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Knowing Binyavanga

14 min read.

A story of an unlikely friendship, a chronicle of the final years of the late Kenyan writer Binyavanga’s life, from the perspective of a former student activist discovered on the brink of despair and mentored into a writer.

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Knowing Binyavanga
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‘‘I want to go and drink in River Road, where you guys used to drink,’’ Binyavanga told me, wanting to experience Nairobi’s underbelly, where broke University of Nairobi students and those staying in cheap downtown hostels engaged in debauchery. It had all started a month or so earlier. I had shared with him bits and pieces of a memoir on student activism that I had been working on. That story seemed to make Binyavanga want to talk for hours on end, as if wanting to discover a part of Kenya he wasn’t familiar with, including drinking in Nairobi’s dingy backstreet bars.

I had instigated our chance meeting weeks earlier through a random Facebook message. After a year of seeking and being granted asylum in Uganda following an untidy spillover of my student activism, I had returned to Kenya in early 2010, broke and broken. Sitting in a Kenya National Commission on Human Rights safe house in Nairobi’s Kilimani neighbourhood, I started writing a memoir, later deciding to share a section of it with someone I considered a literary authority, wanting to know whether it was all just trash. I settled on Binyavanga, at the time Director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College in New York. I wrote him one of those possibly irritating I-know-nothing-about-publishing-but-I-think-I’m-onto-something messages, suspecting he received tens of those at a time. Luckily, Binyavanga responded in under ten minutes, saying he was busy but wouldn’t mind having a look. He shared his email address, and asked me to send him a chapter. He emailed back in less than 30 minutes.

‘‘Where are you?’’ Binyavanga wrote, ‘‘Are you safe?’’

Under a month later, upon his return to Nairobi—with loads of emails in-between about his intention to grant me one of the early Achebe Center writing fellowships—Binyavanga and I met for the first time at Divino, a restaurant on Nairobi’s Argwings Kodhek Road, and spoke for ten hours. Towards the end of the evening, Binyavanga told me he had a friend who lived nearby, on Kirichwa Road, whom he thought I should meet. That friend was his contemporary, the writer and journalist Parselelo Kantai, who joined us at Divino. The next weekend, staying true to the spirit of our new friendship, Binyavanga invited me to one of his epic parties at his house in Karen, introducing me to his high-flying literati friends as a promising writer in his usual exuberant way. That day, at that party in Binyavanga’s house, I became a writer.

Eager to learn more about my bleak University of Nairobi days, his curiosity sparked by the writing I had shared with him, Binyavanga decided to immerse himself into the downtown Nairobi scene, which was foreign to him. And so, one Saturday evening, I joined Binyavanga and his stocky, talkative cab driver, Njuki, who took us to the less glamourous part of the city. We drove around downtown Nairobi, to those places with their infamous little pubs with names like Emirates, where music blares out of faulty speakers and the streets are populated with staggering, drunken patrons.

Binyavanga didn’t seem impressed, much as he wanted to be in the depth of it all. Then Njuki took a turn off River Road, landing us at the junction of Keekorok Road and Jaisala Road, next to the better-known Kirinyaga Road. There stood an imposing, modernish building, AJS Plaza, which seemed out of place in the midst of structures that had seen better days, possibly dating back to colonial days. At the rear of the building, on the lower ground floor, was what looked like a kiosk, selling alcohol. There were seats placed in front of a small window from where drinks emerged.

‘‘I think I like this place,’’ Binyavanga said. ‘‘Let’s sit here.’’

Jaisala Road, which is where the watering hole was located, was quiet and deserted. Sitting on the plastic chairs, we faced a tiny dark alley, which served as the urinal for the little kiosk. Every time Binyavanga stood up, delicately balanced his imposing frame and crossed the street, positioning himself at the edge of the dark corridor to relieve himself, I wondered what I had done, bringing him to these sorts of places.

Before I could explore that thought further, Binyavanga would return, relieved and reenergised, downing his bottle of Guinness, engaging gear-five as Parselelo Kantai would later cheekily christen that moment when an idea hits Binyavanga’s mind and he is shouting and drinking and making his point loudly and urgently. A lot of gear-fives happened at Kantai’s Kirichwa Road backyard at four in the morning as our host asked us to keep it down for the sake of his neighbours.

