Q&A with Simon Okelo of One Vibe Africa

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Simon Javan Okelo, Executive Director of One Vibe Africa, in the center with hands out, with his team members and local musicians who support their efforts and work, in Nairobi Kenya. (Photograph by Simon Dixon)

Simon Okelo grew up in the slums of Manyatta in Kisumu, Kenya, an area known for violence, drugs and diseases. Okelo dreamed of peace for himself, and for all of his Kenyan brothers and sisters. His struggles encouraged him, even at a young age, to build opportunities for others and to create a place where people lived free from the fear of violence.

His work includes building schools and health clinics, creating music and art programs, and helping youth discover their creative potential and personal voice. A huge part of his mission and vision is to create a world where everyone supports and inspires one anther. Okelo founded One Vibe Africa, a Seattle based nonprofit that supports Kenyan youth through art and music programs and also Madaraka Festival, a creative collaboration among Seattle artists in support of One Vibe Africa’s Music and Art Program.

Why did you decide to form the Madaraka Festival?

The first time I organized a concert was in my mother’s backyard for a Christmas party in 1999. I was a teenager fresh from high school in Kenya. I had no idea that those skills could be useful in bringing a divided community together, but in 2008, when I organized Unite The People Concert that brought Kenyans together after the post election violence, I realized that music could revolutionize a society.

I saw people I grew up with being kicked out of our neighborhood because they were from a different ethnic group. The only thing that made them speak to the perpetrators again was that event. That success inspired us to register One Vibe Africa as an NGO in Kenya in 2008.

When I moved to Seattle in 2010 I began actively pursuing One Vibe from the basement of my parents in-laws’ house. I had no job, or papers to work in America. As I cleaned windows and took small projects around their house I imagined the difference One Vibe could make.

What is the impact of the festival, here in Seattle, and beyond?

In November 2013 after holding several dinners, gatherings to watch videos about One Vibe’s work in Kenya, and its importance, we began discussing the possibility of holding an event that could draw massive attention to One Vibe’s work.

I remember sitting in the living room of Owuor’s (that’s Owuor Arunga, Macklemore’s trumpeter) mother’s house with Njuguna Wa Gicuru from the Physics, Kamau Ngigi, a Kenyan pioneer hip hop artist among others. We left her house nervous and excited because that’s the night the idea of Madaraka Festival was born. The next day we started reaching out to people with connections to venues and resources to help us make a huge event happen!

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Madaraka Festival 2014. (Photograph by Glen Casebeer from Northwest Music Scene)

Even though we were trying hard things were rough, but we had huge support from artists like Gabriel Teodros, Yirim Seck, Naomi Wachira, BlackStax, Josephine Howell and others who were on standby by in manner that the moment we had a venue they would come out and perform to support One Vibe. The excitement was high, but the reality of pulling a huge event off without funding was draining my soul, the only thing that kept me going was the joy and transformation I witnessed in the lives of the youth we were serving in Kenya.

What was your financial goal for Madaraka 2014?

Our goal for Madaraka 2014 was to raise $40,000 to run One Vibe’s Music & Art Program for one year. The concert that was then scheduled to take place at the EMP Museum could only raise about $20,000 because of the venue capacity. We were prompted to initiate Music To Empower Youth, an IndieGoGo campaign to help us raise the other $20,000. We mobilized volunteers, the Kenyan community, and organizations that helped us ensure Madaraka Festival was sold out, and our IndieGoGo campaign surpassed its goal.

The successful 2014 festival and campaign helped One Vibe run its Music & Art Program for a year. We also stretched the same funding to establish a recording studio that has began earning income to sustain our work in Kenya. Madaraka 2014 also initiated international cultural exchange between Kenya, and Seattle, and inspired creative collaboration between Africans and African-Americans in Seattle. The event also showcased the best African-oriented concert dubbed: “a night to remember” by Northwest Music Scene, “a premier African-influenced festival” by YES Magazine, and a “globally-oriented event” by Humanosphere.

We’re excited to announce Madaraka Festival 2015 on Sunday May 31st at EMP Museum. We have no financial sponsor for the event. Sponsorship is our biggest challenge. I am also the Executive Director for One Vibe, but I work full time at another job, go to school, and raise my beautiful one-year-old daughter. My goal is to begin working part time soon to create more time to focus on One Vibe because it requires more attention.

Despite the eminent challenges, together with the Seattle community, we are determined to reach our goal of raising $30,000 for the Performance Arts Theatre in Kenya. Any additional donations to our IndieGoGo campaign or through Madaraka will go toward the expenses for Madaraka 2015, and our second goal of raising $20, 000 as seed capital for Madaraka 2016.

An amazing array of musicians are travelling to Seattle from all over the world to make Madaraka 2015 the most entertaining and empowering event Seattle has ever seen! They include Sauti Sol (Kenya), Blitz the Ambassador (Ghana/UK), M1 of Dead Prez (FL), Dax Lion (Jamaica), Jus Moni (WA), Aisha Fukushima (CA), Babaluku (Uganda/Canada), Project Lion Heart (WA), LaRue (WA) and Zack Okello (Kenya). The Northwest is already buzzing with excitement for the inspiration these artists will ignite in our community.

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Our goal is to establish Madaraka Festival as a unique annual event in Seattle to continue creating awareness about One Vibe’s work while building the flow of needed resources for creative and cultural opportunities for artists in Seattle and Kisumu.

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