For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

Six years ago, Kenyan folk singer J.S. Ondara left his home country behind to live with an aunt in Minneapolis and pursue his dream of becoming a musician. Though he was wholly unprepared for the windchills of the northern Midwest, he’s been able to channel his experience as a stranger in a strange land into his music and adjust to life in America.

The 26-year-old artist released his debut album, Tales of America, in February, which leverages his unease as an outsider into an album full of romantic storytelling—Ondara counts Bob Dylan as a major influence—but with a sound all his own.

We caught up with Ondara at Rough Trade in Williamsburg, where he made the second stop on his US and European tour. 

Onstage, Ondara presents himself as a traveling bard. He dresses in natty clothes, his guitar cases are stenciled with his name and strategically left leaning on the back edge of the stage, and a couple of dummy microphones are placed next to the real one, hearkening back to folk festivals of yore.

His voice, which has British-Kenyan inflections and earthy tones, often reaches up into a high, feminine falsetto. When he takes the stage for soundcheck, his presence has a centering effect on the room. Department heads from his record label, Verve Folkways, who have been fluttering about with preparations, become sharply attentive. Toward the end of the performance later, I spot a young woman wiping a tear from her eye.

In his introduction for the song “Turkish Bandana,” which he sang a cappella, Ondara explained that he never had access to instruments when he was growing up in Kenya, so he constructed songs purely vocally. Between songs, Ondara speaks fondly of his gently meddling, protective mother, who regularly chides him about his eating habits and asks him when he plans on settling down with a nice girl and getting a regular job.  

Friendly, funny and accessible, he was fully present and engaging as a performer—and then he was gone, back on the road.

This photoessay is the fourth installment in On The Road, a series of visual essays that explores the creative lives of notable musicians, onstage and off.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate