Hip hop futures in Kenya
Rapper Khaligraph Jones (government name: Brian Ouko Robert) chronicles the challenges faced by young people in Nairobi, Kenya.
A talent emerged with a vociferous, shrill and piercing cry deep in the heart of Kayole, Nairobi on June 12, 1990. It was an uncertain time. Agitations for multiparty democracy clouded the air amidst arbitrary detentions, torture, and killings. Still, a mother—freed from the listlessness of a third trimester—rocked a plump newborn. As the cries of Robert Ouko’s assassination tapered, it was only fitting that the mother in Kayole thought it wise to name her new hope—Brian Ouko Robert—perhaps as a silent resistance against the dictatorial regime. I do not know. I have not asked. But I know we use names to resist erasure.
Brian Ouko Robert—aka Mr. Omollo aka Khaligraph Jones—was welcomed by a troubled country of barely 20 million people. Exactly 28 years later, this baby released a debut album, Testimony 1990, and gave us a chance to look back not only at this child who has now become a man, but at a country whose population, just like its troubles, has doubled.
Testimony 1990 is a testimony of Khaligraph Jones’s life, his troubles, and those of his country. Khaligraph is not an overnight celebrity. His success is not the product of the modern viral phenomenon, where the gods of the internet choose to crown a new artist with a million views on YouTube for some mumble rap. He is not the product of accidental fame but of tenacity.
His interest in music began at an early age in elementary school, and at 13 his love of music was visible and palpable. It helped that his older brother loved music too. Together they released their first rap track in 2004.
But Kenya has one of the most unforgiving hip hop music ecosystems. There are only two options for an artist: have the right connections and money, or be willing to toil for years through venom-infested underground rap battles to gain recognition. Khaligraph made his bones the hard way.
In 2009, The Channel O Emcee Africa tour, sponsored by Sprite, came calling in search of the premier freestyle MC. They dubbed it the Channel O MC Challenge. At the heart of the competition was the desire to initiate awareness of “street life” as a sociocultural context captured by local hip hop music. Khaligraph, then a 19-year-old lad, laced his gloves and threw himself into the ring.
It was simple: get to the stage and showcase your lyrical prowess, spitting spur-of-the-moment rhymes, either acapella or on beat boxing, or you could prompt the judges to give you a topic if you thought you had mad skills. Eliminations pitted Point Blank vs Khaligraph for the big prize: $10,000. That is, 780,000 Kenya shillings then. Point Blank floors Khaligraph. Everybody agrees. But this would mark the beginning of Khaligraph’s ascendancy. In that list of 10 MCs, 10 years later, none has been as industrious as Khaligraph. None can challenge him to the throne of Kenya’s top MC today. None dominates the airwaves like he does today. Testimony 1990 is a testament of his focus, the fire lit that Saturday night in 2009. It is warm and optimistic, does not lament and chronicles contemporary challenges besetting a young man in Nairobi. It is not broody lyricism, perhaps because Testimony 1990 comes from an artist who has achieved remarkable success. At the same time, it is not a chronicle of his status now, as an artist, but a sort of reflection of a past lived through, of battles won. It is unlike the legendary Kalamashaka with their gritty rhymes and the personal catastrophe of jumping a thousand hurdles and still not making it to the Promised Land.
Hip hop as a political force
Hip hop is inherently political. With its roots traced to the militant spoken word by groups such as The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets, hip hop has always delivered political missives from the front line. In the 1980s, hip hop chronicled and reacted to the policies of US President Ronald Reagan, which called for widespread tax cats, decreased social spending, increased military spending and the deregulation of domestic markets. Reaganomics led to massive cuts to social programs and widened income inequality, consequences which were particularly worse for African American families. Life outcomes were no better in Kenya. The economy collapsed from a nominal GDP of 7.265 billion USD in 1980 to 6.135 billion USD in 1985. Even worse, Kenya became one of the first countries to sign a Structural Adjustment Program loan with the World Bank. The trade liberalization experience was a gross disappointment and threw the early 1990s into great uncertainty.
The economic devastation that resulted created fertile ground for the emergence of one of the most influential hip hop acts in Kenya, Ukoo Flani, in 1995. The group’s music flourished as a form of protest—authentic, gritty, and startling in its boldness. Ukoo Flani historicized slum life, using Dandora as a poster child for the effects of endemic corruption, breakdown of public service delivery, rampant crime and police brutality, and immense suffering during the Moi dictatorship. Hip hop, belted out in Sheng—to escape the censor of the police state—became a tool for the disenfranchised young men in the sprawling ghettos to voice their dissatisfaction and dissent.
Over the past two decades, hip hop has oscillated from social and political commentary to easy-going party jams, or a mix of both. In Kenya, artists, particularly those of the underground, continued to rail against urban violence and dysfunction, police brutality and extrajudicial killing of young men in slums. Khaligraph’s music attempts to carry both social and political commentary and easy-going party jams. While a majority of his tracks are fashioned for the club, a few explore social and political themes.
The question of whether hip hop can become a political mobilizing force beyond the restrictions of personal protest is an old one. The mixing of commercial success and socially-conscious hip hop is what has made it possible for a commercial artist such as King Kaka to release “Wajinga Nyinyi” (2019)—one of the most impactful political protest tracks in recent years. It is not that the track tells Kenyans what they don’t know; rather, King Kaka serializes what is discussed daily on social media, and what is splashed on the front pages of daily newspapers. The lyrics translate the dysfunctions of a nation—clothed daily in civil terms— into the raw, unadorned, unpretentious language of the streets. #WajngaNyinyi tells Kenyans to stop being stupid and start holding the system accountable.
This is the music culture that Khaligraph grew into, one in which hip hop was broadcast news from the ghetto, the hood. Rappers repped their hoods. Ukoo Flani made Dandora the capital city of Kenya’s hip hop, decked it with rhymes depicting an unforgiving cityscape for adult males and a space of tough love as Zakah na Kah depicted in the eponymic “Dandora L.O.V.E.” However, for the most part, away from these pioneering hip hop albums of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Kenya’s hip hop scene has been nothing but a graveyard of mix tapes which, while offering a glimpse of spirit and experimentation, deny listeners the beauty of intention, coherence and completeness.
Moreover, there is a new legion of internet-born artists, genre-bending productions and visuals, serving digital native fan bases with exciting single tracks. Gengetone—perhaps the most significant development in Kenyan music in years—is already stealing the airwaves from maturing acts such as Khaligraph, Octopizzo, and King Kaka. But the new wave is characterized by explicit content, with song lyrics promoting violence and misogyny, and videos promoting the sexual objectification of women. However, as writer Barbara Wanjala notes: “Kenyan artists have been experimenting to see what will capture the youth. The contemporary sound landscape runs the whole gamut, from songs that speak about debauchery to conscious lyricists rapping with conviction. Other artists straddle both worlds, producing output that has commercial appeal as well as tracks that are socially responsible.”
It remains to be seen whether, in addition to documenting, socio-politically conscious hip hop can engender political mobilization and drive political change in Kenya. Perhaps Wakadinali’s “Kuna Siku Youths Wataungana” (2020)—which explicitly calls on youth to organize, mobilize, and take political action—is an encouraging direction for the new decade. For now, the album Testimony 1990 is a condensed piece of work that offers us coherence, thematic focus, and a snapshot of the career progress of the artist.