'One Vibe Africa' Empowers Kenyan Youth Through Music and Arts

Simon Okelo doesn’t sleep. In addition to his day job at a logistics company, the Seattle-based father of three spends the wee hours of each day working on his passion project and life’s work: One Vibe Africa. The nonprofit bridges the 8,800 mile gap between the Pacific Northwest and Okelo’s hometown of Kisumu, Kenya, through a music- and arts-focused youth empowerment program, festival, and extensive community outreach.

One Vibe aims to promote social welfare and the economic empowerment of Kisumu youth by creating events and media that educate the public about African culture and innovation. While Kisumu may be the roots and see the fruits of One Vibe’s work, the area has a deep history of instability. Residents of Kisumu County, which lies far west of the nation’s capital, have witnessed extreme poverty, the third highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the country, and immense violence following the 2008 presidential election.

“The community I come from has always been the voice of the opposition, the voice of impunity. Leaders from my community are voicing issues in the country,” Okelo told The North Star. “For a while, this region has not benefitted much: no roads, no good schools, no employment. Whenever there’s an election, people are brutalized, beaten, and murdered.”

In 2008, Okelo — who was still living in Kenya where he worked as an administrator and handyman at his mother’s orphanage and as a radio DJ — pulled from a deep tradition of music as a tool for peace, organizing the Unite The People festival, which became the first public gathering in Kisumu following the post-election violence. “[The event] brought a lot of people who were kicked out of town back. This is where I realized that music could be a bigger tool to bring people together than I had imagined,” Okelo said. He used proceeds from the festival and donations from performers to register One Vibe Africa as an NGO that year.

“I was learning the needs of our community in Africa and the problems kids faced,” Okelo said, adding that many of the children living at his mother’s orphanage were children of parents who had died of AIDS-related complications or state violence.

“I saw that music was a thread that was holding people together. Music was a way for people to feel human, respected. When One Vibe came about, people felt a surge of energy and good feeling, which is what I wanted to give.”

United The People continued to grow, as did One Vibe Africa’s mission and programming. When Okelo moved to Seattle in 2010, he began hosting events and developing programs to fund ongoing work in Kenya. In 2014, the inaugural Madaraka Festival (named for Kenya’s independence day celebration) began raising funds to support One Vibe’s Education Music and Art Program (EMAP), which has since served over 1,000 youth in Kisumu. The festival, first held at Seattle’s Experience Music Project, featured a performance by rapper Macklemore, as well as an “impressive collection of local musicians and artists,” Humanosphere wrote at the time. “Africa was celebrated alongside African Americans like the late Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King Jr.”

Over the past five years, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Sauti Sol, Rocky Dawuni, Owuor Arunga, Chimurenga Renaissance, and many more have performed at Madaraka. Proceeds have been used to develop One Vibe Films and build a production studio, both Kenya-based “social businesses” that create content for customers and also serve as a learning hub for youth in the EMAP program. Part of the studio is situated in Okelo’s mother’s orphanage, which she transferred to One Vibe upon retiring, and 95 percent of the people One Vibe works with previously lived in the facility.

“If you go to a place like South Sudan or Somalia, where there is a war going on in sections of the country, you’ll find that music is illegal. It’s oppressed. Expression is suppressed. The moment art and music is not accessible, and the moment your language or culture is seen as not good enough, societies start to fail. In such places, it takes courage and vulnerability for an artist to go into the studio and express themselves,” Okelo said.

“We inspire, then empower — the inspiration is in workshops, in the music, and seeing others succeed. We give youth opportunities to become artists and business people with dignity, even if they don’t have funding.”

Okelo noted that One Vibe has created over 20 full-time jobs in Kenya. Through dedicated fundraising efforts — One Vibe relies primarily on donations, revenue from events, and small grants — the organization has been able to start several additional programs including a festival and video series dedicated to innovation in Kisumu, the premiere of Black Panther in Kisumu, a community garden, and a documentary about the Madaraka Festival.

“Our organization is very versatile. If you’re raised in [Kenya] you have to be a jack of all trades, not necessarily a master of all of them,” Okelo said. “Whenever we are uprooted from our communities, we find ways to survive despite all the challenges and that’s how I’ve developed One Vibe.”

“One Vibe is using the arts to create new pathways to success and self-realization for Kenyan youth in a way no other organization is. More young people’s lives are being lifted up each year by One Vibe and I am confident those young people will lead the organization, Kenya, and the continent to new heights,” Njuguna Gishuru, a rapper with Seattle group The Physics, said on One Vibe’s website.

This year, One Vibe has taken on the ambitious task of bringing Madaraka Festival to Kisumu. “This is a big deal because this is a town that is neglected. It’s like taking the Global Citizen Festival to Flint, Michigan,” Okelo said. “But there’s a desire to have festivals started by African people, companies that are started by African people.”

The first Madaraka Festival in Kenya will be held on August 3 and features African artists as well as those from the diaspora. Among the headlining artists is Nazizi, the first lady of Kenyan hip-hop, Ganahian American hip-hop artist Blitz the Ambassador, and Def Jam’s Mazzi and Soul Purpose. “It shows what can happen if you’re really diligent to a dream. When I was coming to Seattle, I didn’t think we would even be able to buy a camera,” Okelo added.

The work continues stateside, where Okelo and One Vibe will curate Celebrate Africa Day! for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on May 16 and Seattle University’s Africa Day celebration on May 25. One Vibe will host a fundraiser at the Northwest African American Museum on June 1 and, on July 11, be the first African community to curate an event at Nights at the Neptune. Okelo added that he’s working on a book of photos and essays about One Vibe, titled Rooted in Love, and is also considering recording children’s songs in African languages (Okelo often sings to his daughters in Swahili and Dholuo).

“Now that people are asking us to create these things… one of my visions is to create something like what we have in Kenya in Seattle. My ultimate idea is for people to use One Vibe as a model,” Okelo said. “One Vibe is really becoming a hub for people of African descent who are living in the diaspora.”

About the Author

Jessica Lipsky is the content editor for The North Star. Her work as an editor and reporter has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Vice, Billboard, Remezcla, Timeline and LA Weekly, among others. She regularly pens authoritative features on subculture, broke several music industry-focused #MeToo stories, and also writes on the business of music.