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The Boon and the Bane: Three Markers of Democratic Culture in Kenya

16 min read.

The triple helix of Harambee, hand-outs and handshakes weaves an intractable chokehold on democracy as the unimpeded participation of citizens in the design and execution of conditions to better their social and economic well-being.

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The Boon and the Bane: Three Markers of Democratic Culture in Kenya
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It was Jomo Kenyatta who popularized the term Harambee. In the months leading up to independence in 1963, Jomo, who was tipped to be Prime Minister, begun to use the term to rally the nation to “pull together” resources for development. Some say Harambee replaced Uhuru, the Kiswahili word for freedom that had been the galvanizing motto in the struggle for independence. Is it possible then that in adopting Harambee, which was also known as self-help, we gave up freedom for collective burdens? One is tempted to think so, seeing that in the early years, those who rejected the Harambee clarion call ignored the customary response, “heee!” opting instead to shout, “Majimbo!” — regionalism. I will return to this story of Majimbo soon. For now, let me trace the journey of Harambee from the ethos of hard work to the dungeons of corruption.

The history of the term Harambee illustrates one of the most admirable aspects of Kenyan social life — our ability to borrow from across communities and weave into the tapestry of pre-existing cultural practices, including language. The word Harambee is a deft cojoining of two disparate words — Har and Ambe. These words became Kenyan on account of the 31,983 indentured workers that Britain, as colonizer, shipped from India to the East African Protectorate to build the so-called Uganda Railway. Construction started in Mombasa, in 1896, reached the shores of Lake Victoria in 1901 and didn’t reach Kampala until 1931.

Har Ambe was an empowering cry that bound the workers as they lifted loads in unison, like human cranes. There is something radical in Indian immigrant workers, known pejoratively as coolies, breaking into their own tongues to invoke a female deity as they were being ordered to lift heavy loads in the sweltering heat. Ambe is a goddess worshipped in many parts of India. She is associated with force and energy and is said to have divine power to destroy obstacles. Har, meaning everyone, comes from Hindi; a language whose origins lie in Sanskrit and one that has grown to do the work of a national language even though that status remains contested. In an alien land, the Hindi Har worked like glue, binding these labourers.

Pally Dhillon captures the distinction of one these labourers in the ground-breaking Kijabe: An African Historical Saga that is part memoir, part fiction. That worker was taller than his colleagues and therefore easily recognizable. Kala Singh, for that was his name, embraced the Har Ambe call, and lent his name to yet another improvisation — the colloquial term kalasinga that is used in Kenya to refer to any Sikh. Terms like these, used to honour rather than to deride, signal acceptance. In A Kenyan Journey the erudite lawyer, human rights activist, and creative writer, Pheroze Nowrojee shows how tenuous acceptance has been for Kenyan Indians to put down roots in a land that has intermittently questioned their loyalty to the economy and their stake in the heritage and the politics. (A Presidential Proclamation by former president Uhuru Kenyatta on 21 July 2017 recognized Kenyans of Asian Heritage as the country’s 44th tribe.) However, it is worth noting that President Jomo Kenyatta’s adoption of the term Harambee as a national motto that was quickly turned into popular song by Daudi Kabaka working with the empire-building British producer Charles Worrod before it was given further credence in the loyalty pledge, was a significant endorsement of the value bricolage in the work of forging nationhood. (See Issue #38 of the chronicle magazine, Old Africa, which features excerpts from And Master of None, Charles Worrod’s unpublished autobiography. Kabaka’s “Harambee, Harambee” is another fine example of borrowings and bricolage. The guitars that underpin Kabaka’s song came from demobilized World War Two soldiers, Worrod says he “used the melody of ‘John Brown’s Body’, and ‘Rule Britannia’ as inspirations”, never mind that it was a symbol of the colonizer, and the Equator Sounds Band that worked with Kabaka drew members from all over Eastern Africa.) No community was too small to lend a humanizing and working strategy, word, or practice to the project called Kenya.

