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Joshua Baraka is not afraid of his feelings

In ‘Jolene, the opening track in Joshua Baraka’s EP ‘Growing Pains,’ he yearns for an estranged lover; My darling Jolene/ Won’t you come back to me/ Cause my heart can’t let you go. He says this of the song: “these days a lot of music tries to portray men as tough, but on the streets, men are begging [laughs] they are on their knees.” 

Joshua Baraka is in the business of feelings. In fact, the singer-songwriter, instrumentalist and producer stands out among the current class of young East African musicians, whose music primarily functions as an expression of their vulnerability. “I’m a lover boy,” he says frankly before adding, “if I have to beg through the music then I will.” Whether he is trying to get his woman back, shooting his shot with a new one, or showering himself with affection, the Ugandan artist wears his heart on his sleeve. His music, characterised by lyricism that combines boyish charm, earnestness and humour, is anchored by a vocal range capable of delivering believably. 

In the last year, Joshua Baraka has been named a Spotify Radar artist, collaborated with the likes of Simi, Qing Madi and Nkosazana Daughter and opened for Bien on a European tour. In this conversation, the young artist lets us into his craft, his current measure for success and how music, and the places it has taken him, is changing his mind. 


You were on tour recently, opening for Bien, how was that?

Crazy, crazy. I got to go to all these different countries and I found people there that actually listen to my music. It was amazing. I learned so much from Bien, because he's a phenomenal artist. An amazing experience, honestly.


Which countries had your favourite crowds?

I loved Berlin, I loved...oh my goodness, I loved Denmark. Copenhagen was so good. Those were my two favourites I’d say.


How has your music turn shaped your personal experiences? Has it changed how you experience love and relationships?

Definitely, definitely. First of all, the bad thing is that I have found myself in a lot of compromising situations because I know I’ll write a good song from it [laughs]. But also when I think about what music has done for me, all the travelling and seeing the world, all of that has really reshaped my mind and how I think about life, relationships and love in general. I don't think I think of relationships the same way I would have if my music hadn't been as successful as it has so far.


What has changed in your thinking?

A lot of things, you know. They say you never know who you truly are until you are tested with the things you want. So, getting all the attention makes you rethink things. Like if you are sure you want to stay with one woman, you know [laughs], is it something I really want to do? And then there are things that come with fame. That's when you see who people really are. You see if people interact with you because maybe you're now a popular person. It just really changes the dynamic of what you think friendships are and what love really is. It's very interesting.


"The song 'Dalilah' clearly has a dancehall influence. Ugandans have long embraced Dancehall music, with artists like Ziggy Dee being a prime example. Can you elaborate on how dancehall influences your music?"

I listen to a lot of dancehall. I always have, ever since I was young, because a lot of Ugandans think that they are Jamaican [laughs]. Even me, I feel like I can speak a bit of patois. I feel like if I go to Kingston, I’ll understand what they are saying. But yeah, we grew up listening to a lot of dancehall and even now most of the music that is played in the clubs in Uganda is dancehall. So, the music people make is also heavily influenced by Dancehall. For me it shows in the way that I deliver my lyrics when I'm singing. Also in the way that I arrange lyrics in my music.

Axon produces the bulk of 'Growing Pains.' Tell me a little about your relationship with him?

Yeah, Axon is a very good producer. He is also a close friend of mine and we spend a lot of time with each other so we just connect musically. Sometimes even before I say something, he’s already doing it. We’re so in sync when it comes to music. And since I also produce, we felt more like a duo. With the new projects I'm doing, I'm trying to explore working with more people but Axon is still my guy. Still my default, I’d say.


What is it like producing when you are also a recording artist?

So, I've been producing for about five years now. I really love production. I play instruments so production comes easier to me and I really like it, man. I am also a writer, right? And song writing is not just writing lyrics, it’s making a song. And when I produce, I'm able to build a world around my own lyrics. I feel like I am able to deliver my music in the exact way I have it in my head. You get what I mean? If I want the song to capture the feeling of heartbreak for example, like Jolene, which I produced, mixed and mastered myself. So, with that I got to build a world around what I was trying to say, in a way that's true to me. It's quite amazing.


Have you got a writing routine?

