Sue Timon and Flamez’s song “Ulimi” is about how rappers (or anyone) should use their tongue (ulimi) as a weapon (silaha) to spread messages of positivity and encouragement rather than triviality, pessimism, and evil.1 The musical beats sound stark and hard, as opposed to inviting, catchy, and danceable. “Ulimi’s” lyrics are full of solemn and thoughtful sentiments, instead of the light and carefree sonic qualities characteristic of the majority of commercial Kenyan music. Sue Timon raps, “Ulimi ni silaha, unafa ukatekate maovu, kungine ni dawa unaposhwa poshwa, wacha maovu” [The tongue is a weapon, you are supposed to eliminate bad deeds, elsewhere it is medicine, it relieves pain, stop bad deeds]. In the subsequent lines, Timon reminds listeners that the tongue or voice can influence people encouragingly or adversely, and she encourages listeners to use their voices to create positive impacts. The idea of one’s voice as a weapon implies that she is engaged in battle. Moreover, the “tongue as weapon” alludes to Christian notions about policing one’s actions in the service of faith. Instead of the biblical notion of “tame the tongue,” Timon and Flamez reimagine their voices as weapons for social change.2 The message is the same—be careful what you say—but these artists construct themselves as agents who take on cultural responsibility. “Ulimi” has many characteristics that typify underground Nairobi hip hop, such as encouraging listeners to discipline themselves to live a better life and expressing the notion that their voice can be used as a weapon to fight injustice.
Political seriousness is the earnestness and solemnity found in underground hip hop songs like “Ulimi,” which is at the ideological center driving the production of musical creativity, innovation, and musical artistry. The music engages with and critiques a variety of topics, including history, gender, socioeconomic class, the state, and neoliberalism. Artists position themselves outside of mainstream society, resisting authorities such as the state and mocking a politics of respectability embraced by larger society. Though artists imagine hip hop to be a panacea for social ills, like many culturally expressive practices, it often colludes with normative power structures. Therefore, this essay explores how hip hop’s relationship to normativity helps define political seriousness while also undermining its agendas of social justice.
This article starts by outlining the methodology and scholarship informing this research, followed by sections centered around the four themes that compose the political earnestness of Nairobi hip hop: the masculinized Mau Mau influences, the conceptions of a political love, the neoliberalization of rap spaces, and a commitment to critiquing the state. Most of these themes are intentional, though hip hop’s investments in capitalism are not seen as an alliance with power, but rather as a solution to state corruption and as a survival mechanism. Likewise, the male homosociality that proliferates in rap scenes is seen as unintended and/or benign. These elements inform each other, and in so doing produce music that champions a complicated and strict politics of socially conscious rap, taking up questions of what so-called real or authentic hip hop actually is. Therefore, though the music has flaws, hip hop practitioners regard Nairobi rap music as a dedicated political project, intentional and committed to social change.
Studying the Underground
This article investigates how Nairobi rappers navigate their political and economic realities while analyzing the creative and political capacities of the music.3 For the purposes of this study, following scholar Laura Speers, the terms “hip hop music” and “rap music” are used interchangeably when discussing Kenyan music (2017:14).4 The Kenyan rap that is the focus of this study is underground music that does not normally appear in commercial venues and also does not navigate the sticky dynamic of white audiences and consumption as rap music does in U.S. contexts (see Potter 102–6). However, Nairobi underground rap’s relationship to commercial music does bear similarities with U.S. hip hop music, whereby the underground positions itself against and is contrasted with the mainstream. In this way, Kenyan hip hop, as in the U.S., is “split down the middle into two camps” (Light 2004:140), where mainstream hip hop “is continually commodified by the music industry, ‘made safe’ (it’s only a song) for the masses” (Potter 1995:108). Therefore, most rappers at the center of this study view mainstream music as separate and distant from theirs, lacking meaning and social change commitments. For underground rappers, to be an authentic rap artist, one needs to be most likely from and have a commitment to poor urban areas, reject mainstream deals from record companies or any corporations seeking to brand them, and avoid any perceived pressure to sound like a U.S. rapper.