It was in this spirit then that one of the first projects the citizens of an independent Kenya raised money for was the construction of the Senate Chambers. Prince Philip had laid the foundation stone on December 13, 1963. Soon after, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Humphrey Slade was appointed to head the Kenya National Fund which was established to receive contributions from the organizations, members of the public and other well-wishers for the completion of the Senate Chambers. It looked like government by the people and for the people was off to a good start; people were paying for the institutions they believed in.

In Jomo Kenyatta’s day, development was understood as physical infrastructure and his new motto urged communities to join hands in building schools, establishing a dispensary, a maternity ward, or providing staff housing. As Kilemi Mwiria observes, the colonial government had deliberately “limited educational opportunities for Africans”. In Central Kenya, this gave rise to the Independent Schools Movement whose driving force was Mbiyu Koinange. At independence, the president saw this approach of schools built by the community as the shortest route to expanding facilities and increasing enrolment and by extension literacy. Economists can tell us whether in 1963, foreign exchange earned from the sale of cash-crops was negligible, and if the tax-base from those in formal employment was likewise too small to sustain the annual budget. Whatever the case, Harambee evolved as the unofficial tax system.

From 1968 when Dr Julius Kiano was at the helm of the Education Ministry, the government gave communities additional incentives to build secondary schools with the promise that if the community built the classrooms, the government would provide them with teachers. Secondary schools were not the only target of Jomo’s Harambee movement. Numerous institutions that stand today as public institutions of higher learning had their origins in the Harambee spirit and were led by people in the private sector. For instance, Masinde Muliro University started as Western College of Arts and Applied Science (WECO) in 1972, spear-headed by Amos Wako and A.A.A. Ekirapa among others. Similarly, Dedan Kimathi University grew from Nyeri College of Science and Technology, mooted in 1971 by pioneer Nyeri technocrats like Duncan Ndegwa and built from the contributions of big cash-crop farmers and subsidiary farmers of the district. This idea for tertiary education was replicated in many parts of the country. Additionally, in seven out of the eight provinces, Harambee secondary schools out-numbered the government-aided ones. The government publication, Kenyatta Cabinets: Drama, Intrigue, Triumph states that by 2012 there were about 600 Harambee schools countrywide.

At independence, the president saw this approach of schools built by the community as the shortest route to expanding facilities and increasing enrolment and by extension literacy.

In those days before WhatsApp messaging, invitations to Harambees were printed cards, or letters from the person leading the initiative or from the nascent institutions. Once in receipt of the invitation, one was welcome to make a pledge which would be dutifully entered in the ledger on the back of the card, or on a continuation sheet attached to the letter. The community would raise funds, sometimes over a period, and on an appointed day the Chief Guest, usually the area Member of Parliament, would make his donation to boost the community’s efforts. If the school had a particularly high profile, either on account of its name, or its location, the Chief Guest would be a senior member of the Cabinet. There is a photograph in Moi Cabinets: The Nyayo Era, of Vice-President Daniel arap Moi laying the foundation stone for Ngina Kenyatta Harambee Primary School in Kinoo on 13 October 1967, accompanied by Mwai Kibaki, Minister for Commerce and Industry. Following his appointment as Vice-President, Moi needed to raise his profile at the grassroots. That was why he travelled to Kapsabet to officially open the Mosoriot Harambee Health Centre on 16 December 1969, as Nathaniel Kalya, the pioneer Senator for Nandi, and later area MP for Mosop and Assistant Minister for Culture and Social Services (1967-1969), explained to his biographers, Godfrey K. Sang and Wilson Kalya.

Occasionally, money was raised through Harambee for a child to go abroad for further education. The push for higher education became urgent at independence because the departure of the colonialists opened up a raft of jobs for Africans, especially in the civil service. Since education was historically linked to the new religious faiths, it wasn’t long after independence that Harambees to build churches spread like bushfire. Development, it seemed, would not be divorced from its original paths, even in this now independent country. Everywhere you turned in the 1970s there was a Harambee to build a church, a hospital, a school. In reality, some of these were about boosting the standing of current or prospective politicians.

