Somewhere between 2007 and 2012 Kenya underwent a symbolic transition—from analogue to digital. Comedian Smart Joker became the spokesperson for this transition. It was funny that a jester who amplified the confused-villager-in-the-city motif, the staple of Kenyan comedy, was the one declaring that Kenya had migrated to the digital world. A utopia. The rap verses in his song Tumetoka Analogue Tuko Digital referenced MPesa and mobile phones. Kenya had entered the digital age under the Silicon Savannah moniker. Internet infrastructure was rapidly expanding, cheap internet, the advent of social media and the growing ubiquity of smartphones made 2010 a critical turning point not just for Kenya but for the world. Edward Mendelson even said, “Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone.”
In this digital transition, one of the fundamental changes was how Kenya engaged with itself and the manner in which Kenyans experienced themselves and each other. #KOT was born and thrived.
Some interesting things are happening on the cultural front. In Kenya the use of design software technologies is being used to metamorphosize oral stories into online legends. Vast digital landscapes have been brought to the fore where old depictions are being reimagined; cue the Afro-future genre where Maasais are imagined in space sitting atop alien disks, and Afrobubblegum, which celebrates itself for being fun, fierce and frivolous. Films that disrupt colonial narrative structures and depictions have been made, traditional settings have been incorporated into online games while traditional board games are being digitised. Beyond making Kenyan (hi)stories accessible, however, a critical examination of the affordances and limitations of the digital space is needed, especially in terms of authenticity, diversity and complexity in representation.
Technology is spoken of in heraldic, near-biblical terms, a promised land where a techno-fix will provide correction for all past narratives, attitudes and inefficiencies. The general assumption is that the adoption of digital technologies will solve deep-rooted inequalities and speedily remove structural barriers. In some cases, political problems are being surrendered to technical solutions. This attitude ignores the fact that technology integrates assumptions and preferences about culture, places, people and values and that it can reproduce and reinforce inequities and lead to new forms of dispossession. Caution against such unchecked hopes has been voiced but the debate regarding the finer details of this analogue-digital migration is confined to tiny circles of experts.
There was something disquieting about the frenetic pace of the analogue-to-digital migration. It was more than the basic burden of migratory logistics. A country like Kenya came to technology with a certain mind-set and the technologies being adopted also came with their baggage of bias and assumptions. Simply adopting or merely imitating how others were using them was not going to work. Some habits have to go, some new ones have to be adopted; success in the digital age comes in iterative baby steps not in the rushed manner in which certain projects have been undertaken. The movers, the systems that allowed the migrations, were all borrowed. Certain cultural and imaginative needs of the people were missing from the existing technologies and had to be built from scratch.
On the cultural and heritage fronts, the debates around digitization have thrown up interesting dilemmas. The events that whisk us from the digital optimism of the early 2010s to the digital cultural depictions of the 2020s are many and follow many threads. They all begin offline, with good intentions and a clear need to meet, a remedy to apply or an aspect of society to include. Measures are then put in place. Take the question of national heroes and memorialization. In 2007, the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage set up a Taskforce on National Heroes and Heroines whose mandate was “countrywide data collection on criteria and modalities of honoring national heroes and heroines”. After five months the taskforce came out with a report that, among other things, identified the modalities of scoring and awarding hero points. The report of the taskforce reads like propaganda designed to turn citizens into loyal nationalists:
“The national heroes and heroines square should be the highest symbol and point of reference of the perpetuity of our nationhood. It should represent and depict the national core values, goals and principles to which all Kenyans aspire. The place should symbolize all the shrines held sacred by various Kenyan communities. It should be a place revered and treated with utmost respect by those who work, enter and visit the square. As a national shrine it should embody the country’s pride, hope, spiritual and cultural aspirations and national unity. This concept should be reflected in the architectural design, management and administration of the square.”
