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'African Girl': Race and identity on stage at Northwest Folklife Festival

Naomi Wachira writes in one of her songs that she’s “trying to defy everything they said of us, we who have chocolate skin.”

Those words in “African Girl” speak to the clash of culture and identity that Wachira experienced after she moved to the U.S. at age 19.

“Growing up in Kenya, I was black and that's it,” said Wachira, who brought her African-influenced take on folk music to the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle this weekend.

But she says that in her first 10 years in America she spent too much time trying to fit in.

“That created this chaos internally because I felt like I was abandoning a huge part of who I was,” she said. “That's when I really started wrestling with my identity.”

Now she’s found a balancing point.

“I’m extremely proud of where I come from, of my heritage, of my faith, of my people, what we stand for,” she said. “But I'm also proud of the woman that I have become in this country.”

Seattle's known as being a pretty white city, and the racial diversity that we do have seems to be segregated into neighborhoods. That was something Wachira noticed when she first moved here.

“I’d walk into the downtown area and always wonder where the black people were,” she said. “Also because I'm African, people sort of can tell. I think that people always look at me like, ‘You're black, but we can tell you really not from here.’”

And she’s OK with being the “other.”

“If I go to a show and I'm the only black person there, I don't feel weird,” she said. “I don't really let those things sort of affect how I interact with the world.”

But like many people of all races, Wachira has felt the pressure of another divide that pushed her out of Seattle. She recently moved to Yakima.

“It's becoming pretty expensive to live in the city. I've loved Seattle so much, but being a full-time artist I can’t afford a place in Seattle at this point,” she said.

“When I first started doing music full-time about three years ago, I had a beautiful space in Queen Anne and absolutely loved it. I was in Europe for five months last year and I came back and I barely could find anything that was even comparable to what I had before.”

Year started with KUOW: 2006