“I think Okot p’Bitek stopped giving thought to Oxford. He understood the colonial venture quite clearly and he believed that we Africans needed to sort ourselves out. In any case, by the time they asked him to revise the thesis (after which they would fail it again) he had already been a successful poet and cultural icon in his own right — setting up arts festivals in Kisumu and Gulu as well as being the first African director of the National Theatre in Kampala.” Juliane Okot Bitek
“Woko, Wi-lobo and Ru-piny were not deities, not spirits or powers. They were not worshiped, no sacrifices were offered to them. And when a man cried ‘Wi-lobo,’ he was not calling on anybody or anything. They were not a prayer or supplication. They were descriptive of the sad predicament of human existence.”
These words, lying deep in the book, after so much has been said and said so passionately, are not the most dramatic in a 625 page-strong tome. But if you were to choose which ones best capture the spirit of this publication, they would not be a bad place to start.
They sound a fairly representative note of the intellectual locus of the man who wrote them. A world view you likely first encountered in Song of Lawino, that gently insistent, powerfully cultured note has since become so much a part of the literary furniture of postcolonial Africa that attributing them to Okot is no longer necessary.
The phrase “sad predicament of human existence”, may sound like any pithy observation that makes instant sense, but after 511 pages, at which point they appear, you as an African reader are desperate for the insight this brings.
Why was the thesis failed?
The sidelining of the academic and scholarly works of Frank Girling and Okot p’Bitek by Oxford University under the supervision of Prof Evans-Pritchard remains a scandalous event, at least to those of us who expected better from British higher learning. In his introduction to the double publication, Tim Allen, Professor and director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the LSE, writes that “In the case of Frank Girling, it is obvious why his work is neglected. Although he managed to secure his D. Phil in 1952, he had fallen foul of the Protectorate authorities in Uganda . . . in contrast, the overlooking of Okot p’Bitek’s anthropological contributions is harder to understand.”
Prof. Tim Allen explains that another Evans-Pritchard student and Oxford alumni, Talal Asad, published a collection by well-known anthropologists expounding the very views Okot had postulated. This was the view that British anthropology had played handmaiden to colonial injustice, providing the justificatory, academised loot that made the whip and chain wielders feel less guilty. Allen goes on to say that by the late 1960s, Okot was angry (as a black man, being called “angry” is not flattering), and defiant.
He explains that the offending thesis itself is moderate in tone. So, Okot could not be accused of going rogue activist in the haloed temple of academia.
“It was even more of a casualty of British anthropology’s colonial encounter,” he writes, addressing and at the same time, not addressing, the intrigue.
It has been five decades since the event and we still don’t know why. But after 625 pages, does resolution come?
As far as the Okot part of the publication is concerned, there is nothing really new in the way Girling’s bit is. The central attraction in the Okot section, The Religion of the Central Luo, was published in 1971 by The East African Literature Bureau and went on to have its stellar moment in thinking on African societies.
This resurrection renews the work, and Allen’s introduction along with the shattering clarity of Girling’s materialist approach to anthropology, opens the secret socio-political chambers hidden in the rites and rituals Okot describes here.
The two transform Okot’s text into a crime scene. We approach it, sleuthing tools in hand, ferreting in the undergrowth of scholarly nuance for that stray error that exclaims, aha! Got you!
It is so very much like Okot to come back from the grave to give us once again that frisson of novelty and courage.
But the stigmata is visible. There is an odd, incompleteness in it. We already encountered this oddity in Girling’s part of the book. The explanation for that, we were told, is that the colonial authorities and their academic mentors in Oxford cut Girling’s work with one year left in it so any publishing can only stitch mismatching body parts on.
This affects Okot’s work at a structural level. He describes well the history and politics of Jo Paluo and Alur in the opening chapters. He is starting to establish a historical particularity for his subject. He is also challenging the idea of tribes by showing the cultural-political continuum across colonially tribalised communities.
In Chapter 2, he glancingly connects these to Bunyoro, but we assume that was outside his scope, or he did not have the time to delve much into that, although we can infer from the long line of queen mothers of Bunyoro-Kitara rulers (Abakama) taken from the Luo-speakers, and the tracing of its lineage to Labongo, that this is the case. In any case, the politics of Bunyoro and that of the Central Luo, particularly the Payira Clan, who are also Babiito, like the rulers of Bunyoro-Kitara, which filial connections cover the other kingdoms in the country, were so interwoven that calling them allies would be an under-description.
Okot ropes the Lango into this Central Luo grouping whilst acknowledging the difficulty of saying so with certainty. The Lango too had their tight military alliances with Bunyoro-Kitara.
But we note a glaring omission. Okot talks at length about Acoli religion and religious practice when the section arrives. He does not do so with that of the Jo Palwo, Alur or Lango. Could the frustrations he met at Oxford have prevented further work? What emerges sounds more like the religion of the Acholi than of the Central Luo. Is it even remotely possible that Okot did not see such a thing, so that his failure to recognise the obvious failed his D.Phil?
Going after Driberg, Crazzolara, Roscoe et al
One of the most important contributions Okot makes to African studies is on ethnicity. Where his errant antecedents Driberg, Crazzolara and Roscoe wrote of “tribe” in such a way that Africa is transformed into an archipelago of hostile communities, Okot raises out of the colonial abyss the many connecting cultural bridges, so that the familiar fact which prompts Africans when they meet fellow Africans to declare “we really are one people,” emerges. Had Oxford given its imprimatur to such a view, might the likes of Kwame Appiah have written a less discreditable book than In My Father’s House, a book with an annoying colonial view that Africans are disparate tribes?
Okot lends powerful evidence to the position of many black scholars who insist that African societies are language, rather than tribal groups. But it is in Okot on the religion of his Central Luo that one instinctively feels that his work may have rubbed tender egos the wrong way.
Okot goes to War
It is a lively, closely observed section running to six chapters. He opens by examining theories of Jok, then the variations on the idea, and expanding on the African pantheistic concept of deism. He next turns attention to worship places, the Abila, or Kac, the family shrines. He looks at spirit-possession, witchcraft and sorcery, then that social institution of lam, kir and kwong which he calls curses but can also be expansively seen as invocations, and which we need to hear more of for it is a literary genre of African societies which in our time has been brought dramatically to life by Stella Nyanzi. But that is another topic altogether. As these topics follow one after the other, a pattern starts to emerge. He tackles first the idea of God (Jok), and gradually works down to practices that have a filigree of the religious but are otherwise quasi-spiritual and mostly having nothing to do with worship but have been erroneously attributed so.
Take Chapter 9 on Woko, Wi-Lobo and Ru-Piny. As he explains them, these concepts are philosophical, prepositional; Wi-lobo as boundarisation of existence, “Wi, on top of, above, and the common noun lobo, earth. Literally it meant on the land above the soil or earth. But in the context in which we are discussing it, Wi-lobo meant the state of being alive on the earth, being in this world.”
Wi-lobo approximates to what other philosophical traditions refer to as Being. Woko, literally translating as outside, is synonymous with Wi-lobo but as Okot explains it, the idea is something like becoming, a state of transience from, into and beyond. There is much ambiguity about Ru-Piny. It means dawn, dawning, which on the face of it is the passage from darkness to light, the burnishing of the night. And yet, it is also about the exchange of the woes of darkness with those of the light, the double-facedness of existence — an existentialist notion.
Okot puts it better in his inimitable way: “Against Wi-lobo and Ru-Piny, man was impotent. They knelt on their victims and crushed them. There was nothing you could do to prevent them from carrying out their cruel schemes . . . because Wi-lobo, Woko and Ru-Piny were also deaf, blind and senseless.”
These concepts are far-reaching and are to be found as the framing concepts of Luo arts and music, the protagonists of much music and theatre flung into the face of inscrutable fate. Mr Crazzolara, and you benighted Boccassino, this is about art and philosophy, not religion!
Okot’s focus on this triad is, in my opinion, the key that provides entrance into what the religious belief of the people was and what it was not; it is also the key that frees African theology from the demonic incarceration imposed on it by imperial Christianity and anthropology. But before we have arrived at this point (chapter 9) we have been through six prior chapters during which Okot took on the establishment of western scholarship on African religion.
