The last time I heard from Ali Zaidi was May 22nd this year in a message that blipped out from a long stretch of silence.
I sent an email in reply, I texted, I called. There was no response.
I had spent nearly a week in northern Kenya, and the poor connections prevented me from checking my mail. The events of 21st May had passed me by. A source I was due to interview in Turkana had abruptly travelled to Uganda and so in a hurry, I had caught a plane from Lodwar and flown to Eldoret to cut the 6 to 7 hour journey down to 30 minutes so that I could arrive overland in Soroti in Uganda, where he was, before nightfall. Right on the tarmac of Eldoret airport, with reliable connection back on, the news jolted me.
I went numb. I tried calling several people. The messages kept rushing in. The drive from the airport to Eldoret town itself seemed surreal.
An email sent the day before popped up. It read:
“David, sorry to have missed you. Listen, we want to put together a tribute next week. Care to do something?
He was so much fun.”
The emailer was Ali Zaidi. And that email was the first communication we had had in ages. It was also the last time I heard from him. His “sorry to have missed you” was from the fact that the week before, I had passed by the Nation Centre, where Ali worked, and been told that he had stepped out briefly. The “tribute” that Ali was referring to was what he was putting together for The EastAfrican following the untimely death of Kenyan writer BinyavangaWainaina, with whom he had a long and close connection.
Circumstances play a sadistic hand. The next email I got from Nairobi was nearly four months later. It was a request to write about my memories of Ali Zaidi, who had passed away a few days earlier. Two obituaries in a year of people I knew left me crushed.
I had written for The EastAfrican newspaper since 1999 but I only got to know Ali Zaidi in 2008. I had spent that decade in Kampala, so the occasional walk-ins into the Nation Centre were hurried, impersonal, encounters. But in 2008, my life had changed. Constant conflict with the Ugandan government over my writing made my career at the paper untenable. So I became a full-time writer, something I had always wanted. And in 2008, Nairobi was where actual writing was taking place. After I met Binyavanga and Billy Kahora in Kampala in March of that year, I moved to Nairobi in August.
Quite incredibly, having quit The EastAfrican where he was editor, here I was, landing in a circle at the centre of which Ali Zaidi played a critical role. There was no escaping the man – not that you really wanted to. This time, the formality of him being my boss was gone, and we could talk openly.
The 18th birthday of his son Hassan provided the occasion at which I formally met Ali Zaidi’s circle. It was a Saturday, a day that also coincided with the opening of the KwaniLitfest of that year. New and a guest of Kwani, I spent that weekend driving around Nairobi in cabs with Binyavanga Wainaina, the founder of the literary journal.
Kwani had organised a discussion on writing for magazines, which was being held at the Karen Blixen Museum in Karen, with Binyavanga and Yvonne Owuor sharing the stage. It was an interesting, writerly talk, but Ali had personally called and invited me to his house and I was getting anxious to leave.
Quite incredibly, having quit The EastAfrican where he was an editor, here I was, landing in a circle at the centre of which Ali Zaidi played a critical role. There was no escaping the man – not that you really wanted to.
We arrived at Ali’s well after 2 o’clock that afternoon. New in Nairobi, I could not believe how cold it was at that hour, right on the equator! But that had been my experience during my early days in Nairobi; cold all the time, and because of cold, also constantly hungry. My hosts did not seem too keen on food themselves, and I wondered about their lives, and just what it was I had stepped into.
Ali’s house in Loresho was not what I had expected it to be. It was also unsurprising that it was what it was. Informal, comfortably disarrayed, welcoming, unintimidating. Loresho was a gated estate far from the centre of the city, nestled in a thickly wooded “leafy” suburb.
It seemed that everybody was there. I recognised Lynn MuthoniWanyeki from her mugshot in The EastAfrican. A young, energetically bouncing writer (he wore his credentials too well) introduced himself as Parselelo Ole Kantai. Ali emerged from his house, and amidst the crowd (for it was a packed compound, very wide, with wood and stone sculptures all over), he spotted me and Binyavanga coming in. He stood waiting for us to approach. “David,” he said, smiling, warmly. He took my hand and led me indoors. “Let me feed you.” At last. Someone in Nairobi understood that people needed to eat.
But it was the sheer number of people in Ali Zaidi’s house that occupied my mind. From the sound of them (all eloquent), and the look of them (the tasteful but crumpled look of arty sorts) you could tell who the writer was, the filmmaker, the musician, the activist. Had he taken each one of them by the hand and said “let me feed you”?
