Are We Here Yet?
The 2011 performance at Nairobi’s The Theatre Company opens with two Mau Mau fighters stuck in Mt. Kenya forest. It is 1983. They are unaware Kenya gained independence 20 years ago. The two fighters, Mahela and Githai, re-enact the Mau Mau oath of allegiance, an annual tradition they have practiced the entire time they lived in the bush. Their enduring memory of life before this moment, is of the night they were dispatched to kill a British settler. They went as far as the white man’s bedroom, but developed cold feet. Now, 20 years later, they believe they are cursed for violating a cardinal Mau Mau oath – to kill the enemy. And are convinced that they can only get atonement by finding and killing an alternative white man.
The sound of an approaching vehicle interrupts the dreadlocked Mau Mau fighters obsessing over the oath. Two African American tourists emerge, accompanied by a white tour guide. Due the colour of his skin, Mahela and Githai decide that the tour guide is a colonialist and the accompanying African Americans his home guards – members of indigenous Kenyan communities who chose to collaborate with the British, branded traitors of the independence struggle. When the African Americans spot Mahela and Githai, they ask the tour guide whether the two-dreadlocked men are cast members for a skit and part of the entertainment package for the tourists seeking a full colonial misadventure experience. The confused tour guide mumbles a response as the two fighters presuming they are under attack, strike and capture the group. With a captive white man in their hands, Mahela and Githai debate on whether to kill him to cleanse themselves of the curse. Moments later, the two African American tourists break loose, make a sprint for the forest, and in the ensuing fracas, Githai accidentally shoots the white captive.
That performance, ‘Are We Here Yet’, marked Kenyan thespian Ogutu Muraya’s debut as a scriptwriter.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
In April 2012, a 26 year old, Ogutu woke up in his London hotel to good news. The Guardian newspaper had given the Kiswahili adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ translated by Ogutu, a Five Star rating. This was the highest accolade of any of the 37 Shakespeare performances delivered in 37 different languages at the Globe to Globe Festival – the biggest festival on Shakespeare’s works held during London’s Cultural Olympiad. Apart from translating the play, Ogutu was part of the cast and The Guardian singled him out for naughtily embodying his character, Mistress Quickly.
‘‘Such was the power of the performances, the way the cast seemed to live their lines, that the language barrier hardly mattered… the Swahili had an earthy gusto, an air of languor and sunshine that made Shakespeare’s prose seem prissy and verbose,’’ wrote the Guardian’s Andrew Gilchrist.
‘‘It ended, of course, with a dance, the crowd up on their feet clapping along as the company took their bows. A young girl sitting near me, who had been laughing throughout, was almost overcome. “To see Shakespeare in this setting, in Swahili, in England, it’s fabulous,” she said.
Ogutu and the seven cast members, including Tanzanian poet and thespian Mrisho Mpoto, who played the lead character, had left Nairobi for London on a shoe string budget. They had bought an assortment of second hand clothes for their costume, having only been able to afford proper attire for Mrisho. On arrival in London, they attended the technical rehearsal for Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’, performed in Russian. What they saw made them decide they stood little chance at making an impression on the London audience. They had never performed in such a state of the art theatre. The group’s confidence took another hit when they attended the Maori performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’. At the end of the show, the New Zealand cast performed the haka, the war dance popularized by their All Blacks rugby team.
It therefore came as a pleasant surprise that the East Africans made a lasting Five Star impression on the London audience.
DAS Graduate School
Fresh off ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ high, Ogutu submitted an application to DAS Graduate School (Academy of Theatre and Dance formerly known as DasArt), the prestigious experimental art institute and appendage of the Amsterdam University of the Arts. The main pitch on Ogutu’s portfolio, beside the Mau Mau piece, was that he had translated Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ into Kiswahili, and been part of its cast during London’s Cultural Olympiad. The rejection letter, was accompanied by an email observing that Ogutu had a Shakespearean aesthetic, therefore advised him to instead apply to a British arts school, where he stood a better chance of admission.
Ogutu became aware that translating Shakespeare into Kiswahili and performing the same was not necessarily the most progressive thing for him to do. A member of the London audience observed that he ‘‘understood Shakespeare better in Kiswahili than he ever did in English’’, making the point that by translating Shakespeare, Ogutu had facilitated the export of the Empire’s culture to its former colonies and delivered it in a language and manner that was both agreeable and accessible to the former subjects. The translation had added a cultural richness to Shakespeare and to the validation of English literature in the former colonies.
Fortunately, Ogutu landed a month long residency in the Netherlands in September 2013, where he was to spend time interacting with arts institutions. Before his arrival in the Netherlands, Ogutu announced that DAS rejected his application during the school’s previous intake and he was keen on giving it another shot. The residency granted Ogutu’s wish and he ended up spending two weeks at DAS.
DAS is not your traditional performance school. The conversations dwelled on his future prospects as a performing artist, since DAS mantra was unhinged experimentation and imagination, seeking to break boundaries to produce artists grounded in practice. The more time he spent at DAS, the more Ogutu felt it was where he belonged. DAS admitted between seven and nine students for its two-year graduate program, and Ogutu knew it was not going to be easy gaining admission. He worked on a new application, and in early 2014, received news that he had made the shortlist. He travelled to Amsterdam for a three-day audition, went through a slew of interviews and made the cut second time round, joining DAS in September 2014.
Before admission, Ogutu had to bring a new birth certificate for the process of residency in Amsterdam. The old one was not accepted. He had to pay three times the tuition fees his European classmates paid at DAS, and underwent tests for Tuberculosis every six months. He concluded that for African to gain acceptance in Europe they had to be wealthy, healthy and brainy. The visa application process on its own had become a sort of state sanctioned eugenics, a manmade exercise of natural selection. One of his instructors put it differently. He told Ogutu of the Dutch policy of discouragement – a subtle code for institutional racism – where a myriad roadblocks are placed on the paths of outsiders.
Royal Dutch Shell
Barely a semester into his studies, Ogutu suddenly wanted to abandon his Dutch expedition and opt out of DAS. The reason behind this trepidation was that the school had relocated to a North Amsterdam property, hitherto occupied by the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. Ogutu noted that the grounds that were previously an industrial part of Amsterdam had now been gentrified, comprising newly minted edgy arts institutions, incubators for start-ups, hotels, hostels, a film museum, an underground nightclub and high end apartments. A consortium of the City of Amsterdam now owned the 100-acre property that once housed the largest Shell laboratories in the world. The consortium donated part of the estate to DAS Graduate School, among other institutions.
In an attempt to speak truth to power, Ogutu’s first school project, ‘A Clarification of My Internal Politics’, sought to question DAS’ relocation Shell’s pseudo museum. He sought to interrogate why DAS would want to go anywhere near an ethically stained multinational like Shell, without critical reflection. Through the performance lecture, Ogutu juxtaposed Shell’s reputation in the Netherlands against its misdeeds in Nigeria, particularly in Ogoniland, where it was accused of gross environmental degradation in a UNEP report. In 1995, Sani Abacha’s regime executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others for agitating against Shell’s activities, resulting in a 2009 out of court settlement with Shell paying $15.5m to the Ogoni nine and one other victim and $5m going into an Ogoni education trust fund. Through act of artistic protest, Ogutu hoped, idealistic, that his project would bring DAS back to its senses.
Ogutu’s art project received a lukewarm reception, critiqued for its artistic merits, shortfalls and belittled. Ogutu wondered whether he was naïve to presume society would sit up whenever he presented what he considered radical thought as his classmates and instructors did not necessarily center their practice on the sociopolitical. Disillusioned, Ogutu slipped into depression. He thereafter wrote to DAS, opting out of his studies, unable to navigate his new realities. DAS offered Ogutu a month during the December 2014 break to reflect on his decision. As if extending an olive branch, DAS bought Ogutu’s ticket to Nairobi, after he applied for an emergency grant.
This feeling of powerlessness was not new. During his undergraduate International Relations studies at Nairobi’s United States International University–Africa, Ogutu felt the program taught everything about what was wrong with the world but never offered solutions. Therefore in the pursuit of meaningful change, he embraced the arts, growing to become The Theater Company’s creative director and later joining DAS, only for him to realize late in the day that ‘‘the complexities of life proved immune to the artistic antidote.’’