Our Simple Minds
In few places has the black man been more traduced than in his relationship with God. In sexuality, industry, politics, science, commerce, marriage and health, the entire heritage of the black man came under attack by the amassed battalions of enslavers, colonisers and free traders. These attacks follow a template, which is that what is African is dirty, at a primitive stage, without order and purpose.
The other name they used for black people, besides savages, is heathens, kafir, as though our souls (when allowed that we had any) were properties of the devil already.
Okot’s thesis here charges explorers, imperial agents, scholars and missionaries for not only refusing to understand African religions, but for calling whatever they saw happening as so much animist garbage. Africans were accused of worshiping forests, rocks, streams and lakes; we had no idea of a supreme being, no idea of an afterlife.
The Heresy of Okot
Okot calls up one at a time, the big names that misled the world about African spirituality:
Sir Samuel Baker, John Roscoe, Joseph Pasquale Crazzolara, Charles Gabriel Seligman, Renato Boccassino, Godfrey Lienhardt, Jack Herbert Driberg, Captain Ernest Grove, John Beattie, Bere, Hayley, Kitching, Tarantino, Taylor Tempels, Middleton, Menzies, Southall, Gray, and many more quoted here, had the same approach — the Africans did not know what they were saying; pay no attention no matter how intelligent they appear to be; study his ways and draw conclusions from that.
Anthropology, in a way, is the fine art of not listening.
Crazzolara best captures this attitude when he writes of what went on in the conversion enterprise: “Natives were urged with tiresome questions to make a choice as to which of the Jok among the many had created them. Such questions implied suppositions which probably never occurred to their simple minds . . . they answered that they did not know, which was more near the truth.”
On the back of a single observation in Equatorial Province, Baker, the pugnacious explorer-colonial agent, concluded that Africans had no religion nor conception of a deity. Baker had a theological debate with a man he names as “Commoro”, in Lotuko, over the existence of a being superior to mankind. This debate, done via a Lotuko translator who understood Bari, to a Bari translator who understood Arabic henceforth to Baker, is recorded by Baker whom we can only take at his word. It is comical. After intense, very patronising exchanges, the man Commoro replies to Baker (of good and bad people): “If they are strong they take from the weak. The good people are all weak; they are good because they are not strong enough to be bad.”
The statement is startling with its raw, irreproachable realism. But Baker, Okot charges, was only interested in affirming his own beliefs and not learning that of Commoro.
The approach they took was to strip-search Africans for spiritual beliefs and feed what they found into a bonfire of racism, an act of culturecide. But there was a challenge to overcome. People don’t let go of their beliefs like that. To make it stick, the Christian god they carried with them (in much the same way African rulers carried Jok from one place to another) had to be disguised as an African deity — a bizarre minstrel act in which Jahweh wore blackface — and faked an African accent. This necessitated taking an existing African deity, emptying it of content and replacing it with Roman-Christian theology. This gave conversion the feel of a smooth segue, with converts often not feeling the jab.
And this is the violence Okot rails against. Through this mendacity, African pantheism was replaced by a monotheistic ethos. The senatorial Republic of gods was superseded by a tyrannical, fili-deist, Augustan imperialism, a one family-rule religion. Rubanga was bleached white, right here in the tropics. The function of African gods disappeared under the harsh colonial regime. Black gods like Mungu, Nyasae, Katonda, Ruhanga, Ngai, Nzambe and Rubanga, worshiped long before the White Fathers and Church Missionary Society arrived, became colonially reconstructed évolués, front-company enterprises; like Liberian flags of convenience, they concealed the real, tax-dodging paymaster in the background. They had become spiritually possessed by an invasive spiritual species.
Among his Central Luo, the missionaries settled on an import from Bunyoro-Kitara, the Luo-ised “Rubanga” (also Lubanga/Obanga) from “Ruhanga”. This was one god among many, picked out because one missionary caught a whiff of the word “mold”, synonymous with create. In similar vein, in Buganda, the missionaries alighted on the Kiganda god of fabricants, Katonda, a lesser deity compared to Lubaale, also from the root verb okutonda (to fashion) as Jahweh’s tropicalised incarnation there. In the case of the Luo, the missionaries did not listen long enough to know that they saw Rubanga as an unpleasant god that afflicted man with tuberculosis of the spine. The name stuck, much to the amusement of South Sudanese writer, Taban lo Liyong, who has had much to say about it.
Trees, forests and rocks
These scholars did not listen to what the Africans were saying about their beliefs. They chose to infer instead and came up with such ideas as “supreme being”, “life force”; their African sources said they had nothing of the sort. They next looked to the places where worship took place, in “forests”, rocks, along rivers and lakes and said Africans worshiped these; the Africans said this was not true. The Africans, they decided, were too daft to know their own minds.
What kind of defence can one start to mount? Okot presents the many ways in which African religious practice was misrepresented. The central pattern in all these is that the interlocutors had come to impose their beliefs and truth is always an inconvenience to imperial enterprise.
Outside of the monotheistic framework, getting a handle on gods gets complex. But Okot is also entering very dangerous territory. Any African knows just how dangerous it is to even express knowledge of pre-colonial gods; even if you know, you must pretend ignorance. Even the most highly educated feels the pressure to pay lip service to the Christian god. At Makerere, Okot would have walked past the Main Hall flanked by two Christian churches, his own faculty under the shadow of the Protestant St. Francis Church. It need not be said that academia, as the British brought it to Uganda, must first acknowledge the primacy of the Christian doctrine. Throw away the cloak of academia from colonial anthropology and you can clearly see the medievalism in the saga. Growing up in Lango, I was aware that the word Jok was associated with the unsayable, not exactly the devil himself, but the dark and the demonic. And yet next door to the Luo speakers, among the Ateker, the very word itself denotes goodness and sanctity: in Teso we used to sing “Ejok na Edeke” – God is good. In Lango itself, a song sang to children wishing them a prosperous future mentioned Jok, “Jo’jok amalo do/Atini dong roman do,” as a line went, so it was also a word associated with the good among the Luo, for who wishes demons upon her baby?
It was in later years that I came to understand that the fear of jok was itself the shame we had in our own material past, which shame the priests reminded you of each Sunday morning, and via a catechism you learnt by rote. Those of us who dodged catechism classes for confirmation were forbidden from the Eucharist, and can never marry under the Christian banner. These catechism classes are the forges in which black people are still daily taught to be ashamed of their blackness. It will never end, for the forced conversion accuses us of a sin we can’t help but commit; it accuses us of being black.
Okot’s unacceptable truths
Okot starts his dissection of Jok by going into the myths of their genesis. The Jok came in various ways. But one interesting one is that it was the founding leaders of the various Acholi states (chiefdom is a reductive colonial term) that also brought the Jok, as indeed Constantine imposed Christianity on Rome. The founder of Patiko, Atiko himself (we learn from Okot that the many Acholi states starting with “Pa” follow after their founder. Hence, Atiko founder of Patiko, Aweli founder of Pawel, etc.); so that this Jok becomes thought of as the god of Atiko, as others can speak of the god of Abraham.
The Jok of Patiko were Baka and Alela. The complexity here is that Baka and Alela then gave names to hills, so that when he came to Patiko, John Beattie concluded that these hills were considered the father and the mother of the people. Okot sought out a priest of Baka who he said laughed at the idea and said Jok Baka and Alela merely resided in caves in the hills.
He examines the Jok of Koc, called Jok Lokka. It is recognisable in many religious founding myths when the Acholi of Koc, after they fled hunger and crossed the Nile (not the first people in religious mythology to cross the Nile in search of bounty) to Bunyoro, say that one Ojwiya disappeared into the wilderness and returned transformed and started performing miracles, including for instance, multiplying the number of chicks. They called the Jok of Ojwiya Jok Lokka because he came from across the Nile. A people with a religious myth like this can only be converted for political, not religious, reasons. In truth there was little daylight between the religion of it in these parts and the biblical accounts.