Ali’s warmth spoke volumes about who he was. Firstly, his was a house full of children. And then books, and artwork enough to qualify as a museum. We went past the living room, and inside the kitchen, he introduced his children. There, where I was to often find him, was Hassan, marinating piles of meat. We went past him to more introductions – Franco, Emma, Tara (Ali’s children) to the backyard so I could see his wife Irene’s big marble sculpture, a work in progress.
Back to the front garden, which was enormous and punctuated with Irene’s sculptures, there were more introductions, hands to grip, names to exchange: Betty Muragori (soon to be Sitawa Namwalie who invited me to the opening of her poetry show, CutoffMyTongue), Wanyeki, Rasna Warah, Shalini Gidoomal. I forget the rest. The talk was a high, theory-studded tenor. You turned here and caught a whiff of postmodernist extrapolations that side someone in deconstructionist pique, and over there, postcolonial postulation. People held court, drew a circle, talked, then dispersed, sat by the fire, re-congregated around another forth-holder, filled glasses, opened another bottle.
As I was quickly learning, in that circle, you did not simply say things. There had to be an intellectual filter, an optic, a politics via which you saw the world. It was like living inside the pages of The New Yorker, or the Times Literary Supplement, or the London Review of Books. Books, titles, verses, quotes and much else flew about to emphasise a point, a name invoked to shore up a position, wedge in a definition.
And there was Ali Zaidi, walking in, resting on an elbow, listening, gathering a line, looking over shoulders, recharging an empty glass, then pulling over someone who might inject a new idea, an anecdote, drawing the embers out of an overcharged guest, keeping the fires burning. I thought of Anna Scherer in the opening scenes of War and Peace. Had the Tolstoyan character been less pushy and read Marx (a century before her time, admittedly but it might have saved the characters in that book!), her name would have been Ali Zaidi.
What he might have meant when he took my hand, might as well have been “let me seed you”.
As I was to learn over the next few years, this was Ali’s element. It was what he lived for. It was how, five years before that day, Kwani?, the literary magazine, had been born in that very garden. From Ali’s garden, the writers who created Kwani? went out with valuable tools to examine the society they wrote about and did it without asking permission from established hegemonies.
I don’t remember at what point Binyavanga left the party (he forgot his jacket there that evening, I recollect), so I caught a ride back to where I was staying with Parselelo well after 1 on Sunday morning.
To start life in Nairobi, I had to get pragmatic. I had shut down my workshop in Kampala, so I was not making anything to sell to pay the rent. During the week, I rung Ali up. He suggested lunch at Riviera Bar and Restaurant, a short walk from the Nation Centre. As I was to find out, Ali’s haunts were a circle of restaurants minutes from the Nation Centre, which allowed him to nip out briefly and then return to his desk.
I needed to write more regularly, I told him. Nairobi is expensive, I said. That year, I had also strayed into literary infamy and needed to explain myself.
As I was to learn over the next few years, this was Ali’s element. It was what he lived for. It was how, five years before that day, Kwani?, the literary magazine, had been born in that very garden. From Ali’s garden, the writers who created Kwani?went out with valuable tools to examine the society they wrote about and did it without asking permission from established hegemonies.
He chuckled. He may have intuited that already. It was lunch but all he had was a Spanish omelette. I told him I had some ideas about art and literary criticism. “Send in some stuff and let’s see,” he said, instantly looking worried. Perennial bet-hedgers, editors, I always found, reacted to writing proposals with alarm where writers expect gushing enthusiasm.
The closing months of 2008 were fascinating. What started as a weekly comment on this and that literary tradition and heritage turned into a ping-pong exchange of comments and counter-arguments with other literary commentators in Nairobi. We had a lovely debate about literature and history in the pages of The East African. It was the most engrossing bout of newspapering I can recollect.
Over the next few years, I was to see Ali in a way that had not been possible from a distance.
There was his personal/intellectual background and also the context in which it fit. For decades, to be an editor in Nairobi was to have occupied a serious position via which power and public life were mediated. From descriptions, one could hazard that the template may have been set as far back as 1902 when A.M. Jeevanjee hired the British editor W.H Tiller to man the African Standard (later bought by British interest and renamed East African Standard) as founding editor.
By many accounts a grasping man, W.H. Tiller was said to have run the place in the pugnacious mould that was to characterise the job thereafter. Post-independence Kenya was enlivened by a procession of print media editors whose reputations remain in the same ring as generals, CEOs and politicians: John Bierman, Hillary Ng’weno, Boaz Omari, George Githii, John McHaffie, Philip Ochieng, Joe Rodriguez, Gerry Loughran, Joseph Odindo, Peter Mwaura, George Mbugguss, Joe Kadhi. Dramas and epochs attach to each with the swing of Kenyan and East African politics.
