Welcome to Emerging Artists Spotlight, a new Billboard series where we highlight a musician who has recently made his or her debut on the Emerging Artists chart. Whether they are new to the industry, or have been around for a while but are just starting to have a chart impact, the intention is to showcase where they are here and now. First up is singer-guitarist J. S. Ondara, who debuted at No. 37 on the chart dated March 2.
Back in January, Billboard named Kenya-born, Minneapolis-based J.S. Ondara as one of the alternative/indie artists to watch this year. Though we’re not yet in March, Ondara is already making a splash, arriving on the Emerging Artists chart entirely on the strength of his debut LP Tales of America (Feb. 15, via Verve Forecast).
The acoustic Tales — which also launched on the Heatseekers Albums, Americana/Folk Album Sales and Rock Album Sales charts — explores the American dream, with Ondara both interpreting and critiquing the concept through velvet vocals (see: “God Bless America”). Ondara knows a thing or two about love, too, and expresses his perspective on the subject through “Torch Song” and “Saying Goodbye.”
When asked about his artistic journey thus far, Ondara pens a stunning poem of an answer, remembering the moment when he found out he’d be leaving home for the last time.
“Your sister knocks on the door, it’s seven in the morning. She yells at you, ‘Look out boy, you must be going to the America in a few short months.’ You yell back, ‘Shut your foul mouth, big sis, I’m trying to get me some sleep.’ She says it’s the Lord’s truth!” Ondara writes. “Here you are now, rising from your bed… your mother [is] standing there outside your room, weeping profusely like a little child. You then promptly realize something’s got to be the matter. ‘What is it, Ma?’ you ask. ‘Look out boy, you must be going to the America in a few short months,’ she says.”
From there, it was no way but forward for the singer. “You get your bag, your pen and your book, and you follow that old folk song ‘bout the wind to the frozen north,” he continues, detailing the move to Minneapolis, Minnesota. “You learn a few chords, write a few songs, meet a few people, play a few shows, lose a few pounds, gain a few pounds, see a few towns, make a few turns, lose a few hairs, try a few hats, and make a record…”
Learn more about J.S. Ondara below.
Hometown: Nairobi, Kenya
Recommended song: “Saying Goodbye”
Passion outside of work: “I’ve always been fascinated by the universe. It’s why I started writing; because I needed to know things, I needed to know who I was, and how come I was a conscious person…what was the big fiery ball in the sky, and how come it didn’t fall down? There were other seemingly conscious people around me — what’s their purpose? And how about those little ants on the ground building minute channels and forts, what’s their business? No one gave me any satisfactory answers, so I made up my own and I wrote them down. Questions only yield more questions, and the questions of my childhood have morphed over time. Now as a semi-responsible adult, I find myself thrusted and assimilated into life on this planet. Not by choice, really, that’s just how it worked out — that I was born and that I am here, and there’s nowhere else to go so I must stay. I quite like it.”
What’s next: “A loaded question. Well, so now I am here, I am alive and conscious, and I enjoy it most times. Once I have made peace with this fact, then I find myself with time in my hands, a lot of time. What is it that I can do that will add the most value to the society, and perhaps with luck, help in moving the civilization forward? I find it is telling stories; you can call them songs if you like. Stories are powerful tools, they help us examine ourselves, and by so doing help us reflect and grow. Humanity remains a puzzle but stories help us put together some of those pieces. So I will travel the world and tell these stories, sing them out loud to anyone who will hear, and I will keep doing that until I run out of time.”