Inspired by Kenya, Nelly Furtado gives voice to the power of community.
By Jesse Mintz
Nelly Furtado’s latest single “Pipe Dreams” from her upcoming album, The Ride, is a hazy, thoughtful track—the kind of music you want to put on in the comfort of your home and vibe out to.
A reflection on reality and dreams, the song came to Nelly in bits and pieces during a trip to Kenya. Walking with mamas to fetch water, she recorded notes on her phone and wrote scraps of lyrics that grew into the song.
Nelly’s deep attachment to Kenya is a well of inspiration. So are the girls she’s met there.
The GRAMMY Award-winning singer-songwriter has been a tireless champion for girls’ education since her introductory trip to the region, when she visited WE Village’s first all-girls secondary school in the Maasai Mara. one-on-one time with the young women of the community, Nelly saw what the opportunity to go to high school meant to them. But she also met so many girls who wouldn’t get that chance. On that trip, she offered to support the dream of a high school education for one girl, Susan.
When she came to perform at WE Day Toronto 2011, Nelly announced a $1 million donation, half of which would set up a matching fund to build a new all-girls school in Kenya. The school she helped to build, Oleleshwa All Girls Secondary School, is giving hundreds of young Kenyan women an education. Nelly personally provided full scholarships for five of them.
This December, 52 girls formed the first graduating class from Oleleshwa.
Nelly’s struck up deep and meaningful friendships with the people in that community: drawing inspiration, sharing her life, her music, and her daughter, and has come to think of them as family. We sat down with Nelly backstage at WE Day Toronto to talk about what the next generation of women leaders means to her.
You’ve visited the community in Kenya many times now, what keeps drawing you back?
It’s the people. I met Susan and her mother Monica my first time in Kenya. Susan was number 41 on a list of 40 girls who’d get to go to Kisaruni, but she dreamt of being a doctor. By the end of the trip, Kisaruni had made room for Susan and it was totally magical. Monica was so grateful. The girls all welcomed her and we’ve kept in touch ever since. I feel like we’re family.
That group of girls from your first trip has now graduated. What does that mean to you?
When I received notice that all the girls from the original Kisaruni class had gone on to postsecondary education, I was beside myself with tears. Joyful tears. When I met the girls before they even had their uniforms in 2011, I was hopeful they’d finish high school and grateful they were in grade 9. To see their exceptional grades and to know the hard work they put in to get to the next stage is thrilling.
Graduation day was obviously filled with so many special moments. What was one that stood out to you?
I’ve seen these girls grow up and I saw the way they looked at Monica, the only women on the Narok Council. Sitting there with 40 men, they know she has a voice. They’re inspired be her, and they know they can have a voice too.
What lessons do you think we can learn from these girls?
My daughter has learned more from these students than any other women in her life. Watching these young women from rural Kenya get up on a stage and do a speech about planting avocado trees in their community and how that protects their father farm land from drought, seeing them empowered and get engaged in politics, is incredible. When you witness women finding their voice it’s a beautiful thing.