Ali Zaidi brought his intellect and social gift to the role. He ran a newspaper whose reputation was without equal in East Africa and beyond. By convening and hosting a circle of writers who would have an impact on the arts and culture on the continent, Ali Zaidi was also outdoing his predecessors. As with all editors of note, you wrote primarily for Ali Zaidi, and only secondarily for the paper.
Ali Zaidi was born Aligarh in India and came to Kenya in the early years of President Daniel arap Moi’s rule. He did some teaching before finding his calling as an editor. He told me he could no longer live in India after witnessing the massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. He had read economics at Master’s degree level at Delhi University.
I first heard the name Ali Zaidi when I joined The EastAfrican newspaper in 1999, still only 23 and not yet graduated from university. Ali likes this. Ali does not like that. He was not the managing editor. That was Joseph Odindo. But he was that éminence grise that all newspapers must have – that one in-house intellectual and grammarian commanding a battery of section editors. I saw him once in those early years, when I visited Nairobi in 2002, and not again till 2008.
Given its structure, and as a weekly, TheEastAfrican’s reporters were required to do hard news. What I really paid attention to was art and literature. It was how I came to the attention of Ali Zaidi.
By convening and hosting a circle of writers who would have an impact on the arts and culture on the continent, Ali Zaidi was also outdoing his predecessors. As with all editors of note, you wrote primarily for Ali Zaidi, and only secondarily for the paper.
He was not too enthusiastic about what I had to say about art and books. He must have thought me a novice all over the place with ideas. Whatever reviews I wrote were whittled down to reporterial bare bones. He also thought I wrote with too much flourish. “Just go down to town,” was his way of saying write simply. I was not too enamoured by him either. I had called him a philistine – not directly, but in words that amounted to the same. It took me a while to understand that the arts section mattered a lot to Ali.
Once settled in Nairobi, the bulk of my meetings with Ali consisted of the lunches at restaurants within walking distance of the Nation Centre. These provided a chance to talk. 2008 was the year of financial collapse. Capitalism, as we had come to know it, had ended. People were starting to talk about Marx again.
“You have not read Marx,” he stated.
“You have read of Marx,” he modulated the charge.
I detailed to him what I had read of Marx. When I mentioned that I planned to tackle the Grundrisse, he scowled.
“Stop telling lies. Read Marx.”
His vehemence gave me pause to reflect. It was not like Ali to insist so harshly. But it was then that I began to sense where his intellectual locus sat. I understood that when he said “you have not read Marx,” he meant I was not hewing to the Marxist school he was beholden to, the very typically Marxist internecine conflict to have. But what might that be? The answer was not a difficult one. He was a Walter Benjamin Marxist. (To boot, he was even a spitting image of the great German philosopher-martyr.)
I was hence starting from the beginning, fleshing out what it was that propelled the man. To begin with, the thorough-going, intellectual coherence of historical materialism always provided penetrative insight. It provided a structure of not only thought but also action that could have tremendous impact. Because it was critical, being as it were, on the offensive against an exploitative class, Marxism did not have to play hide-and-seek with history. Coming up with dodgy arguments to support personal wealth was the territory of liberal and neoliberal apologists, such as Maynard Keynes and his successors, Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek.
I got it that Ali understood the world in certain ways. Marxism provided him not only with a view into politics and economics, but also a view of society that was basically humane. For him, people were not for sale. The wealthy in Kenya, he insisted to their face, had profited from a fundamentally unjust system.
But what was it about Walter Benjamin that appealed to Ali and how might it have shaped how he saw the world?
The Jewish philosopher, whose death on the Spanish border when he was fleeing Nazis in 1939 remains a mystery and continues to divide Spain, had gone longer distances than most Marxists of his times in postulating a critical theory. Walter Benjamin’s idea of history, his “angel of history” (after buying the painting by Paul Klee, Angelus Novus) is his most powerful idea. The eponymous angel in the painting, Walter Benjamin wrote, “would like to say, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed”.
This insight into history was, to say the least, ultra-revolutionary. What it said, and how it has variously been interpreted, is that the past (lost causes) is not dead (defeated) as long as there are people still willing to fight for it. It is the closest one can come to resurrecting the dead, this idea of picking up the cause they died for and then refighting it. The catchy formulation being that the fate of the past lies in the hands of the present. In other words, the past is not dead as long as the living continue to believe in its ideas.
I got it that Ali understood the world in certain ways. Marxism provided him not only with a view into politics and economics, but also a view of society that was basically humane. For him, people were not for sale. The wealthy in Kenya, he insisted to their face, had profited from a fundamentally unjust system.