As Okot writes, he refamiliarises to you the African reader, what colonial ethnographers had alienated. But he also puts these religious beliefs squarely within the locus of what all religions appear to have — founding myths, miraculous births, disappearances into the wilderness. But religion is politics, and imperialism commanded that savages cannot have a past similar to that of the conqueror.
These anthropologists never imagined that black people would ever read what they wrote. Open any anthropology text and the statement is always there. This may have emboldened them to print any balderdash they cooked up. But could these scholars also not have considered that people were forbidden to discuss their religion with strangers and that the answers they received were wilfully diversionary? Was Okot told the truth because he was himself a local?
Okot also discusses totems and food prohibitions. Although these are closely held, they are not gods, Okot insists, for these totems were so interpreted by colonial scholars who henceforth said that because say an elephant or leopard totem was given near-human potency, it indicated worship. They ought to have followed the matter to discover that those of the elephant clan considered it one of them but not above them.
Okot also states that keeping an ancestral shrine (Abila), and making sacrifices to ancestors did not indicate ancestor worship.
Ala, Omarari and Abiba
It gets more intricate, and as the unfurling of Jok continues, it begins to appear that the term was indeed very widely conceived. It seems to go beyond the idea of a deity. Take the so-called “cults” of Ala, Omarari and Abiba. Omarari is said to have appeared at the end of the First World War. Ala came earlier, Abiba around the Second World War.
It is on the question of “cults” that it starts to become hard to call colonial anthropology an academic discipline. Even Okot’s own reaction is problematic. Could they and he not see what was right there in their face?
The “cults”, said to have “followers” and that feel different to the earlier “jok”, are Ala, Omarari, Abiba and others but I will concentrate on these three.
Take Ala. The “cult” performance of Ala consisted of wearing long white robes and turban and pronouncing Arabic words. We already start to see where this is heading. The “followers” of Abiba are said to have believed that a “witch” sent kites into the sky which had fire in their anuses. There is less description of Omarari except to say it followed an epidemic.
Each of these “cults” follow major events and intrusions into these societies. And then they disappear as quickly. What they appear to be are memorialization and communication, performance arts that mark their epoch.
Were these gods, cults or simply pieces of theatre and performing arts, in the manner of masquerade ceremonies? Do plays and films that gain cult status signal worship? Does Elvis Presley following, sightings, costuming, festivals or re-enactments of the American Civil War signal religion? Is the one a god and Gettysburg worshiped? Are the ritualized practices of psychotherapy to heal soldiers returning from war witchcraft? The so-called Abiba cult, a presentation of bombers in mythologised form, was precisely that, albeit by African experts to heal black soldiers returning from Burma (the painting, Guernica, had its own way of portraying this terrifying new power).
There is reason to believe that the “cult” of Ala was a way of dealing with the trauma of Arab slavers from Sudan, for they invoked “Allah” when they attacked Africans.
As with Woko, Wi-lobo, Ru-piny, and Bala and Alela rocks, the notion of the cult reveals the pugnacious impatience imperial scholars had towards the ways of the people they had come to occupy. Those who waited a minute to really try and understand Africa, like Girling, were accused of going native. White people who disagreed with imperialism were severely ostracized. Nuances that would have separated philosophy, legalities (we have not even talked about the manner in which African laws were reduced to taboos), performance arts from religion were cruelly traduced.
To worsen it, The Witchcraft Act was passed which broadly illegalised the people’s beliefs, arts, philosophies and psychotherapy practices. Missionaries established missionary villages at which children were held captive and punished if found to have learnt their culture.
The amassed ranks of colonial scholars are today a disgraced lot. Few if any in Africa take them seriously. Colonialism and its colour bars had artificially kept their magic alive. Decolonisation meant western universities had to tread carefully and, in an interesting twist, many Western scholars are today at the forefront of the defence of African history, as witness the publication of this book. But the hegemony persists, for rather than colour bars, new barriers like travel restrictions mean that western research maintains its extractive practice. The kind of access western scholars have to Africa, African scholars cannot have in their countries. In this industry, we remain native informers. The prosthetics of censorship such as Okot suffered may have kept their respectability for only so long, but the damage they and universities like Oxford did to people of colour will endure for a very long time.
By now, we are wondering where Lawino and her song comes in. Very closely indeed. It appears to have its roots in the worship and prayer ceremonies to jok, which is fitting, for arts everywhere are largely secularised religious rites. Okot being Okot, we expect him to move beyond the turf war with European scholars and celebrate the social and religious side of his Central Luo. He does so with aplomb. His thesis settles frequently into enjoying the beauty of Acholi culture. The most humorous part for me is the quotation of the prayer offered by the people of Palaro to their Jok, Lapul. It bears quoting at length for there is the suggestion that this is the prototype for the Lawino-Okot joust:
Pule oh (Pule is pet name of Lapul)
Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic
Anyaka mutero coo i rok
The girl who marries a man outside the chiefdom
Mor wange woko
Explode her eyeballs
Anyaka ma deg awone Palaro
The girl who rejects men of Palaro
Anyaka me mito lu-rok
The girl who loves foreigners
Nek Wang cware woko
Kill her husband’s eyes
Nek cware woko
Kill her husband
The men had had their say before God. Now the women stepped forth:
Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic
Anyira wai bene litinni
The girls are also your children
Wegi bolli no
Your children with the spears (penis)
Bene gukelo anyira rok
Have also brought foreign girls
Ci pe ineko wanggi
But you have not killed their eyes
Wan bene gin ma neko wang wa peke
We too nothing will kill our eyes
Okwong ki la-lam
Let it (misfortune) begin with the ill-wisher
Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic
Wek okwong ki-lam
Let it begin with the ill-wisher
Mukelo anyira rok
Whoever brings a foreign girl
Nek wange woko
Kill his eyes
Nek dako-ne woko
Kill his wife
Let it begin with the ill-wisher
Pule pa Lacic, konywa
Pule (daughter) of Lacic, help us
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From Harry Kĩmani to Kwame Rĩgĩi, the Rise and Rise of Kikuyu Soul Music
Kenyan folk fusion artists are crossing the bridge that Harry Kĩmani built, reviving the spirituality and soulfulness of Kikuyu music that had been all but crushed by the dominance of Mũgithi.
To many, Kenyan-born musician and composer Harry Kĩmani’s 2006 hit song Haiya pioneered a sub-genre of Gĩkũyũ popular music that blended African soul with Gĩkũyũ lyrics.
Yet, what Kĩmani did was merely bring back what had for years been taken away from the original Kikuyu soul creators by an era of Mũgithi madness. Haiya built a bridge across a rift in the terrain of Kikuyu music that had appeared in the early 90s as Mũgithi began dominating the Gĩkũyũ music soundscape. Seventeen years later, many have been crisscrossing that bridge.
Haiya has given rise to a growing list of contemporary folk fusion artists who, inspired by Kĩmani’s unique sound, are returning to the soulful side of Kikuyu music by way of samples, renditions and fusions to restore authenticity to Kikuyu popular music.
But, it’s not where Kĩmani’s Haiya left off that has made all the difference – musically, spiritually and culturally; it’s where Kwame Rĩgĩi’s Mwene Nyaga began.
Mwene Nyaga and Retracing Kikuyu Soul Music
When Kenyan contemporary folk musician Kwame Rĩgĩi’s 2017 rendition of Mwene Nyaga (God) – a Mau Mau folk song in the form of a deeply spiritual prayer – went viral following its release on Youtube, it rekindled the embers of a spirituality and soulfulness to Kikuyu music that had for over two decades been reduced to a dying whimper by the onslaught of the Mũgithi genre with its bawdiness and sexual innuendo.
Mwene Nyaga is a song whose words the pre-independence generation knew by heart. The song traces its origins to the heart of the Nyandarua mountain range, sung by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, also known as the Mau Mau, during the 1952-1960 rebellion. As Rĩgĩi tells me in a telephone interview,
“The song notes were with Gen. Mwariama, they then went through Gakaara wa Wanjau. The songwriters picked up from there, then Maranga wa Gatonye did the first recording. The tune that you hear from his and Kamaru’s version is from the original Mau Mau folk songs.”