In short, the manufacture of a holy shrine that, by existing, induces nostalgia, pride, and a deeply symbolic respect for Project Kenya; an Arcadia of sorts, Kenya’s own Shangri La where memories of heroes and heroines live on forever.
Now take this intention, add a software programme and unchecked and uncritical enthusiasm, bring in the National Museums of Kenya, add tracts of digital real estate through the Google Arts and Culture Project, stir for a few years then add frames and the perfect Kenyan heroes soup is ready for serving up on a digital platter. This is what happened recently when Kenya National Museums—through the Google Arts and Culture Project—embarked on a project similar to the watercolour sketches of Kenyan men and women commissioned from Joy Adamson by the British colonial government in the 1950s.
The general assumption is that the adoption of digital technologies will solve deep-rooted global inequalities and speedily remove structural barriers.
The project is described on the Google Arts and Culture page as a celebration of “a journey of 400 years of history and geography” and we are invited to “meet 61 historic heroes of the Kenyan communities” and engage in their “remarkable stories”. The heroes are given zoomorphic qualities: “Speed of a cheetah, agility of a cobra, strength of a rhino”. In almost all of them, a simplistic macho effect is achieved through creased brows. And they are inspired by the erroneous official simplification that “Kenya has 44 communities who all have heroes” in a move to make culture, diversity, identity history and even pride accessible and available for display. A gamified section invites us to “discover your super alter-Ego” by “taking a quiz”.
The digitally imagined Chief Mukudi adorned in ostrich feathers and the offline analogue reality of the late chief adorned in Mumia Kingdom’s official kanzu, black coat and king’s medals.
This fantastical rendering of Chief Mukudi psychically displaces and forces one to think at once that there was an ancient civilization and that the many marks on his body held mysterious powers. Nostalgia for a fictionalized past looms large in this cartoonish idiocy.
It becomes even harder to look beyond these aesthetic distortions to consider and appreciate the effort put into the project since the aesthetic style erases and overshadows the substance of the stories. This leads to an alienating abstraction of reality.
In moves only possible in the digital space, the project also allows for an immense lore dump. We are not allowed to move gradually through each hero but are forced to contend with tens of heroes and heroines from diverse cultures in an undifferentiated mass in the virtual world. The project is both a product of the internet age and the shortcomings of the software and codes that power it.
The project achieves two things: Firstly, it is a symbolic reversal of the manner in which Kenya has approached the controversial question of who is to be celebrated and how. Secondly, it is a celebration of diverse traditional oral stories that further complicates the foundational stories of this country.
The report of the taskforce reads like propaganda designed to turn citizens into loyal nationalists.
But the actual product falls short of these intentions because the images shown on the Google Arts and Culture Project depict people who individually and collectively seem to emerge from an aesthetic, curatorial, cultural, political and artistic vacuum into the ready straitjacket templates of Hollywood and the digital age. The cartoonified heroes seem to be dying for a representation that will portray them in a positive light and release them from the heathen cells into which they had been locked for decades by colonial superstructures, laws, policies and attitudes.
Even though this project tries to bring a conceptual shift, its lynchpin is simplistic and flawed. Tinkering with and tweaking the diverse Kenyan cultural heritage in this simplistic manner was never going to bring successful reversals to the old prejudiced attitudes. There is no power or heroism in the depictions of the paused agile leap or the ready-to-pounce poses. This is not a digital revolution overturning old conceptions but a further distortion of reality. A phoney simulation.
To escape from that nativist prison is not possible with Western media and software, and vector elements and stock images conceived in Silicon Valley. Ancient lore can be repurposed for modern digital needs but if it is used to serve narrow nationalistic agendas, a mutually reinforcing and equally destructive process is embarked upon—national image-making on a straitjacket platform.
For a country in search of sources of pride, anything seems to go in reconciling the disparate narratives of national being and becoming. Historical inaccuracies are embraced, regional characters are incorporated without qualms. The mad Mullah can be passed as a Kenyan hero as the stories cross ethnic, cultural and geographical boundaries and vault over their rural origins, acquiring a transcendental quality.