There was also his critical art theory: Walter Benjamin’s was a fundamental questioning of the concept of art, stripping it down to a matter of aesthetic, from which point open-ended questions become possible: as “Art”, it is an absolute in itself; but as “aesthetic”, it is the territory of the subjective, a thing you can negotiate with. An immensely liberating direction to take, for then, totalities, or what Ali liked to term “absolutes”, rapidly came unstuck. For the work of art, as Walter Benjamin argued, is tied to the question of tradition, what a people think of the object. What had been pure creativity in one epoch had in another age been an object of veneration, of spiritual significance; what had for one people been just a utilitarian, functional object becomes for another a work of art. Created objects are armed and disarmed as art, depending on the politics of a time. For instance, graffiti would in the 1990s be a nuisance scarring cityscapes. In a period of insurrection against the “one percent”, Banksy would be viewed as a great artist.
The work of art becomes tied to other larger aspects external to the object of art, making the metamorphosis from the spiritual stage to the political and the economic. Art in the industrial age hence takes on a new, urgent significance. It becomes the keeper of the forces of a spiritualism exiled from human relationships by the forces of production.
The work of art becomes the only safe place in which freedom, equality, community, and kindness will not jeopardise the profit motive of capitalism. For if these ideas are left within human society, they will inspire resistance against the exploiting class. The work of art begins to command vast sums of money because they are indeed storing the very lifeblood of human society. It might seem as though the capitalist patrons of art are missing the warmth of community they have destroyed. It is telling that global corporations give so much money to museums, not so much as a back-handed apology as ensuring that what is imprisoned in art stays there, to be viewed rather than lived.
According to this line of argument, the work of art is then slightly off-centre to the objet d’art. A sculpted stone is a stone with a shape. It will only become art when we will it to be art. That “will” comes from our political positioning, for it is the belief of our society, as well as the class we belong to, that tells us how to feel. Hence, art is not an intrinsic property of the object. All value is external to the object.
Ali Zaidi spoke often of Walter Benjamin’s examination of the work of art at the dawn of the modern era, the “mechanical reproduction of the work of art”, stating that a photograph of a famous work of art was no less valuable than the original itself. This was Walter Benjamin’s argument. An argument dangerous to a rising age of fascist nativism for which value must be intrinsic and inseparably innate to the volk. (Ali, who moved to Africa and married an African, an act that was anathema within the migrant Asian community, did not see race or tribe or class. His Marxism was a lived idea.) If all interpretations art, history, culture are political, then is it not hogwash to claim any one culture as supreme?
Ali would say things like “the destruction of the material cultures of African societies was central to the colonial enterprise”, a typically Marxist statement to make. But it swept away rhetorical verbiage and overheated, superficialities about identity. It went to the gist of history itself, that the struggle was not of “civilization” but of baser intent, for control of material resources, to put it crudely.
As I saw it, that was the point at which Ali operated his politics, as it were. It also made him a stranger to an age in which identity politics characterised everything. As far as I can remember, he had little to say about post-war philosophical politics and I tried unsuccessfully to get him to discuss Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
The irony was that the intellectual set that gathered around Ali was deeply steeped in the postmodern identity politics spawned by their ideas. Most spouted it second-hand without knowledge of where it emanated from, the free-for-all, anything-goes “deconstruction” tool of reading that Derrida inflicted upon intellect.
I never came to know Ali’s views on postmodernism. Perhaps others did. But it was not a topic he encouraged whenever I brought it up. At any rate, extend the ideas of Walter Benjamin two or three decades into the 21st century and they likely end up there.
He did not set out to influence anyone. That would have been not only crude but disingenuous. They would all have dropped him for that. It is not that he was too clever for that. Rather, Ali was genuine.
He was addicted to people. I could see that. He could not get through an evening without the company of at least half a dozen people. People were his element. He was happiest in large groups.
I’d like to think he found a home in East Africa. He believed in things, and he went out of his way to make it possible for creative, earnest and driven intellectuals to have a say. We appreciated that deeply.
He seemed happy. He often said: “In Africa, people accept you as long as they sense that you are genuine. Elsewhere, they see your face, your religion, and shoo you away.”
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Hip hop’s Enduring Echo: From New York’s Streets to Global Beats
In the second of a two-part series, Richard Wanjohi traces the rise and rise of the hip hop genre from humble beginnings in the Bronx to the exalted halls of academe.
In the heat of a summer afternoon on the 11th of August 2023, echoes of the origins of hip hop swept through the bustling avenues of New York City, traversing five decades to awaken the present. The Hip Hop museum relived the original block party, an event aptly christened “Hip Hop’s 50th Birthday Jam” that transcended mere celebration and instead served as a living testament to the very essence of this genre-defining movement. The city that had birthed a cultural revolution watched as its legacy reverberated across continents. The month of August unfolded as a tapestry of events and tributes, a worldwide celebration of hip hop’s indomitable spirit. Taking root in humble neighbourhoods, hip hop has ascended to paramount prominence both in the commercial realms of music and in societal discourse.
