Machakos Kyalo makes musical collaboration happen between Massachusetts and Kenya through his ONE TRyBE COMPANy in Amherst.
In 2003, rapper Machakos Kyalo moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, from Machakos, Kenya, a country he’s made synonymous with himself and his musical output. “We moved here for better opportunities,” Kyalo says, and his budding career in the Pioneer Valley is a testament to that pursuit.
Kyalo is also the head of the ONE TRyBE COMPANy, a collective that includes him, Kenyan Afrobeat gospel singer Brainny, Kenyan reggae artist Mtu Saba, and Boston-based producer and singer Aaron Mentos. Through ONE TRyBE, Kyalo creates cross-continental musical collaborations that take him and other Massachusetts-based musicians regularly to his hometown of Machakos. One of these, the 2016 music video “Run Caleb Ndiku,” a collaboration with Kenya’s gold-medalist runner, netted ONE TRyBE over 27,000 hits on YouTube.
Not only have these collaborations formed many of the most exciting moments on Kyalo’s standout projects—Rose’s Boy: Kenyan Man Standing (2015) and RUDE BOi (2016)—but proceeds from RUDE BOi fund a project to plant 10,000 trees in Machakos. We spoke to Kyalo about unity, progression, and the links between western Massachusetts and Machakos, Kenya.
Take: Why has social justice or change become a focal point of your work?
Michakos Kyalo: I can’t ignore my life. The people that are against me are against me every day. The struggles—they’re kinda there every time I wake up. So for me to ignore that, I wouldn’t be true to myself. Racism, classism, all of those things, man. Just being a black man in this society. I feel like if I was just to make lit songs all day, that’s not me. I don’t even drink, I don’t even smoke—that kind of deletes around 90 percent of the songs out there right now. I can’t ignore myself. I can’t ignore who I am.
T: What role do you think the arts can play in the turbulent political climate we’re in right now?
MK: If everybody was to unify, it could dictate how the world would be tomorrow for our kids, for the next generation. It would ensure that there would be art tomorrow, and that art would still matter in the forefront of our nation. This probably is the time for us to unify. This is the time, more than ever. Will we do it? Some are doing it, some are not. It’s really all about that unifying, just us realizing what the monster is and what’s against us and deciding that we’re going to come together against it.
T: Was there a specific moment when you realized your art had the potential to affect people’s lives?
MK: There’s been a lot, honestly. From my nephews singing my music—and they are three and four years old—to my friends sending me videos of them getting stopped by cops and singing “walk the line, walk the line,” you know? It’s shit that goes down, it’s things that happen—little things like that—that just tell me, “alright, we’re on track.” Random people reaching out to me, from all over the world. It’s been a beautiful process. I don’t really look for outside verification; I just verify myself, on my own terms.
T: What’s the overall mission of your ONE TRyBE COMPANy collective?
MK: ONE TRyBE COMPANy is Africa’s new sound. We’re the African sound makers. It’s the next generation of what’s going to bring African music forward. We have all different types of sounds—we have gospel, we have reggae, we have hip-hop—and we’re all just bringing it together. And our big thing is inspiring the young to show them that, look, we’re from small villages just like y’all. The footprints are still wet. There are kids that were like, “I want to do music, but I don’t have money to pay a producer.” One of our members, Aaron Mentos, was like, “Yo, I’ll make you the beats. No worries.” The tree planting—that was my mission off of my music. My next project is where I’m challenging myself to build a school. I’ll be able to record the kids of that school. I’m trying to build a three-room studio, like three studio buildings, and just give one of the studios to that school. It’s really just pushing ourselves and looking for what’s needed.
T: What do you love about Amherst and Machakos?
MK: In Amherst, I can see all the people that inspired me to get into music. In Machakos, I’m the most happy. I’ll go to the city, to Nairobi, and I’m not happy. But as soon as I cross that little border, it’s like that feeling when you realize you’re almost at your house. You can close your eyes and you’ll still know where you’ll end up. That’s Machakos to me. I forever love Machakos. Machakos Kyalo til I D-I-E. I want to create opportunities and just be an ambassador of music between Kenya and the United States.