In those days before WhatsApp messages, invitations to Harambees were printed cards, or letters from the person leading the initiative, or from the nascent institutions. Once in receipt of the invitation, one was welcome to make a pledge which would be dutifully entered in the ledger on the back of the card, or on a continuation sheet attached to the letter. The community would raise funds, sometimes over a period, and on an appointed day the Chief Guest, usually the area Member of Parliament, would make his donation to boost the community’s efforts.  If the school had a particularly high profile, either on account of its name, or its location, the Chief Guest would be a senior member of the Cabinet. There is a photograph in Moi Cabinets: The Nyayo Era, of Vice-President Daniel arap Moi laying the foundation stone for Ngina Kenyatta Harambee Primary School in Kinoo on 13 October 1967, accompanied by Mwai Kibaki, Minister for Commerce and Industry. Following his appointment as Vice-President, Moi needed to raise his profile at the grassroots. That was why he travelled to Kapsabet to officially open the Mosoriot Harambee Health Centre on 16 December 1969, as Nathaniel Kalya, the pioneer Senator for Nandi, and later area MP for Mosop and Assistant Minister for Culture and Social Services (1967-1969), explained to his biographers, Godfrey K. Sang and Wilson Kalya.

Since education was historically linked to the new religious faiths, it wasn’t long after independence that Harambees to build churches spread like bushfire.

Reading the biography of Nathaniel Kalya one gets the impression that the budget in the Ministry of Culture and Social Services literally lay with the people. He spent countless hours on the road from Kaptumo, Mosoriot, Kabiyet, and Kaiboi in Nandi; Kandara and Kariti in the then Murang’a District; Githunguri in Kiambu, Kehancha in Kisii and many other locations in rural Kenya. The bulk of his work as an MP, and even as an Assistant Minister, seems to have been taken up by organizing and officiating at funds-drives for health centres, schools, staff houses, even the Armed Forces Memorial Hospital!

By the late 1990s, Harambee had become a loathed concept. District Officers used it to terrorize traders in towns, chiefs used it to punish villagers by confiscating their chicken, churches used it to judge their followers. Ordinary citizens were no longer being asked to give to projects they believed in, projects that would benefit an entire community; they were being bullied to fulfil the narrow agenda of an individual. Two anecdotes will illustrate the absurdities. Sometime in the mid-1990s, a senior academic registrar at a public university wrote invitations on the university’s letterhead for a Harambee to raise funds for his son who was due to take up a place at a university in the US. The letter was sent to academic staff under the registrar’s mandate, and to heads of institutions that traded with the university. Wow. No sense of irony in a man presiding over an education that was seemingly not good enough for his own child. No notion of conflict of interest in roping in merchants who could easily resort to inflating their invoices to meet this unworthy request. No compunction whatsoever, just brazen abuse of office, its stationery, and its social standing.

The second anecdote is about a senior magistrate in a provincial town. He invited his colleagues and practicing advocates in the region to a fundraiser at his newly built home where, as he said, he needed a little help to get an electricity connection. Again, no sense of conflict of interest; no dire plight like an insurmountable hospital bill, just greed in demanding what you want regardless of how it will affect the institution where you work, the very work that you do, and those that do it with you. By the end of the 1990s this self-serving use of the self-help culture had poisoned every social space from weddings to funerals with ridiculous budgets, and worse still, the government was not fulfilling its mandate of alleviating poverty. In this season of brazen abuse of the giving nature of Kenyans, the Harambee motto gradually went from a philosophy to better communities, built from two borrowed Indian words whose spirit resonated with the solidarity that is endemic amongst Africans, to a form of Black Tax in extended families and a tool of administrative tyranny that simultaneously allowed government to abdicate its primary work of providing pathways to secure livelihoods.