The pastoral 13th-17th century Ajuran sultanate is accessorised, ignorantly, with Mediterranean marble pillars. Its “hero” is an ascending figure bathed in light, holding a sword, and wrapped up like a Tuareg dervish straight from a teenager’s dream in an Ibrahim Al-Koni novel. Moving towards Southern Ethiopia, the almost 600-year-old Borana governance institution of the Gada—that from 1548 has had 72 Aba Gadas—is represented by one image titled Aba Gada; his name and the years of his reign are surplus to the needs of Kenya National Museums.
Some heroes and their stories are asynchronous to their actual histories. Take for example the story of Kote Golo who is depicted as a young Rendille moran. A respected Sakuye elder says that he died in 1913 but KNM places Kote Golo’s stories in the 1930s and beyond. What are we to make of references to Cuban and Soviet Union support? And the Ogaden war? A lone ranger’s story created by KNM.
The heroes are given zoomorphic qualities: “Speed of a cheetah, agility of a cobra, strength of a rhino.”
In this project fictive kinship is conjured at will. The Burji for example, are depicted as “farmers of the desert” even though they are not found in any desert. Their mythical story of origin has villains who shift according to the prevailing relationship or the needs of the narrator. The Burji, Konso and Borana are distinct and unrelated and passing them off as cousins or “the three brothers” is careless. KNM erroneously claims that, “The Burji swore to be farmers, to feed the Borana who had chased them away from Liban, with grains of life.”
Kenya National Museums wants to force the stories to triumph over structural issues and vault above politics, above economics and above context. Women are depicted as hormonal, men are gladiators. The project is largely an attempt to apply heavy nationalist makeup but the anachronistic collapse and fictional rendering fail to achieve the attempted nationalistic unification. Such stories, if not told in all their different dimensions, are best left alone.
Reconciliation with Western imaginaries of heroism
The traditional myths and legends being rescued and bathed in gold and light have been imbued with Western superhero motifs. Most of the images have gilded renderings, the avatars have dead-set serious eyes and flawlessly toned bodies.
Traditional costumes have been wilfully replaced with the accoutrements of heroes of Western heritage and the digital bric-a-brac of online game cultures and depictions of power that borrow trinkets and magical orbs and wands from Harry Potter movies. There are other related accoutrements of this world such as fancy swords and blazing spears. A proper scrutiny of the images may even reveal Black Panther’s vibranium hammers.
To suture the resulting inconsistencies and to imbue them with digital depictions of power, the project bathes everything in neon lights of a golden hue and streaks of lightning. Depictions from Greek mythology and those in the Kenyan heroes project are so similar that one could conclude that Zeus no longer reigned from Mt. Olympus and had allowed his energy of lights to be borrowed for use in the digital afterlife of Kenyan oral stories. Mekatilili wa Menza could pass for Hera.
Institutions and responsibilities
Historical narratives are often complicated, and bear the contradictions of reality. The process by which real people are turned into comic book heroes, shorn of all historical and cultural realities, has been enabled by the enthusiastic use of digital tools and existing digital templates and environment; this carries some of the blame for the iconographic distortions.
Nationalistic self-flattery goes through many layers of bureaucratic approval that all carry the blame for the historical inaccuracies in this project: the funders, the cast of actors that include the heritage minister, and the president who gave it the full blessing of the state. The project has an impressive-sounding list of contributors—Director General, senior curators and research scientists, designers, archivists, photographers and marketers—some of whom have PhDs to their names.
The project is both a product of the internet age and the shortcomings of the software and codes that power it.
Kenya National Museums is not a stranger to Kenyans and has people capable of a nuanced preservation and depiction of cultures in their full, authentic complexity. That they did not see the fundamental problems with this project demonstrates either wilful ignorance or vested interests with regards to the project funds.