Donald Glover’s This is America was released in May 2018, on the same night that Childish Gambino (Glover’s stage name) was hosting Saturday Night Live, an American late-night live television sketch comedy, political satire, and variety show. The song’s lyrics and powerful music video capture the essence of the Black Lives Matter movement, delving into the heart of systemic racism.
Tackling the themes of prejudice, racial violence, the ghetto, and law enforcement in the US, the song resonates with the movement’s spirit. It also touches on the broader concerns of mass shootings and gun violence, painting a vivid picture of the challenges facing the United States.
This Is America was the first rap song – and Gambino the first hip hop artist – to win Record of the Year and Song of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Performance Award and Best Music Video at the Annual Grammy Awards.
Another contemporary artist on the hip hop landscape is Kendrick Lamar, a maestro of words whose lyrical prowess has earned the critical acclaim of a generation. In 2017, his anthem to social consciousness, Humble, resonated with a world craving authenticity. With an infectious chorus that implores, “Sit down, be humble”, the track is an call to humility, a repudiation of the ostentation that has occasionally veiled the essence of rap culture, and indeed, global popular culture.
Yet, beneath the surface, Humble delves deeper, summoning African American men to introspection, challenging them to grapple with their roles and power within their communities. This call to self-examination arrives in an era marked by a rising “cancel culture” where movements like “Me Too” have spotlighted a demand for accountability. Lamar’s artistry embodies this moment, peering through society’s lens etched with pain, yearning for collective humility, and a society unified by values.
As he asserts his individuality, Lamar fearlessly points fingers at the counterfeit, the insincere, those failing to meet his measure of authenticity. A truth seeker himself, Lamar’s artistry becomes a mirror, reflecting the world’s complexities, capturing the zeitgeist with unwavering intensity.
A milestone was reached on the 13th of February 2022, at the Super Bowl LVI Final, a night electrified by the presence of Kendrick Lamar alongside luminaries like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, and 50 Cent. In the midst of the halftime show’s dazzling spectacle, the heart of hip hop pulsed, paying tribute to its West Coast origins, a homage to the crucible of hip hop that transcended time zones, a reminder of its roots.
Lamar’s narrative speaks of more than just stardom; it encapsulates a struggle for hip hop’s essence amidst the onslaught of commercialisation and global expansion. The genre navigates its identity, steering between the twin tides of mass appeal and authenticity, struggling to remain true as it extends its reach to the world stage.
In Childish Gambino’s This is America, the song represents an unfiltered mirror reflecting the complex realities of modern America. With pulsating beats and enigmatic lyrics, the track takes listeners on a visceral journey through the nation’s darkest corners. Gambino delves into the psyche of a nation teetering between euphoria and despair, beckoning us to question our complicity and the façades we build.
As we dissect every lyric and decode every visual cue, we realise that this song isn’t just entertainment – it’s an urgent call to action, a demand for introspection, and a stark reminder that America’s story is still being written, one fraught note at a time. And isn’t a similar tale told in so many other countries across the world?
The genre navigates its identity, steering between the twin tides of mass appeal and authenticity, struggling to remain true as it extends its reach to the world stage.
Beyond the beats, hip hop retains its vocation as a megaphone for society’s voice. From the corners of Europe to the Americas, it weaves together lyrical tapestries that tackle inequality, racism, and the brutality of the badge. The legacy of protest that stirred its early days courses through its veins.
Globally, hip hop’s resonance remains potent, a conduit for artists to unleash their messages onto the world’s stage. In Kenya, the return of Kalamashaka heralds a renaissance, echoing the struggles of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a stark reminder that society’s battles persist across time and borders. When the group embarked on their journey, guided by their producer Tedd Josiah, they began by mirroring their American counterparts, belting out verses in English and slang. Yet, as artistic instinct led them to the crossroads of self-discovery, their sound underwent a transformation that would leave an indelible mark on the country’s musical fabric.
From the corners of Europe to the Americas, it weaves together lyrical tapestries that tackle inequality, racism, and the brutality of the badge.
Shifting gears, they embraced the lyrical tapestry of Swahili and the street-smart slang of Sheng. This linguistic pivot birthed Tafsiri Hii, etching the track into the annals of Kenyan music history as the first commercially minted hip hop anthem. With each beat and syllable, they pioneered a new sonic frontier, infusing local vernacular into a genre that was once an import.
The resonance of Tafsiri Hii went beyond the lyrics; it captured a cultural shift, a declaration that Kenyan hip hop would forge its path, distinct from its American roots. It wasn’t just a song; it was a manifesto, a clarion call for artists across the nation to celebrate their own linguistic heritage.
