just went for my session and found out that he actually worked at the studio that I was recording. And so he just came through to help. And then Josh and I were connected through my mixing engineer. And the first day that I met Josh, he’s like, “I’ve been listening to your music for so long.” And then we started reviewing videos from when we were at school and finding out that we were in the same room so many times and didn’t even know or hadn’t even connected. 

So, that’s how that all came together, that was a great day. I love playing around with vocals. I was in the choir when I was a kid and we always sang chorales and I love choral music. I love arranging vocals so I wanted to also just play around with that. I always try to have those elements in all my projects and you’ll always find something like that where I just have a section that is packed with vocals on vocals on vocals and so I wanted to play around with that on “Cheza Chini.” Cheza Chini is the translation for “keep it lowkey.” It’s the intro to “Lowkey.”


I feel like I might have written it the week after I got accepted [for the #emPawa100 program]. I remember writing it in November 2019. I had a friend that I had just met. She’s from Denmark and she was just in Nairobi for a while and we became so close. She had even lived in my grandparents’ house with me for a while and then she got an Airbnb so I’d split some of my time there. And I remember on that day, everybody wanted to go out but I was like, “No guys, I just want to stay here and make some music.” It was like 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and I was just sitting there. The beat, I think, was also called lowkey. At that time I was trying to really rely on my instincts, and so I would use the names of the beats as the inspiration and I’d be like, “Okay, lowkey. How do I feel? What do I have to say about this? What’s my experience with this?” 

And I believe that there might have been somebody new in my life [at that time] and based on my previous experience which shaped a lot of the ‘LOVE/HATE, Pt. 1’ album, that was a relationship that had ended. I just didn’t want to share that with anybody so soon. I was in a space where I wanted to just keep it to myself because I was afraid of losing it if I opened it up to the world and that’s what I wrote about. I also wrote that song very fast.


I wrote it when I was in Atlanta In 2018. I feel like I actually even downloaded the video the other day from the session where I did it. October 3, 2018. In the six months that I was in Atlanta, once I started writing songs, I was doing five to six sessions a week, so four, five, six days of the week, I was in the studio splitting my time between the label and then splitting the other half of the time making stuff with MOMBRU.

I went to his house and I just wanted to do something different. He had played me the beat and I kept trying to write something in English and it just wasn’t flowing. And so I was like “Okay, let me just try something new.” Up until this point, I hadn’t written anything in Swahili that I had put out. At the time we were working on my debut EP ‘Fallin’ Apart,’  for which we had the idea for it to be parts A and B. And I think that was supposed to happen. But it’s funny now because that’s actually what’s happening with [my album]. We have part one and part two. ‘Fallin’ Apart’ just came out on its own and it’s gonna stay like that.

So I was like, “Okay if I’m going to write something in Swahili, I want to actually talk about something that’s super traditional.” So I went back to thinking about arranged marriages. In an arranged marriage, you don’t have much of a choice. You are just set up with this person and so I was just trying to think what happens in the case where you don’t have a choice, but you’re in love with somebody else and you’re willing to even risk tradition and you’re willing to just break boundaries if you just get confirmation from [that] somebody else that they want you as much as you want them. And so, that’s what “Niambie” is about. 

So, [the song’s title] means tell me. The first verse—direct translation—is “Believe me/ I want to be with you forever/But before you find me with somebody else, tell me that it’s me.” The second verse, “Contemplating my decision/ I’m on a mission for more.” I wanted to explore something else and see what it’s like when I don’t conform, which, outside of that song. definitely applies to me. That was my frame of mind when I wrote that song. And then I put it out. I think I had been home for about two months and we had my whole ‘Fallin’ Apart’ EP already, but we decided to put out “Niambie,” which didn’t even end up on the project and it was just so well received, it blew my mind.

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,” like “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 is their favourite song of mine. I have videos of so many friends that are not Swahili-speaking at all that learned the song, that know it word for word and it just blew my mind to be at home and have the reception on both ends. And I was like, “Oh, I’m supposed to do this music thing, why am I running away from this?” And so, I made the commitment and now here we are so many years later talking about my debut album.


I love this song. I don’t have a favourite [on the album] but sometimes it feels like this one is my favourite. This is my self-love song even though it still sounds like I’m speaking to somebody. I feel like it can apply to anybody that I want to let into my life. Whether it’s a friend, whether it’s a relationship. This song was produced by the only Kenyan producer on the project. His name is Mbogoua Mbogoua Mbogoua. We had known each other for a while. He invited me to his studio and we made this song and it’s funny because it’s the only song we’ve actually ever done together but then it’s the one song that I’ve consistently performed ever since then. 

I can’t remember the headspace that I was in or rather what prompted me to write the way that I did. It was kind of aggressive almost; it’s like “Of course, I need to talk about myself like this. Of course, I need to value myself. Of course, I need to remember my value and know that I’m precious and know my worth. And of course, I need to have boundaries and uphold those.”

Yeah, “Precious” is just energy. When I wake up, I want to feel like this and I want other people to feel like that. And I feel like they do, all those that have listened to it, all those that have heard me perform it. I have a friend who tweeted two days ago that was like, “I just need Xenia to confirm that ‘Precious’ is going to be on the album because I can’t keep going back to the video I have in my Google Drive from her performance in 2019.” And so I’m excited for it to finally come out.


This definitely had to be the title track. When I wrote “Love/Hate,” I felt like it was the one song that described the range of emotions that I had written about from having hope to new love to songs like “Soul Lovers” where I’m talking about how colourful love can be, how soulmates just find each other.  For [this song], [I highlighted] that push and pull. One day, we’re good, the next day, I’m packing. Everything falls under that title. 

And this song in particular is very sentimental. I don’t know if it’s because of the emotional space I was in when I wrote it and how that’s not even a headspace that I’m in right now. In the song, I was willing to over-compromise. I was willing to not uphold boundaries because I felt like love was such a necessity, and because I was operating like love was such a necessity, when it wasn’t there, I also felt like my world was just being thrown into chaos.

And I just was constantly going back and forth between those spaces and I can admit that it’s toxic but it’s so good when it’s good. And 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. Of course, I’ve grown from that and I’m grateful for that experience because it helped me translate that into music and be like, “Okay, what do I want to do different from this?” So, Yeah, that’s a very, very special song.

Stream ‘LOVE/HATE, Pt. 1’ below.

Featured image credits/NATIVE