Cities will continue to exist and grow despite the coronavirus crisis because of the distinctly human need for social interaction, physical contact, and collaboration.
No two Fridays in the basement are the same. This one was late 20s young and raucous, mosh-pit humid, and all shades of pink. It was the night of the Barbie movie premiere, also the birthday weekend of a die-hard fan and her best friend. Said friends had planned a Barbie-themed celebration in “the dungeon”—our Berghain-lite chillout room, more on that later—piggy-backing on the Friday’s program, featuring hometown DJ/music producer ExGxNx GxCxGx supported by two residents, with a special appearance by the Kenyan-born, Detroit-based Problematic Black Hottie (enduring image of her at the decks, around 2 a.m., jumping like a pogo stick). Pink tutus, glitter, sexy basslines of ghetto-tech, amapiano, afro beats, Nairobi drill and genge.
We are at The Mist, a relatively new underground music venue fittingly situated in the basement of The Mall, a venerable shopping center in Nairobi’s Westlands area that has reinvented itself into a cultural hub for the young and young-at-heart of the city. Officially opened in December 2021, The Mist was intended as a place to showcase the experimental and alternative electronic artists of Kenya and the wider region but has morphed into a watering hole for different kinds of creative and sub-cultural groups that have not had a “home base” in Nairobi before.
I am at a corner of the dance room, sometimes getting up to sway to the music, other times sitting on a bench to soak it in. I am with my friend with whom we started the venue (we’re a team of three, two boys and one girl, with a close circle of accomplices). There are two girls on the seats immediately beside me, both also alternating between moments on the dancefloor and on their chairs. The space is unusually packed, and I notice that one of the girls keeps checking bags. “Your stuff is safe with me,” I assure her, to her surprised relief. “But still, watch your shit,” I add.
Right in front of us a pair of dudes looking younger than most of the crowd seem, to me, to be disturbing a trio of similarly young women. I mention this to my pal and, straining to hear each other over the music, we speak about profiling, and judging. Wheat and chaff stuff. No, that’s not us, that’s not The Mist. Heck, if our door policy was based on people’s appearances, they would never let me in! Should the security guys be more strict? A dress code is out of the question, and we long ago decided to never charge at the door on Fridays (after a brief experiment with what we hoped was an affordable entry price), to make it easier for people to test our relatively unusual—for Nairobi—aesthetic and fare. We wish we could read minds or sniff out souls harboring bad intentions, a sort of Minority Report superpower. My friend suggests I speak to the young women we think are being harassed. To our amusement and relief, the dudes are acquaintances who’ve accompanied them for the night. I should have noticed the pink shirts. Not long after this moment though, a report comes from the security team, that two people have had their phones stolen on the dance floor.
We ask half the security team, two formidable men in black, to increase their patrols through the dancefloor and the dungeon, leaving their female counterparts at the door while they do, and pass the word around for everyone to be a little careful with a mass of people that large. The party goes on, the two attendees who’ve lost their phones are back on the floor, and the music only stops when it’s time for the birthday girls to cut the cake. With everyone’s attention on them, both birthday Barbies begin by commiserating with victims of the brutal police violence from earlier that week, during two days of particularly thuggish state action against people mostly in Mathare, Mukuru, and other slums protesting against rising costs of living. Unconfirmed reports estimated more than a dozen deaths in Nairobi in the first two weeks of July, with more suspected in other parts of the country. Yes, it pulls one’s mind in opposite directions making a party in the middle of such deadly agitation over basic survival, yet as the two hosts speak the spirit that rises is one that affirms a determination to live and let, of defiance and livity.
It is anything but tone-deaf, and the brief address ends with applause, hoarse “happy-birthday-to-yooo,” and cheers for the concentrated ball of energy that is Problematic Black Hottie who’s now starting her set. The vanilla and, of course, pink cake looks modest but an hour later there is still enough going around. There must have been more, everybody gets cake, from our bar staff to people still arriving in the witching hours, from the security team to the probable pickpocket in our midst, no child left behind.
Around 5 am, we have a short recap with Birthday Barbie. Blonde wig, glitter glitter. Unexpected emotion. Eyes moisten under Nicki Minaj eyelashes. After a pause, she confides “I feel successful.”
The following night is mild, we have a kind of open-deck event titled “Anarchy.” Still disturbed by the issue of people profiling, of devising a way of keeping The Mist open and inclusive while dealing with the inconvenient facts of Nairobi. There are far fewer people on this Saturday, so on a sudden moment of inspiration I take a red permanent marker to random surfaces and chairs and scribble “Take care of each other, and watch your sh!t” It feels better than one of those “Management reserves the right etc etc” notices, and we think it communicates the essence of the place better. At its heart is a message of mutual responsibility that hopefully resonates beyond the gray walls.
Let’s head to the dungeon. A cavernous space about thrice as large as the dance room, it is our chillout room and the place most people spend their time in while at The Mist. Its bare gray concrete walls and columns, exposed plumbing and high ceiling are the reason we call it “Berghain-lite”—betraying a Berlin-chic aesthetic inspiration no need to deny. On the wall immediately facing the entry, “Take Care of Each Other” is graffiti-ed in large black letters.
Nairobi is a long distance from La-la Land. Only the naive or careless would walk around our streets and neighborhoods without being careful. But this is true of any large city anywhere, yet it doesn’t turn city people into cowering cynics and paranoiacs. There is life to live. Kenya’s capital is infamous for its yawning disparity between well-to-do minorities and a majority that is in a perpetual struggle to get by in ever-hardening circumstances. The real issues here are the non-existent social services and a new season of Western-imposed austerity programs, coupled with a sudden bump in inflation that is pushing pain levels higher, with no clear political or economic solutions on the horizon. That and a useless political elite that I will not waste words on.
And yet. You want to have some faith in the good we have in common. That not everything needs to be defined or determined by one’s class in an arbitrary hierarchy. That the simple joys of music and gatherings of friends on weekend nights can be shared in a city known to be “hard,” commonality of souls can be found, a clearing in an inhospitable jungle where bands and tribes can trade and mingle, a lab where ideas of how to share this time and space can have their chance. This is one of the inspirations behind The Mist. Idealist? Maybe, in fact, yes, but we’re in good company.
Charles Onyango Obbo, whose Twitter/X handle is required following, can be relied upon as a collator of perspectives on Africa in real-time, and I normally turn to him when searching for more optimistic or hopeful voices (of course he writes/shares about much more than that, just saying). Recently, he re-posted a transcript from The Human Progress podcast, of their interview with David Ansara, head of a South African think tank, the Free Market Foundation. Quoting Ansara from the podcast, Obbo highlights “There Are Strong Headwinds, But Africans Have That Fire in Their Belly … A Real Hustle-and-Grind Mentality That’s Going To Take Them Very Far Indeed.” Ansara talks about a can-do spirit in Kenya and other African countries and while he’s likely speaking about it in (libertarian) economic terms, I believe the same spirit charges emerging cultural movements and ideas, and much more besides, in places where the usual authorities cannot be relied upon to deliver quality opportunities and outcomes.
Even the global corporates are in on it, with Absa staking its brand identity on the idea of “Africanicity;” there is no shortage of these “Africa Rising” slick marketing campaigns. “Guinness, Made of Black,” anyone? The point is, that Africa is an opportunity to reinvent ways of being because of necessity. It’s not like we have a choice.
In a tough city feeling the pressure of tough times, a bunch of party people in a dark basement believe we can, somehow, take care of each other.
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