Back in Nairobi, Ogutu sought out three Kenyan artists who had lived overseas, in search of understanding of his artistic struggles. The writer Binyavanga Wainaina told Ogutu his struggle was familiar, that he was going through a formatting process, advising Ogutu to seek sunshine whenever he could, telling him winter messed people up. The performance artist Sitawa Namwalie told Ogutu those Amsterdam years were his induction into the art world, for him to find his place in it. The publisher Muthoni Garland asked Ogutu to read American writer and activist James Baldwin, mainly ‘Notes of a Native Son’, reflections on Baldwin’s days holed up in Paris.
Finding Baldwin was the best thing anyone could have done for Ogutu. Reading Baldwin instantly unlocked Ogutu’s world, and from that point on, his projects at DAS either revolved around the work and person of Baldwin, or the happenings around the Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Paris in September 1956, that Ogutu gleaned from Baldwin’s works. Ogutu returned to Amsterdam in January 2015, somewhat reenergized. For his second semester project, he produced a short theatre piece titled ‘Nobody Knows My Name’, borrowing explicitly from one of Baldwin’s book titles.
The piece centered around Café Tournon in Paris, a hugely popular meeting spot for African American artists, some of whom were part of the Harlem Renaissance, who had since sought refuge in Paris. The twist in Ogutu’s piece, picked from Baldwin’s writings and of others around the 1956 Congress, was that the CIA, French intelligence and other infiltrators such as the KGB had made inroads within this particular Paris group of Black writers and artists as part of the cultural Warfare. Ogutu’s main character, is a Black writer dealing with writer’s block as he tries to write about his time at Café Tournon. He is unable to make headway because he can no longer tell what was real and what was an enactment of the intelligence agencies, in spite of the glimpses of purity and authenticity at the café.
The idea of a meta-narrative about a Black writer trying to write a story about events of his life in a foreign country where he had sought refuge and escaped his home country’s hounding, reflected Ogutu’s frame of mind. In this case, Café Tournon was the symbol of the physical space abroad and the place where failure lurked, trailed by a mixture of anxiety and paranoia. It had taken Ogutu years of applications and rejections, in the hope of an admission into DAS. Yet at DAS, where he was supposed to thrive, he remained in a state of paralysis.
In his final year project at DAS, Ogutu sunk deeper into the happenings at the four day 1956 Black Writers and Artists congress in Paris, in a performance piece he titled ‘Fractured Memory’.
The piece, broken into four parts, each representing a day at the congress, opens with a scene of the reading of an emotive letter sent by WEB Du Bois, who could not travel to Paris because he was denied an American passport. Du Bois warns that part of the American delegation is state sponsored infiltration and that revelation causes tension at the congress. On the second day, Martinique poet and politician Aime Cesaire delivers a rousing speech on the relationship between colonialism and culture, going as far as labeling African Americans as colonised subjects. To counter Cesaire, Ogutu brings in Baldwin, who points out that Cesaire does not own up to his own personal effects of colonialism, seeing that he was addressing a congress of Blacks gathered in Paris speaking in French.
The third serving dwells on confrontations happening at the Congress, ending with the realization that there was no consensus on how to liberate people of African descent from colonialism, apartheid, segregation and exploitation. In the fourth section, Ogutu recites a poem that introspects on the agitations at the Congress. For each of these segments, Ogutu layers them with contemporary and historical issues in Kenya such as mistrust, anger, division – reiterating that the challenges of Paris 1956 still bedevil the Black people in Africa and elsewhere.
In November 2016, Ogutu performed ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Batard Festival in Brussels. After the performance, Tunde Adefioye, an American-Nigerian curator representing Brussel’s Royal Flemish Theatre came looking for him. Tunde was deeply moved by Ogutu’s performance and offered him a performance slot at the Royal Flemish Theatre in March 2018.
On New Year’s Day 2018, aboard a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi, Ogutu’s state of mind oscillated between elation, anxiety and indecisiveness. Earlier, in September 2017, he was selected as one of 15 artists in residence by the City of Amsterdam. The program, dubbed the Three Package Deal, funded by the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts, came with a €22,500 stipend that covered living expenses, an artist studio and a research budget for a theatre production, to be showcased after the residency. Upon graduation from DAS the previous year, Ogutu was granted a one year visa, usually provided to graduates from Dutch institutions. That one year in Amsterdam post-graduation became a haunting experience. Despite the relief he had found in James Baldwin and his work, Ogutu still had to put up with a sense of not belonging as he wrestled with questions of race and racism, and how this affected his life and work. The residency came with a two year visa, meaning Ogutu had to decide whether he had the stamina to survive Amsterdam.
Here was a man debating whether to continue with the residency or opt out. It was a huge honour to be selected, and he was cognizant of the fact that benefactors who he did not want to disappoint had put up a strong case for him in the process. Ogutu took the entire month of January 2018 to make the decision to return to Amsterdam and take up the residency, partly prompted by the need to return to Europe anyway since he was already slotted to perform ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels.
The Life and Works of Leopold II
Ogutu arrived in Brussels on March 8, 2018, a day before his performance of ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Royal Flemish Theatre. Noah Voelker, an American classmate at DAS who was now a collaborator, accompanied him. They checked into two spacious studio apartments, before proceeding to the theatre to check on the technical elements of the performance. The show, performed in English, had French and Dutch surtitles (as subtitles are known in theatre) to attract both the city’s Dutch and French speakers.
As Ogutu and Noah went through the technical motions of the show, a staffer at the theater told them about ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’, a performance which was being staged on the night of March 8. The show would take place at the main theatre as the anchor performance, followed by Ogutu’s performance on March 9 at an adjoining box theatre. He would later discover that the pairing of the two performances was to ignite a dialogue on colonialism and decolonization. ‘Fractured Memory’ was lined up as a hesitant partner in a weird post-colonial dance with King Leopold II’s misdeeds in the Congo.
Earlier the same day, Ogutu sent Tunde Adefioye – the theater’s curator who had booked Ogutu’s show – a text message requesting tickets for ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’. Tunde told him the show was sold out, but that he would seek out some connections. He never got back to Ogutu. It later emerged that Tunde preferred Ogutu did not watch the Leopold II show, possibly suspecting the performance’s racist undertones would expectedly elicit an unpleasant reaction. Ogutu reasoned that Tunde meant well and wanted to stick to his institution’s program while shielding Ogutu from triggers that would affect his performance. Unknown to Tunde, the theatre’s staffer went to the box office and worked out two tickets for Ogutu and Noah to watch the Leopold II show.
In Ogutu’s narration, the opening scene featured the only black cast member cleaning the front of the theatre using a vacuum cleaner, moving around the stage and into the audience, creating confusion as to whether he was part of the performance. Then the rest of the cast took to the stage, with African characters played by white actors wearing black faces. The King of Congo was depicted as an ape-like creature, and whenever the white actors playing as Africans spoke, their speech was deliberately sluggish and inaudible, as if not representations of actual humans. The actor playing King Leopold II produced a belching sound whenever interacting with Africans, implying that in communication with Africans, one resorted to a range of grunt sounds outside of ordinary speech. In representing African children, their voices became hoarse and croaky.
As the English surtitles streamed past and Ogutu married them to the acts on stage, he got agitated. To Ogutu’s dismay, the worst was yet to come after the performance, when the predominantly white audience gave the cast a standing ovation. The cast moved backstage but as the audience was still clapping, came back on stage to soak in the accolades. Ogutu felt sick to the stomach, not knowing whether to be surprised or disappointed. To this audience in Brussels, the portrayal of Africans as primitive sub-humans passed for art.
From the theatre, Ogutu did not speak to anyone. He went straight to his apartment, and could not sleep that night. The following morning at 9am, Noah was at the theatre, ready to do a test run of ‘Fractured Memory’. He sent Ogutu a text, asking whether he was on his way. Ogutu said he was.