Rĩgĩi is knee-deep in preparations for a cultural event to mark the 6th anniversary of Tũrĩ A Mũmbi, a cultural centre he founded in 2017 in Tigoni, Limuru. The celebration will feature only two artists: Rĩgĩi and his musical progenitor Harry Kĩmani.
To many who were hearing his voice for the first time in Mwene Nyaga, and to others like me who had heard him in Aki Wewe, Kwame eerily reminded us of Kĩmani who, by then, had gone on an indefinite hiatus.
“When the song came out, people were shocked, because in their hearts they knew it but not in that way,” says Kwame. He tells me that Mau Mau veterans started reaching out to him. All they wanted was to see him, touch him and give thanks to Mwene Nyaga for his timing and for bringing the voice back to remind them of all that they had not heard in so long. For many of the veterans, that song had brought closure, and with it, peace.
Then there were the Athuri a Kĩama (elders) and other cultural affiliates who, feeling affronted by this 28-year-old, questioned whether he had even been accepted in the of Kikuyu Council of Elders. “Who are you and are you certified to even talk [sing] of our spirituality in such depth? Nĩ ũrutĩĩte mbũri? [Have you undergone the required rites?],” he sighs.
Mwene Nyaga sprung from the depths of despair. For over a decade, Kwame’s soul was a desert wanderer in search of an oasis and he was battling deep disillusionment with his musical gift following some considerable musical success with his hit song Aki Wewe from the 2015 album of the same title; success as a soulful RnB artist had come at great cost to Kwame’s spirit. As he tells it, Kwame kept begging God to reveal Himself to him.
Mwene Nyaga sprung from the depths of despair.
Released in 2009, Mĩhũmũ was Kwame’s first attempt at seeking to find his true self but it turned out to be only a mirage. With the thirst in his soul still unquenched came Haraya in 2011, but this too proved to be yet another mirage. He released Gĩkũyũ in 2014, which he tells me brought him closer to Mwene Nyaga. These songs paved the way for the Tũrĩ A Mũmbi Dream, later to become the Tũrĩ A Mũmbi Experience.
Mwene Nyaga, Kwame tells me, was his search for something greater than his 2014 release Gĩkũyũ. “I had completely decided to seek for a voice to articulate how I felt about my spirituality… Still, I felt it was more of an individual prayer and affirmation. What more can I offer, I kept asking myself.”
It is then that a song that his late father – the fine artist and sculptor Karanja wa Rĩgĩi – used to sing to punctuate his stories about the Mau Mau came back to him. “The essence of the song is a prayer; the song is about their prayers to our God, Mwene Nyaga.”
This is how God finally revealed himself to him. He had found his oasis.
“While I knew that Maranga wa Gatonye was the first to record, when I did my rendition using my own arrangements, it is the late Kamaarũ that I first went and played my version of the song to.”
After a fruitless year of knocking on doors for airplay – “They did not know what this was. No one responded or played it for a whole year.” – Kwame decided to release Mwene Nyaga on YouTube; it was an instant hit.
“The essence of the song is a prayer; the song is about their prayers to our God, Mwene Nyaga.”
Despite the countless turndowns, Kwame tells me, he felt that his work was done. Singing and recording that prayer in the way that he did gave his life meaning and his career a higher purpose. He has felt his conviction in God, his reverence for Him, his self-love and a sense of fulfilment grow.
Mwene Nyaga has since become an intergenerational spiritual anthem and a clarion call for the Gĩkũyũ community. To the older generation, the arrangements give the song a soulful somberness that is not present in the versions of their youth. To those of Kwame’s generation and younger, the song restored pride in their culture and gave them a sense of belonging.
But Kwame has not always sung in Gĩkũyũ.
Harry was passing the baton
Kwame’s musical beginnings are to be found in the PCEA church at Gaitumbĩ, Kanyarĩrĩ, some 15 kilometres from the capital. He was the lead singer in the youth choir where he sang in English and remembers doing cover versions of artists such as Nicole C Mullen and Don Moen. This was back in 2003, he was 16 years old and still in high school.
Kwame mostly sang at events and would experiment with the cover lyrics by translating them into Gĩkũyũ. His singing always received varying reactions and some even discouraged him from singing in Gĩkũyũ, telling him to just stick to English as that is what the youth were known to prefer.
Towards the end of 2004, Kwame recorded Jesus, his first song. The first part was in English, the second in Gĩkũyũ. The song elicited different reactions and unsolicited advice, some of which he tells me was not genuine.
Excited to now be writing his own music and with one song recorded, Rĩgĩi was electrified when he heard Haiya. “All of a sudden, I heard a song I’d never heard before. I hadn’t been there but I instantly recognised what he was doing and I knew how to do it.” He tells me that when heard the first verse, his immediate reaction was shock. “I said ‘Haiya!!’ even before I’d heard the chorus.”
Until he heard Harry’s Haiya, Kwame tells me, he thought that he was the only one to write in that way.
“From that point on, it felt like I was in a relay. It felt like, here was Harry passing the baton; he had raced all the others and had won. So I felt I needed to perform better, run faster and further beyond Harry who had passed his baton to me. From then on, I never sang in English.”
This put him at odds with the church.
“I was very vocal during my youth church days and a champion of Traditional and Folk music as a writer, tutor and Kĩgaamba [musical rattle worn below the knee] player, helping my fellow church mates to win dozens of trophies which to this very day are still on display at the Presbyterian offices in Kanyarĩrĩ.”
“All of a sudden, I heard a song I’d never heard before. I hadn’t been there but I instantly recognised what he was doing and I knew how to do it.”
Despite the certificates and trophies, Kwame was expelled from the church at 21-years-old for being too deep into his language and for what he describes as “bringing back words that were not for ‘church’ music”. But Kwame was unfazed; he had found his path.
“Without him knowing it, Harry gave me the light that I needed. He shone the light in the dark for me to walk. I no longer doubted what it was that I was doing because it had been done.”
Nineteen years later, Kwame has produced three EPs and countless singles, including hits such as Mũnoti, Macegera, Cama Wendo, Malkia and Aki Wewe.
He was the Harry then
When did he first meet Harry Kimani and what was it like, I ask him? “For me, the need to see him wasn’t very big. We were worlds apart as Harry then was in another league of his own.”
But, as fate would have it, while at Lodwar Records in Kileleshwa sometime in 2007, Kwame heard that Harry Kĩmani was coming to the studio. He laughs uproariously as he recalls that moment. “I was excited but kept my cool. Then Kĩmani shows up with these huge shades. He wasn’t seeing anyone else. I never spoke to him. I didn’t even linger. Whatever I had thought, I was not wrong, he was the Harry then.”
A second encounter six years later would mark the genesis of a brotherhood that has lasted to this day. Kwame was rehearsing with his band at a studio in downtown Nairobi when he saw someone walk in.
“He came and sat. Looking closely, I saw this was Harry Kĩmani. I was excited because he was watching us rehearse. Meeting him then was on a level of brotherhood. He told me, he’d heard someone rehearsing and came to see who this was. He stuck around.”
Harry spent the next two hours with Kwame, at one point even giving him advice about how to handle the microphone. “To me, he was a big brother now showing me the ropes. We interacted, spoke about all the things that we knew. From that day, we became friends and have been friends since then.”
In what ways did Harry’s musical style influence Kwame’s, I ask him.
What Harry did was to use the same guitar that Mũgithi popularised as “one-man guitar” to reclaim what had been taken away from the original soulful creators of Kikuyu music. In so doing, he paved the way for Rĩgĩi and many others who have come after him. Harry bridged that gap between his time and the time of Kikuyu benga music, Kwame explains.
The golden era of Kikuyu benga music
Often regarded as the father of central Kenya benga and the king of Kikuyu love songs, it was Daniel Kamau Mwai, alias DK wa Maria, who first used percussions and drums in his music and in the process introduced this new beat to Kikuyu music. This was the mid-60s and Nairobi had become the region’s musical hub. As the home of the region’s first vinyl pressing plant and with mushrooming independent labels and recording studios, pubs and clubs were blasting Congolese Soukous, Jazz, Soul, and benga quite literary hot off the press.