Many African rap artists, like those studied here, constantly navigate the inherent globality and locality of hip hop to imagine their connection to an African Diaspora (Alim et al. 2009; Charry 2012; Clark & Koster 2014; Mose 2013; M. Perry 2008). Kimani Njogu states, “Contemporary popular music in Kenya manifests itself as a merging of the local and the foreign; a creative modification of what is received from the past as well as other cultures […]” (2007:xii). This “modification,” however, does not occur in the absence of global power relationships, as artists are always finding ways to sort through the west-to-east or north-to-south transnational flows of popular culture. In an extremely poignant observation, Mbũgua wa Mũngai remarks,
Youth rappers appropriate the surface representations of African American popular culture not to speak to American themes per se but more crucially to explore local social-cultural space. Differently put, youth culture trains its gaze outwards from the local to the global in order for them to look back into the local. (2007:48)
The reverse is also true—that artists also produce local crafts to navigate broader transnational political realities. There is some research on how U.S. rap and black cultural production is a point of orientation that non-U.S. artists use to make music (see Basu & Lemelle 2006). Other academics pay special attention to how artists actively resist notions that hip hop can only be “authentically” black American (Pennycook & Mitchell 2009). This article asserts that practitioners remain profoundly indebted to U.S. rappers while they participate in their own musical projects that draw on and contribute to the histories of Kenyan cultural expressiveness. Kenyan rappers are incredibly invested in their own musical projects, while still listening to Jay-Z and Kanye West, and it is definitely possible that rap creativity and appreciation for U.S. rap can co-exist. At the same time, however, “the ghettoes of North America continue to be the primary cultural referent for hip hop around the globe” (Kelley 2006:xiii), as U.S. popular culture is a constantly negotiating factor for Kenyan rappers. This article engages with a scholarly carefulness that resists the automatic assertion that hip hop’s connection to the globally dominant U.S. denotes uncritical appropriation of American rap, thereby challenging the notion that that non-U.S. rap is “essentially derivative and thus ultimately trivial” (Pardue 2008:10; also see Saunders 2015).
Nairobi hip hop is situated away from Black Atlantic geographies, which influences how the practitioners connect to radical politics. As Msia Clark and Mickie Koster note, “African emcees operate within hip hop culture, often adopt Pan African outlooks, and represent local realities” (2014:xi). This Pan-Africanism is a fundamental distinction centering the African continent and various canonical freedom fighters and leaders. To connect to the spirit of African liberation politics, Kenyan rappers cite their country’s anticolonial legacies. As Mickie Koster notes, many in underground Nairobi rap see themselves as creating a “Mau Mau consciousness” (2013:87). Rappers believe they continue the activism of the 1950s freedom fighters, creating music to “indicate that the objectives of the Mau Mau war have not been achieved” (Mwangi 2010:98). Artists who align with the Mau Mau connect also to other social justice movements for Africana peoples, using this as a means to establish their music’s legitimacy. Against the backdrop of imitation claims, artists attest to underground rap’s value and social importance by grounding their music inside of Mau Mau politics.
Artists likewise contend the music is inherently and authentically Kenyan because it relates to the communities from which they come. Michael Jeffries (2011) and Kwame Anthony Harrison (2008) in separate studies examine authenticity through the racial composition of hip hop, specifically black and white artists and consumers. Jeffries (building from John L. Jackson, Jr.) and Harrison both use the term “sincerity” as a way to understand those who consider themselves as authentic rappers. Harrison argues that “hip hop sincerity,” is “a personal code of underground hip hop ethics and integrity,” which means that those who possess the characteristics are allowed in the space (118). In Kenya, artists use a similar code to construct what I term as “political love,” which is a type of deep devotion the artists express to hip hop and to Kenyan people. Jeffries notes that sincerity is “repeated efforts on behalf of performers to build connections among themselves and their audiences,” which are integral to how Kenyan artists formulate larger notions of love (117; see also Pennycook 2007 and Speers 2017). The relationships that Nairobi artists have to their devotees and their communities not only construct the authenticity of rap as something that is Kenyan, but also articulate a profound affinity for the people that rappers believe they serve.