The moment Noah set his eyes on Ogutu he knew something was amiss. Noah also knew it all had to do with what they had watched the previous night. There was no denying that the show was racist. Noah and Ogutu had a little chat, sharing views on the show. Ogutu told Noah he was not sure he wanted to perform ‘Fractured Memory’ in such a racially toxic environment. Noah said he understood, but asked Ogutu to give it further thought. Ogutu walked into the theatre set up for his performance. The moment he walked in, he instinctively knew he would not be performing that night. He told Noah he was going to take a walk back to the apartment, and that by the time he got there, he would relay his final decision.
By the time Ogutu got to the apartment, his mind was made. He was not performing.
When Tunde Adefioye heard about Ogutu’s decision, he requested a meeting. Ogutu asked for an hour as he called Amsterdam, where Veem House of Performance was handling his travel and other logistics. He informed them of his decision to pull out, asking for arrangements for the next available train back to Amsterdam. Tunde was devastated, admitting that he too shared in Ogutu’s frustrations of ‘The Life and Times of King Leopold II’ portrayal of Africans. The theatre’s business manager reached out to Noah, asking for a meeting. Ogutu declined.
By the time Noah and Ogutu arrived in Amsterdam, the main newspapers in Brussels had picked up the story, as a cancelation message had to be sent out by the theater. Journalists wanted a comment from Ogutu, for the next day’s papers. Feeling under weather, Ogutu took his medication and passed out. By the time he woke up, the journalists’ 5pm deadline had lapsed. They went to print without his comment. Phone calls and solidarity messages from friends and industry players started streaming in. By the evening of March 9, Ogutu had to release a statement. He consulted the team at Veem, before making a stinging, succinct Facebook post. The Royal Flemish Theatre on its part issued a defensive counter statement, citing artistic freedom. Tunde wrote a conciliatory piece, hoping Ogutu would have an opportunity to perform at the theatre sometime in future and to contribute to the decolonization discourse. The theatre’s artistic director tried reaching Ogutu through Veem, intending to issue a personal apology.
In his statement, Ogutu bitterly protested the placement of ‘Fractured Memory’ next to a hyper-problematic piece framed as part of an exercise in the critical reflection on colonialism. The use of racist slurs such as nigger, the apish characterization and imbecilic mannerisms attributed to Africans, the racialized costumes and sexualization of the black body, and the use of the black face – all in Ogutu’s words – were some of the unacceptable devices deployed to demean the dignity of black people.
It was as if Ogutu was having an artistic epiphany. All his readings of Baldwin crystallized before his eyes. There he was, a Black artist in Brussels, encountering blatant racism within the very artistic spaces he had hoped to find elevated discourses on culture, race and race relations. Like Baldwin, he now had to react directly to these acts by carving out his own responses. Ogutu had to now live his politics, and mature as a protégé of Baldwin’s work.
Three days later, on March 12 2018, Ogutu boarded a Nairobi bound KLM flight, booked a month earlier. Unlike during his New Year’s Amsterdam to Nairobi flight when he was torn between moving back home or taking up the City of Amsterdam residency, he now felt a sense of artistic purpose. He had taken up the residency and premiered his next show, ‘Because I Always Feel Like Running’, that aptly captured his nomadic tendencies. Brussels may have devastated Ogutu, but it simultaneously awoke the urgency within him.
Because I Always Feel Like Running
The person who helped Ogutu clarify his thoughts was Anne Breure, the director at Amsterdam’s Veem House of Performance. Breure forwarded Ogutu’s name to her coalition of arts organizations back in 2017, proposing him as a potential artist in residency. With his nomination under consideration, Ogutu retreated to his little Amsterdam studio for two months, July and August 2017, where he conceptualized his next performance project, dedicated to the residency. The piece, titled ‘Because I Always Feel Like Running’, investigated the building blocks in the lives of East African long distance runners. Ogutu’s research narrowed down to Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikile, Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino and Tanzania’s John Stephen Akwari.
By looking at the lives of these three at their height on the track, Ogutu intended to develop a piece exhibiting the spirit of sacrifice, excellence and resilience. He might as well have been projecting his own life. At the end of 2017, Ogutu had already done dummy performances of the show at the Veem House of Performance in Amsterdam, the Spielarts Festival in Munich and a follow up show in February 2018 in the city of Gronigen.
By this time, Leila Anderson, a South African artist who was a year ahead of Ogutu at DAS, became one of his closest collaborators, urging him on whenever Ogutu encountered performance-related anxiety.
Previously, like when he performed at the Batard Festival in Brussels in 2016, Ogutu would lock himself up the entire time, only leaving his room to do his show then retreat, never wanting to interact with the outside world. He was now less reclusive thanks to Leila. When Ogutu returned to Amsterdam at the end of January 2018 after taking a break in Nairobi to contemplate whether to carry on with the residency or not – and to spend time with his ailing mother, his only surviving parent for a long time – he pinned six A3 spreadsheets on the wall of his bedroom. He stuck six yellow sticky notes on each of the spreadsheets, and in each sticky note, he chronologically listed the events that had shaped his life for the last decade.
He started out with the 2007/2008 Kenyan post election violence, which inspired his Mau Mau piece, but which had directly affected his family. His name, Ogutu Muruya – with Ogutu coming from his Luo ancestry and Muraya coming from his Kikuyu lineage – was seen as an oxymoron since it collapsed the two politically antagonistic communities into one entity. He was neither Luo enough nor Kikuyu enough for as long as he could remember, and the 2007/2008 ethnic violence put his family on the spot including from neighbours who debated whether they were Luos or Kikuyus. Depending on where one was, being either Luo or Kikuyu could mean life or death. He listed migration, in relation to his move to DAS, and listed his time at DAS under studies. The list kept growing as Ogutu applied specificity.
From each sticky note Ogutu originated a web of arrows pointed into the A3 spreadsheets, where he wrote detailed notes on what ramifications each of the items listed on the sticky notes had brought into his life. By the time he was done, the white A3 surfaces were filled with acres of hardly legible text. Looking at whatever he had written, Ogutu concluded that there was nothing more to be squeezed out of that decade. He had come full circle. He took photos of the spreadsheets and saved them on his phone, before picking his bags and heading to Brussels on March 8 2018.
Brussels through ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’ had already set the mission on how to jumpstart his next ten year cycle, confronting him with the question of race and racism afresh. It was now all up to him.
As Franz Fanon said,
Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it in relative opacity.
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From Harry Kĩmani to Kwame Rĩgĩi, the Rise and Rise of Kikuyu Soul Music
Kenyan folk fusion artists are crossing the bridge that Harry Kĩmani built, reviving the spirituality and soulfulness of Kikuyu music that had been all but crushed by the dominance of Mũgithi.
To many, Kenyan-born musician and composer Harry Kĩmani’s 2006 hit song Haiya pioneered a sub-genre of Gĩkũyũ popular music that blended African soul with Gĩkũyũ lyrics.
Yet, what Kĩmani did was merely bring back what had for years been taken away from the original Kikuyu soul creators by an era of Mũgithi madness. Haiya built a bridge across a rift in the terrain of Kikuyu music that had appeared in the early 90s as Mũgithi began dominating the Gĩkũyũ music soundscape. Seventeen years later, many have been crisscrossing that bridge.
Haiya has given rise to a growing list of contemporary folk fusion artists who, inspired by Kĩmani’s unique sound, are returning to the soulful side of Kikuyu music by way of samples, renditions and fusions to restore authenticity to Kikuyu popular music.
But, it’s not where Kĩmani’s Haiya left off that has made all the difference – musically, spiritually and culturally; it’s where Kwame Rĩgĩi’s Mwene Nyaga began.
Mwene Nyaga and Retracing Kikuyu Soul Music
When Kenyan contemporary folk musician Kwame Rĩgĩi’s 2017 rendition of Mwene Nyaga (God) – a Mau Mau folk song in the form of a deeply spiritual prayer – went viral following its release on Youtube, it rekindled the embers of a spirituality and soulfulness to Kikuyu music that had for over two decades been reduced to a dying whimper by the onslaught of the Mũgithi genre with its bawdiness and sexual innuendo.