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’’ Binyavanga told me about writing, sensing my half-heartedness. ‘‘Don’t wait for permission. If you see space, occupy it. Don’t close your mind to any possibilities.’’

Later that night, the only activity on Jaisala Road, other than that originating from our corner of the street, was the steady stream of Congolese nationals, mostly musicians, returning from live performances in places across the city—places like Simmers, that popular city center nightspot—to their rooms at Jaisala Hotel in the building across the road. Or to the cheap lodgings in the upper floors of the buildings on the street.

An idea came to Binyavanga.

‘‘I want to buy a building here,’’ he said, ‘‘one located on a corner, and transform this place.’’

Binyavanga revisited this conversation over the years, his idea of owning a building in that part of Nairobi, where he wanted to establish an arts and culture center, house the Kwani? office, and in so doing collapse the Nairobi art scene’s class divide. To his thinking, those from upper class Nairobi would—in the usual way that gentrification works—be interested in being part of this downtown experience, while those from the less privileged parts of the city would only need to board one matatu and access the venue bila hustle. As our first joint project, that night, Binyavanga gave me a much needed $100—I was dead broke—to scout for a suitable building for such a project.

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’’ Binyavanga told me about writing, sensing my half-heartedness. ‘‘Don’t wait for permission. If you see space, occupy it. Don’t close your mind to any possibilities.’’

‘‘Here’s some money,’’ Binyavanga said. ‘‘I don’t want you to get stuck.’’

At around that time, the literary journal Kwani?, of which Binyavanga was the looming founding editor, was working on its seventh edition, the majuu issue. African writers who lived or had lived in the Diaspora were being asked to tell their tales of life abroad. Having briefly read my Kampala asylum seeking escapades, which I doubt fitted neatly into Kwani?’s Diaspora template, Binyavanga reached out to Kwani’s managing editor, Billy Kahora, introducing yet another of his discoveries, another promising Kenyan writer.

‘‘You have to publish this guy,’’ Binyavanga pushed Billy on the phone, over and over again.

Billy, possibly half curious and partly seeking to get Binyavanga off his back, asked me to send him 10,000 words of my Kampala story. That is how Waiting for America in Kampala, my first piece of published writing, came to be. I told of sneaking out of Nairobi into Kampala with the material and other support of the then American Ambassador to Kenya, thereafter spending months navigating Uganda’s Directorate of Refugee Affairs and UNHCR processes.

Binyavanga went back to New York, staying in touch with me the whole time. He was back in under three months, and would call every other day, asking to meet up for lunch and talk through the evening and into the night. A lover of fine dining, he would ask me to join him at either Le Rustique on General Mathenge Drive, Talisman in Karen or Mediterraneo at The Junction. Whenever I went to meet him, I always found Binyavanga punching away at his MacBook, which almost always had bits of cigarette ash on the keyboard. He would light a Dunhill Switch cigarette in mid-conversation, and when making an important point, lift his cigarette-holding arm up in the air, put the cigarette in his other hand, take a long puff and blow the smoke upwards. He would then engage gear-five, sipping a Guinness, a cappuccino or sparkling water.

‘‘I want to protect you,’’ Binyavanga would say, feeling obligated to give me some form of cover from whoever he imagined had been after me. ‘‘If they think of coming after you, I want them to see me, and know that we can make a lot of noise if anything happens to you.’’

That is how Waiting for America in Kampala, my first piece of published writing, came to be. I detailed my sneaking out of Nairobi into Kampala with the material and other support of the then American Ambassador to Kenya.

One late afternoon, after a visa renewal appointment at the American embassy in Nairobi, Binyavanga called and asked me to join him at the Java Coffee House in Gigiri, where I found him later that evening. The moment I settled in, I noticed something strange was happening to him. He was punching on his MacBook keyboard relentlessly, his level of concentration higher than what I was accustomed to. He seemed somber and quieter, yet peaceful, and smiled whenever he looked up from whatever he was writing. Then he spoke.

‘‘I am resigning from the Achebe Center,’’ he said, without giving the reason why he was walking away. ‘‘I will send the letter before boarding my flight to New York later tonight.’’