Political seriousness in Kenyan rap also includes faulty and normative ideals. While some scholars such as Mickie Koster (2013) highlight the strengths of politically conscious rap in Kenya, others like Evan Mwangi (2010) recognize that the music feeds into problematic ideas about gender that can tell one-sided and romanticized stories of Mau Mau freedom fighters that privilege conventional masculinities. Mwangi analyzes Ukoo Flani’s songs by stating they “[ignore] or [misrepresent] the women’s experiences, even when it offers a strong gender-liberation message” and his song of analysis, for instance, “presents the oppression of women in glib summaries, which invoke the idealized figure of mother Africa” (2010:105). Msia Clark, in research on Tanzanian hip hop, adds, “women are allowed in, but most of the power […] within hip hop belongs to men” (2014:149). Mwenda Ntarangwi observes that hip hop “reifies and straitjackets gender in a way that is both liberating and controlling” (2011:49). In my research, masculinity is not just a dominant structuring feature of hip hop as these authors describe, but it is also used alongside Mau Mau characteristics to create and sustain a Kenyan form of hip hop.
Kenyan hip hop has a complex relationship with market fundamentalism. Ntarangwi comments that the music has emerged out of the conditions produced by neoliberal market policies. “[Politicoeconomic] constraints are linked,” she argues, “to the neoliberal economic project that opened up local markets to foreign (mostly Western) goods and cultural products” (2011:5). Koster and Clark argue that “neoliberal economic policies and corruption [have] driven people on the continent […] to push back,” a movement of which rap music is a part (2014:xxvi; see also Charry 2012). My work furthers this conversation by considering that neoliberalism finds a home in hip hop spaces, for better or worse. Ideologies of neoliberalism, such as hard work, personal responsibility, and disciplining of the self structure the cultural practices and focused intentionality of hip hop.
I have followed Nairobi underground rap since 2008. Much research has been done on the early pioneers of rap music, particularly with Ukoo Flani Mau Mau (Koster 2013; Mũngai 2008; Mwangi 2010).5 These artists’ contributions have created a foundation from which underground rap has concretized. As in other genres of popular music (see Mũtonya 2007; Nyairo & Ogude 2005), hip hop artists create work that taps into the current politics and contributes to public discourse. Nairobi’s practitioners are pulled together by common struggles: the hustle to create good music while encountering economic insecurity, the presence of an aggressive police force and government that shows little concern for the disenfranchised, chronic under- and unemployment, and the restrictions of the music industry that favors pop sounds. They devote time and energy to producing their music, including using their friends’ or families’ computers, renting recording equipment, bartering for access to DJs and producers, and other amazing ways of producing pieces of music out of very little resources. To add to their difficulty, “Kenyan radio is often reluctant to play socially conscious music […] because it challenges the status quo and often specific government officials” (Osumare 2010:171). There are other reasons as well—the music does not conform to pop standards and/or the production quality is too low. Artists use these realities to argue that hip hop’s value is termed outside of commercial success and instead depends on the messages that artists deliver to their audiences. There is not room to address all of these ideas, though it is crucial to note that these details dominate the lives of rappers. A large part of my research, and this essay, examines neoliberalism in post-Moi Kenya, specifically during Mwai Kibaki’s rule. As already mentioned, I have followed artists who frequent Sarakasi Dome, at the various iterations of hip hop events, such as WAPI and Hip Hop Fest. At any given time, there can be between 75 and 150 people at a Sarakasi event, for at most Kenyan underground hip hop venues, “every emcee’s a fan and every fan’s an emcee” (Harrison 2009:42). As a rule, most artists rap in Sheng, with only a few instances of more “formal” Swahili and English. Unless indicated, all lyrics are in Sheng, which is the language most commonly spoken in urban and working-class areas, and is often positioned against mainstream values, while also being “closely associated with the multilingual and multicultural situation of Nairobi” (Greven 2014:239). Currently most Nairobians speak some form of Sheng, and it is widely spoken throughout Kenya (Gathigi 2012). Most rappers are male and from lower class neighborhoods, which figures prominently in their music. Female artists like Sue Timon, Lness, and Amora have found ways to navigate the mostly male space. Male rappers, like Judge, Karpchizzy, Nafsi Huru, Evaredi, Demaine Jabez, and graffiti artists Esen and Wise, have made their mark at Sarakasi. Most practitioners grew up in impoverished areas in Nairobi, coming from Eastlands (and Dandora, a neighborhood in Eastlands), Kahawa West, Embakasi, and Kibera, while some come from lower middle-class areas, like Ongata Rongai. Nafsi Huru is from Magongo, Mombasa, though he has spent most of his later career in Nairobi.
