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Hip Hop Is Big In Nairobi


15 October 2006 No Comment

Rapster Angel is standing on a piece of land in a slum in Nairobi. “Hip-hop in Kenya is so much like this piece of land,” she says in the documentary Noise is my voice. “Inside it is so much talent, so much potential, so much hope. The future of Africa is lying in the ghetto. What we, hip-hop-artists, are doing, we’re trying our best to dig in the ghetto and get the raw talent out, so that this place can look beautiful again”. This week she is together with some colleagues, in the Netherlands for the official launch of Ghetto Radio.

Ghetto Radio is a Dutch initiative for and by young Kenyans. A group of rappers from Nairobi came especially for the launching to Amsterdam. Raw Bars and hip-hop-activist Buddha Blaze were three years ago in Holland. Angel and the two other members of Kenyanna, Jalupo and Obila, are for the first time in Holland. They are the main characters of Noise is my voice. Just like Angel the other rappers in the documentary are young people with a strong social consciousness. For them Ghetto Radio will be of great importance. “Not just for us, musicians, but for the whole community. To change the mentality of the people” Raw Bar says. Although he is not in the documentary, he is an important person in the Kenyan hip-hop scene. “He is one of the pioneers of hip-hop in Kenya” Angel says. “Hip-hop is one of those best kept secrets of Kenya. We have a very strong hip-hop movement since 10 years ago. People don’t know because we have been always underground.”

The hip-hop culture started in Kenya in the eighties but the whole vibe was taking root in the nineties. “Then the street poetry expression and hip-hop from New York came to Nairobi” Raw Bars tells. “We have been listening to Run DMC, Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, N.W.A, Talib Kweli. Hip-hop now is big in Nairobi. There are many bands. I am a member of Kalamashaka. We released three albums. We just did all ourselves, set up our own studio, doing our own recording with our own producers. Twenty groups of different neighbourhoods are in Ukooflani Maumau which is a hip-hop movement. We are representing not only groups in Nairobi but also in Mombassa, the second town of Kenya, and in Tanzania. By our music and by Ghetto Radio we want to reach the people from the ghettos. I see that as a revolution, it’s something that can’t be done for quite a while”.

“I am inspired by Salt-n-Pepa, Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah” Angel adds. “The rap that inspired us was totally different from where the kids now are listening to. 12-14 years old kids listen to Shawnna and Rihanna. They only know the commercial side of hip-hop, the clubmusic.” Buddha Blaze: “It’s a fact that they are not getting the hardcore stuff. There is only attention for commercial hip-hop. Ghetto Radio will push it to the conscious side. They need to say that there is also another hip-hop which is about consciousness”. Buddha Blaze himself is not a rapper, but organizer of events, someone who put things together, makes plans, brings rapcrews together. “I am trying to commote the real hip-hop” he says. “I am promoting artists who are talking about their own life, who tell a story. As a human being you’re not always right. You have to ask questions in your mind, as a human being, as a rapper. So like Kalamashaka, when they first came up, I saw those guys are like wow, they were my inspiration. They were not singing about cars or like: I am going to a club, but about freedom. Listen, Kenya got independence since 1963, but have you guys ever looked at who’s really free?”

The possibilities to perform or to be listened to on the radio are not big for Kenyan rappers. Buddha Blaze organizes a hip-hop-event once a month. With local groups and sometimes with female rappers. “There are female rappers in Kenya, two or three who do conscious rap” Angel says: she explains her name as ‘a person who helps people to get people to the other side, to the better positive side’. “Lately three female rappers came in. I was one of them. One of the others was a little girl, 100 of other girls were watching. I think that our performance changed a certain girl who writes her lyrics at home but doesn’t have the courage to perform. She will show up next time because we did it. I am playing my part like teaching how to write. And by expressing myself. Personally music is a reflection of myself. I am not going to rap about something I haven’t gone through”.

“Most people don’t like the truth, when you’re talking about the truth, you know it’s hard” Jalupo and Obila from the group Kenyanna say. “We rap about the political situation in Kenya, about police brutality.” Another member of the group, Pete Okong’O aka Milpolo was shot by the police March this year. Together with Angel and Goreala, a rapper who didn’t come to Holland, they bring an impressing tribute to him in Noise is my voice. “We supposed to launch the album in February” Jalupo says. “But when the other member died, we had to start again”. By beatboxing Kenyanna shows some hardcore raps for the camera of director Maarten Brouwer.

Buddha Blaze wants to mix hip-hop with traditional Kenyan music. “I love to see a situation where the DJ by scratching is mixing with the traditional African instruments. To reach that we need to create more shows. But the situation for live-music is difficult in Kenya, not only for hip-hop. I would like to see that musicians and rappers could jam with each other and that you hear the influence of much more instruments.” As an example the Senegalese groups Positive Black Soul and Pee Froiss are mentioned. They are mixing hip-hop with traditional West-African instruments like kora and djembé.

In the slums of Nairobi hip-hop is common property. “Most of the people like hip-hop” Buddha Blaze says. “But they don’t know different types of hip-hop exist. The official radio stations do not understand where we are talking about. The government are pretty much not even aware. Now it’s bubblin’ but when Ghetto Radio starts then we gotta hit them!”.

Jalupo is also positive about the radio station. “It will be the voice for the ghetto youth. And they will pay royalties to the artists. There is no radio station that pays the artist royalties! The documentary was good for us. We had an exposure and you can see that Pete Okong’O was a rap-artist and not a gangster”. Angel: “I am so glad that I was part of something that’s gonna make a change, not only in the hip-hop in Kenya but to the youth, to the people in the ghetto. The documentary is a turning point. It gives us a voice.”

A voice that will be heard far outside of Kenya. “For me it is a wonderful feeling that I can meet different people from the hip-hop-movement like here in Amsterdam” Angel says. “People who believe in the same struggle, who are representing their different communities, races and cultures. It’s just the beginning of more wonderful things in hip-hop. I am just happy that this group would be one of the first to build the bridge between Kenya, Africa and this country.”

And as all rappers admit without Peter Jansen and Maarten Brouwer of Ghetto Radio it hadn’t succeeded. The fact that a group of rappers performs in Amsterdam, will also have a side-effect on the attention they will get in Kenya. Buddha Blaze: “If the media in Nairobi know you did a show in Amsterdam, they are paying the attention we didn’t get before. Then they are calling: can I do an interview.”

“I believe in communication,” Raw Bars, the pioneer, concludes. “The exchange with Amsterdam is very important. I hope the youth in Nairobi are going to benefit from it. The benefit for the whole Nairobi people would be good.”

Article by Rik van Boeckel

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