When he returned from New York a fortnight later, Binyavanga made me a proposition. He was now talking about spending more time in Africa, as if overcome by a new sense of agency. He had originally wanted to grant me an Achebe Center fellowship that would give me time and space to write. Now that he was no longer at the Center, he had an alternative.

‘‘Can you live in Nakuru?’’ he asked me one afternoon. ‘‘There is a house. My father’s house.’’

I had never lived in Nakuru, and didn’t know what life was like there. But seeing how keen Binyavanga was to have me find a space to clear my mind and get on with the writing, I immediately said yes. We had gotten to a place where I felt he knew exactly what was good for me, because why else would he keep at it when he had other important things he could spend his time on? He wrote a brief email introducing me to his siblings—Jimmy, Ciru and Chiqy—telling them that I would house-sit their home for three months. I was soon off to Nakuru.

I arrived in Nakuru’s Milimani neighbourhood to find a five-bedroom mansion, a small detail Binyavanga had omitted to mention. The plan was that I would receive a stipend for groceries and Binyavanga would make trips down to Nakuru to check on me. Whenever he came around, we spent hours talking politics, writing, Africa, and in the evenings we would make our way to downtown Nakuru, where he would take me on a tour of old pubs with history. He would stay for up to a week.

My routine was simple. Wake up, bask with Tony the dog, get some writing done, make lunch with Vincent the gardener, write some more, take a long evening walk, have lunch leftovers for dinner, write again, then sleep. When the loneliness got too much or the writing wasn’t working, I would go to the backyard and have the occasional smoke, promising myself not to make a habit of it. On Fridays and Saturdays, I went to Rafikis, the happening nightspot in Nakuru at the time. I stood alone at a spot near the entrance, and drank till morning, speaking to no one. Frequenting Rafikis was my way of seeing other humans other than my two constant companions, Vincent, who was always busy pruning the hedges, and Tony the dog. Before I knew it, I had lived in Nakuru for a year and it was time to move back to Nairobi.

‘‘Come to Karen,’’ Binyavanga told me as I left Nakuru. ‘‘I’ve got an extra bedroom.’’

I got to Binyavanga’s Karen home after nightfall. I knew the place from my visit a year earlier when he had invited me over for the party at which he had introduced me to his writer friends. The living room was packed with young writers working with him, compiling the Africa39 longlist—39 African writers aged under 40 touted as the force that would shape African literature in the coming decades. Books, and what I imagined were printed copies of submissions from across Africa, littered the place. I sat quietly in a corner and watched them work. Later that night, Binyavanga showed me to the extra bedroom which I would occupy for the next two years.

Barely a month after my arrival in Karen, on the night of 17 January 2014, we were sitting in the cold living room, working as we always did, everyone facing the page. On the stroke of midnight, I looked up, uttering the first words spoken for the better part of that night.

‘‘Happy birthday, Binya,’’ I said.

‘‘Thank you,’’ he replied, barely looking up.

‘‘I am coming out tomorrow morning,’’ he said, ‘‘through a piece published on an African platform.’’ The following morning the world and I woke up to I am a homosexual, Mum.

Binyavanga’s cell phone was ringing off the hook. Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN, The Guardian, among a myriad other international news outlets, all wanted an interview. We were riding in a taxi, as we always did, going I can’t remember where, when Binyavanga, seated in the front passenger seat, holding a cigarette out the window, turned and looked at me.

The living room was packed with young writers working with him, compiling the Africa39 longlist—39 African writers aged under 40 touted as the force that would shape African literature in the coming decades.

‘‘Man, I need your help,’’ he said. ‘‘Can you help me handle these media inquiries? There’ll be chums.’’ And just like that, I started working as Binyavanga’s occasional assistant, before it became a full-time firefighting gig not without its dramatic moments, like being pulled out of writing workshops to make calls to embassy officials to sort out incomplete visa applications.

From dealing with his literary agents in London and New York, to maintaining his calendar, booking flights and planning airport drop-offs and pick-ups in Nairobi, to replying to requests for interviews and such, finding a place for them in his crowded diary, this gig-on-steroids also involved buying groceries, dealing with the landlord, making visa applications, and tracking bill payments. It was a full-on engagement, all the while trying to maintain a friendship and a social life. I became Binyavanga’s friend, assistant, housemate, confidant, and bodyguard even, all rolled into one.

