Young Artists in Zimbabwe: Musician Keen Marshall

Despite the hardship suffered in Zimbabwe, the country is fertile breeding ground for talent. In this short blog-series, I will introduce you to the stories of some of Zim’s young talents as a platform to share their art.

Keen Marshall Nhemachena (25) shows up to our appointment dressed the part. His love of jazz and soul shines through in his polished light brown shoes, smart set of chequered pants and matching cap. To finish it all off, he is wearing light-blue sunglasses and a necklace with a shiny guitar pendant. Keen has brought along his younger brother Allan (19) – stage name Allie McTany – who also recently started a musical career, but unlike his brother he is devoted to R&B (listen to his song “Happy” on Soundcloud). He is wearing a cool denim outfit with puma sneakers, some silver bling around his neck and a black cap and specs.

Both brothers grew up around music. Their father was a fervent guitar-player, but was never able to fully pursue a career in music because of his career in education. He now works at a college in South Africa. Mr. Nhemachena always stressed the importance of education to his sons. “Education is the passport to the Future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” When Keen brought up the idea of getting a degree in jazz, his dad said he should also build a career outside of music. As a result, Keen now studies IT and Allan is preparing to study architecture next year. But, as Keen says laughing: “Wherever I go, I always end up singing and entertaining.”

Keen has been in multiple choirs and bands throughout his life, but now runs a band called Keen Marshall and The Cousins. They play in restaurants, at festivals, school competitions, weddings and corporate functions. In fact, many opportunities have come to him through school, so in the end he is proud he followed his father’s advice. He played with the school band at the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, an important national site, on the occasion of the president’s birthday. Important people attend events like that, which means good exposure. “You need to be connected to the people “up there”.”

The boys face the same challenges as musicians everywhere, although the money-situation in Zimbabwe is even more dire. Keen says: “People don’t want to pay for live music, because they don’t have money. They tell me: “Your performance was amazing, god bless you.” But I can’t eat “god bless you”.” He explains how money is always an obstacle to keeping his music going. “If we don’t have money for transport, for example, we can’t go to a gig.” There is also a lot of competition: “Many Zimbabweans are now venturing into music because there are so few jobs and they don’t have anything else to do. They have a laptop and mic and just start recording. But it’s never easy to be an artist. You also need a good personality, discipline and humor.”

In April, Keen brought out a first cd with his own songs. When I ask Keen about his inspiration, he says: “I’m an emotional person, so when something moves my heart I will write a song about it.” He tells me that he usually starts playing his guitar first and the words will follow the melody. Most of his songs are on love, relationships and treating others well. Among his songs is an ode to his mother called “Amai Vangu”, thanking her for always being there and teaching him to be a better person. “It is my father’s favorite song.”

Keen adds: “As an artist you don’t just sing, you sing because you want to send a message. I try to send encouragement and sing about the need to improve yourself. We are always good at blaming other people, but our background doesn’t have to determine where we are going.”

The video below is his love song “Murudo”. It is in Shona and uses some typical Zimbabwean lyrics. He sings: “We are mielie-meal and water. Like sadza, we will always be together.”