Kenyan musician J.S. Ondara is a little cagey when it comes to his initials "J.S."
"J.S. is something of a mystery. It's just, you know, those initials have sort of morphed into very many different things over time,” Ondara, said. “So, it's usually just whatever you want it to be."
J.S. might be a mystery, but when it comes to his personal story, Ondara is more of an open book.
He won the US State Department’s green card lottery in 2013 for residency in the United States. His story begins in Kenya with a dream of coming to the US, reflected in his tune "American Dream."
Ondara's album "Tales of America (The Second Coming)" has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Americana Album category — one of those categories you probably won't see awarded in the TV broadcast (but The World will keep you updated if he wins).
He spoke with The World’s host Marco Werman about his Grammy-nominated album, and how American immigration policies have shaped his sound.
J.S. Ondara: It was extremely surreal. Before that, I had spent a couple of years trying to find a way to get here. I did all kinds of things, I applied for work, I applied for schools and, you know, I wanted to come here and make music. I just felt this very powerful calling to do it and I could not ignore it. Eventually, the green card thing happened just out of chance.
I think that the times we are in, definitely, were a big part of my headspace, of just being an immigrant in America, you know, being here and seeing the growing intolerance towards immigration and knowing relatives and family and other people in my circles who perhaps haven't been as fortunate as I have been to have this green card. And so, a lot of those issues are quite present in my mind.
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Yeah, I think I was being mostly empathetic with a lot of people who I knew, some of them personally, who are still trying to make their way with extreme difficulty — in some ways struggling with my fortune and their misfortune. But I think, I could almost in some bizarre way foresee that kind of answer from the president while I was writing that. I was thinking we are at capacity, but we are obviously not. But, I could see that was the narrative that the administration was trying to propagate.
I've always been very fond of that song. I love David Bowie a lot and it felt like a very poignant song cover to add to [the] record with regard to the times we're [in] at the moment. And I think that the perspective that people have of America right now internationally is this feeling of fear of some sort about America that's, I think, growing. I think that's where my head was at when I was trying to put that in the record.
I think all Americans ought to remember that this country was started by immigrants. I think, America has, over time, put itself up as a beacon of sorts that's leading civilization or something. It's a tall order for anyone to carry, but, I think, someone needs to carry that torch. We should be more conscious about how we are going about doing that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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