It was in this hub that DK released his first record in 1968. But it was his 1970 smash-hit Mũrata/I Love You with its rumba beat and benga-style climaxing that catapulted him to instant regional fame; DK’s Mũrata became the first Kikuyu pop recording to break into the rigid Luo-Nyanza market. But despite DK’s early success, it is the late Joseph Kamaarũ who would, in time, take the King of Kikuyu benga crown.
What Harry did was to use the same guitar that Mũgithi popularised as “one-man guitar” to reclaim what had been taken away from the original soulful creators of Kikuyu music.
As Megan Iacobini de Fazio writes, “Amid Kenya’s optimistic yet complex post-colonial years, it was [Kamaarũ’s] sobering themes that set him apart. Expressing himself through ambiguous metaphors and Kikuyu proverbs, the young musician sang about sexual harassment, morality, love, and – most strikingly – about politics.”
In explaining why Kamaarũ took the crown, Fazio notes, “[His] unique sound, which merged traditional Kikuyu melodies with the distinctive bass guitar riffs and high-pitched vocals of benga, quickly became popular among the city’s revellers.”
The benga beat dominated the Gĩkũyũ music from the ’60s until the early ’90s when Mũgithi began to dominate the Gĩkũyũ music soundscape.
Post-Mũgithi, a fusion of folk, culture and love sessions
When contemporary Kikuyu folk musician Ayrosh founded Folk Fusion in 2016 – a bimonthly live music concert and cultural event that takes place in Nairobi – he brought full circle a movement that had up to then been thriving online.
Seven years on, what started out as just a niche fun event at a nondescript venue along James Gichuru Road has spawned a cultural movement whose ethos is to bring a generation in search of their heritage to artists like Ayrosh whose music draws from their traditional folk roots (initially, the event only featured Kikuyu artists but it has since grown to incorporate other folk fusion artists from across Kenya) blended with benga, rhumba, neo-soul or R&B.
From Wanjine, Muringi, Mutoriah, Kinandi, Gachago, Mr Mistariful, Ythera, Kuiyu, and Nyawira, this wide range of contemporary Kikuyu Soul musicians is drawing from both their ancestry and their musical forefathers. As for Ayrosh, doing cover versions of popular Kikuyu Benga music has endeared him to an older generation of music fans who then discover his other music at his Folk Fusion events. For Wanjine, videos of his renditions of popular Kikuyu songs on his Tiktok channel were his breakthrough into the Kikuyu music genre.
Despite DK’s early success, it is the late Joseph Kamaarũ who would, in time, take the King of Kikuyu benga crown.
Sampling Kamaarũ’s Ndũmĩrĩri Cia Mihũni (the first song recorded where he is playing the accordion), Mwanake Millenial is a collaborative track by Ayrosh and Mutoriah featuring on Mutoriah’s Dive in album that fuses the authenticity of Kikuyu music – from the lyrics to the instruments – with modern sounds. This is the template that Waithaka Entertainment – the force behind the new crop of Kikuyu soul musicians – has been using to revolutionise Kenya’s music scene. Founded by Kenyan producer Mugo Ng’ang’a, the US-based record label is largely responsible for fashioning this distinct sound and for producing most of the artists in the genre, including Wanjine, Ayrosh and Kwame Rĩgĩi.
Although Waithaka Entertainment helped with his sound quality production, Moses Njoroge is responsible for almost 60 per cent of Kwame’s recorded work. For over 10 years, Moses has been the man producing Kwame’s music, with Waithaka handling the mixing and mastering of the final product.
Considered as uptown
A growing demand for music by this new crop of musicians is upsetting the status quo and does not augur well for many gatekeepers in the Kikuyu media and entertainment industry. Still beholden to the one-man guitar’s winning formula, the stalwarts see Kwame and his ilk as young, rich, starry-eyed uptown types whose music is nothing more than a fad. “Many of us who are going back to our ancestors are not being supported. We are considered uptown, being given gigs in Tigoni.”
Despite a growing market demand for their music, these musicians have struggled to get airplay – not just on the Kikuyu TV and radio stations but across Kenyan media. Kwame tells me that mainstream media wants to appeal to a wider market and “this weird sound”, as they refer to it, needed to be cut off. The Internet and concerts have, therefore, become a lifeline for this crop of musicians and now, thanks to social media, music audio and video streaming platforms and events such as Folk Fusion, they can directly connect with their audience demographic.
Of finding their place in this culture
For a music legend who took the music industry by storm in the aughts, it’s difficult to find Harry Kĩmani’s discography online or on the shelves of the few remaining music stores in Kenya. But Kĩmani is a phoenix.
In a conversation with Thomas Rajula last year, Kĩmani spoke about finding himself again, about his new focus and his first love – music. Even in the midst of his life’s tribulations, Kĩmani’s friendship with Kwame has endured; his vocals can be heard in Kwame’s song Gĩkũyũ for which Kĩmani recorded the harmonies.
A growing demand for music by this new crop of musicians is upsetting the status quo and does not augur well for many gatekeepers in the Kikuyu media and entertainment industry.
And just like Kwame who went in search of meaning for his life after he plunged into the abyss following the success of Aki Wewe, his long road to recovery from addiction and depression led Kĩmani to seek God and, in 2022, he released Hariwe (Return Me To You Lord), a Kikuyu gospel song co-written with Harry Writho.
As we come to the end of our telephone conversation, I ask Rĩgĩi what informed the decision to feature Kĩmani in the upcoming Tũrĩ A Mũmbi anniversary celebrations. “It has taken us 19 years to be on one poster; we will finally see the two share a stage,” he says, adding, “He has been very instrumental to me knowing and finding my place in this culture and the decisions I have made. I feel like he has not received the well-deserved treatment for what he did for us.”
I ask Rĩgĩi if there are any plans for a collaboration, “All things are possible. Not just a collaboration. You never know, we might be doing an album together.”
Botched Boyz II Men Concert: Event Organisers Can Do Better
For holders of regular tickets to one of the year’s most anticipated live music concerts, the event was an unmitigated disaster. However, that Kenyans are willing to fork out over US$60 for quality performances is a welcome surprise for event organisers.
It was a Friday afternoon and Abi was desperate for a ticket. The Boyz II Men concert was happening the following day and tickets had sold out two weeks prior. Someone was selling a regular ticket for US$100 on the Kenyan Twitter timeline. Just weeks before, the same ticket was selling at US$57.
With just hours to one of the year’s most anticipated and most hyped live music concerts, Abi frantically worked her contacts until she found someone who had bought a regular ticket but could not attend. It was going for US$61. She didn’t think twice. These were desperate times.
All she needed to do now was show up at Uhuru Gardens for the time of her life singing along as one of the boy bands of her youth serenaded her with On Bended Knees, Four Seasons and One Sweet Day.
The excitement that had been building for months was palpable, especially for Twitter A & B, the hoi oligoi of Kenyan Twitter. Even as Twitter C & D, the hoi polloi aka watuz made fun of the A & B set – often referred to as “NSSF Twitter” folk (those who joined Twitter circa 2000) and how they would need to carry leg warmers, tea flasks and duvets for a nap between performances – little else was capturing the collective imagination of Kenyans online.
Organised by Stanbic Kenya in partnership with Radio Africa Group and dubbed Stanbic Yetu Festival, the concert was advertised by Sauti Sol, one of Africa’s top boy bands, and by famous media personalities and social media influencers.
Tickets cost up to US$215 for VVIPs and US$108 for VIPs. Within 72 hours of tickets going on sale, all 600 VVIP tickets had sold out. In six days, the 1,200 VIP tickets were gone. Two weeks to the event, the remaining 4,200 regular tickets selling for US$57 also sold out.
Guests who bought tickets were promised luxury and opulence. The event was being curated for affluent high-net-worth individuals and the organisers wanted to give them a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In spite of many feeling that the tickets were overpriced, Kenyans were willing to spend that much for the experience of a lifetime.
