US immigration politics make their mark on Grammy-nominated J.S. Ondara

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Marco Werman: Kenyan musician J.S. Ondara is a little cagey when it comes to his initials, "J.S." 

J. S. Ondara: “J.S.” is something of a mystery. Those initials have sort of morphed into very many different things over time. So, it's usually whatever you want it to be.

Marco Werman: So the J.S. is a mystery. But when it comes to his personal story, J.S. Ondara is more of an open book. In 2013, Ondara won the State Department green card lottery to gain residency here in the U.S. But his story really begins in Kenya, with a fantasy of moving here. It's reflected in his tune "American Dream."

Some six years ago, you won the green card lottery. Obama was president, obviously. There was an actual president in the White House with real connections to Kenya, which is kind of even more interesting. What did all that mean to you at the time when you won the lottery?

Ondara: Well, it was extremely surreal. Before that, I had spent a couple of years really trying to find a way to get here. I did all kinds of things. I applied for for work, I applied for schools. I just wanted to come here and make music. I just felt this sort of very powerful calling to do it. And I couldn't ignore it. Eventually, the green card thing happened just out of chance.

Werman: So you arrive in the US, you start absorbing the full scope of Bob Dylan, who is kind of a touchstone of American musical culture for you, you dive into other singer songwriters, you land this major record deal and record an album that's gotten a lot of critical attention. And somewhere in there, Donald Trump gets elected. The opening track on your album is "American Dream." The final track is "God Bless America," which has the line, "Will you let me in or are you at capacity?" What was on your mind as you were writing these songs?

Ondara: I think that the times we are in definitely were a big part of my sort of headspace — just being an immigrant in America, being here and seeing this 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 were quite present in my mind.

Werman: Your album came out, I think, in February and almost answering that question, “Will you let me in or are you at capacity,” the answer comes from the White House later in the year when Trump said, "America is full." What did you hear in that, considering you'd already gotten into the United States?

Ondara: I think I was being mostly empathetic with a lot of people — I knew some of them personally — who were still trying to make their way with extreme difficulty [and] 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, "Are we at capacity?" We're obviously not, but I could see that that was sort of the narrative that the administration was trying to propagate.

Werman: On the deluxe edition of your album "Tales of America," which came out in September, you include several new tracks. And in the new sequencing on the album, the final track is a David Bowie composition titled "I'm Afraid of Americans." Why that song? Is the title literal? And what does it tell us about how you now see America?

Ondara: I've always been very fond of that song. I love David Bowie a lot and it felt like it was a very poignant song to cover on the record, with regards to the times we are 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 that is, I think, growing. So, I think that's where my head was when I was trying to put that in the record.

Werman: So as we head into 2020, obviously we don't know who the next president is going to be, but what would you like to tell this country that you had so many hopes about not so long ago, about how it ought to relate to people from other parts of the world?

Ondara: 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're going about doing that.

Werman: J.S. Ondara's album “Tales of America: The Second Coming” has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Americana album category.