Mwene Nyaga is a song whose words the pre-independence generation knew by heart. The song traces its origins to the heart of the Nyandarua mountain range, sung by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, also known as the Mau Mau, during the 1952-1960 rebellion. As Rĩgĩi tells me in a telephone interview,
“The song notes were with Gen. Mwariama, they then went through Gakaara wa Wanjau. The songwriters picked up from there, then Maranga wa Gatonye did the first recording. The tune that you hear from his and Kamaru’s version is from the original Mau Mau folk songs.”
Rĩgĩi is knee-deep in preparations for a cultural event to mark the 6th anniversary of Tũrĩ A Mũmbi, a cultural centre he founded in 2017 in Tigoni, Limuru. The celebration will feature only two artists: Rĩgĩi and his musical progenitor Harry Kĩmani.
To many who were hearing his voice for the first time in Mwene Nyaga, and to others like me who had heard him in Aki Wewe, Kwame eerily reminded us of Kĩmani who, by then, had gone on an indefinite hiatus.
“When the song came out, people were shocked, because in their hearts they knew it but not in that way,” says Kwame. He tells me that Mau Mau veterans started reaching out to him. All they wanted was to see him, touch him and give thanks to Mwene Nyaga for his timing and for bringing the voice back to remind them of all that they had not heard in so long. For many of the veterans, that song had brought closure, and with it, peace.
Then there were the Athuri a Kĩama (elders) and other cultural affiliates who, feeling affronted by this 28-year-old, questioned whether he had even been accepted in the of Kikuyu Council of Elders. “Who are you and are you certified to even talk [sing] of our spirituality in such depth? Nĩ ũrutĩĩte mbũri? [Have you undergone the required rites?],” he sighs.
Mwene Nyaga sprung from the depths of despair. For over a decade, Kwame’s soul was a desert wanderer in search of an oasis and he was battling deep disillusionment with his musical gift following some considerable musical success with his hit song Aki Wewe from the 2015 album of the same title; success as a soulful RnB artist had come at great cost to Kwame’s spirit. As he tells it, Kwame kept begging God to reveal Himself to him.
Mwene Nyaga sprung from the depths of despair.
Released in 2009, Mĩhũmũ was Kwame’s first attempt at seeking to find his true self but it turned out to be only a mirage. With the thirst in his soul still unquenched came Haraya in 2011, but this too proved to be yet another mirage. He released Gĩkũyũ in 2014, which he tells me brought him closer to Mwene Nyaga. These songs paved the way for the Tũrĩ A Mũmbi Dream, later to become the Tũrĩ A Mũmbi Experience.
Mwene Nyaga, Kwame tells me, was his search for something greater than his 2014 release Gĩkũyũ. “I had completely decided to seek for a voice to articulate how I felt about my spirituality… Still, I felt it was more of an individual prayer and affirmation. What more can I offer, I kept asking myself.”
It is then that a song that his late father – the fine artist and sculptor Karanja wa Rĩgĩi – used to sing to punctuate his stories about the Mau Mau came back to him. “The essence of the song is a prayer; the song is about their prayers to our God, Mwene Nyaga.”
This is how God finally revealed himself to him. He had found his oasis.
“While I knew that Maranga wa Gatonye was the first to record, when I did my rendition using my own arrangements, it is the late Kamaarũ that I first went and played my version of the song to.”
After a fruitless year of knocking on doors for airplay – “They did not know what this was. No one responded or played it for a whole year.” – Kwame decided to release Mwene Nyaga on YouTube; it was an instant hit.
“The essence of the song is a prayer; the song is about their prayers to our God, Mwene Nyaga.”
Despite the countless turndowns, Kwame tells me, he felt that his work was done. Singing and recording that prayer in the way that he did gave his life meaning and his career a higher purpose. He has felt his conviction in God, his reverence for Him, his self-love and a sense of fulfilment grow.
Mwene Nyaga has since become an intergenerational spiritual anthem and a clarion call for the Gĩkũyũ community. To the older generation, the arrangements give the song a soulful somberness that is not present in the versions of their youth. To those of Kwame’s generation and younger, the song restored pride in their culture and gave them a sense of belonging.
But Kwame has not always sung in Gĩkũyũ.
Harry was passing the baton
Kwame’s musical beginnings are to be found in the PCEA church at Gaitumbĩ, Kanyarĩrĩ, some 15 kilometres from the capital. He was the lead singer in the youth choir where he sang in English and remembers doing cover versions of artists such as Nicole C Mullen and Don Moen. This was back in 2003, he was 16 years old and still in high school.
Kwame mostly sang at events and would experiment with the cover lyrics by translating them into Gĩkũyũ. His singing always received varying reactions and some even discouraged him from singing in Gĩkũyũ, telling him to just stick to English as that is what the youth were known to prefer.
Towards the end of 2004, Kwame recorded Jesus, his first song. The first part was in English, the second in Gĩkũyũ. The song elicited different reactions and unsolicited advice, some of which he tells me was not genuine.
Excited to now be writing his own music and with one song recorded, Rĩgĩi was electrified when he heard Haiya. “All of a sudden, I heard a song I’d never heard before. I hadn’t been there but I instantly recognised what he was doing and I knew how to do it.” He tells me that when heard the first verse, his immediate reaction was shock. “I said ‘Haiya!!’ even before I’d heard the chorus.”
Until he heard Harry’s Haiya, Kwame tells me, he thought that he was the only one to write in that way.
“From that point on, it felt like I was in a relay. It felt like, here was Harry passing the baton; he had raced all the others and had won. So I felt I needed to perform better, run faster and further beyond Harry who had passed his baton to me. From then on, I never sang in English.”
This put him at odds with the church.
“I was very vocal during my youth church days and a champion of Traditional and Folk music as a writer, tutor and Kĩgaamba [musical rattle worn below the knee] player, helping my fellow church mates to win dozens of trophies which to this very day are still on display at the Presbyterian offices in Kanyarĩrĩ.”
“All of a sudden, I heard a song I’d never heard before. I hadn’t been there but I instantly recognised what he was doing and I knew how to do it.”
Despite the certificates and trophies, Kwame was expelled from the church at 21-years-old for being too deep into his language and for what he describes as “bringing back words that were not for ‘church’ music”. But Kwame was unfazed; he had found his path.
“Without him knowing it, Harry gave me the light that I needed. He shone the light in the dark for me to walk. I no longer doubted what it was that I was doing because it had been done.”
Nineteen years later, Kwame has produced three EPs and countless singles, including hits such as Mũnoti, Macegera, Cama Wendo, Malkia and Aki Wewe.
He was the Harry then
When did he first meet Harry Kimani and what was it like, I ask him? “For me, the need to see him wasn’t very big. We were worlds apart as Harry then was in another league of his own.”
But, as fate would have it, while at Lodwar Records in Kileleshwa sometime in 2007, Kwame heard that Harry Kĩmani was coming to the studio. He laughs uproariously as he recalls that moment. “I was excited but kept my cool. Then Kĩmani shows up with these huge shades. He wasn’t seeing anyone else. I never spoke to him. I didn’t even linger. Whatever I had thought, I was not wrong, he was the Harry then.”
A second encounter six years later would mark the genesis of a brotherhood that has lasted to this day. Kwame was rehearsing with his band at a studio in downtown Nairobi when he saw someone walk in.
“He came and sat. Looking closely, I saw this was Harry Kĩmani. I was excited because he was watching us rehearse. Meeting him then was on a level of brotherhood. He told me, he’d heard someone rehearsing and came to see who this was. He stuck around.”
Harry spent the next two hours with Kwame, at one point even giving him advice about how to handle the microphone. “To me, he was a big brother now showing me the ropes. We interacted, spoke about all the things that we knew. From that day, we became friends and have been friends since then.”
In what ways did Harry’s musical style influence Kwame’s, I ask him.
What Harry did was to use the same guitar that Mũgithi popularised as “one-man guitar” to reclaim what had been taken away from the original soulful creators of Kikuyu music. In so doing, he paved the way for Rĩgĩi and many others who have come after him. Harry bridged that gap between his time and the time of Kikuyu benga music, Kwame explains.