In 2002, the government commissioned a British firm to assess anti-corruption initiatives. They zeroed in on Harambees as a driver of graft. Consequently, one of Mwai Kibaki’s first pronouncements as president in 2003 was to invoke the Public Officers Ethics Act to ban Cabinet Ministers from presiding over Harambees. But given the roots of Harambee, banning these fund-raisers entirely, or vetting them for approval as the National Assembly’s Constitutional Implementation Oversight Committee proposed in 2019 is unworkable. Harambee no longer works as a driver of government projects, but it remains robust, if a little wayward as a socio-cultural pillar. In recent years, it has been given new impetus by technology. From WhatsApp groups to rally people around a cause, to M-Changa and allied collection platforms, the Paybill is now a critical constituent of our socio-cultural rites. It frees many from physical attendance of fund-raisers and simultaneously allows them to show commitment to the cause. Which leads me to the other key term in our political culture.

Hand-outs

There is a close relationship between Harambee and hand-outs. You could almost argue that one birthed the other. In the early days, the people gave for their welfare, including building the Senate Chamber, which was later used by the National Assembly. And as stories from the colonial struggle show, they willingly raised money for the freedom of persecuted leaders. Two stories cement the argument.

Soon after their 1961 release from detention, the Kapenguria Six addressed several rallies around the country. At Ruring’u stadium in Nyeri, Paul Ngei was asked to say the closing prayer. He asked “the God of Africans to urge the God of Whites to leave to Kenyans the land they occupy and go back in Britain in peace. For this, Ngei was charged with incitement and charged KES 500. Enthusiastic crowds quickly raised the money, Harambee style, and stuffed the currency notes in his pockets while carrying him shoulder high”. (Moi Cabinets Vol 2: 124). 

From WhatsApp groups to rally people around a cause, to M-Changa and allied collection platforms, the Paybill is now a critical constituent of our socio-cultural rites.

It seems 1961 was a special year for Kenyans opening their wallets for their would-be leaders. Another story is told of money raised to buy the newly released Jomo Kenyatta a car. It is not clear from these anecdotal stories who initiated this campaign, but those who participated in it tell it with great pride in their willingness to restore dignity to a detainee. When the car was purchased and issued with the registration KHA, the proud fundraisers immediately dubbed it “Kenyatta Home Again”.

How did we move from this point where the public raises money to aid persecuted leaders to where we are now with leaders, even wannabe ones gunning for office, buying support at campaign rallies in the name of the so-called standing allowance? All might not be lost if the story of the newly elected Mumias MP, Peter Silasyia, is anything to go buy. But the way the story of Silasyia’s supporters building him a house is told with the moniker “broke MP”, it is clear where the values of our society lie. Namely, in the same place where people cheered in 2017 as the newly elected 23-year-old MP for Igembe South, John Paul Mwirigi was given a brand new Prado by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Handouts are not just a problem at the top. They are a retail item, available for everyone. Recently, an academic on Twitter reported difficulties in finding “manual labour” during the 2022 campaign season. “People would wake up and follow the campaign handouts. The handouts ranged from [KES] 100 to 200. Other contestants would give packet of maize flour.” The screenshot below captures the crisis of productivity spurred by this campaign market.

Rent-a-crowd was lucrative enough for some to abandon their usual (side-)hustles as was reported elsewhere. If this practice ran strictly as an election-related business, many would look away from its slippery moral basis and call it the market force of demand and supply. The real tragedy though is that this culture of hand-outs is now so rooted in daily life that drawing a line between it and corruption is a game of mental gymnastics.