The makings of a Fyre Festival
Instead, those who had bought regular tickets showed up to an event that had all the makings of a Fyre Festival. There were no seats for them, not enough tents – umbrellas went up against the downpour that fell halfway into the concert – and the few mobile toilets provided were not lit, leaving revellers at the mercy of pickpockets in classic Nairobbery style, and later would not flash. Worse, they could only watch the concert on a single screen that kept malfunctioning, prompting intermittent shouts of “Fix the Screen” from the crowd.
For Abi and the other 4,199 revellers who bought regular tickets, the Boyz II Men Kenyan concert was a disaster, an appalling experience of poor sound quality, shoddy event organising and botched logistics.
For the 1,800 VVIP and VIP ticket holders, it’s like they were at a completely separate event. Looking at how demarcated their seating was from shared photos of the layout of the venue, it’s easy to understand their bewilderment at the online bashing that was going on on Twitter days after the event. The VIPs and VVIPs were placed right next to the stage, in front of the media, sound and DJ desk that were also stationed in front of the area reserved for regular ticket holders.
Those who had bought regular tickets showed up to an event that had all the makings of a Fyre Festival.
For the VIPs and the VVIPs, the sound was perfect. They had couches. They had a buffet complete with bottle service. They had all the amenities. They could stretch out and touch Wanya Morris’ feet as he handed them red roses. As far as they are concerned, it was the best damn concert ever!
As for Abi, she could hardly wait to get home. On the night of the event at 2:44 a.m. she tweeted, “I have too much to say about Boyz II Men.” It was the first of a series of tweets in a thread that would go on to capture many of the sentiments shared by those who attended the concert.
Whitney Wanderi, a communications consultant in Nairobi was also in attendance. When she woke up at 12:31 p.m. the following day, she hoped that “that shitshow” by Stanbic and Radio Africa events had been “just a bad dream”. Just like Abi’s, Wanderi’s Twitter rant goes on to describe the hot mess that the concert turned out to be.
For weeks now, the bashing of the event organisers on social media by both those who attended and those who didn’t but are happy to join in the mob lynching has been unrelenting despite statements from both partners and an apology from Radio Africa Events.
Kenyan revellers have seen worse
From insecurity to stampedes to horrible sound to flooded grounds, Kenya has had its fair share of disastrous concerts. “There have been worse concerts in the past in Kenya,” says Dickson Ngunjiri, Director at Dent Group & FOMOTV, a media and event production company. One particularly stands out: In 2004, three young revellers were killed and scores injured in a stampede at the much-publicised Smirnoff Experience party at the Carnivore Gardens.
In 2018, American rapper Desiigner was robbed of his sneakers and undressed by a frantic female fan who pulled down his trousers as he tried to mingle with fans during a concert in Nairobi.
From insecurity to stampedes to horrible sound to flooded grounds, Kenya has had its fair share of disastrous concerts.
In 2019, Jamaican Chris Martin’s event in Nairobi was marred by violence and theft as several intoxicated fans tried to fight their way to the stage to “meet” the artist. The same year, organisers of the HYPE Fest concert that featured Jamaican dancehall star Konshens failed to control the over 10,000 revealers leading to a stampede and runaway theft.
In 2021, Nigerian Adekunle Gold’s concert was tainted by reports of rowdy attendees, theft, sexual violence and claims of harassment and rape.
But it wasn’t always this bad.
The ‘80s and ‘90s were the golden age of live concerts in Kenya. The country was the first stop of any international act’s African tour. Musicians such as Coolio, Lost Boyz, Barry White, and Shabba Ranks all held concerts in Nairobi while at the peak of their careers.
From the 2000s, however, the quality of concerts featuring international acts was on the decline. In an interview with the Nation in 2006, renowned Kenyan promoter DS Njoroge who brought nearly all the big names during the golden years revealed that unprofessional players in the business who “had not even promoted a birthday party” were soiling the reputation of the industry.
Although all these past botched concerts pale in comparison with the Smirnoff Experience which still takes the prize for the most disastrous Kenyan music concert ever, they continue to give the country a bad reputation as a concert destination, with many global music stars shunning Kenya for South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia.
So why did the vicious bashing of the recent Yetu Festival continue unabated?
“The only reason for the backlash with this recent concert is the fact that the ticket price, which was unprecedented, superseded the value that was delivered. If you tell people to pay X shillings and make promises about the kind of experience they should expect, then you ought to give them the value and experience that matches that. I think the move by the organisers to charge that much coupled with their failure to deliver on their promise is what drew the ire of many,” Dickson explains. “If they had paid less, few would have complained.” He explained that two weeks before the Boyz II Men concert, Jamaican Reggae singer Richie Spice had also held a concert in Nairobi. The quality of the sound at the Richie Spice concert was just as bad yet it did not elicit the same complaints online, he notes.
Dickson has been in the industry for over 23 years now, having started out as the Director of True Blaq Entertainment Group, a company that was founded by the late Kevin Ombajo (Big Kev), and he too has had his fair share of concert disasters.
Kenyans are willing to pay for quality concerts
“It’s just unfortunate what happened,” says Kavutha Mwanzia, a Jazz vocalist and events, entertainment and production consultant. “Nobody sets out to do a bad gig. I genuinely believe that,” she said.
Kavutha was at the helm of MoSound – the force behind the production and organising of the Safaricom International Jazz Festival, an annual event featuring international acts that ran successfully for seven years and that included Jimmy Dludlu, Jonathan Butler, Dianne Reeves, Kirk Whalum and Norman Brown, among others. She, however, declined to give any further comment on the Boyz II Men concert or her own experience running the jazz festival.
Dickson shares Kavutha’s sentiments, “While it is standard practice to always have a production checklist – your bible so to speak – when it rains, it pours.” He was not just speaking figuratively. In 2019, his company was a CapitalFM partner for the 28th Koroga Festival edition held at the Bomas of Kenya grounds. A heavy downpour turned the event into a mudfest on the first day of the two-day event, forcing the organisers to move the Sunday programme to the auditorium.
I also reached out to June Gachui, an IP lawyer and Radio host, musician, MC, event organiser and show producer, seeking to understand the major factors that determine the success or failure of a live music concert.
June has produced events such as Motown in Nairobi, The Heng and The Tribute series among others. She was also one of the curtain raisers for the inaugural Stanbic Yetu Festival in 2022 featuring American Soul RnB artist Anthony Hamilton.
“While it is standard practice to always have a production checklist – your bible so to speak – when it rains, it pours.”
“Think of a concert as an experience. What kind of an experience do you want to give your target audience? That then helps you get the location right, the facilities, e.g. what kind of tents? Do they change the sound of the music?” says June.
As she explains, experience has taught her to always go for partners as opposed taking on service providers. “Have event organisers as partners, that way, they become as accountable and invested in delivering the same experience as you. Cash is king but it’s not everything. I have also learnt that contractual obligations are not enough. However, when your partners’ logos are on that ticket and the audience knows who is providing what, there is more at stake for them as well,” explains June.
Dearth of security and seasoned sound engineers
Security at live music concerts in Kenya has become a mirage; the brightly coloured, luminous yellow jackets are everywhere present. However, when the literal push comes to shove either at the entrance as crowds become impatient, or on the grounds as they surge forward to the main stage, those brightly coloured luminous yellow jackets are nowhere to be seen and the event degenerates into mayhem, runaway theft and stampedes.
Can event organisers ensure safety and security at events? In a 2019 interview with Nation Media Group, George Chege, founder of Blem Entertainment – a Nairobi-based alternative music booking agency – spoke on the need for organisers to invest in adequate security both at entry points and within the crowd. He also emphasised the importance of booking venues that have multiple entry points, that enable organisers to coordinate and to put in place effective crowd control mechanisms, and that have emergency services.
But as June said, at the end of the day, it all boils down to: “Are you working with partners or just some guys you have hired? More often than not, this makes all the difference.” But it often feels like the concertgoer has to choose a struggle: insecurity, lack of standard amenities or bad sound.
