Outside your wheelhouse: An interview with Kiva Uhuru


In the age of social media, people are developing their own personal brands. It is rare to find a musical artist’ without a Soundcloud, Bandcamp that showcases their talent. If you live in a city and frequently check out local music shows, someone is bound to show you their Soundcloud and Spotify. No matter how the music sounds, it’s exciting that people are willing to put themselves out there and share their music to strangers.

And having an online presence certainly helps when we are looking for artists to perform for our future shows.  But if when you’re trying to find out where to find great local music, the open mic scene in San Jose is another great way to meet amazing performers and artists. That is how I met Riley (The Come Up co founder), Meridian E and Marley Hale, (who both performed at our first show) and it is also where I met Kiva Uhuru, a multi talented performer who will perform at The Come Up 2 Electric Boogaloo later today.

Kiva Uhuru is a talented 20 year old guitarist and singer-songwriter who doesn’t have any recording works, except for some Youtube videos someone else posted of her performing. It is apparent her time and energy has been spent on building her craft rather than developing a brand around it. She has a strong soulful voice that has an aggressive presence even when she is crooning an R&B style song. And because she spends so much time performing live, she has developed an intelligence for playing for an audience and making unique events out of her showcases. When she is not performing, illustrating, or writing poetry, she is pursuing her education as a Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Major at The University of Berkeley.

Meanwhile I had to look up how to spell  enginerng  engineering. I’ve known Kiva for a few years. She even performed at one of The Come Up’s Sofa Session shows. So I had chance to talk to her about her craft, balancing work and school, and her plans for her music in a Q&A style interview.


