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Meet J.S. Ondara, the Kenyan folk singer hoping to revive the ‘American Dream’

J.S. Ondara grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, listening to American rock and roll. When he was 17, he stumbled upon Bob Dylan -- and his life’s ambitions. Nearly a decade later, Ondara lives in the U.S. and just released his debut album, ‘Tales of America.’ NewsHour Producer Frank Carlson met up with him from his tour in Washington, D.C., to discuss how he hopes to “breathe life” into the American dream.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, highlighting a new voice in folk music.

    As a teenager in Nairobi, Kenya, J.S. Ondara was inspired by Bob Dylan. Now, nearly a decade later, he's living in the U.S. and is out with his first album this spring.

    We caught up with him as he kicked off a tour at the Songbyrd Cafe here in Washington, D.C.

    It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • J.S. Ondara:

    I knew that I wanted to be a folk singer when I was about 17 years old and discovered folk music through Bob Dylan.

    I'm J.S. Ondara, and I'm a folk singer from Kenya. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya. I had grown up listening to all these rock songs. And I was familiar with this song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and I was quite confident it was a Guns N' Roses song.

    So, I'm having this huge fight with a friend about it. And he's like, no, it's actually by this person called Bob Dylan. And I'm like, no, it's not.


    So we made a bet. And I lost the bet. But by losing that bet, I discovered Dylan and fell into this rabbit hole of folk music.

    When I was 17, and I found folk music and made this conscious goal, dream of sorts, to move to America and try to find a career as a folk singer, I tried everything to try to make that happen.

    You know, I applied for schools. I applied for jobs. And nothing really worked for years. I came to America through the green card lottery. With this card, you can be a resident in America. You can move to America. You can settle in the country and have a life there.

    When that happened, it randomly felt as though it was some kind of manifestation of destiny. In this record, "Tales of America," contemplating about the times that we are in, in America, contemplating about how I fit as an immigrant in the times in America, you know, contemplating about the American dream.

    What does it mean for someone who's not in America, and how does that contrast to the actual experience of being a resident in America? And so I hope, in some way, to breathe life to the idea of the American dream, because perhaps it's something that people are losing faith in.

    I hope, in some fashion, that through my life and through the tales, to rejuvenate this idea, and not just for Americans, but I think for just all — people all around the world.


    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Beautiful music from J.S. Ondara, reminding us again that music reaches all the way around the world.

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