A few DJs I spoke to on condition of anonymity said that it had become common practice for some sound production companies and event promoters to just buy gear and hire DJs for all manner of gigs instead of taking on properly qualified sound engineers.
“It’s not enough to just put speakers in front of people at an event,” explains June when I ask about what affects sound quality. “From experience, I have learnt that plastic A-frame tents keep people warm and they are ideal for weddings. However, they are not good for a music concert where you need sound. Understanding the science behind sound and how it moves is the work of a sound engineer.”
Despite the mishaps that have left a bad taste in the mouths of the regular ticket holders who attended the Boyz II Men concert, June and Dickson both agree that it has set a precedent. “Kenyans can and are willing to pay for quality performances,” says June. “When I first heard how much VVIP tickets were going for, I thought, well, maybe about 150 people will show up. Imagine my shock when I saw all 6,000 tickets going for not less than $60 selling out! This event has set a new precedent and we as event organisers are all the happier for it.”
Both Dickson and June believe that despite the uproar, Kenyans will attend the next live music concert featuring an international act. They do, however, agree that organisers can and should do better.
Hip-hop: From the Bronx to Africa and Beyond
In the first of a two-part series, Richard Wanjohi traces the history of hip-hop and the African musical and story-telling traditions that have influenced the genre.
The 2023 Grammy Awards held on February 5th proved to be an unforgettable evening for music enthusiasts worldwide. Among the night’s standout performances was the highly anticipated celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary. With a medley of iconic tracks spanning the genre’s different eras, the performance brought together a mix of revered veterans and current chart-toppers. Legends like Run-DMC, Salt-N-Pepa, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Missy Elliott graced the stage, commemorating hip-hop’s rich history while highlighting its enduring relevance in popular culture.
Just a few weeks later, on February 20, another groundbreaking moment took place at the NBA All-Star Game halftime show. This time, an all-African ensemble comprising some of Nigeria’s biggest music acts delivered an electrifying performance. Grammy-winning singer Burna Boy, Grammy-nominated singer Tems, and the rising star rapper Rema shared the stage, capturing the attention of viewers worldwide. The show served as a powerful testament to the genre’s global appeal, transcending regional boundaries and demonstrating that hip-hop knows no limitations.
The NBA All-Star Game halftime show and the Grammy Awards celebration exemplify the ever-growing global popularity of hip-hop. Born in the streets of New York City, the genre has evolved into a transcendent cultural force enjoyed by people of all ages and from all walks of life. Its impact on popular culture cannot be overstated, as hip-hop has redefined music, fashion, dance, and social movements across the globe.
Hip-hop’s journey has seen it break free from its initial confines, expanding beyond American borders to reach audiences worldwide. It has become a global phenomenon that resonates with individuals from diverse backgrounds, languages, and cultures. The two events served as powerful reminders that hip-hop has come of age, solidifying its place as a musical genre that transcends boundaries and connects people globally.
Taking you back…
In the bustling streets of the Bronx, New York City, during the early 1970s, a cultural revolution was quietly taking shape. Born out of the creative expression of African Americans and later influenced by Latino and Afro-Caribbean identities, hip-hop music emerged as a groundbreaking art form. With influences ranging from spoken-word poetry to disco, funk, and soul, and the vibrant world of graffiti art, hip-hop soon became a powerful force that transformed music and culture forever.
Legend has it that the first official hip-hop event took place on the 11th of August 1973, with DJ Kool Herc‘s Back to School Jam. Held in the Bronx, this groundbreaking session marked a turning point in music history. DJ Kool Herc revolutionised the scene by employing two turntables to create music, seamlessly blending instrumental breaks from popular funk and soul records. These instrumental breaks, or “break-beats” provided a rhythmic foundation for dancers to showcase their skills, giving birth to a new style of dance and music that would soon become known as hip-hop.
Hip-hop’s journey has seen it break free from its initial confines, expanding beyond American borders to reach audiences worldwide.
As the hip-hop movement gained momentum, a group of trailblazers emerged to push its boundaries and shape its future. Afrika Bambaataa, with his eclectic tastes and visionary approach, expanded hip-hop’s horizons by incorporating diverse sounds and genres. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five revolutionised turntable techniques and introduced the art of scratching, further pushing the sonic boundaries of hip-hop. And then there was the Sugarhill Gang—a pioneering rap group consisting of Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee—who etched their names in history with the release of Rapper’s Delight in 1979. This seminal track is often hailed as the first commercially successful hip-hop song, introducing the genre to a wider audience and setting the stage for its mainstream breakthrough.
The song’s lyrics dropped knowledge and put the genre on blast, solidifying its spot in the mainstream and giving it a name that stuck;
“I said a hip-hop, the hippie, the hippie
To the hip, hip-hop and you don’t stop the rockin’
To the bang-bang boogie, say up jump the boogie
To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat…”
This infectious anthem not only introduced countless listeners to the mesmerising world of hip-hop music but also played a pivotal role in its international mainstream breakthrough. From the very first note, Rapper’s Delight commanded attention with its irresistible, toe-tapping beat. This infectious rhythm, coupled with the Sugarhill Gang’s charismatic delivery, instantly captivated listeners across various musical spectrums. However, it was the song’s positive, relatable lyrics that truly propelled it to new heights. Rapper’s Delight offered a light-hearted narrative that spoke to the shared experiences of many, making hip-hop accessible and appealing to a wider audience. It provided a glimpse into the vibrant culture and artistry of hip-hop, enticing listeners to dive deeper into this groundbreaking genre.
The unprecedented triumph of Rapper’s Delight laid the groundwork for countless hip-hop groups and artists to follow. Its impact reverberated through subsequent generations, influencing musicians across the globe and inspiring them to explore the limitless possibilities of hip-hop. From the birth of rap as an art form to the rise of sampling, scratching, and innovative production techniques, the legacy of Rapper’s Delight can be heard in every corner of hip-hop’s expansive tapestry. In the pantheon of groundbreaking songs, Rapper’s Delight holds a special place as the catalyst that transformed hip-hop from a local phenomenon into a global force to be reckoned with.
This infectious anthem not only introduced countless listeners to the mesmerising world of hip-hop music but also played a pivotal role in its international mainstream breakthrough.
From its humble beginnings in the Bronx, hip-hop has evolved into a global cultural phenomenon. Its impact has transcended borders, languages, and social barriers, becoming a voice for marginalised communities and a vehicle for self-expression. Beyond the music, hip-hop encompasses a multifaceted culture that includes fashion, art, dance, and a powerful storytelling medium through rap. The genre’s ability to reflect social realities and give voice to the voiceless has made it a driving force for change and empowerment.
As we look back on the origins of hip-hop, it becomes evident that its birth in the Bronx was just the beginning of a remarkable journey. The groundbreaking work of DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, the Furious Five, and the Sugarhill Gang paved the way for an entire movement that continues to captivate the world today. Hip-hop’s fusion of musical genres, its celebration of diverse cultural identities, and its powerful narratives have made it an enduring force in popular culture. From the streets to the Grammys, from the Bronx to every corner of the globe, hip-hop remains an indomitable expression of art, resilience, and the human spirit.
Hip-hop, rap, the griot and the spoken word
Hip-hop, a cultural force that has transcended borders and captivated millions, has deep roots that can be traced back to the West African tradition of griot storytelling. Griots, the esteemed keepers of history and oral traditions in their communities, wove rhythmic speech and music together to captivate listeners. This rich tradition evolved as Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas as slaves, where they used music and storytelling to preserve their culture and connect with one another.
The influence of West African griots on hip-hop is undeniable. The griots used instruments like the enchanting kora, a 21-stringed harp, to accompany their storytelling, infusing their narratives with rich melodies. While the direct presence of griots may have diminished in modern music culture, hip-hop and rap genres have paid homage to their craft. Notably, the jazz and hip-hop group Freestyle Fellowship titled their second album Inner City Griots, a project that garnered worldwide acclaim upon its release in 1993. This nod to the griot tradition symbolises the enduring legacy and inspiration drawn from the West African roots of hip-hop.
