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Navigating young stardom

While the entertainment industry may be glamorous with the fame and fortune it presents, it can also be tempting and treacherous, which may be too much for anyone, let alone a child. From winning handsome deals, bagging awards, performing at big stages, to lost childhood, shakey family units, high expectations, glary-eyed social media and rebelling against their image, HARRIET JAMES explores

“Ladies and gentlemen… join us in welcoming Amani G to our record label,” says Pine Creek Records Founder Peter Nduati as he ushers 13-year-old Amani Gracious to the stage at Capital Club, Westlands Road. It is a breezy Friday evening on July 13, when the girl from Githurai officially joins Pine Creek record label as its new star. The young songstress, who will now go by the stage name ‘Amani G’, found herself thrust into the limelight following the viral video where she sang Alicia Keys’ hit song Girl on Fire. Appearing unkempt from play and belting out the tune like a pro against the backdrop of a dusty sprawling street, the video not only captured the hearts of many Kenyans, but also caught the attention of award-winning international star Alicia Keys herself. It was recorded by members of philanthropic organisation ‘influencehers’, who came across the girl while in Githurai. “I just wanted to thank the missioners for giving us sweets by singing for them, and they filmed and posted it online,” Amani told PD Wikendi in a previous interview of how the clip came to be.

The teenager immediately became highly sought-after, attracting the interest of local music heavy weights such as Sauti Sol, Vivianne, Big Ted and Pine Creek Records’ Peter Nduati, who has promised to work with her to fully explore her talent. Her package with Pine Creek includes, a two-year deal with a minimum pay of Sh2.5 million and no limit on the upside. In addition, as a result of the security threats her family has been receiving since Amani’s unanticipated fame, they have been moved to a posh estate, where they receive tight security.

The perils of young fame have been widely documented, especially in the media, and Amani is lucky to have Pine Creek that promises to take care of various details around her life, to support and give her guidance. International child stars such as Home Alone actor Macaulay Culkin, singer Demi Lovato and Lindsay Lohan of the famous teen comedy Mean Girls are just but a few who have fallen victim of the dreaded ‘child star curse’. Closer home, renowned Machachari star Ian Munene, popularly known as Almasi, who was once a darling to TV viewers, now has many worried about his latest transformation. Others have come to his defense, arguing that the star should be left to grow. All thanks to his septum piercing as well as being seen on social media wearing black nail polish, lipstick, flowers on his hair and also posing while pouting. “It’s crazy how someone can spend so much time writing paragraphs on paragraphs of how much counselling and help one needs, going on to state how much of a total waste I am and other nasty s***,” Munene addressed the concerns.

FAMILY

As is often the case when people become famous, children not excluded, more doors open in their life, that would have otherwise remained shut. And for Amani, it has indeed been a complete turnaround, not only for her, but for her family too. The second-born in a family of four siblings comes from a humble background and was raised by a single mother since, as her record label puts it, her father abandoned them when she was six years old. The label’s main focus is not just to make her a star, but also ensure that she completes her studies. It promises to help secure a good high school for her, as it works on completion of her album. “I never thought a video of me singing would be seen by so many people including Alicia Keys herself. My mother has been with me throughout and I thank her for never leaving my side. I’m also very thankful to Pine Creek Records and Peter Nduati for helping me and my family get a better life through my singing. I hope the songs I release in future will be loved by Kenyans and the world,” said the KCPE candidate during her vote of thanks at the event.

Amani’s father John Eric, a performer and music director at Wuod Fibi And The BiB Muzika was not present at the function. We met him some weeks back in Githurai when we went to interview the young star soon after she became famous. His nice car standing in contrast to the tiny house Amani shared with her three siblings and mum, we chatted with the Kisumu-based artiste while waiting for Amani to finish up another media interview. “I would like to move all of them from Githurai now,” Eric told us. He said that although he is proud of his daughter, this is not how he would have liked her to rise to fame, as he wished for her to finish school first then dive fully into music, but, since the time had come, he had no option. Amani would tell us during the interview that at first, her father was upset that the missioners filmed her and posted the clip online, but later on, he calmed down. Eric went on to share that he had landed Amani an acting gig in the UK, where she would take up a singing role in the biography of a certain musician. He had almost finalised the deal in his recent trip to the UK, where he also had a show dubbed Ramogi Festival, and that shortly after KCPE, she would travel to the UK for taping. In our one-on-one with Amani, she said her father helped her record her first song. “I started singing when I was nine years old. My mother encouraged me to sing in church after she noticed I had the talent. My father later on helped me record one song, titled Nasimama,” she said. Immediately after our interview, Eric, popularly known as Wuod Fibi, drove the family to a mall to buy outfits, as they would be appearing at NTV’s The Trend that evening for yet another interview.

Alongside the fortune that fame brings the way of child stars are some challenges, such as family tussles, since as a minor, a child needs a guardian to operate on their behalf in just about all matters, from legal to financial. Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin faced the downside of fame when he rose to stardom in the widely popular and highest-grossing movie of 1990, where he acted as Kevin McCallister, who despite his young age, used his wits to fight the bad guys after being left home alone. His fortune brought about a nasty custody battle where his parents fought to have control of the child’s wealth. Consequently, Culkin, who was once a darling in the world scene, got affected and began taking drugs.