Nothing, not even the desperate drive to reinvent KNM, justifies this level of distortion and and show of disrespect to Kenyan communities. The difficult question of national culture cannot be answered through a linear rendering of history, culture and identity. This refashioning of cultural identities and collapsing of individual uniqueness into a national whole with a homogeneous past only creates a mess. Even when midwifed by Google or the mimicked aesthetics, it is bereft of the true body and material cultures of the depicted communities. When not attempting to create this narrow nationalism, Kenya’s heritage department seems preoccupied with how to add value or use the cultural heritage of Kenya’s communities for some form of economic gain; packaged and ready for investors and tourists. This project is the latest attempt to turn heritage and the diverse cultures into digital cultural capital.
The museum has an impressive collection of material culture. But in this Google Arts and Culture Project, everything is everywhere. The head gear of community X adorns community Y. Things are interchangeable and decontextualized.
These concerns are directed at software designers and at the cultural enthusiasts feeding in instructions into the software to remedy old questions of identity. But the institution that brings together unchecked enthusiasm and flawed programs without care for safeguarding measures carries the bulk of the blame.
Digital programs come with templates and precast straitjackets that often do not have—especially in slack, inexperienced hands—the manoeuvrability needed for accurate depictions. To use Western tools to fight old imperial framing needs other supportive industries where items like free and diverse stock photos, digital elements and assets can be sourced. Digital platforms where African and traditional material cultures can be found need to be set up.
I spoke to graphic designers who all contend with the lack of the tools and elements necessary to ease their work. “Sometimes what is in the mind and what comes out of a design process are miles apart,” says George Ngechu, founder of Sura Images, a stock image agency whose platform is designed to provide cheap and accessible images of anything from well-adjusted Africans in the workspace to basic material culture. “We get a lot of queries for a diverse range of images; the demand is a lot but we can’t meet it”.
There are few high resolution images for their use and even those that are available are watermarked or ridiculously expensive. Designers have to resort to paid stock image sites or render their own images, a painstakingly slow process that involves finding models and photographers, organising a shoot, editing and then embarking on designing a small poster depicting the realities of their surroundings. Those who commission the design do not understand that this leads to a borrowed, virtual aesthetic.
“If you search for stock pictures of Africans doing anything you won’t find them easily,” says Job, a graphic designer with a local newspaper. “Search, for example, for an African couple having dinner and you will struggle. But when you look for just ‘couples having dinner’, a million images of white people are available and for free.”
The images shown on the Google Arts and Culture Project depict people who individually and collectively seem to emerge from an aesthetic, curatorial, cultural, political and artistic vacuum.
I talk to Chief Mukudi’s great-grandson, a journalist and designer, and we laugh at the image of his great-grandfather. He too acknowledges the challenge in the hands of the designers. “One time I was designing a campaign poster that needed to have a broom in it. All the vectors I got were the witch brooms, I had to go find a broom and make it usable for my needs”.
It takes immense effort and work for a designer to find basic things like akala sandals, brooms, guards, traditional cooking pots or any other commonly available item of material culture on the internet.
“You know, the majority of Kenyans assume that beads are the same. We do not know that they contain important cultural meaning. And also, since we do not have reference points, we approximate or just round off to the nearest item available … If your community isn’t serious in putting itself in the digital space, the distortions, misrepresentations and being left out is inevitable,” says Job.
Digital products have to be groundtruthed yet the data available for the production of the necessary traditional materials is from stereotyped tropes—borrowed, inauthentic simulations or low quality. It is even difficult to crowdsource such elements because, as one of the designers said, “Designers on the continent are not producers but consumers.” The need to contribute to platforms where stock images and vectors are stored was mentioned by many of the designers I spoke to but Joe Nzomo says, “So far, even when you want to donate some of those vectors or elements, there are no ready platforms to share them on.”
There are ongoing conversations that try to solve this problem by establishing platforms with African material culture assets, elements and stock images such as Picha Stock, the previously mentioned Sura Images, and Leso Stories’ digital asset library.
