Mumbi Kasumba on Rafiki, Songwriting, and Her Ongoing Connections to Ames Music

The singer-songwriter whose work was featured in the 2018 film Rafiki — banned in Kenya for depicting a romance between two young women — started performing during her time as a student at Iowa State University

Musician Mumbi Kasumba. Photo: Nazreth Yemen

Singer and songwriter Mumbi Kasumba made a lasting impression on Ames music fans during her years attending Iowa State University, penning some excellent original songs that she performed with local musicians at venues around town.

One of her songs made a particularly strong impression, the beautiful “Ignited,” which she later released as a single. The melody and feeling of this song, and its chorus especially, always stayed with me. So I was awed when the song appeared — in full — at a crucial turning point in the moving 2018 film Rafiki, directed by Wanuri Kahiu.

The film, which debuted at Cannes, is a Kenyan production about two young women, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), whose fathers are running against one another in a sharply contested local election. They begin to develop a romantic interest in one another, but it’s within a context of entrenched homophobia in their community — and in a country where homosexuality is illegal. (The film is currently banned in Kenya.) When the women’s love interest is discovered they face discrimination from their church, their families, and the law. (It’s worth noting that a sermon by their pastor about the supposed evils of homosexuality would not be out of place at conservative Christian churches all over Iowa.)

While the film has a clear-eyed view of the violence and hatred of anti-LGBTQ policies and sentiments, it’s also a vibrant and visually stunning celebration of love and resilience, and it manages to end on a hard-won hopeful note. Costume design by Wambui Thimba and hair styles by Carol Sunday are accentuated by the vivid cinematography of Christopher Wessels, shooting at contemporary location settings in Nairobi.

Rafiki is streaming on Kanopy (available free for members of the Ames Public Library) and is also currently featured on the Criterion Channel, alongside a new interview with the director.

The Informer reached out to Mumbi Kasumba to discuss her contribution to the Rafiki soundtrack, her songwriting career, and her continuing connections with Iowa musicians, including her recent feature on a new Gloom Balloon single.

Your song “Ignited” plays during an important sequence in Rafiki, it’s so beautiful. How did your music come to be in this film?

Yes, I love the scene they chose to include the song in. I wrote “Ignited” during my time in Ames and uploaded it to Soundcloud in May of 2016 with zero expectation. I got a Facebook message about a year later from Patricia Kihoro, the film’s music curator, asking if I would like to be a part of the project and once I heard a summary of the story I gladly accepted. Essentially, Soundcloud is what opened that door for me.

What did you think of the movie?

I loved the film. I thought they did such a great job telling a necessary story. I thought the acting was great and I loved how colorful it was visually. I was really moved both times I went to see the film.

If I understand correctly, you started your songwriting career while you were living in Ames?

I started writing songs when I was a child but never performed until I got to college. I met a rapper named Jordon Crusoe who was looking for someone to write a hook for one of his songs. He approached me, I agreed, and we later formed a band with a few of our friends called The People. Although that period in my life felt very light hearted and fun, it was really the beginning of me seeing the possibilities in music.

I remember seeing The People at DG’s Tap House. I was also a big fan of your work with AIBU. Are you still in touch with some musicians you connected with in Iowa?

Thank you! And yes, I’m still in contact with most of the wonderful musicians I met in Iowa!

What are some of your musical influences?

I’m inspired by so many artists. India Arie, Asa, Corrine Bailey Rae, Neil Young, Emily King, Slum Village are the first that came to mind.

What’s your songwriting process like? Do you tend to write lyrics and melodies at the same time?

I’ve almost always started with a melody. I tend to pick up a guitar or sit at a piano and play around until something sticks. Lyrics are generally harder to come up with for me. I’ll sing gibberish out loud and get a word or a phrase and have to chase down the rest. It’s almost like the song fairies give me a hint and it’s my job to complete the puzzle.

Do you remember the circumstances in which you wrote “Ignited”? There’s something about that song, it always stuck with me from the first time I heard it.

Aww that’s so great to hear. It’s been amazing seeing how so many people connected with it so organically. I think it connects with people because it’s very honest, I didn’t filter how I was feeling at the time.

So much of the music industry has been put on hold and there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future. Has the pandemic caused disruptions in your music career?

Yes, I had plans to do live shows this year. I really wanted to get back into it, but unfortunately the pandemic completely halted any chance of that for the foreseeable future. But I’m always hopeful things will work out in some way.

You are featured on the new Gloom Balloon album, on the song “Long Distance Love (Waterloo Sunset)” which is a great track. How was it working with Patrick on that song?

Working with Patrick was super easy. He’s amazing. I was so excited when he sent over the track and lyrics and asked to be a part of it. I rarely record songs I didn’t write, but I definitely wanted to be a part of Patrick’s project because I was already a fan of his work and I really enjoyed the feel of the song. I was in Zambia at the time I recorded my bit, so it was cool to do a cross-continental collaboration in that way.

Correction: The introduction to this interview as originally published mistakenly said the relationship between the two women was between Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Blacksta (Neville Misati), not Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva).

Nate Logsdon is a writer, editor, and indexer from Ames. He was a founding editor of the Ames Progressive and contributing editor at the Iowa Informer.