The golden era of Kikuyu benga music
Often regarded as the father of central Kenya benga and the king of Kikuyu love songs, it was Daniel Kamau Mwai, alias DK wa Maria, who first used percussions and drums in his music and in the process introduced this new beat to Kikuyu music. This was the mid-60s and Nairobi had become the region’s musical hub. As the home of the region’s first vinyl pressing plant and with mushrooming independent labels and recording studios, pubs and clubs were blasting Congolese Soukous, Jazz, Soul, and benga quite literary hot off the press.
It was in this hub that DK released his first record in 1968. But it was his 1970 smash-hit Mũrata/I Love You with its rumba beat and benga-style climaxing that catapulted him to instant regional fame; DK’s Mũrata became the first Kikuyu pop recording to break into the rigid Luo-Nyanza market. But despite DK’s early success, it is the late Joseph Kamaarũ who would, in time, take the King of Kikuyu benga crown.
What Harry did was to use the same guitar that Mũgithi popularised as “one-man guitar” to reclaim what had been taken away from the original soulful creators of Kikuyu music.
As Megan Iacobini de Fazio writes, “Amid Kenya’s optimistic yet complex post-colonial years, it was [Kamaarũ’s] sobering themes that set him apart. Expressing himself through ambiguous metaphors and Kikuyu proverbs, the young musician sang about sexual harassment, morality, love, and – most strikingly – about politics.”
In explaining why Kamaarũ took the crown, Fazio notes, “[His] unique sound, which merged traditional Kikuyu melodies with the distinctive bass guitar riffs and high-pitched vocals of benga, quickly became popular among the city’s revellers.”
The benga beat dominated the Gĩkũyũ music from the ’60s until the early ’90s when Mũgithi began to dominate the Gĩkũyũ music soundscape.
Post-Mũgithi, a fusion of folk, culture and love sessions
When contemporary Kikuyu folk musician Ayrosh founded Folk Fusion in 2016 – a bimonthly live music concert and cultural event that takes place in Nairobi – he brought full circle a movement that had up to then been thriving online.
Seven years on, what started out as just a niche fun event at a nondescript venue along James Gichuru Road has spawned a cultural movement whose ethos is to bring a generation in search of their heritage to artists like Ayrosh whose music draws from their traditional folk roots (initially, the event only featured Kikuyu artists but it has since grown to incorporate other folk fusion artists from across Kenya) blended with benga, rhumba, neo-soul or R&B.
From Wanjine, Muringi, Mutoriah, Kinandi, Gachago, Mr Mistariful, Ythera, Kuiyu, and Nyawira, this wide range of contemporary Kikuyu Soul musicians is drawing from both their ancestry and their musical forefathers. As for Ayrosh, doing cover versions of popular Kikuyu Benga music has endeared him to an older generation of music fans who then discover his other music at his Folk Fusion events. For Wanjine, videos of his renditions of popular Kikuyu songs on his Tiktok channel were his breakthrough into the Kikuyu music genre.
Despite DK’s early success, it is the late Joseph Kamaarũ who would, in time, take the King of Kikuyu benga crown.
Sampling Kamaarũ’s Ndũmĩrĩri Cia Mihũni (the first song recorded where he is playing the accordion), Mwanake Millenial is a collaborative track by Ayrosh and Mutoriah featuring on Mutoriah’s Dive in album that fuses the authenticity of Kikuyu music – from the lyrics to the instruments – with modern sounds. This is the template that Waithaka Entertainment – the force behind the new crop of Kikuyu soul musicians – has been using to revolutionise Kenya’s music scene. Founded by Kenyan producer Mugo Ng’ang’a, the US-based record label is largely responsible for fashioning this distinct sound and for producing most of the artists in the genre, including Wanjine, Ayrosh and Kwame Rĩgĩi.
Although Waithaka Entertainment helped with his sound quality production, Moses Njoroge is responsible for almost 60 per cent of Kwame’s recorded work. For over 10 years, Moses has been the man producing Kwame’s music, with Waithaka handling the mixing and mastering of the final product.
Considered as uptown
A growing demand for music by this new crop of musicians is upsetting the status quo and does not augur well for many gatekeepers in the Kikuyu media and entertainment industry. Still beholden to the one-man guitar’s winning formula, the stalwarts see Kwame and his ilk as young, rich, starry-eyed uptown types whose music is nothing more than a fad. “Many of us who are going back to our ancestors are not being supported. We are considered uptown, being given gigs in Tigoni.”
Despite a growing market demand for their music, these musicians have struggled to get airplay – not just on the Kikuyu TV and radio stations but across Kenyan media. Kwame tells me that mainstream media wants to appeal to a wider market and “this weird sound”, as they refer to it, needed to be cut off. The Internet and concerts have, therefore, become a lifeline for this crop of musicians and now, thanks to social media, music audio and video streaming platforms and events such as Folk Fusion, they can directly connect with their audience demographic.
Of finding their place in this culture
For a music legend who took the music industry by storm in the aughts, it’s difficult to find Harry Kĩmani’s discography online or on the shelves of the few remaining music stores in Kenya. But Kĩmani is a phoenix.
In a conversation with Thomas Rajula last year, Kĩmani spoke about finding himself again, about his new focus and his first love – music. Even in the midst of his life’s tribulations, Kĩmani’s friendship with Kwame has endured; his vocals can be heard in Kwame’s song Gĩkũyũ for which Kĩmani recorded the harmonies.
A growing demand for music by this new crop of musicians is upsetting the status quo and does not augur well for many gatekeepers in the Kikuyu media and entertainment industry.
And just like Kwame who went in search of meaning for his life after he plunged into the abyss following the success of Aki Wewe, his long road to recovery from addiction and depression led Kĩmani to seek God and, in 2022, he released Hariwe (Return Me To You Lord), a Kikuyu gospel song co-written with Harry Writho.
As we come to the end of our telephone conversation, I ask Rĩgĩi what informed the decision to feature Kĩmani in the upcoming Tũrĩ A Mũmbi anniversary celebrations. “It has taken us 19 years to be on one poster; we will finally see the two share a stage,” he says, adding, “He has been very instrumental to me knowing and finding my place in this culture and the decisions I have made. I feel like he has not received the well-deserved treatment for what he did for us.”
I ask Rĩgĩi if there are any plans for a collaboration, “All things are possible. Not just a collaboration. You never know, we might be doing an album together.”
Botched Boyz II Men Concert: Event Organisers Can Do Better
For holders of regular tickets to one of the year’s most anticipated live music concerts, the event was an unmitigated disaster. However, that Kenyans are willing to fork out over US$60 for quality performances is a welcome surprise for event organisers.
It was a Friday afternoon and Abi was desperate for a ticket. The Boyz II Men concert was happening the following day and tickets had sold out two weeks prior. Someone was selling a regular ticket for US$100 on the Kenyan Twitter timeline. Just weeks before, the same ticket was selling at US$57.
With just hours to one of the year’s most anticipated and most hyped live music concerts, Abi frantically worked her contacts until she found someone who had bought a regular ticket but could not attend. It was going for US$61. She didn’t think twice. These were desperate times.
All she needed to do now was show up at Uhuru Gardens for the time of her life singing along as one of the boy bands of her youth serenaded her with On Bended Knees, Four Seasons and One Sweet Day.
The excitement that had been building for months was palpable, especially for Twitter A & B, the hoi oligoi of Kenyan Twitter. Even as Twitter C & D, the hoi polloi aka watuz made fun of the A & B set – often referred to as “NSSF Twitter” folk (those who joined Twitter circa 2000) and how they would need to carry leg warmers, tea flasks and duvets for a nap between performances – little else was capturing the collective imagination of Kenyans online.
Organised by Stanbic Kenya in partnership with Radio Africa Group and dubbed Stanbic Yetu Festival, the concert was advertised by Sauti Sol, one of Africa’s top boy bands, and by famous media personalities and social media influencers.
Tickets cost up to US$215 for VVIPs and US$108 for VIPs. Within 72 hours of tickets going on sale, all 600 VVIP tickets had sold out. In six days, the 1,200 VIP tickets were gone. Two weeks to the event, the remaining 4,200 regular tickets selling for US$57 also sold out.