Say you approach a crowded hospital parking, and the watchman allows you to park in a “No Entry” section by a door that he knows is never used. You have a parking ticket which you will validate via payment as you leave, so why do you, nonetheless, feel compelled to give that watchman 50 shillings? Is that gratitude? And if so, isn’t saying a warm “Hallo and thank you” enough to show your appreciation? How can it be corruption if the watchman did not ask for it, you say? You might argue he expected it. But what does that say about your own complicity — condoning the breaking of rules and accepting graft? Culture is truly that moment when we do things without stopping to ask the why or wherefore; we do them because they are always done, and done in that way.

The real tragedy though is that this culture of hand-outs is now so rooted in daily life that drawing a line between it and corruption is a game of mental gymnastics.

The dependency created by hand-outs in our society is both crippling and deliberate, sadly. Somewhere along the journey of Harambee, the giver became the recipient as our politicians found value in reversing the relationship. Rather than take from the people to structure what they need in terms of infrastructure and social services, now politicians give us handouts to keep our mouths silent about our needs and their failures. Hand-outs are an instrument of control, a loss of freedom for the people — the freedom to critique, the freedom to be gainful, the freedom to self-determining. Harambee for development became a burden on the people while hand-outs from their leaders have become blinds that lock out the vision of industry and social well-being. There is no compulsion on the part of politicians to expand opportunities and create real wealth for the majority. Meanwhile, at the top, politicians jostle for space at the trough from which they reap to bag enough for handouts for people, if they are generous. The other name for that jostling is elite consensus aka handshakes.

Handshakes

At a 25 November 1963 public rally in Kapsabet, the crowds shouted “Majimbo” in response to the “Harambee” call made by Tom Mboya and Achieng Oneko of the Kenya African National Union (KANU). The people were protesting in this manner to show their disappointment over a decision made by Jean Marie Seroney, William Murgor and Taita arap Towett to decamp from Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) to join KANU. “Their defection was greeted with fury. [Nathaniel] Kalya was surprised that these individuals had not even bothered to consult anyone”. Two short months later, on January 23, 1964, Senator Kalya joined the bandwagon and walked out of KADU. He does not say whether he consulted anyone. He avers that “the move was the best way to serve the people he represented”. It is not lost on readers of his story that soon thereafter, “Kalya was appointed the Deputy Leader of Government Business [in the Senate]. He became the first person to move from being opposition chief to being Government business leader.” Ahem!

There is no compulsion on the part of politicians to expand opportunities and create real wealth for the majority.

Was it naivety, sheer negligence or outright greed that led these KADU leaders to believe that the Majimbo they had stood for in KADU would not be compromised by a KANU government since it was already in the Constitution? Seroney argued that, “the best way to preserve it was to be in Government”. Did these elected representatives underrate the wily intentions of the KANU men who lured them to cross the floor, as it was known then, or were they just greedy men who stood on zero principle?  Their actions left Majimbo in jeopardy, an orphan with no concerned voices to fight for it following the slow death — more like murder — of KADU in 1964. That death was a long game orchestrated by Tom Mboya, the Minister for Justice and Legal Affairs, working on behalf of Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta to ensure that effective opposition would not thrive.

Flash-forward to 2022 and the times are upon us once again. Virtually all representatives elected on an Independent ticket at the 9 August 2022 general election crossed the floor to join the president’s winning coalition, Kenya Kwanza, within days of the declaration of Kenya Kwanza’s victory. Worse still, even those like Kiraitu Murungi and Professor Kivutha Kibwana, who made their bids on rival parties and lost, somehow found it in themselves to cross over and join those who formed the new government. The less I say at this point about Professor Kibwana, a decorated human rights activists and a stellar pioneer Governor for Makueni, the better.

In Kenya’s political history, co-option has had many diversionary names — crossing the floor; co-operation; nusu mkate aka Government of National Unity; handshake. The facts remain the same, no matter what we call it, or how we justify it. Raila Odinga, opposition doyen from the 1980s, famously told us in 1997 that his co-operation with KANU was intended to break it from within. While his goal might have been achieved in the long term, in the short-term it allowed President Moi to enjoy tranquillity in his last term.