Leso Stories, for example, uses technology to give an immersive storytelling experience and notes that interactivity is a “key ingredient missing from even the best books or adaptations of African cultural works”. The platform has taken “fundamental care to ensure that not only the storyteller but also the storytelling environment are all authentic and faithful to when, where, how and why these stories are shared.” Leso Stories has managed to achieve this through “Virtual Humans” or what they call Embodied Conversational Agents. However, Leso Stories’ revolutionary contribution is creating 3D models and digital assets to be used by other creators. It is one way to counter the domination of Western digital vectors.
Lessons and responsibilities
The key lesson for us from Leso Stories’ digital asset library, Picha Stock and Sura Images is that technology demands the efforts of individuals who have foresight and passion to effect change. But the support of institutions and the responsibility of those in positions of power are necessary. The institutions at the heart of such efforts like KNM and even global players like Google and stock image behemoths like Getty and Shutterstock have a responsibility for inclusive and accurate cultural depictions.
The true power of traditional symbols of power lies in their proper, respectful and contextual depictions. To help designers and creators, the KNM could have digitised the many items that are stored and displayed in highly colonial forms at the Nairobi archives. Maybe then Harry Potter wands and magical orbs would not be as ubiquitous as they are in the Shujaa project.
Leso Stories is bold and has reimagined how African oral stories can be told without losing their participatory elements.
From production to consumption, the levels at which we have to engage with the use of software are various. In the artificial digital domain, the use of technology has to be groundtruthed. Digital technologies and software are mediums of an unequal power relationship. What is visible online as vectors is mirrored offline by beads, shawls and bakoras. Their enthusiastic adoption needs to strike a balance between prioritising faithfulness and awareness of what might be gained or lost in the cultural translation of oral, contested, continuous, cultural and non-linear histories into permanent, one-dimensional inauthentic and simple depictions.
Fidelity to the truth is key and it cannot be achieved by hurried half-commitments.
When kids who have grown up on comic vines like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Wars turn their gaze from the marvel universe to their environment and search for such characters, they have no tools to analyse, appreciate or objectively appraise their own body cultures, legends, and myths.
In the age of artificial intelligence where simple text prompts and instructions can generate cultural images, the problem of authenticity and complexity is further compounded.
Let us for a brief moment turn to the judgment of the crowd of consumers. Take my friend Basele, a techie and digital enthusiast who shared on This is Africa’s Twitter page text-generated images that he had made on an AI platform—three images necessary for our appraisal of digital depictions.
“So far, even when you want to donate some of those vectors or elements, there are no ready platforms to share them on.”
Basele used the text prompt “Calm and colourful image of a Samburu girl from Norther Kenya” and this is the image that the AI platform generated.
In Laisamis, the possible home of this digitally rendered cultural “calm and colourful” image, I show the AI mage to two friends and I ask for their reaction. One of the two is an anthropologist. He looks at the image, immediately notes that the lady is adorned with, among other things, “ostrich egg shells” and “modern earrings”. With confusion on his face, he asks, “Could she be Pokot?” Even the distant similarity to Lupita Nyong’o lurking in the image doesn’t help the image to pass the cultural authenticity test.
Here Basele has used AI to generate a “calm and colourful image of a Rendille girl from Northern Kenya.”
My friends compare the nose size with a standard Rendille nose and laugh. But what does the software know? In a third image my friend sent me, the lady has aluminium beads and modern earrings. “Which culture is this?” ask my friends in Laisamis.
The anthropologist in Laisamis says, “The pastoralists’ material culture is lean,” noting that it has to be very sparse and specific: “Remember you carry everything with you.”
But with my friend’s curious commands, even with the AI-generated artificial glow and flawless skin, the images do not pass the authenticity test. It is not satire, it is not caricature. These are the depictions of soulless machines.