Guests who bought tickets were promised luxury and opulence. The event was being curated for affluent high-net-worth individuals and the organisers wanted to give them a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In spite of many feeling that the tickets were overpriced, Kenyans were willing to spend that much for the experience of a lifetime.
The makings of a Fyre Festival
Instead, those who had bought regular tickets showed up to an event that had all the makings of a Fyre Festival. There were no seats for them, not enough tents – umbrellas went up against the downpour that fell halfway into the concert – and the few mobile toilets provided were not lit, leaving revellers at the mercy of pickpockets in classic Nairobbery style, and later would not flash. Worse, they could only watch the concert on a single screen that kept malfunctioning, prompting intermittent shouts of “Fix the Screen” from the crowd.
For Abi and the other 4,199 revellers who bought regular tickets, the Boyz II Men Kenyan concert was a disaster, an appalling experience of poor sound quality, shoddy event organising and botched logistics.
For the 1,800 VVIP and VIP ticket holders, it’s like they were at a completely separate event. Looking at how demarcated their seating was from shared photos of the layout of the venue, it’s easy to understand their bewilderment at the online bashing that was going on on Twitter days after the event. The VIPs and VVIPs were placed right next to the stage, in front of the media, sound and DJ desk that were also stationed in front of the area reserved for regular ticket holders.
Those who had bought regular tickets showed up to an event that had all the makings of a Fyre Festival.
For the VIPs and the VVIPs, the sound was perfect. They had couches. They had a buffet complete with bottle service. They had all the amenities. They could stretch out and touch Wanya Morris’ feet as he handed them red roses. As far as they are concerned, it was the best damn concert ever!
As for Abi, she could hardly wait to get home. On the night of the event at 2:44 a.m. she tweeted, “I have too much to say about Boyz II Men.” It was the first of a series of tweets in a thread that would go on to capture many of the sentiments shared by those who attended the concert.
Whitney Wanderi, a communications consultant in Nairobi was also in attendance. When she woke up at 12:31 p.m. the following day, she hoped that “that shitshow” by Stanbic and Radio Africa events had been “just a bad dream”. Just like Abi’s, Wanderi’s Twitter rant goes on to describe the hot mess that the concert turned out to be.
For weeks now, the bashing of the event organisers on social media by both those who attended and those who didn’t but are happy to join in the mob lynching has been unrelenting despite statements from both partners and an apology from Radio Africa Events.
Kenyan revellers have seen worse
From insecurity to stampedes to horrible sound to flooded grounds, Kenya has had its fair share of disastrous concerts. “There have been worse concerts in the past in Kenya,” says Dickson Ngunjiri, Director at Dent Group & FOMOTV, a media and event production company. One particularly stands out: In 2004, three young revellers were killed and scores injured in a stampede at the much-publicised Smirnoff Experience party at the Carnivore Gardens.
In 2018, American rapper Desiigner was robbed of his sneakers and undressed by a frantic female fan who pulled down his trousers as he tried to mingle with fans during a concert in Nairobi.
From insecurity to stampedes to horrible sound to flooded grounds, Kenya has had its fair share of disastrous concerts.
In 2019, Jamaican Chris Martin’s event in Nairobi was marred by violence and theft as several intoxicated fans tried to fight their way to the stage to “meet” the artist. The same year, organisers of the HYPE Fest concert that featured Jamaican dancehall star Konshens failed to control the over 10,000 revealers leading to a stampede and runaway theft.
In 2021, Nigerian Adekunle Gold’s concert was tainted by reports of rowdy attendees, theft, sexual violence and claims of harassment and rape.
But it wasn’t always this bad.
The ‘80s and ‘90s were the golden age of live concerts in Kenya. The country was the first stop of any international act’s African tour. Musicians such as Coolio, Lost Boyz, Barry White, and Shabba Ranks all held concerts in Nairobi while at the peak of their careers.
From the 2000s, however, the quality of concerts featuring international acts was on the decline. In an interview with the Nation in 2006, renowned Kenyan promoter DS Njoroge who brought nearly all the big names during the golden years revealed that unprofessional players in the business who “had not even promoted a birthday party” were soiling the reputation of the industry.
Although all these past botched concerts pale in comparison with the Smirnoff Experience which still takes the prize for the most disastrous Kenyan music concert ever, they continue to give the country a bad reputation as a concert destination, with many global music stars shunning Kenya for South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia.
So why did the vicious bashing of the recent Yetu Festival continue unabated?
“The only reason for the backlash with this recent concert is the fact that the ticket price, which was unprecedented, superseded the value that was delivered. If you tell people to pay X shillings and make promises about the kind of experience they should expect, then you ought to give them the value and experience that matches that. I think the move by the organisers to charge that much coupled with their failure to deliver on their promise is what drew the ire of many,” Dickson explains. “If they had paid less, few would have complained.” He explained that two weeks before the Boyz II Men concert, Jamaican Reggae singer Richie Spice had also held a concert in Nairobi. The quality of the sound at the Richie Spice concert was just as bad yet it did not elicit the same complaints online, he notes.
Dickson has been in the industry for over 23 years now, having started out as the Director of True Blaq Entertainment Group, a company that was founded by the late Kevin Ombajo (Big Kev), and he too has had his fair share of concert disasters.
Kenyans are willing to pay for quality concerts
“It’s just unfortunate what happened,” says Kavutha Mwanzia, a Jazz vocalist and events, entertainment and production consultant. “Nobody sets out to do a bad gig. I genuinely believe that,” she said.
Kavutha was at the helm of MoSound – the force behind the production and organising of the Safaricom International Jazz Festival, an annual event featuring international acts that ran successfully for seven years and that included Jimmy Dludlu, Jonathan Butler, Dianne Reeves, Kirk Whalum and Norman Brown, among others. She, however, declined to give any further comment on the Boyz II Men concert or her own experience running the jazz festival.
Dickson shares Kavutha’s sentiments, “While it is standard practice to always have a production checklist – your bible so to speak – when it rains, it pours.” He was not just speaking figuratively. In 2019, his company was a CapitalFM partner for the 28th Koroga Festival edition held at the Bomas of Kenya grounds. A heavy downpour turned the event into a mudfest on the first day of the two-day event, forcing the organisers to move the Sunday programme to the auditorium.
I also reached out to June Gachui, an IP lawyer and Radio host, musician, MC, event organiser and show producer, seeking to understand the major factors that determine the success or failure of a live music concert.
June has produced events such as Motown in Nairobi, The Heng and The Tribute series among others. She was also one of the curtain raisers for the inaugural Stanbic Yetu Festival in 2022 featuring American Soul RnB artist Anthony Hamilton.
“While it is standard practice to always have a production checklist – your bible so to speak – when it rains, it pours.”
“Think of a concert as an experience. What kind of an experience do you want to give your target audience? That then helps you get the location right, the facilities, e.g. what kind of tents? Do they change the sound of the music?” says June.
As she explains, experience has taught her to always go for partners as opposed taking on service providers. “Have event organisers as partners, that way, they become as accountable and invested in delivering the same experience as you. Cash is king but it’s not everything. I have also learnt that contractual obligations are not enough. However, when your partners’ logos are on that ticket and the audience knows who is providing what, there is more at stake for them as well,” explains June.
Dearth of security and seasoned sound engineers
Security at live music concerts in Kenya has become a mirage; the brightly coloured, luminous yellow jackets are everywhere present. However, when the literal push comes to shove either at the entrance as crowds become impatient, or on the grounds as they surge forward to the main stage, those brightly coloured luminous yellow jackets are nowhere to be seen and the event degenerates into mayhem, runaway theft and stampedes.
Can event organisers ensure safety and security at events? In a 2019 interview with Nation Media Group, George Chege, founder of Blem Entertainment – a Nairobi-based alternative music booking agency – spoke on the need for organisers to invest in adequate security both at entry points and within the crowd. He also emphasised the importance of booking venues that have multiple entry points, that enable organisers to coordinate and to put in place effective crowd control mechanisms, and that have emergency services.