This practice of joining the side forming the government, even when the legitimacy of its election is in doubt, raises critical issues about representation. How are the needs of the electorate to be served when the person they elected by virtue of their backbone turns out to have none? When we read this lack of principle as a feature of culture, it is even more overwhelming. It seems independence, the most important ingredient in forging a culture of democracy, is something that elite Kenyans do not want and something that they rob ordinary citizens of at the earliest moment. Sadly, along with abhorrence for independence, scores of public intellectuals have, since Youth for KANU ’92, supplied the carving knives with which the free will of the electorate is slaughtered.

How are the needs of the electorate to be served when the person they elected by virtue of their backbone turns out to have none?

You might, cynically, say there is free will for people to join whatever side they like at whatever time. But no, there is an obligation that leaders have, to those they purportedly represent. But if those who follow them do so on account of the handouts they have been given, then the free will of the electorate is a commodity that has a price. And that price has been put in place by governments that have failed to secure every individual’s dignity by eradicating want. There can be no democracy in a society where people are either bullied, impoverished, shamed, or shunned into following the crowd.

Conceding is not the same thing as being co-opted. This is where we have the politics of compromise all wrong. The stakes have been raised higher than they ever were by the Constitution of Kenya 2010. There are term limits for Governors and Senators and provisions that leave the runner-up in the presidential election with no seat in any of the houses of Parliament and barred from appointment to the Cabinet. The resultant lack of status, income, and influence is enough to tempt anyone accustomed to state largesse to cross over or shake hands.

Intractable chokehold 

The triple helix of Harambee, hand-outs and handshakes weaves an intractable chokehold on democracy as the unimpeded participation of citizens in the design and execution of conditions to better their social and economic well-being. This chokehold is particularly deceptive because on the face of it, its three markers have the capacity to further free participation but, they have frustrated it: a classic case of a boon and a bane. Long before we had worked out that development is more than stone buildings, piped water, textbooks, syringes, pills, and the human resources to execute these to eradicate illiteracy and secure health, Harambee as a vehicle for the delivery of this development was in danger of being abused. That danger stemmed first from the narrow perception of development. That old understanding left out the growth of social relations such as gender equity, environmental sustainability, and equity between nations. Secondly, and perhaps more germane to the question of cultural engineering is the fact that while Harambee was born from the quotidian struggles of workers, its growth as a national movement was driven by politicians.

Culture thrives when state actors give it space to define itself. When state actors hijack cultural tools, decay is imminent. We saw this when the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) hijacked the popular song “Unbwogable” as their campaign anthem for the 2002 General Election. It didn’t take too long before the new NARC government started interpreting “Unbwogable” as an exclusive ethos. Vice-President Michael Wamalwa was at a victory party held at Mulwanda Primary School in Butere/Mumias District, as it was then, when the MP for Emuhaya, Kenneth Marende, warned local teachers to tread carefully in their demands. “It is only MPs who are unbwogable. Teachers cannot also start claiming they are unbwogable in their demands for a pay-rise.”

While Harambee was born from the quotidian struggles of workers, its growth as a national movement was driven by politicians.

To reiterate, the fact that Harambee gave birth to the culture of hand-outs, to say nothing of the millions that have been looted in the name of government workers attending fundraisers, is a good illustration of how fast and putrid the decay of a people-driven ethos is in the hands of politicians. Handouts are no doubt the first cousins of handshakes, that unworthy practice of elite purchase of free will and independent thinking. With the rot where it now is salvation must come from our public intellectuals. How they safeguard their independence and rebuild sites and institutions where the reimaging of freedom can happen is the only real chance we have of revisioning the independence we like to say we earned on the night of December 12, 1963. May the day break.

This publication was funded/co-funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of The Elephant and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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Dr Nyairo is a Cultural Analyst.

Culture

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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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.

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Hip-hop: From the Bronx to Africa and Beyond
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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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