The Come Up: What was growing up in San Jose like?
Kiva: It was so boring until I graduated high school. I didn’t see much of the city at all and pretty much split my time solely between school and home, which was in South San José. I was a part of the nerdy,  flamboyant misfit troupe most of my life: either loitering with other moody outcasts, or trying out radical ideas and personalities on-line. Graduating to the art scene on SoFA Street was both the obvious natural progression as well as a welcome shift in scenery.
The Come Up: What person(s) inspired you to pursue music?
Kiva: Honestly, the people who inspire me to pursue music are actually the people who tell me they enjoy my music and my sound. I would be playing music and performing at open mics for the rest of my able bodied life just because I enjoy it so much it’s almost compulsory. My favorite musical influences are to thank in part for sparking that desire, but the encouragement of others keeps me pushing for a bigger stage.
The Come Up: We recently interviewed one of our other performers Reign, who goes to an art school and is pursuing film. Being a high school student going to an art school, committing to music is within his wheelhouse. I was doing music and film in high school too. But you’re a Engineering student at Berkeley, which is famous for its rigorous academic coursework. How do you balance academics and your artistic endeavors, when they seem so juxtaposed?
Kiva: I think the most honest answer I can give is that there is no balance, it’s a lot of burning the candle at both ends, playing catch up, and hoping I land on my feet when I don’t practice either skill enough. However, just like Reign, I’ve been doing this since high school. The main difference is that the stakes are higher, and my enemy is not how different my interests are, it’s that there are only 24 hours in a day.
The Come Up: What’s the difference between the Berkeley music scene and San Jose’s?
Kiva: Not to knock Berkeley’s music scene, but since SF/Oakland/Berkeley are so close together, and arguably have fully articulated scenes with multiple very heavy hitters in every genre, from open mics to underground hip-hop to the DIY scene; the magnitude of options produce heavily fragmented microcosms that can feel really isolating. One has to work hard to be a known entity, and then break into each microcosm almost one by one. However, if you do befriend someone who’s been at it for a while, 100% or the time they will connect you to right people. It’s hard to navigate in the beginning when it’s hard to parse who’s in it for community and who’s in it just to be looked at for a moment.
On the contrary, San Jose is smaller but so much more open and accessible. If fact, with no business cards or spreadsheet of musical contacts and spotty attendance across the board, I feel like I may be one of the least community oriented of the frequent open mic-ers in San José (but I’m working on it.)
The Come Up: We originally met at Caffe Frascatti when you were performing an Open Mic. When and why did you begin performing open mics?
Kiva: A teacher at SJHS actually had me open for him at Frascati when I was a senior and after that I was sorta hooked. I really love performing, I love to jam with other musicians, I love coffee and being outside late at night. It was a no brainer.
The Come Up: You also busk as well right?
I do! It’s a great way to get rid of any lingering stage fright or other forms of being self conscious.
The Come Up: It is unique and awesome that you are known more for your live performances. Is there a reason you focus more on live music?
Kiva: I have a fear (or distaste) of recording so deep it may have subconsciously contributed to ending my last relationship (he was a sound mixer/master/producer.) Beyond that I just enjoy the ephemerality of performance and feeling immersed in a moment with the audience.
The Come Up: You once did an improvised song at Cafe Stritch’s Go Go Gong Show where you made an amazing song out of words people said in the crowd. *Do you remember the words that came from the crowd that you used?
Kiva: I do not recall, especially since I’ve wheeled that party trick out a handful of times since. However, I do remember the contents of the song were absolutely foul and shan’t be repeated.
*(Full disclosure this was a leading question. I know exactly what that topics she sang about that night and out of respect for Kiva’s privacy I will keep it to myself.)
The Come Up: I guess that’s a skill you develop from performing live and busking. As you know, we have comedians who perform between musical acts during The Come Up. Do you have any interests in comedy?
Kiva: I do, I’ve been gaining speed as a comedian, much more slowly since it’s a secondary interest, and because it’ll become a lot more feasible after I turn 21.
The Come Up: Do you have plans on releasing any music in the future?
Kiva: My goal for 2018 is to have an album by 2019.
The Come Up: What topics or subjects inspire your music?
Kiva: Heartbreak, self-doubt, desire. I like to take things that have happened to me and stitch them together with the thread of the common, cliché singer-songwriter themes.
The Come Up: Your musical style reminds me of Alabama Shakes, Hiatus Kaiyote, Hozier, and other soulful musicians who carry their music with raw, emotionally potent vocals and lyrics.
Kiva: Damn, thank you. Each of those artists are big influences.
The Come Up: What do you regularly listen to (or watch) that inspires your songwriting/composition?
Kiva: I read poetry, share stories by the campfire, and search for new music to cover to update my “toolbox” for writing my own songs. I’m mostly inspired by my own feelings and personal events, so I might watch a home video, have a little cry if I need to, and then start trying to pen something together.
The Come Up: I hated when people ask this question when I was a student. I still get this question and I still hate being asked it. So I’m going to ask you this question.
Kiva: I’m ready.
The Come Up: Okay fast forward to your senior year. You earn your degree. An engineering degree from one of the top schools in the country. Where do you go from there?
Kiva: I’m still considering moving to Ireland and working on music and film there, I just applied to a consulting accelerator, I might try to challenge Jeff Bezos for the throne in hand-to-hand combat over a waterfall. It’s really just about wherever the opportunities open up first.
The Come Up: You’re definitely an inspiration to me for your dedication to your studies and your many creative projects. What message do you have for young artists like yourself?
Kiva: First of all, thank you. In means a lot to me to know I inspire you, I can’t thank you enough for your support and for putting me on. Like I said earlier, part why I do this is because amazing, wonderful folks like you believe in me. To the young artists: never forget where you came from, practice humility, especially because you are asking to take up space, and use your singular, unique voice because it is your most abundant resource and simultaneously the most valuable.
The Come Up: Any advice for other artists who are also students?
Kiva: Do what you just to stay sane and to keep close to the whetstone, but don’t drop out. You’ve come too far to only come this far.
Kiva will be performing tonight at The Come Up 2: Electric Boogaloo tonight March 2nd at Uproar Brewing at 9pm. You can catch her at open local mics in the Bay Area.
As always, all photography was done by the enigmatic Leopoldo Macaya.

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