But as June said, at the end of the day, it all boils down to: “Are you working with partners or just some guys you have hired? More often than not, this makes all the difference.” But it often feels like the concertgoer has to choose a struggle: insecurity, lack of standard amenities or bad sound.
A few DJs I spoke to on condition of anonymity said that it had become common practice for some sound production companies and event promoters to just buy gear and hire DJs for all manner of gigs instead of taking on properly qualified sound engineers.
“It’s not enough to just put speakers in front of people at an event,” explains June when I ask about what affects sound quality. “From experience, I have learnt that plastic A-frame tents keep people warm and they are ideal for weddings. However, they are not good for a music concert where you need sound. Understanding the science behind sound and how it moves is the work of a sound engineer.”
Despite the mishaps that have left a bad taste in the mouths of the regular ticket holders who attended the Boyz II Men concert, June and Dickson both agree that it has set a precedent. “Kenyans can and are willing to pay for quality performances,” says June. “When I first heard how much VVIP tickets were going for, I thought, well, maybe about 150 people will show up. Imagine my shock when I saw all 6,000 tickets going for not less than $60 selling out! This event has set a new precedent and we as event organisers are all the happier for it.”
Both Dickson and June believe that despite the uproar, Kenyans will attend the next live music concert featuring an international act. They do, however, agree that organisers can and should do better.
Hip-hop: From the Bronx to Africa and Beyond
In the first of a two-part series, Richard Wanjohi traces the history of hip-hop and the African musical and story-telling traditions that have influenced the genre.
The 2023 Grammy Awards held on February 5th proved to be an unforgettable evening for music enthusiasts worldwide. Among the night’s standout performances was the highly anticipated celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary. With a medley of iconic tracks spanning the genre’s different eras, the performance brought together a mix of revered veterans and current chart-toppers. Legends like Run-DMC, Salt-N-Pepa, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Missy Elliott graced the stage, commemorating hip-hop’s rich history while highlighting its enduring relevance in popular culture.
Just a few weeks later, on February 20, another groundbreaking moment took place at the NBA All-Star Game halftime show. This time, an all-African ensemble comprising some of Nigeria’s biggest music acts delivered an electrifying performance. Grammy-winning singer Burna Boy, Grammy-nominated singer Tems, and the rising star rapper Rema shared the stage, capturing the attention of viewers worldwide. The show served as a powerful testament to the genre’s global appeal, transcending regional boundaries and demonstrating that hip-hop knows no limitations.
The NBA All-Star Game halftime show and the Grammy Awards celebration exemplify the ever-growing global popularity of hip-hop. Born in the streets of New York City, the genre has evolved into a transcendent cultural force enjoyed by people of all ages and from all walks of life. Its impact on popular culture cannot be overstated, as hip-hop has redefined music, fashion, dance, and social movements across the globe.
Hip-hop’s journey has seen it break free from its initial confines, expanding beyond American borders to reach audiences worldwide. It has become a global phenomenon that resonates with individuals from diverse backgrounds, languages, and cultures. The two events served as powerful reminders that hip-hop has come of age, solidifying its place as a musical genre that transcends boundaries and connects people globally.
Taking you back…
In the bustling streets of the Bronx, New York City, during the early 1970s, a cultural revolution was quietly taking shape. Born out of the creative expression of African Americans and later influenced by Latino and Afro-Caribbean identities, hip-hop music emerged as a groundbreaking art form. With influences ranging from spoken-word poetry to disco, funk, and soul, and the vibrant world of graffiti art, hip-hop soon became a powerful force that transformed music and culture forever.
Legend has it that the first official hip-hop event took place on the 11th of August 1973, with DJ Kool Herc‘s Back to School Jam. Held in the Bronx, this groundbreaking session marked a turning point in music history. DJ Kool Herc revolutionised the scene by employing two turntables to create music, seamlessly blending instrumental breaks from popular funk and soul records. These instrumental breaks, or “break-beats” provided a rhythmic foundation for dancers to showcase their skills, giving birth to a new style of dance and music that would soon become known as hip-hop.
Hip-hop’s journey has seen it break free from its initial confines, expanding beyond American borders to reach audiences worldwide.
As the hip-hop movement gained momentum, a group of trailblazers emerged to push its boundaries and shape its future. Afrika Bambaataa, with his eclectic tastes and visionary approach, expanded hip-hop’s horizons by incorporating diverse sounds and genres. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five revolutionised turntable techniques and introduced the art of scratching, further pushing the sonic boundaries of hip-hop. And then there was the Sugarhill Gang—a pioneering rap group consisting of Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee—who etched their names in history with the release of Rapper’s Delight in 1979. This seminal track is often hailed as the first commercially successful hip-hop song, introducing the genre to a wider audience and setting the stage for its mainstream breakthrough.
The song’s lyrics dropped knowledge and put the genre on blast, solidifying its spot in the mainstream and giving it a name that stuck;
“I said a hip-hop, the hippie, the hippie
To the hip, hip-hop and you don’t stop the rockin’
To the bang-bang boogie, say up jump the boogie
To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat…”
This infectious anthem not only introduced countless listeners to the mesmerising world of hip-hop music but also played a pivotal role in its international mainstream breakthrough. From the very first note, Rapper’s Delight commanded attention with its irresistible, toe-tapping beat. This infectious rhythm, coupled with the Sugarhill Gang’s charismatic delivery, instantly captivated listeners across various musical spectrums. However, it was the song’s positive, relatable lyrics that truly propelled it to new heights. Rapper’s Delight offered a light-hearted narrative that spoke to the shared experiences of many, making hip-hop accessible and appealing to a wider audience. It provided a glimpse into the vibrant culture and artistry of hip-hop, enticing listeners to dive deeper into this groundbreaking genre.
The unprecedented triumph of Rapper’s Delight laid the groundwork for countless hip-hop groups and artists to follow. Its impact reverberated through subsequent generations, influencing musicians across the globe and inspiring them to explore the limitless possibilities of hip-hop. From the birth of rap as an art form to the rise of sampling, scratching, and innovative production techniques, the legacy of Rapper’s Delight can be heard in every corner of hip-hop’s expansive tapestry. In the pantheon of groundbreaking songs, Rapper’s Delight holds a special place as the catalyst that transformed hip-hop from a local phenomenon into a global force to be reckoned with.
This infectious anthem not only introduced countless listeners to the mesmerising world of hip-hop music but also played a pivotal role in its international mainstream breakthrough.
From its humble beginnings in the Bronx, hip-hop has evolved into a global cultural phenomenon. Its impact has transcended borders, languages, and social barriers, becoming a voice for marginalised communities and a vehicle for self-expression. Beyond the music, hip-hop encompasses a multifaceted culture that includes fashion, art, dance, and a powerful storytelling medium through rap. The genre’s ability to reflect social realities and give voice to the voiceless has made it a driving force for change and empowerment.
As we look back on the origins of hip-hop, it becomes evident that its birth in the Bronx was just the beginning of a remarkable journey. The groundbreaking work of DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, the Furious Five, and the Sugarhill Gang paved the way for an entire movement that continues to captivate the world today. Hip-hop’s fusion of musical genres, its celebration of diverse cultural identities, and its powerful narratives have made it an enduring force in popular culture. From the streets to the Grammys, from the Bronx to every corner of the globe, hip-hop remains an indomitable expression of art, resilience, and the human spirit.
Hip-hop, rap, the griot and the spoken word
Hip-hop, a cultural force that has transcended borders and captivated millions, has deep roots that can be traced back to the West African tradition of griot storytelling. Griots, the esteemed keepers of history and oral traditions in their communities, wove rhythmic speech and music together to captivate listeners. This rich tradition evolved as Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas as slaves, where they used music and storytelling to preserve their culture and connect with one another.
The influence of West African griots on hip-hop is undeniable. The griots used instruments like the enchanting kora, a 21-stringed harp, to accompany their storytelling, infusing their narratives with rich melodies. While the direct presence of griots may have diminished in modern music culture, hip-hop and rap genres have paid homage to their craft. Notably, the jazz and hip-hop group Freestyle Fellowship titled their second album Inner City Griots, a project that garnered worldwide acclaim upon its release in 1993. This nod to the griot tradition symbolises the enduring legacy and inspiration drawn from the West African roots of hip-hop.
