Sir Elvis Brings Country to the Continent

We’ve heard of Budweiser and we’ve heard of Snapchat, but country music – in Kenya?

According to Nairobi’s self-proclaimed king of country, Elvis Otieno, the music genre as American as sliced bread is flourishing in the streets of our capitol.

“Most of the people here listen to country music. It really has a huge fan base,” Otiengo, who goes by artist moniker Sir Elvis, recently told a reporter from Public Radio International. “People love Charley Pride and Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Don Williams, Skeeter Davis. But I think they couldn’t imagine that a Kenyan could do country music.”

Otieno – who was born in 1977, the same year Elvis Presley died – is disputing that prejudice. Even his name confirms the fact.

“My mom was a great fan of Presley. So when he died, I think it was a great blow [and] I guess they decided to name me Elvis,” he said.

Otieno’s family emigrated from Kenya to Norway when Otieno was only seven. Once a teenager, Otieno was introduced to country music. He started playing together with various bands, developing his finger plucking guitar style as well as a repertoire of songs.

Moving back home 10 years ago, Otieno wanted to take his music to the next level. There was however one obstacle: there was no next level for country music in Kenya. So Otieno built his own.

Sir Elvis at Reminisce Bar and Grill in Nairobi.

Sir Elvis at Reminisce Bar and Grill in Nairobi.

“I had to start from really, really, nearly nothing,” the 37-year-old singer said. “The music industry in Kenya is still really very young. People love to listen to it, but there has never been a serious country star.”

With an American twang and lyrics of love and longing, Otieno is today among the best-known country artists in Africa. Setting the standard for a continuously growing music scene, Otieno’s highest wish is to play alongside his heroes.

“If I could share a stage with Charley Pride or Don Williams or Garth Brooks,” he said, “it would be a dream come true.”

Want to learn more about Otieno? Check out this 2013 Alfajiri interview and performance:

Originally from Sweden, Chris is a journalist with an extensive interest for African culture and the arts.