Yet, amidst these triumphs, shadows persist. Misogyny and the debasement of women stain hip hop’s narrative. Critics’ voices rise, dissecting the art form’s dichotomy, questioning its role in perpetuating inequality and disrespect.
As we stand amidst the beats and rhythms, we recognise that hip hop’s journey is complex, a symphony of triumphs and challenges, a vessel for the voices of the marginalised, an amplifier of truth. The legacy of August’s jubilant celebrations propels hip hop forward, igniting a global conversation that echoes in the streets of New York, Nairobi and New Delhi, etching its imprint on the world’s soul.
Global grooves: Unveiling the current currents of hip hop music
As the global pulse continues to syncopate to the rhythm of urban beats, hip hop music stands firm as the heartbeat of our modern age. From the gritty streets of its Bronx birthplace, the genre has morphed into a kaleidoscope of influences, mirroring the diverse tapestry of our planet. Hip hop has become the most popular genre in the United States since 2017, surpassing rock and pop. The genre has grown from a small underground movement to a multibillion-dollar industry.
In the digital age, the hip hop landscape expands without borders. A digital symphony of trap snares, Afrobeat rhythms, and lyrical poetry reverberates across continents. International collaborations have been breaking sound barriers, proving that language is no obstacle to the universal resonance of a catchy hook – testament to our interconnected era, a striking chapter recently unfolded on the world stage.
Enter the phenomenon that is Calm Down, an undeniable chart-topper that encapsulates this moment in time. A merger of Afrobeats and pop music, this musical marvel stands as an emblematic blend of two distinct talents – the prodigious Rema from Nigeria and the charismatic Selena Gomez, a true American gem with Latin roots intricately woven into the rich fabric of her sound.
Gone are the days when hip hop was confined to block parties and underground clubs. Today, it headlines festivals that span the globe, igniting crowds with the energy of a thousand firecrackers. The evolution of hip hop visuals transforms music videos into cinematic epics, pushing creative boundaries to new heights.
Yet, as the genre evolves, it confronts paradoxes. At a time when hip hop’s global influence is undeniable, its connection to authenticity is a burning question. Commercialisation threatens to dilute its essence, but many artists stand as sentinels of truth, using their verses to amplify the voices of the marginalised.
International collaborations have been breaking sound barriers, proving that language is no obstacle to the universal resonance of a catchy hook.
The lyricism has matured, becoming a megaphone for societal critique. From South African townships to the bustling streets of Tokyo, hip hop lyrics dissect systemic injustices, demand change, and refuse to be silenced. In this era of global protests, the genre surges as an anthem for those yearning for justice.
As we traverse cultural boundaries, we uncover a mosaic of regional sounds. In South America, Andean instruments blend seamlessly with boom-bap beats. The Middle East fuses traditional melodies with trap basslines. In India, hip hop becomes a canvas for lyrical storytelling, painting vivid portraits of everyday life.
It’s a world where pioneers like Public Enemy and newer voices like Burna Boy share a stage, reminding us that hip hop is a symposium of generations, a living testament to resilience, and a bridge connecting diverse narratives.
In this era of global connectivity, hip hop resonates as the universal language, a harmonic thread weaving tales of struggle, triumph, and dreams. It’s not just music; it’s the pulse of a generation in sync, turning the globe into one sprawling, rhythm-driven metropolis.
But what problems does hip hop music still face, and what does it need to fix?
Writing for the Billboard magazine in an article titled, Hip hop’s No.1s Shortage: Is it Actually a Crisis or ’Is It all Cyclical?, Elias Leight noted that there has been a shortage of hip hop number 1s or chart-topping hits for both the Billboard 200-topping album and the Billboard Hot 100-topping single in 2023. Music executives were, however, quick to observe that while there may be no chart-topping songs, the “use of genre-related statistics is increasingly ill-suited to describe a world packed with blurry genre-hybrids”.
According to Chartmetric – a data firm that focuses on artists and the music industry –hip hop currently makes up around 16 per cent of the most streamed songs on Spotify’s top 50 list. In contrast, in 2020, it accounted for over 40 per cent of songs streamed in the United States. Critics are quick to note that, just like other music genres, hip hop is currently undergoing an evolution of sorts.
Hip –hop in academia: From the streets to the classroom
The influence of hip hop has not been confined to the world of music; it reverberates in classrooms, is discussed in research papers, and in intellectual conversations, finding its place in higher education. The first academic course on hip hop was offered in 1991 at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C.
Scholars dissect its rhythms, analyse its lyrics, and contextualise its impact on society. From socio-political commentary to examinations of its influence on language and identity, the study of hip hop cuts across disciplines; it can be analysed as music, as literature, as history, as sociology, as anthropology, and more.