No, not really. I’m on vibes, man. Sometimes I’ll wake up inspired and write something. Sometimes I write in the studio. Sometimes I'm walking and I get maybe a lyric or a melody or something. My music is very honest so most times, I'm just writing what I think. I don't really embellish. Like I don't write “roses are blue, the sky is purple,” I just write what I think in the most simple and straightforward way. And I think I got that from listening to a lot of Bob Marley and Chronixx.


In 'Dreams,' you talk about being a hometown hero. Tell me a little about how Ugandans receive you, and if you feel like it has changed over time.

When 'Nana' blew, a lot of Ugandans didn't even think it was a Ugandan song. They all thought it was a Nigerian song. When they found out it was me, the love was crazy. Ugandans really, really love me. They’re rooting for me, and they champion me. They want me to take over the world and everyone thinks I'm going to put Uganda on the map, which I'm striving to do. And it's just amazing to feel that energy and that love from everyone. It's really amazing.


How are you maintaining the connection with your Ugandan audience as you become more global?

I would say I make sure my music is still understandable and real for Ugandan people. And also, I'm just everywhere in Uganda. When I go back, I’m everywhere, man. But for the most part, I just make music. I don't really think too much about it.  

Typically, people tend to become more reserved as they become more popular. Do you find that you are enjoying presenting yourself, both in person and on social media, now that more people are aware of you and your art?

It depends on the day. Sometimes it's really fun to be outside and embrace all the love, and other times I just want to be indoors. But how I present myself, how I think and my social demeanour has definitely changed. I'm more confident but also more anxious. So, finding that balance between anxiety and total confidence has been very interesting.


What makes you anxious specifically?

Being somewhere and you know that everyone knows is already anxiety inducing, you know? Just having to experience all that attention. I mean sometimes no one even really cares. But in the times when you do feel like someone cares, it can cause some anxiety. Also, when I meet people, especially in UG, I don't really know what to expect from them these days. But for the most part it's manageable.

You've had quite a few “I made it” moments in the past few years. What are you looking forward to now, in terms of the next thing that will make you feel like you’ve made it yet again?

Working with artists that I have always looked up to and loved, like Chronixx and many more. But also, I have to say, while I’ve been in London, I've gotten a lot of co-signs and it's amazing, man. For me, because I’m a musician musician, my ‘I made it’ moments are when other musicians are like, “man, that's so good.” That's when I feel like, damn, I'm really here. And also, when I travel, and I find people in other countries who like my music, that makes me feel like I've made it.


Who are some of the musicians that have given you co-signs recently?

Jae 5. That was crazy. He really loved my work and my art. Literally everyone I've played something for in London has loved it and it’s such a blessing. Bien too, of course. Shout out to him, he really inspires me, you know. I grew up listening to Sauti Sol so being on tour with him, and him giving me the knowledge and treating me as a brother really, really inspired me and made me feel like I'm on the right path.


I wonder how you feel about being a hometown kid, but feeling like you have to leave your home country to find that structural support so you can properly grow as an artist?

I feel like our industries are still young. And just being in a position where we are able to provide industries and structures is a blessing. And an amazing thing I would say and I feel like in a few years, there will be more people out here doing a lot of great things because the structures and the networks are slowly building up. And I'm just happy to be part of the movement and one of the guys that's doing something at least.


How often are you in the studio?

I'm always in the studio. Always, always, always. If I rest it’s for about a week or two, but then I'm right back into it.


What do your studio sessions look like?

Everyone has a different process in the studio. My studio sessions are so boring. Like it's just me and piano. And then I’ll go write in like a corner, then stand up and record and then maybe add something to the beat. It's quite boring.


It sounds peaceful, rather than boring. Do you collaborate when it comes to songwriting?

No, I haven't really done that. I've collaborated with producers but my writing is very personal. I've had people in the studio and they’ll contribute maybe a sentence. Sometimes I write with one of my managers, his name is Sese, but that’s all.


How important is it that people can resonate with your music?

Very, because I write music in a way that I'm also listening to it at the same time. I want to engage a particular feeling with each song and if I feel that song, I definitely know there's someone out there who will feel that song. I have an EP called Watershed that was mostly like slow, soul songs and a lot of people were texting me around the time it dropped letting me know, “yo, this song changed my life,” and stuff like that. And that’s what it’s all about, man.


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