Another pivotal precursor to hip-hop music in the United States lies within the spoken-word tradition of African American poets. Figures like Langston Hughes and the Last Poets used rhythm and rhyme in their performances, often accompanied by music, to convey powerful messages. In the streets of the Bronx, early rappers were akin to street poets, improvising rhymes and narratives about their lives and surroundings. These emerging artists were deeply influenced by the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, infusing their music with potent political and social commentary.
From the streets to the Grammys, from the Bronx to every corner of the globe, hip-hop remains an indomitable expression of art, resilience, and the human spirit.
As hip-hop grew in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s, its infectious beats and captivating verses transcended borders, spreading to countries like France, Brazil, and South Africa. Local rappers in these regions began incorporating elements of their own cultures and languages into the music, creating a beautiful fusion of global influences. This cultural exchange allowed hip-hop to serve as a powerful platform for self-expression and a means of preserving local traditions while adding a contemporary touch.
Despite its global popularity and immense cultural impact, hip-hop and rap music have faced criticism and controversies throughout their journey. The genre has been the subject of scrutiny, with debates surrounding its lyrical content, portrayal of women, and glorification of violence. However, it is important to recognise that hip-hop is a complex and multifaceted art form that reflects the realities and experiences of its creators, representing both the triumphs and the challenges faced by marginalised communities.
“In hip-hop music, misogyny relates to any aspect of rap that supports or normalises the objectification, exploitation and victimisation of women.”
Rap music, an art form that both divides and unites, has been at the centre of fervent debates. Accusations of promoting violence, misogyny, and negative stereotypes have fuelled discussions, while proponents argue that rap serves as a vital platform for artistic expression, amplifying the voices of marginalised communities.
While debates surrounding rap’s content persist, it is undeniable that the genre is deeply intertwined with African culture and the struggle for societal recognition. From its origins in African griot storytelling traditions to the spoken-word performances of African American poets, rap music has become a modern-day vehicle for cultural resilience. By channelling experiences of adversity, triumph, and social injustice, rappers use their verses to challenge the status quo and shed light on the realities faced by marginalised communities.
It stands as a testament to these communities. It serves as a dynamic form of artistic expression that transcends borders, cultures, and languages, uniting individuals from all walks of life. While debates surrounding rap’s content and impact endure, it is crucial to appreciate the genre’s role as a powerful tool for social commentary, cultural expression, and personal empowerment. As rap continues to evolve, it remains an indomitable force, unafraid to confront uncomfortable truths and challenge the norms of a rapidly changing world.
Hip-hop’s influence on other music genres
Throughout its illustrious fifty-year history, hip-hop has transcended its origins to become a force that permeates various musical genres. From its distinctive beat repetition and production techniques to collaborations with artists from different backgrounds, hip-hop has left an indelible mark on pop, electronic, rock, and R&B.
At the heart of hip-hop’s impact lies its innovative production techniques. The genre’s signature use of break-beats, loops, and samples has not only defined hip-hop itself but also resonated with artists from diverse genres. Influenced by hip-hop, musicians in electronic, pop, and even rock music have adopted these techniques to create infectious tracks that captivate listeners. Notable examples include The Beastie Boys’ genre-defying The New Style and Dr. Dre’s groundbreaking album The Chronic, both demonstrating the power of samples and synthesisers in crafting iconic soundscapes.
“In hip-hop music, misogyny relates to any aspect of rap that supports or normalises the objectification, exploitation and victimisation of women.”
Indeed, hip-hop popularised the use of sampled music and beats, which has spread to other genres. Producers and artists from different styles of music now regularly utilise sampling in their works. There are a myriad examples of this, including the first major hit by the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight which sampled 1979’s hit Good Times from the group Chic.
The collaborative nature of hip-hop has paved the way for groundbreaking cross-genre projects. By joining forces with artists outside the hip-hop realm, musicians have forged innovative tracks that transcend traditional boundaries. Iconic collaborations such as Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s Numb/Encore and The Gorillaz and De La Soul’s Feel Good Inc. exemplify the successful fusion of hip-hop with other genres, showcasing the possibilities of musical experimentation and broadening audiences’ horizons.
Fashion, culture, and the art of storytelling
Hip-hop’s influence extends far beyond music, however, permeating fashion trends and popular culture. Artists across genres have embraced elements of hip-hop fashion, solidifying its impact on the broader cultural landscape. Notable instances, such as the fashion statements made by basketball icons like Allen Iverson in the NBA during the 1990s, highlight hip-hop’s ability to shape and redefine societal norms, prompting even formal dress codes in professional sports.
One of hip-hop’s most enduring legacies is its lyrical prowess and storytelling tradition. The genre’s ability to weave compelling narratives has inspired artists from diverse backgrounds to adopt a storytelling approach in their music. Eminem’s haunting masterpiece Stan, featuring Dido, serves as a vivid example, capturing the chilling tale of an obsessed fan whose fixation spirals into tragedy. This fusion of storytelling and music garnered critical acclaim and earned nominations at prestigious awards shows.
African culture’s influence on hip-hop
The essence of hip-hop lies in its roots, deeply intertwined with the vibrant tapestry of African culture. From rhythmic drumming patterns to call-and-response techniques, the influence of Africa can be heard resonating through the beats, lyrics, and symbols of hip-hop music.
African drumming traditions have left an indelible mark on hip-hop beats, infusing them with a captivating energy and complexity. The syncopated rhythms and polyrhythmic patterns that define African drumming find their way into the heart of hip-hop music. Pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa, a true ambassador of African influence, not only embraced these rhythms but also used his platform to form the (Universal) Zulu Nation, an entity that propelled hip-hop’s global reach.
The call-and-response technique, deeply embedded in African musical traditions, found a natural home within the fabric of hip-hop. From the early days of The Sugarhill Gang to contemporary acts like Migos and Run the Jewels, the art of rapping became a dynamic interplay of voices, mirroring the call-and-response tradition’s rich heritage. This rhythmic conversation between artists became a signature of hip-hop’s storytelling prowess and a reflection of African musical heritage.
By joining forces with artists outside the hip-hop realm, musicians have forged innovative tracks that transcend traditional boundaries.
Hip-hop producers have consistently tapped into the rich soundscape of African music, sampling traditional melodies, rhythms, and instrumentation to create powerful sonic landscapes. By drawing from the motherland, they pay homage to Africa’s musical legacy while infusing their creations with a distinctive and resonant energy. Rihanna’s iconic hit Please Don’t Stop the Music featuring a sample from Manu Dibango’s Soul Makossa exemplifies how African influences can elevate contemporary hip-hop tracks.
African symbols and cultural motifs have become an integral part of hip-hop’s visual language. Artists have embraced African vernacular English in their lyrics, immersing their music in the rich tapestry of African culture. The fusion of African-inspired fashion, featuring garments like dashikis, kente cloth, and Ankara prints, has further elevated hip-hop’s connection with African aesthetics. Icons such as Fela Kuti, Erykah Badu, and Burna Boy have masterfully incorporated African fashion into their music and performances, becoming cultural ambassadors.
Afrofuturism, a movement blending African culture with science fiction, has found fertile ground within hip-hop’s creative realm. Artists like Sun Ra, George Clinton, and Janelle Monae have embraced Afrofuturist themes, infusing their music with cosmic visions and explorations of African identity. Moreover, hip-hop’s Afrocentric lyrics and themes amplify voices that address issues of identity, social justice, and the African diaspora. Songs like Queen Latifah’s empowering anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.” and Common and John Legend’s stirring “Glory” stand as testaments to hip-hop’s role in advocating for change and celebrating African heritage.
As hip-hop propels forward on its evolutionary odyssey, its inseparable bond with African culture remains unwavering. The genre continues to draw inspiration from the vast tapestry of African traditions, ensuring its constant reinvention and unwavering commitment to amplifying diverse voices and narratives. The burgeoning interest in African culture within the global music industry, manifested through events like Afropunk and the BET Awards, underscores the timeless allure and boundless creativity that African music and culture bestow upon the world stage.
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