SOCIAL MEDIA

With social media basically at the centre stage of our lives, child stars, like other celebrities, also find themselves having to deal with praise as well as condemnation from blogs, the media, as well as anonymous strangers. Parents of upcoming gospel star Nikita Kering, 15, are well aware of this and do their best to be as protective as possible. The girl has already shared the stage with some of the most respected names in the country’s entertainment scene. “The most memorable performance for me would most definitely be my first performance at the Kid’s Festival. There were over 60,000 people, it was extremely cold, and we had to run because I was about to miss my performance. It was an amazing experience. Recently, in June, I also got to perform during The East Africa Comedy Show hosted by Chipukeezy at KICC. The audience was the best ever,” says the teen star, who has also performed with Emmy Kosgei in front of the president.

Nikita’s mother, Anne Kering, confesses that while social media tools have been instrumental in enabling their daughter find and interact with her fans, they understand its dangers and try as much as they can to be actively present in all their daughter’s social platforms as well as manage them. Her song titled My Father, that she did for her dad on his birthday got over 1.3 million views on Facebook. “Social media of course presents a huge challenge especially as she grows and she becomes more known. She has presence on Instagram (18,000 followers), Facebook (101,000 followers), and also on Twitter and Snapchat. As parents, we are forced to be active on all these platforms. She, however, gets to interact and respond to many of her fans once in a while, especially when she is not in school. The toughest moments on social media is immediately after her performances, especially on TV. The activity is usually quite high and can be overwhelming to all of us,” adds Nikita’s mum.

In the 1930s in Hollywood, record labels and production companies put pressure on stars to present themselves as flawless beings that were closer to gods than humans. However, presently, authenticity is becoming more and more accepted. Willow and Jaden Smith, children of TV stars Jada Pinkett and Will Smith, are adored by their fans for being themselves. While Jaden loves donning his gender-neutral fashion, Willow, 17, who recently admitted that it was awful growing up in the spotlight, is content speaking openly on her offbeat spiritual beliefs. This is the philosophy former Machachari child actor Ian lives by. “He is just a human being, sharing life from his perspective and not caring what anyone thinks about that. A pioneer of self-love and acceptance, fused with the new age of social technology, a dude filled with positive vibes is all you expect,” reads a part of the ‘About’ section in his blog, ian.nene. Child stars face the challenge of being judged harshly by the society, which fails to understand that they are children first before they are celebrities. When a child star rebels, it’s not just their work that is on the line, but also, they are quickly judged by hundreds of fans, who reprimand them for not being a positive role model to other children. Ian faced this wrath several times, especially due to his unconventional style of dressing, and many accused him of being gay, on drugs and being mentally unstable. In his defense, he posted on his Instagram page: “People will always look for something to say to fill up their false ego. It’s interesting to see that a majority of people have no clue what I do and who I am, yet they think they have the right to judge and critique my actions. For anyone dealing with anything similar… Just remain focused. The truth will be out in the end.”

GROUNDED

Ruth Mwaura, a psychologist and director of Thalia Mental Health says the society gives kid stars too much attention and pressure to a point they can’t be themselves. They are strapped with expectations — from parents to producers, agents and fans. Trying to meet all these expectations whilst also being the performer/person one wants to be can be challenging to anyone, let alone a child. “Kid stars are kids, and like all children, they need to rebel, but they can’t. They subsequently become resentful and act out when they become older and gain more freedom,” she argues. Though studies on child stars are scant, psychologists who have researched on the effects of young stardom propose that strict parental limits is key in ensuring stability in the young stars, especially in their post-adolescent years. The attention that they get in most instances inflates their egos, especially those who have not been grounded to handle it.

Nikita has not only travelled the world because of music, but has also met many celebrities, been interviewed by various media platforms, and also hosted kids’ programmes on radio and TV. Even with all these milestones, she attributes her staying grounded to her parents’ support. “The family has been a great support system for Nikita’s growth. She’s the fourth-born in a family of two girls and three boys. As a family, we try to attend all her performances. We have also ensured she gets the right mentors and exposure,” says Nikita’s mum. She adds that they focus her music activities mainly over the weekends, holidays and a little after school during the week. “The advantage we have is that she is still young and academic demands are not too heavy. She is usually done with homework before she gets home. We want to maximise on her art now because we realise that the more she advances in school, the less time she will have to do other things,” explains Anne.

Florence Manjeru, mother to nine-year-old Shanah Manjeru, gospel singer of the Destiny fame, says that treating her daughter like other children in the house is a weapon of keeping her grounded. “I don’t think she feels like a celebrity as she goes on with life like any other child. We don’t treat her like one. She gets disciplined just like her other siblings when she gets out of line. She does chores like the others, such as washing dishes, making breakfast, sweeping and even washing clothes once in a while. She is also very social, so we encourage her to relate and play with everyone,” says Florence.

Nikita seconds her mum saying that as a result of being grounded, her life, particularly her schoolwork, has not been affected. “I got to play with my friends a lot in the estate when I was younger. Most of my events take place on school holidays. Of course it can be quite challenging when you have an event. It means you have to put in more hours for rehearsals,” she says. Amani too says her mum has been by her side and has helped her cope and get through her new found fame. In addition, inclusive of her package with Pine Creek, are managers who will navigate with her through the seasons of life and help her remain focused in her studies, music and any other profession that she settles to pursue in future.

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