Another pivotal precursor to hip-hop music in the United States lies within the spoken-word tradition of African American poets. Figures like Langston Hughes and the Last Poets used rhythm and rhyme in their performances, often accompanied by music, to convey powerful messages. In the streets of the Bronx, early rappers were akin to street poets, improvising rhymes and narratives about their lives and surroundings. These emerging artists were deeply influenced by the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, infusing their music with potent political and social commentary.
From the streets to the Grammys, from the Bronx to every corner of the globe, hip-hop remains an indomitable expression of art, resilience, and the human spirit.
As hip-hop grew in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s, its infectious beats and captivating verses transcended borders, spreading to countries like France, Brazil, and South Africa. Local rappers in these regions began incorporating elements of their own cultures and languages into the music, creating a beautiful fusion of global influences. This cultural exchange allowed hip-hop to serve as a powerful platform for self-expression and a means of preserving local traditions while adding a contemporary touch.
Despite its global popularity and immense cultural impact, hip-hop and rap music have faced criticism and controversies throughout their journey. The genre has been the subject of scrutiny, with debates surrounding its lyrical content, portrayal of women, and glorification of violence. However, it is important to recognise that hip-hop is a complex and multifaceted art form that reflects the realities and experiences of its creators, representing both the triumphs and the challenges faced by marginalised communities.
“In hip-hop music, misogyny relates to any aspect of rap that supports or normalises the objectification, exploitation and victimisation of women.”
Rap music, an art form that both divides and unites, has been at the centre of fervent debates. Accusations of promoting violence, misogyny, and negative stereotypes have fuelled discussions, while proponents argue that rap serves as a vital platform for artistic expression, amplifying the voices of marginalised communities.
While debates surrounding rap’s content persist, it is undeniable that the genre is deeply intertwined with African culture and the struggle for societal recognition. From its origins in African griot storytelling traditions to the spoken-word performances of African American poets, rap music has become a modern-day vehicle for cultural resilience. By channelling experiences of adversity, triumph, and social injustice, rappers use their verses to challenge the status quo and shed light on the realities faced by marginalised communities.
It stands as a testament to these communities. It serves as a dynamic form of artistic expression that transcends borders, cultures, and languages, uniting individuals from all walks of life. While debates surrounding rap’s content and impact endure, it is crucial to appreciate the genre’s role as a powerful tool for social commentary, cultural expression, and personal empowerment. As rap continues to evolve, it remains an indomitable force, unafraid to confront uncomfortable truths and challenge the norms of a rapidly changing world.
Hip-hop’s influence on other music genres
Throughout its illustrious fifty-year history, hip-hop has transcended its origins to become a force that permeates various musical genres. From its distinctive beat repetition and production techniques to collaborations with artists from different backgrounds, hip-hop has left an indelible mark on pop, electronic, rock, and R&B.
At the heart of hip-hop’s impact lies its innovative production techniques. The genre’s signature use of break-beats, loops, and samples has not only defined hip-hop itself but also resonated with artists from diverse genres. Influenced by hip-hop, musicians in electronic, pop, and even rock music have adopted these techniques to create infectious tracks that captivate listeners. Notable examples include The Beastie Boys’ genre-defying The New Style and Dr. Dre’s groundbreaking album The Chronic, both demonstrating the power of samples and synthesisers in crafting iconic soundscapes.
“In hip-hop music, misogyny relates to any aspect of rap that supports or normalises the objectification, exploitation and victimisation of women.”
Indeed, hip-hop popularised the use of sampled music and beats, which has spread to other genres. Producers and artists from different styles of music now regularly utilise sampling in their works. There are a myriad examples of this, including the first major hit by the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight which sampled 1979’s hit Good Times from the group Chic.
The collaborative nature of hip-hop has paved the way for groundbreaking cross-genre projects. By joining forces with artists outside the hip-hop realm, musicians have forged innovative tracks that transcend traditional boundaries. Iconic collaborations such as Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s Numb/Encore and The Gorillaz and De La Soul’s Feel Good Inc. exemplify the successful fusion of hip-hop with other genres, showcasing the possibilities of musical experimentation and broadening audiences’ horizons.
Fashion, culture, and the art of storytelling
Hip-hop’s influence extends far beyond music, however, permeating fashion trends and popular culture. Artists across genres have embraced elements of hip-hop fashion, solidifying its impact on the broader cultural landscape. Notable instances, such as the fashion statements made by basketball icons like Allen Iverson in the NBA during the 1990s, highlight hip-hop’s ability to shape and redefine societal norms, prompting even formal dress codes in professional sports.
One of hip-hop’s most enduring legacies is its lyrical prowess and storytelling tradition. The genre’s ability to weave compelling narratives has inspired artists from diverse backgrounds to adopt a storytelling approach in their music. Eminem’s haunting masterpiece Stan, featuring Dido, serves as a vivid example, capturing the chilling tale of an obsessed fan whose fixation spirals into tragedy. This fusion of storytelling and music garnered critical acclaim and earned nominations at prestigious awards shows.
African culture’s influence on hip-hop
The essence of hip-hop lies in its roots, deeply intertwined with the vibrant tapestry of African culture. From rhythmic drumming patterns to call-and-response techniques, the influence of Africa can be heard resonating through the beats, lyrics, and symbols of hip-hop music.
African drumming traditions have left an indelible mark on hip-hop beats, infusing them with a captivating energy and complexity. The syncopated rhythms and polyrhythmic patterns that define African drumming find their way into the heart of hip-hop music. Pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa, a true ambassador of African influence, not only embraced these rhythms but also used his platform to form the (Universal) Zulu Nation, an entity that propelled hip-hop’s global reach.
The call-and-response technique, deeply embedded in African musical traditions, found a natural home within the fabric of hip-hop. From the early days of The Sugarhill Gang to contemporary acts like Migos and Run the Jewels, the art of rapping became a dynamic interplay of voices, mirroring the call-and-response tradition’s rich heritage. This rhythmic conversation between artists became a signature of hip-hop’s storytelling prowess and a reflection of African musical heritage.
By joining forces with artists outside the hip-hop realm, musicians have forged innovative tracks that transcend traditional boundaries.
Hip-hop producers have consistently tapped into the rich soundscape of African music, sampling traditional melodies, rhythms, and instrumentation to create powerful sonic landscapes. By drawing from the motherland, they pay homage to Africa’s musical legacy while infusing their creations with a distinctive and resonant energy. Rihanna’s iconic hit Please Don’t Stop the Music featuring a sample from Manu Dibango’s Soul Makossa exemplifies how African influences can elevate contemporary hip-hop tracks.
African symbols and cultural motifs have become an integral part of hip-hop’s visual language. Artists have embraced African vernacular English in their lyrics, immersing their music in the rich tapestry of African culture. The fusion of African-inspired fashion, featuring garments like dashikis, kente cloth, and Ankara prints, has further elevated hip-hop’s connection with African aesthetics. Icons such as Fela Kuti, Erykah Badu, and Burna Boy have masterfully incorporated African fashion into their music and performances, becoming cultural ambassadors.
Afrofuturism, a movement blending African culture with science fiction, has found fertile ground within hip-hop’s creative realm. Artists like Sun Ra, George Clinton, and Janelle Monae have embraced Afrofuturist themes, infusing their music with cosmic visions and explorations of African identity. Moreover, hip-hop’s Afrocentric lyrics and themes amplify voices that address issues of identity, social justice, and the African diaspora. Songs like Queen Latifah’s empowering anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.” and Common and John Legend’s stirring “Glory” stand as testaments to hip-hop’s role in advocating for change and celebrating African heritage.
As hip-hop propels forward on its evolutionary odyssey, its inseparable bond with African culture remains unwavering. The genre continues to draw inspiration from the vast tapestry of African traditions, ensuring its constant reinvention and unwavering commitment to amplifying diverse voices and narratives. The burgeoning interest in African culture within the global music industry, manifested through events like Afropunk and the BET Awards, underscores the timeless allure and boundless creativity that African music and culture bestow upon the world stage.
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