The distress call came on a Friday night—the 24th of October 2015—catching me midway through dinner. I was attending the farewell party for the African Writers Trust editorial workshop somewhere in Bugolobi, Kampala, keen on partying away the remainder of the night. The caller was Binyavanga’s closest high school friend, whom I knew well but not in an I-can-call-you-on-a-Friday-night-just-to-say-hello way. I left the loud banquet room and went outside.

‘‘Isaac, are you in Nairobi?” he asked.

‘‘No. I am not,’’ I replied. ‘‘I am in Kampala, but will be back by tomorrow midday.’’

The news was that Binyavanga had suffered a stroke and had been rushed to hospital. The friend, who was making his way to the hospital, was checking to see if I was in Nairobi, if I had any details to share. Disoriented, I ended up drinking a little too much—to the point of almost missing my early morning ride to the airport—keeping the news to myself. I landed in Nairobi, dropped off my bags at the house in Karen and made my way to Karen Hospital.

‘‘I am coming out tomorrow morning,’’ he said, ‘‘through a piece published on an African platform.’’ The following morning, the world and I woke up to I am a homosexual, Mum.

I found Binyavanga in the ICU, looking healthy and awake, but having difficulty with his speech. It seemed temporary, as if he would undergo a procedure or two and then everything would go back to normal. Before the stroke, Binyavanga had embarked on a crazy European run—Toronto, London then Paris, or something like that—attending a series of events before jumping on a plane and flying off to the next city. Seeing how tight his schedule had been and how much he had had to do, I thought this was all short-term, a product of the fatigue. Once out of ICU, Binyavanga would call me every morning, asking me to go and be with him at the hospital. I would tell him I was already on my way anyway, that he didn’t need to call for me to go to him.

‘‘Call so and so,’’ he would mumble from his hospital bed. ‘‘Tell them I’ve had a stroke.’’

It was as if we had moved his living room to his hospital room; he refused to slow down. We worked every morning, replying to emails, making phone calls, cancelling speaking and other engagements. Binyavanga was nothing if not painfully stubborn, never surrendering, insisting on acting as if everything was normal, refusing to take no for an answer from anyone. From Karen Hospital, it was Nairobi Hospital after a very brief break, before a group of friends and his family worked out a plan to get him to India, where his writer friend Achal Prabhala had recommended a solid post-stroke recovery programme. The idea of leaving the country appealed to Binyavanga.

On the day Binyavanga was leaving for India, I was returning from a Commonwealth Writers event in Malta, which I had attended as an East Africa stringer. As I was coming out of arrivals, I spotted a Nairobi Hospital ambulance parked outside the international departures gate and, recognising some of our mutual friends standing next to its open door, I walked over and saw Binyavanga lying on a stretcher, waiting to be wheeled onto the runway to board his flight. We exchanged pleasantries before I wished him good luck and said goodbye. A few weeks later, Binyavanga started sending emails to me and to the group of friends, asking that I travel to India. He became persistent, and soon, I was off to India.

I travelled to India on my birthday in December 2015, arriving in Bangalore, where Binyavanga was recuperating, at four in the morning. I made my way to the three-bedroom serviced apartment on Ulsoor Lake, where Binyavanga was staying with his sister Ciru, and a friend of theirs, Tango, who showed me to my room. At about eight in the morning, Binyavanga knocked on my door. I opened, we hugged, and he welcomed me to India. And that is how my eventful one-month stay in India began.

The news was that Binyavanga had suffered a stroke and had been rushed to hospital. The friend, who was making his way to the hospital, was checking to see if I was in Nairobi, if I had any details to share.

It was back to routine. We would wake up and have breakfast in the restaurant situated within the apartment building, by which time the taxi driver was already waiting in the basement parking. I would accompany Binyavanga to hospital for his sessions—speech therapy, physiotherapy, the works—after which we would go for lunch together and then spend the better part of the afternoon at a high-end gym. (I sat outside the building, people watching.) Then we would go back to the apartment, from where we all went out for dinner or something like that, and the next morning we would start all over again.

