The New Faces of Kenyan Hip Hop

The Kenyan hip-hop industry continues to evolve with the many social trends that arise. The appreciation of Black Excellence has recently taken the Black community around the world through a journey of self-reflection and self-appreciation. This trend is particularly seen through the celebration of traditionally Black hairstyles, darker skinned women, and African culture. This is no different in the contemporary Kenyan hip-hop scene, where rappers are showcasing love for Kenya, her people, and her culture.  

“MaStingo,” by newcomers Kahu$h and Chris Kaiga, exhibits Kenya through the eyes of the youth in Nairobi. The 2020 hit presents a love for Kenya using Swahili and Sheng, a Kenyan slang that is a mixture of Swahili and English in this case. The word mastingo is indeed Sheng for my style. Additionally, the rappers parade the Kenyan bracelet, a piece of jewelry that is made from beads with the Kenyan flag colours. Most Kenyan youth wear it daily. The song further showcases Kenyan graffiti in its background, which is appropriate for a country that sees graffiti every day on its public transport. The song further joins artists like Sampa the Great in flaunting Black hairstyles. The women in its music video wear their Afros, braids or locs proudly. While braids have traditionally been a staple hairstyle in Nairobi, it is only recently that we are seeing a love for natural 4c hair. Today, there are various Kenyan youtubers who only focus on teaching Kenyan women how to take care of their natural hair. We have the Natural Hair Movement to thank for that.

 “MaStingo’s” music video is more colourful than it is traditional hip hop. Women are not sexualized in the video and men are more traditionally feminine, wearing colorful piece swimming attire and tights. This choice, to some extent, demonstrates the youth’s comfort with redefining gender roles. However, there is an element of braggadocio in “MaStingo.” The artists rap about the desire to be richer and in some scenes, they are in cars that are not accessible to the average Nairobian. Even so, it is subtle, and it is overshadowed by the innocent enjoyment in the video. 

When Nyashinki featured Chris Kaiga in his 2020 song, “Hapa tu,” I expected it to be filled with drip. Like “MaStingo,” this song celebrates Kenyan graffiti culture, Sheng, Swahili trendy dancing, and Kenyan women in their natural form. The sexualised woman is absent from this video as well. Both songs see people having fun. In fact, Nyashinki raps in the song’s chorus, ““Dance usijali, hatukujudge” meaning dance don’t worry, we don’t judge in Sheng. They ‘rep’ Nairobi too, singing “Nairobi City tunaitun kama athlete,” in Nairobi City we run like athletes and in this way, commemorating Kenyan record-breakers in the running world. Like in “MaStingo,” there is a minuscule aspect of braggadocio with Nyashinki singing “Hapa perfection tunaiganya bila practice,” here we get perfection without practice, and showing off his expensive looking clothing. Nevertheless, it too is subtle. The song is generally fun-loving.

The above themes appear in “Sana up” by Kahu$h. People in the video are wearing durags, braids, and trendy clothing. There is no sexualization of any gender and the dances are also trendy. The song is sung in Sheng and English. Unlike “Hapa tu” and “MaStingo,” however, “Sana Up” is entirely a brag. The song goes “Us we took some loses then turn them into profits/Once upon a time I was never enough/Sasa (now) I be gone and she call cause she need up/ I say we do not need no love/The fam is up, very up, sana up (very up).” Yet the brag is not overpowering. The video shows youth seeking for pleasure. They disrupt a serious atmosphere to throw a party. 

This fun-seeking theme is seen in “Fanya like this” by Mask and Chiefgeng. The 2020 song features Swahili, Sheng, and English. “Fanya” in Swahili means do. Like the previous videos, there are many people present just dancing or ‘chilling.’ The women are not sexualised and they are wearing braids or their natural hair. Even the video seems like one you take at a party on an iPhone. However, drugs show up in this song, an element that is not present in the foregoing videos. Moreover, the song is misogynist in its lyrics. Mask raps: “Baby you’re stressing my head I just wan be stretching your legs/ Big big back make it rise and fall/I make em come here one by one taking my time baby wait your turn.” The artist goes even further to talk about a girl with great features. This evokes thoughts of featurism, the trend where Eurocentric features are more preferred than Afrocentric ones. Because of these factors, “Fanya like this” is more reminiscent of mainstream rap compared to the other songs in the mixtape. In these ways, it showcases how rap artists in Kenya occasionally attempt to mimic Western rap culture as this is perceived as cool. “Fanya like this” demonstrates that Nairobi rap may still be stuck in this cycle though other new artists like Kahu$h, Chris Kaiga and Nyashinki are more ‘woke’ in this music. 

Drug use is also an aspect of Mboji Genge’s 2019 hit “Ngumi Mbwegze.” “Ngumi Mbwegze,” meaning two fists, is a celebration of drug use and crime in Urban Kenya. “Ngumi Mbwegze” is rapped in heavy Sheng, one that is a mixture of Swahili and other local tongues. It is considered to be a Gengetone song. Genge music is a genre of hip hop music with influences from dancehall music that was founded in Nairobi, Kenya. Because of its extremely violent themes, some have distinguished it to be gangster rap. The rappers say ““Tukimwok warazi wanabuya/Wakimwoka tunawoh kusafisha,” when we come, thieves fear and run, to show how tough they are. The song’s video celebrates Kenya’s graffiti matatus, and the artists call for Kenyatta’s picture in the chorus though their mission with it is not clear. Because the song is written in such heavy Sheng, Nairobians find it difficult to understand it. 

The five songs show where Kenyan rap is going. “MaStingo,” “Hapa tu,” “Sana Up,” “Ngumi Mbwegze,” and “Fanya like this” are all fun-loving songs that showcase the trends the Nairobi youth are enjoying and have adapted to. Drug use, drip, natural hair, and patriotism are all present themes in the Nairobi scene. It is notable that “MaStingo,” “Hapa tu,” “Sana Up” and “Fanya like this” are more representative of the Nairobi upper class and middle class. The Sheng they use especially is most familiar to these groups of people. Though “Ngumi Mbwegze” shares themes such as drug use, it is more directed to the Kenyan lower class. The heavy sheng directs us to their audience. Altogether, these songs show us that contemporary Nairobi hip hop adapts to the rapper’s culture and in some cases, the wider world.       

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