Warriors of the Underground
The privileging of men and masculine-identifying people in underground hip hop is deeply interconnected with historical contexts and serves important purposes in creating an environment of political seriousness. Much of the gendering of the music comes from hip hop’s borrowing of Mau Mau references, which Caroline Mose describes as the “politicization of Mau Mau markers” into a “myth-making language” (2014:4). Though rap has turned away from explicit Mau Mau references since the early 2000s, significant ideas from the anti-colonial war, as well as gendered politics, have remained. For example, Sue Timon raps in “Ulimi” that, similar to colonized youths who would resist, she uses her voice to fight: “Mi naifanya juu ya mapenzi; na hii silaha mdomoni; kama kijana mkoloni” [I do (hip hop) out of love; with the weapon in my mouth, this tongue; like a boy/girl/youth being colonized]. Here Timon wants listeners to know that her raps take up the struggle of the historically marginalized, reflecting Evan Mwangi’s comment that Kenya “is still going through the painful experiences of colonial oppression despite having attained flag freedom” (2010:98). Therefore, references to Mau Mau have been continually utilized because rappers recognize that the fight for freedom is ongoing (Koster 2013; Mose 2014; Mwangi 2010).
Advocating for the disenfranchised underclass is imagined as an almost exclusively male activity. This masculine gendering of the music is rendered invisible, compassionate, or necessary, and coincides with the notions that the oppressed must be tough, warrior-like, and willing to fight. Hip hop’s deployment of masculine tropes like toughness and armor help to build typologies of resistance. This sentiment is then used to forward notions that challenge governmental corruption, police brutality, and the nepotism of the music industry. Earlier rappers used the Mau Mau conflict to forge their connections to Pan-Africanism and African unity, since it is generally remembered as one of the pinnacle examples of anti-colonial struggle for African determination.6 Currently, armed with often male-dominated histories of the war that omit other forms of rebellion and women’s roles, rappers build culturally specific spaces for men to take charge of liberation endeavors that resonate with global patriarchal models.7 Furthermore and importantly, relying on Mau Mau’s influences helps to combat allegations of American imitation, which tend to follow underground rappers. Their response is to claim their rootedness in a long Kenyan tradition of fighting cultural wars. In this post-UFMM music, artists fight ideological battles and supposedly continue the practices of the Mau Mau fighters.
Rappers continue to conceptualize social conflict in terms of “war.” Rapper Evaredi, when discussing the 2007–08 post-election violence, stated that it is the rappers from the hood who best know what war is and therefore concludes that they know best how to fight for peace. He added, “In hip hop, the main thing is the message. Hip hop is the best tool for peace. For people to stop war. Hip hop is true,” (interview, Nairobi, November 20, 2012).8 In the song, “Shupavu,” by Judge and the male rap duo Washamba Wenza, Judge raps, likening his experience to war: “Mi ninakesha na mistari, kama jeshi ya Kenya Somalia” [I stay up all night with lyrics, like the Kenyan army in Somalia]. The 2007–08 post-election violence and the current war with Somalia have different historiographies than the anti-colonial struggle, but what is similar is the notion of struggle that artists feel amid political instability. To discuss life experiences using notions of war indicates a mindset of vulnerability and hardship in a society that seems as if it is at unrest.
