Features Leytonstone

Kenza Blanka’s art of resilience

The Leytonstone singer fusing Moroccan beats with empowering lyrics

By Marco Marcelline

Kenza Blanka, Credit: Leila Afghan

In the music video for Leytonstone based musician Kenza Blanka’s song Malika, Kenza is sporting traditional Moroccan attire and a ‘Yaz’ chin tattoo which means freedom in Amazigh, the language of her Berber ancestors. The track, which channels self and women empowerment, includes Moroccan live traditional instruments set against an Afro-Amapiano beat. It also includes lyrics from eight languages, English, French, Moroccan Arabic, Zulu, Shona, Uroba (Nigerian), and Italian. The decision to include such a range of languages is a nod of respect to the rich diversity of female friends she has in London who heavily inspired her, Kenza says. 

Warm and bubbly in person, Kenza notices my name and asks if I’m Italian, and laughing, she reveals: “The first time I said the Italian lyric, [which proclaims ‘I am Moroccan’], I said it from a man’s point of view.” 

It’s been a journey for Kenza to get to this point of uninhibited self-expression and pride,  however. Turn back the clock some years and a younger Kenza would be surprised at the unabashedly Moroccan flavour and symbolism present in her music and imagery these days. Raised on a Norfolk council estate by a Moroccan father and English mother, Kenza grew up not feeling comfortable with owning her North African heritage and faced some troubles at school because of her unique voice and look. She moved to Hackney at 17 before settling in Leytonstone a year and half later. 

Her first years in London saw Kenza navigate a period of having to live in her car, but it was also a formative time in beginning her career as a musician and forging helpful musical connections. During this time she hung out a lot with the rapper Professor Green, the singer Labrinth, as well Labrinth’s musician sister Sherelle, and additionally spent time recording with Ludacris in the United States. 

Credit: Dele Oluwayomi (@errbodysaycheese)

Being a working class woman of colour, Kenza had wanted to sing about her experiences of poverty, mental health, and discrimination but was told by those around her that her “baby voice” didn’t suit the subjects at the time. This meant she jumped between RnB, Hip-Hop, and pop in her early years of recording music, without making the music that she felt was completely true to her being. 

After a period of recording more experimental music, a transformative meetup with a Moroccan artist friend saw the construction of her Moroccan inspired stage-name (Blanka is a reflection of Casablanca, the city her dad hails from). Then, in 2019, an invite to audition for the Voice UK came in. 

Kenza ended up singing her own Arabic, French and English version of Belgian artist Stromae’s Papaoutai on The Voice stage in front of Sir Tom Jones, Olly Murs, Will.I.Am, and Jennifer Hudson. The electric performance had everyone in the crowd standing up on their feet, and garnered an incredible reaction from viewers at home. “I had people in their seventies and eighties messaging me from all over the world. An older gentleman told me, ‘I’m 79, I put my crutches on the floor and I started dancing’”, she laughs. 

“I didn’t know it would get the reception it did at the time. It just went wild.” The fact that Kenza didn’t manage to turn the coaches around didn’t matter: the YouTube video of her performance now has close to one million views. A few days after the performance Kenza noticed that her Twitter had started to blow up. It turned out that coach Olly Murs had posted a video apologising for not turning his chair around for her. And in the aftermath of the television broadcast, someone had even started a petition calling for Kenza to be put through to the next round. 

She was also blown away by the fact she didn’t see a single negative comment on social media after the performance was released. “[The response] made me feel good. It made me feel confident. It made me realise that a lot of the worry we have is just in our heads.” After The Voice, Kenza began getting a lot of management offers but she was patient and wanted to work with people that connected with her craft and understood what she was about musically.

After a spell of trialling various managers who didn’t fit what she was looking for, in November last year, she signed with Universal Music MENA. 

Rejection and setbacks taught her the importance of resilience. “A lot of people said, ‘oh you’ve been doing this for a while, just forget it’”, she reflects, but, it’s clear she has a knack for picking herself back up and seeing the positive in what others might see as negative. In fact, in the months following The Voice Kenza was invited to do a Ted Talk on resilience in Casablanca, which she admits was nerve wracking, but a critical moment in her self development. 

A multi-hyphenate, Kenza doesn’t just record music. She’s set up a fashion label called ‘I Am What I Am’, which extols the value of embracing and accepting who you are. And, having had experience working as a mental health nurse for eight years, and keen to advocate for mental health, Kenza utilised her knowledge to write, direct, and film a five-part series of short films on identity and mental health. 

Kenza also helps to run E11 Music Studios, a recording studio she co-founded six months ago. It is dedicated to platforming the musical talents of Moroccan artists in London, as well as local people with special learning needs and mental health vulnerabilities that aren’t typically given the opportunity to make music. Helping other emerging artists is important to her. Anyone that comes to the studio with the intention to make music and who wants to film a video is connected to a local videographer that can help with that, she says. 

Moving forwards, Kenza continues to shine a spotlight on underheard voices and provide empowerment to those who need it. In fact, she’s just released a song called Denya Dwara which deals with domestic violence especially to women in oppressed cultures where divorce is not accepted, and it’s harder to escape from abusive marriages. Her eyes are set on playing festivals and at events this summer and, of course, making more music with the goal of inspiring people to embrace their true and whole selves. 

You can keep up with Kenza’s music by following her on Instagram: @kenzablanka

Denya Dwara is out now


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