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The making of a star – British-Kenyan SARAH IKUMU

You remember her as the teen who wowed, even the hardest to impress judges, at Britain’s Got Talent last year. British-Kenyan SARAH IKUMU, 17, whose powerful vocals belie her young age, stunned with her performance of a ‘difficult’ song, widely considered as the one that made superstar Jennifer Hudson. She spoke to EVELYN MAKENA on her journey to date

Her ascent to stardom had begun. From the moment Sarah Ikumu belted out a tune on a stage in London, UK one evening on the winter of 2017, during Britain’s Got Talent auditions, there was no doubt that she was incredibly talented.

There was something utterly special about how she performed her rendition of the popular 1982 torch song And I am Telling You from the musical Dreamgirls, displaying a level of spontaneity that was both uninhibited and exceptional.

Hitting the high notes with admirable ease, she exuded every emotion in the lyrics as if they were her own. By the end of her six-minute performance, the teen with Kenyan roots had won over hearts with her impeccable vocals and captivating stage presence.

The audience sprung to their feet and applauded deafeningly. Likewise, the judges gave her a standing ovation.  But the icing on the cake that evening was getting the golden buzzer from Simon Cowell, the often hard to please judge.

She had nailed the song which Simon described as ‘one of the biggest songs in the world’. The golden buzzer allows a participant to go straight to the live semi-final show.

“It came as a surprise. It’s like time literally stopped for about a minute,” says Sarah animatedly. There was no doubt that, right on that stage, where many successful artistes including Leona Lewis, Calcum Scott, Susan Boyle and James Arthur had launched their music careers, Sarah’s was ready for take-off.

Aged 15 then, she amazed with her performances all the way to the semi-finals of the competition. The singer, who was a favourite in the show, missed out on the finals following a public vote, but got a chance to perform on the grand finale as the ‘wild card’ – the favourite act according to the judges.

But how did the 17-year-old end up on arguably the world’s big stage, and shortly begin gravitating towards stardom?

She was born and raised in Milton Keynes, on the outskirts of London, a town famed for iconic cow sculptures and many roundabouts – about 130.

The last-born in a family of two grew up with her mother, a caregiver, and father, a truck driver, both immigrants from Central Kenya, who moved to the UK about 23 years ago. She first developed interest in singing from hearing music at home.

“My mum loved playing music in the house. As a child, I remember having a toy microphone that I would practise singing with most of the time,” she says. Her parents, Grace and Alex Ikumu, identified and nurtured her budding talent.

The gift grew on her gradually and naturally, and at the age of six, she was singing in the church choir in Freedom House Church, Northampton, where her father served as a pastor. Spending a lot of time in church and cultivating her singing in a Christian environment built strong values in her.

“I learnt to be strong in faith, determination, boldness and integrity. My parents taught me that all was possible if I believed,” she says.

Her journey paralleled that of legendary musicians such as Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson and Aretha Franklin, who all started their careers singing in church, and who she looks up to.

Sarah honed her vocal skills initially in church, and then in Christ The Sower Ecumenical Primary School. Yet, despite being aware of her talent, Sarah was not keen on building a career out of it.

“In school, my teacher knew that I could sing because I sang for her, as I never thought of performing on stage. I enjoyed singing in the church choir,” she says. In fact, growing up, Sarah aspired to become a model.

Her parents were, however, keen on helping her embrace the gift. When the family briefly moved back to Kenya between 2011 and 2013, Sarah went to school at Riara Springs School.

Her music was a priority to her parents and it’s among the reasons that saw the family go back to England, where they would help her further nurture her budding talent. 

In the ensuing years, her mother helped her enter local competitions including Milton Keynes Young Musician of the Year in 2014 and Midlands Teen Star in 2015, all of which she won.

But perhaps her biggest break came when she performed on Britain’s Got Talent (BGT), UK’s version of East Africa’s Tusker Project Fame. The grand finale of the talent show attracted up to 10.2 million viewers from across the world.

Apart from participating in competitions and singing in church, Sarah also used to perform at events. It’s while performing in one of the events in London in 2016 that Sarah was spotted by BGT scouts.

“After performing at that gig, I got a call from someone working with a record label, saying that they had seen me perform and loved it, and requested me to send them some of my music videos,” recalls Sarah.

A few days after sending the videos, she received a call inviting her to audition for BGT in September 2016. Initially, Sarah and her mother were hesitant to take the offer.

“We knew that I had to first go through a producer audition before meeting the judges during the competition,” she explains. But on second thought, they decided to give it a try after reasoning that, since she was not first going to meet the judges, it would not be so scary after all.

After getting through the producer auditions, her focus was on sustaining the momentum during the judges’ auditions in January 2017.

Before facing the judges, Sarah remembers starting her day by taking lemon honey and ginger, to soothe a sore throat she had developed a day earlier. The family partook of the Holy Communion, before heading to London via the morning train.

Asked what it felt like to miss out on the finals, Sarah says, “I was sad, but at the same time content with what I got. From the moment I joined the competition, I decided to take one step at a time, and not just focus on winning.”

Ever since setting foot on the big stage of Palladium Theatre, London, Sarah has been unstoppable. After her stint at BGT last year, she has been building on her promising music career.

She has gotten a chance to perform at equally big stages such as a United Nations high profile event, Showtime at the Apollo hosted by American comedian Steve Harvey, WE Day youth empowerment event, and shared a stage with mega stars including Shaggy, Sting, Pharell Williams and Jamie Foxx.

At the height of the newfound popularity, Sarah has not changed her lifestyle. Save for the occasional performances and appearances on shows, she prefers staying indoors, hanging out with her friends at the park, watching TV or sleeping. She still sings in the church choir.

For now, the soft-spoken and down-to-earth teen in Year 13 in Arts 1 School is busy balancing her studies and music. Striking the balance has been fairly easy on her since her school, which mainly focuses on performing arts, allows her time and space to advance her music.

What’s next for Sarah? “After the competition, I have been focusing on performing in various events. I plan to go back to the studio and hopefully soon release my own music, get my own single, album and then go on tours,” she says. 

Though she has spent much of her childhood away from her native country, that has not hindered her from connecting with her roots. She occasionally enjoys Kenyan cuisine such as njahi, mukimo, chapati, pilau and mandazi, which her mother loves making.

During her visits to Kenya as is tradition for the family during Christmas, she loves spending time with her grandmother in the countryside in Gatundu, and touring the country’s attractions such as the Rift Valley and Masai Mara.

“The great Kenyan weather is among many of the things I miss when I’m away,” she says. During her visit to Kenya this December, Sarah hopes to have her first performance in the country post Britain’s Got Talent.

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