Here are some of the key milestones in the history of the study of hip hop in universities and institutions of higher learning:
In 1994, the very first academic journal devoted entirely to the study of hip hop, The Journal of Hip Hop Studies, made its debut. This marked a significant milestone, creating a platform for in-depth analysis and research within the realm of hip—hop culture. Two years later, in 1996, Droppin’ Science: Critical Studies in Rap Music and Hip hop Culture by William Perkins, became the first book dedicated to hip—hop studies. This publication provided an academic lens through which to scrutinize the art form, its origins, and its societal impacts.
In this era of global connectivity, hip hop resonates as the universal language, a harmonic thread weaving tales of struggle, triumph, and dreams.
Fast forward to 2002 and the birth of a pioneering establishment, The Center for Hip Hop Studies at Temple University, the first research center wholly devoted to the exploration of hip—hop and its cultural significance. The Hip Hop Studies Association Conference was held two years later, in 2004, the very first academic conference focusing solely on hip—hop studies. This event brought together scholars, researchers, and enthusiasts, fostering a community of hip—hop scholars.
Finally, in 2010, the New York University launched the very first PhD program in hip hop studies, opening doors for advanced academic pursuit in the field and further solidifying the place of hip hop in scholarly circles. From Ivy League institutions to community colleges, the reach of hip hop in academia is diverse and widespread. The journey of hip hop from the streets to academe testifies to its enduring power – it’s not just music; it’s a mirror reflecting the complexities of the world.
What is the future of hip hop?
In a seismic cultural shift, the world will look to embrace the pulse and groove of hip hop like never before. With the 2024 Paris Olympics looming on the horizon, the limelight will cast its glow on a new addition that is set to redefine the notion of sportsmanship: breakdancing. Yes, you heard it right – breakdancing, that urban dance movement born in the streets and thriving on hip hop beats, is poised to captivate audiences on the global stage.
The Olympic movement has long been known to be a mirror of our times, and with the ascension of breakdancing, it is embracing a phenomenon that transcends boundaries and unites generations.
And this isn’t just another nod to trends; it’s an epochal recognition of hip hop’s indomitable spirit and its unassailable influence on culture. Breakdancing, an electrifying expression of rhythm, flow, and physical prowess, finds its way into the Olympic marquee as part of the dazzling, daring tapestry of urban sports. But breakdancing isn’t just a sport; it’s an ode to creativity, a celebration of individuality, and a showcasing of unity through movement.
Hip hop is a genre that has always been about pushing boundaries. Artists from all over the world are always experimenting with new sounds and styles. These artists keep blurring the lines between genres, incorporating elements of everything from electronic music to traditional African sounds.
One such artist is Little Simz, a British rapper of Nigerian origin who has been praised for her unique blend of hip hop, soul, and jazz. Her latest album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, was a critical and commercial success, and she was recently nominated for a Brit Award for British Album of the Year.
It’s not just music; it’s the pulse of a generation in sync, turning the globe into one sprawling, rhythm-driven metropolis.
In the world of underground hip hop, one of the most interesting new subgenres is Drill, music that originated in Chicago in the early 2010s and is characterized by its dark, aggressive sound. Some of the most popular drill artists include Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and G Herbo. Central Cee, a popular British rapper took drill, repackaged it in London and exported it to the US, saying on TikTok, “In London I’m verified; in New York I’m valid.”
Another up-and-coming subgenre is Afrobeats, a music genre that originated in Nigeria in the early 2000s. It is a fusion of West African sounds and hip hop, dancehall, and pop. Some of the most popular Afrobeats artists include Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy and the music prodigy Rema. A subgenre of Afrobeats that came on the scene in the 2010s, Afroswing is characterized by its upbeat, danceable sound. Popular Afroswing artists include Kojo Funds, Juls, and Not3s.
These are just a few of the many emerging artists and subgenres that are pushing the boundaries of hip hop. It is an exciting time to be a fan of the genre, and it will be interesting to see what new sounds and styles emerge in the years to come.
Southern Africa’s rich cultural tapestry has gifted the world a medley of hip hop sub-genres, each a vibrant note in the symphony of regional identity. Kwaito, a fusion of house, hip hop, and traditional mbaqanga, emerged as a joyful celebration in the 1990s. Its catchy melodies, repetitive rhythms, and uplifting lyrics infuse dance floors with energy. Other sub-genres include Motswako which appeared in the early 2000s and delivers rapid-fire rhymes and incisive social commentary. AKA, Cassper Nyovest, and Khuli Chana shine as its luminaries, their verses echoing with insight. Amapiano, a fusion of house, jazz, and mbaqanga, sets a mellower mood. Slow, melodic beats blend with soulful vocals, creating an atmosphere of musical indulgence. Coming out of Durban, Gqom captivates with its dark, electronic sound and weighty basslines. DJ Lag, Mpura, and Distruction Boyz dominate this realm, bringing dance floors to life.