From Bangalore, and having regained much of his physical strength, Binyavanga was briefly back in Kenya, before leaving for Berlin to take up a DAAD fellowship for a year. Berlin was difficult. He encountered racism, and found himself having online scuffles with all kinds of people, including Kwani?. Thereafter, he briefly moved to South Africa, before returning to Kenya in 2017. I made a point of visiting him at least once a week. We spoke about anything and everything, just like in the old days, the only difference being that he couldn’t speak with the same vigour, ease and speed as before. The dreams grew even bigger, and every time I visited there was either an improvement on a concept, or a totally different idea he wanted to pursue. On the weeks when I couldn’t make it to see him, he would call asking why I hadn’t visited. At other times, he called and said he was lonely.

‘‘I want you to take me to Kigali,’’ Binyavanga told me in September 2018, ‘‘to go bury my uncle.’’

I wasn’t sure I wanted to accompany Binyavanga to Kigali. I couldn’t ascertain whether he was fit to travel, and wondered why none of those around him wanted to make the trip with him. I kept avoiding him, sometimes not taking his calls, feeling that I was in a Catch 22 situation—wanting to be there for him, but worrying about his health. However, on the eve of the trip, Binyavanga did what Binyavanga did best: put me in a situation where I couldn’t say no.

‘‘I’ve bought two tickets, mine and yours,’’ he said on phone, ‘‘We’re going to Kigali kesho.’’

The first sign that Binyavanga wasn’t his best self was at the security screening at the airport in Nairobi; I had to step in to assist him with every step of the process. Inside the aircraft, the passenger seated next to him, noticing that he might need assistance during the flight, offered me his seat so that I could be with Binyavanga. We arrived in Kigali and got in touch with his cousin Brenda, who directed us to a hotel across the street from the Rwandan Parliament. We booked adjacent deluxe rooms on the fifth floor, each the size of an apartment. It was typical Binyavanga, always going over the top, be it with fashion or restaurants.

Binyavanga would wake up every morning and knock at my door, asking me to help him get ready for the day. On the day of the funeral I took him to his uncle’s home, where he paid his last respects and reconnected with his maternal cousins. We attended the requiem mass at a Catholic cathedral in central Kigali, sitting at the back of the church. I was born a Catholic and as I participated in the rituals, Binyavanga kept giving me a sideways look that seemed to say, “I thought I knew you”. We attended the burial at a cemetery in the outskirts of Kigali, before taking our flight back to Nairobi the following day.

‘‘I want you to take me to Kigali,’’ Binyavanga told me in September 2018, ‘‘to go bury my uncle.’’

It was during that Kigali trip, his last trip outside Kenya, that I last saw Binyavanga walking unaided. A few weeks later, he was back in hospital, staying for a couple of weeks, having suffered another stroke. He was discharged and underwent a lot of physiotherapy, regaining much of his physical strength. I visited him two to three times a week, and mostly found him lying on the couch, watching Netflix on his MacBook. He would sit up, trying to have a conversation, before asking me to recommend shows or movies on Netflix. I would mention a show or a movie, read him the synopsis, after which he would say yes or no. We would speak, yet again, about his desire to do a PhD in Literature at Princeton, with him asking that the writer Andia Kisia and I work on his application. He would repeat his wish to study the work of Kojo Laing, since to Binyavanga’s mind, no one wrote better than Laing.

Just weeks later, Binyavanga was back in hospital, never to make it out alive. I visited him in the ICU one afternoon. Standing there, alone, watching him through a glass barrier—no one was allowed any closer—I felt my knees giving way, almost collapsing to the floor. We looked at each other. I felt that he wanted to speak, to ask me to do something for him, or to pass a message to someone, as it had always been with us. He couldn’t utter the words. After the longest, the frailest, eye contact, he slowly closed his eyes and slept. It felt like goodbye.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

Culture

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.

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Hip hop's Enduring Echo: From New York's Streets to Global Beats
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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.

Reimagining rhythms

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.

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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.

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From Harry Kĩmani to Kwame Rĩgĩi, the Rise and Rise of Kikuyu Soul Music
Photo: Facebook/Harry Kimani
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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.”

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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.

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Botched Boyz II Men Concert: Event Organisers Can Do Better
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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.

Abi’s detailed account of the concert bemoaning a myriad of logistical and technical failures is one of countless others.

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.

The Boyz II Men concert did not rise above this low standard. Revellers, including well-known personalities Patricia Ithau and Bikozulu all lost their phones.

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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