More worrying, however, are the high stakes and high risks produced by the fact that such AI-generated depictions are being used in videos to tell oral stories. Their simplistic rendering becomes embedded in other AI platforms where they are used as the groundtruth for further and future AI work. A self-reinforcing loop of distortion.
A third project
Kunta Content, a Kenyan online gaming company, has created a Maasai hero named Hiru. In the game trailer, a Maasai village is depicted well and the landscape is accurate. But Hiru is shown always running, killing a lion within the short two minutes of the trailer. In another trailer, he he kills a poacher armed only with a bow and arrow. Huri has no grace, he is a white commando in a Maasai shuka. At their heart the codes that run him are the same ones that are powering the Western gaming industry. An anomaly with the story is the traditional gaming industry villain, a slayer bearing two massive axes who is taken down by the dextrous manoeuvre of Hiru’s spear, which is held and used like a cane. Salim, Kunta Content’s creator, describes the merger of media and gaming as “old storytelling which tries to tell an experience, an emotion”.
Digital inclusion needs more than design sensibility to obtain accurate and complex depictions. Other aspects such as an understanding of history, awareness of forms of self-depiction, a grasp of design tools, an honest imagination, understanding language and the power of stories, some anthropological depth, a sense of geography and an appreciation of cultures and spirituality need to be in place. These are not only to be considered but they need to be actively cultivated and implemented. An assemblage of supporting and intersectional expertise such as writers, designers and critics, as well as platforms for dissemination like the Internet, television, books and, most importantly, the resources to undertake the necessary iterative experimentation and learning have to be availed.
Clicking away swiftly
Kenya’s culture and heritage ministry is encouraging communities to compile, document and register their traditional knowledge. As heritage officials from the ministry traverse the country facilitating this rush to develop biocultural protocols, the question of the technology behind them has not been fully considered. So far, the discussions seem to be centred around traditional attire, food, herbal medicine, heritage sites, rites of passage, and so on and so forth. The intention is to codify and keep traditional knowledge in a database somewhere where it will be stored for eternity and where communities can access it with just a few clicks.
He has no grace, he is a white commando in a Maasai shuka.
But we must not forget that dispossession and exploitation have often been a deliberately baked-in problem. The risk with such databases lies in the fact that entire communities’ traditional knowledge can be erased from such systems or replaced without consequence. Aside from structural issues like software developer bias that can show up in their codes or the risk of hackers, the whole idea is foreign and is not how cultures engage with their heritage.
The above efforts to bring traditional African cultures into the digital space seem to be simulations of what authentic pre-colonial traditional backgrounds should look like; in South Africa, experiments at 3D oral storytelling were set inside a cave. Their intention is almost always to preserve a fast-disappearing heritage. The inclusion of ambient audio sounds like chirping birds, lowing cows and crowing cocks don’t guarantee their integrity. The villages shown are untouched even by such simple “technology” as iron sheet roofs, yet Kenyan villages today are places where solar lights, mobile phones, plastic water Jerry cans, radios and even TVs compete for visibility with shukas and lesos.
Aside from the structural issues, the idea of taking and storing is colonial and is not how cultures engage with their heritage.
Digital space and technology is a transitional medium that can evolve into a space of shared memory. As it is currently instituted, however, it has major limitations in depicting the rich African cultural tapestries. So far, the depictions of traditional and cultural diversity are inauthentic and historically inaccurate. The portrayals of complex diversity, nationhood and even conflict are problematic.
It is not easy to encapsulate the precise role played by the Kenya National Museums in Kenyan public life. However, as enthusiasm for the heritage industry grows, more than any other institution, KNM offers a chance to meet its needs. But to do this, it needs to go through a phase of introspection and to rethink its role.
To tackle the inaccuracies and elisions of African material cultures from the digital space, efforts are necessary from several fronts: individual artists, institutional commitments and the design of the technology itself. This should be a serious and deliberate endeavour as the risks of reanimating colonial logics of extraction and over-simplification lie in wait.
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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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