In Southern Africa, the tentacles of hip hop extend far beyond the mainstream, each sub-genre a testament to the region’s depth and diversity.
American Travis Scott’s song K-Pop features Canadian sensation Weeknd and Bad Bunny, a Puerto Rican who raps in Spanish and is one of the most streamed artists on Spotify. While fans may think the title pays homage to the Korean pop sound, the name actually refers to ketamine, a prescription drug used to treat depression that is abused as a recreational drug. The song also samples funk carioca or bailes funk – a sound from Latin America’s favelas that is closely related to hip hop.
In the heart of Kenya’s musical legacy, Kalamashaka, a group fondly referred to as K-Shaka, ignited a spark that would set ablaze the nation’s hip hop scene. With time, the group underwent a metamorphosis, giving rise to a new entity – Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, a name that pays homage to the valiant freedom fighters who fought for Kenya’s independence from British colonial rule. The transformation was more than just a change of name; it was a declaration of allegiance to the nation’s history and struggle.
In the ranks of this collective were luminaries like MC Kah, Wenyeji, and Warogi Wawili, their coming together a testament to the power of unity and creative evolution. Recently, the fires of K-Shaka have been rekindled, with the group regrouping and reworking some of their former hits and producing new work. Their resurgence is a reminder that the legacy of hip hop is one that continually reinvents itself, breathing life into narratives old and new.
But breakdancing isn’t just a sport; it’s an ode to creativity, a celebration of individuality, and a showcasing of unity through movement.
Yet, Kenya’s hip hop story doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of veterans. Enter Wakadinali, an outfit that champions an alternative sound – a fusion of hip hop, drill, and gengetone. Their genre-blurring approach resonates with an audience that connects deeply with their style. Their journey, however, hasn’t been without its share of controversies. Their lyrics, at times lewd, and their open embrace of the drug culture have drawn criticism. Still, their tracks find airplay on mainstream media and streaming platforms, a testament to the genre’s audacious spirit.
From K-Shaka’s evolution to Wakadinali’s genre fusion, Kenya’s hip hop scene is a testament to the genre’s global ingenuity and adaptability. It showcases how hip hop serves as a canvas for cultural evolution, a space where artists reinterpret the past while carving paths towards the future. In a nation where history and innovation dance side by side, the beat goes on, resonating through the streets and stories of Kenya.
In the crucible of creativity, where beats collide and verses weave tapestries of truth, hip hop thrives as a genre that continually reshapes itself. As artists and producers tinker with sonic alchemy, the hip hop genre reinvents itself with every beat.
The innovation isn’t just in the beats; it’s in the very essence of hip hop’s DNA. Genres fuse like chemical reactions, birthing sub-genres that dance on the edge of convention. From trap’s hypnotic cadence to lo-fi’s introspective embrace, each sub-genre is a testament to hip hop’s restless spirit.
Technology fuels this evolution, giving artists tools to craft beats that echo across digital realms. Producers sculpt soundscapes that blend nostalgia with futurism, creating tracks that traverse time and cultures. Autotune, once a divisive tool, now bends and shapes voices into new dimensions, pushing the boundaries of sound and identity.
Lyricism, the backbone of hip hop, also continues to evolve. Rappers craft verses that delve into social justice, mental health, and human experience. The mic becomes a platform for storytellers, poets, and provocateurs, painting narratives that resonate beyond the studio. Verses become manifestos, igniting conversations that spark change.
In the era of streaming and social media, hip hop’s influence amplifies. Songs spark viral dances on TikTok, creating global phenomena overnight. Social platforms become the stage for artists to engage with fans, breaking down the barrier between star and spectator. In this digital age, every beat drop is a cultural event, every album releases a collective experience.
The charts themselves mirror the genre’s evolution. Numbers from Chartmetrics showcase how hip hop’s kaleidoscope of sounds – from drill to alt-rap – dominates the scene. Streams surge, artists rise, and conversations flare across the digital landscape, a testament to hip hop’s evergreen relevance.
So, as the genre embarks on each new sonic voyage, let’s revel in the symphony of evolution. Hip hop isn’t just a genre; it’s a living, breathing entity that thrives on change, resilience, and the magic that happens when a beat hits just right. It’s a revolution of rhythm, an evolution of expression, and a journey that keeps us on our feet, grooving to the unstoppable beat of hip hop’s future.
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.
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