Rappers’ versions of political consciousness and struggle are framed within the absence of women. These gendered politics are evident in music videos. This began during UFMM, as Mwangi notes, “the songs of [UFMM]…exclude women and stereotype female subjects, despite their anticolonial and social messages” (108). One example of this is seen in music videos, where there has been a trend for rappers to narrate stories of perseverance and poverty against hood backdrops with groups of their male peers. Examples include, Black Duo’s “Rap kwa M.I.C.” [Rap of the mic], Wakamba Wawili’s “Tuko Mbali na Far” [We’ve come from far], Karpchizzy’s “System,” Zaka and Kah’s “Dandora na Love” [Dandora and Love], and “Shupavu” [Brave/Warrior] by Judge and Washamba Wenza. These videos are representations of the male homosociality that exists in Nairobi rap, by showing male protagonists standing in front of a camera narrating the difficulties of impoverishment. Some of the narrators walk through these settings, as in “Tuko Mbali na Far” and “Rap kwa M.I.C,” drawing in crowds of sympathizing men whose experiences mirror theirs. Drawing from Eve Sedgwick, underground rap is homosocial because it legitimates male power and also decidedly heterosexual in that it constructs itself based on a (mostly) feminine absence (1985). Authors have explored hip hop as a male homosocial space constituted by and for men, including Imani Perry (2004:126–34) and Derek Pardue (2008:129). Like Pardue, I have observed “the production of masculinity through male-male interaction […]” and “the intersections of machismo and patriarchy figure femininity as a remainder” (158). At Sarakasi, the nonattendance of women is always framed as accidental and not the fault of men. Such beliefs have helped to solidify a cultural space where male rappers’ perspectives are always viewed as subversive and marginal and rarely as oppressive and exclusive. Homosociality also produces masculinized toughness, as seen in bodily performance, song construction, and lyrical content. This toughness contributes to the tendencies for the music to uphold purposed and serious themes.
Toughness materializes in the tropes of “warrior” and “freedom fighter.” Songs with this sentiment produce notions of urgent necessity and dutifulness. For instance, shupavu means “brave” or “warrior.” The song is about rugged perseverance and survival living in the impoverished conditions of the Eastlands neighborhood, Dandora. The music video provides a physically dark setting, as the entire video was shot at night. Judge and Washamba rap about their dominance in the hip hop game, as well as in Dandora. Part of the chorus is, “Tunawaramba na mabavu, shupavu!” [We finish, crush them (haters) with force, [We are] brave/warriors!]. Not to be victims of their circumstances, they are willing to demonstrate their toughness as artists and men. They frame this struggle in the neighborhood, where only men appear in the video, eking out basic survival amid poverty and police brutality. The three male rappers perform in the song and video, and when coupled with the themes of warriors and bravery, as well as the absence of women, create the notion that the disenfranchisement of men is primary and most important. Excluding women from narratives of hood survival implies that women’s voices are either subsumed under men’s or that they are less legitimate than their male counterparts.
The gendering of the space through absence is hardly self-identified as harmful. In fact, many rappers view both the lack of explicit misogyny and the absence of widespread sexualization of women in Nairobi hip hop as proof of their progressiveness. Practitioners believe strongly that rap should be an aesthetic that is inclusive and egalitarian. A few female rappers, such as Lness and Sue Timon, have experienced obstacles, but nothing so disruptive that it caused them to question their participation in hip hop. Rappers, regardless of ethnicity, class, and gender, all are said to be welcome. Female artist Amora argues, “You don’t have to be black or white to do hip hop. You don’t have to be a certain tribe to do hip hop. Hip hop, itself is a culture of its own. [...] You’re a chick, you’re a dude, you’re gay, you’re not gay; it doesn’t matter. As long as you have the culture in you” (interview, Nairobi, November 20, 2012). Amora is not the only artist to express this idea. For example, Judge and another male rapper, Agano from the group Wakamba Wawili, expressed very similar ideas in interviews (Judge, interview, Nairobi, November 16, 2012; Agano, interview, Nairobi, December 10, 2011). It is important to note, though, that not all rappers paint the culture as inclusive; for example, during our interview Nafsi Huru admitted to the sexism inherent in hip hop (interview, Nairobi, December 10, 2012).
Gender politics in Kenyan hip hop can be subtle, variegated, and multifaceted. As Ntarangwi notes, “There are hip hop [artists] who mobilize and celebrate a critical and interrogative stance on gender, while there are others keen on maintaining traditional and conservative notions […]” (2009:49). Sue Timon and Flamez’s song and music video exemplify these complexities. In “Ulimi,” Sue raps alongside Flamez, not positioned in the background of videos like so many other women. Her masculine gender performance both contributes to and disrupts the CIS-gendered male space of hip hop. Because she is one of only a few female rappers, her central presence in “Ulimi” cannot adequately contest the culture of hip hop, but it does posit her as a central figure. The interventions that challenge normative gender productions are fleeting and exist under the condition that artists recognize that there exists a democratic rap culture in Nairobi. This typically accepted idea of the music as free of oppressive characteristics is important to the seriousness of the culture. Moreover, the theme of being “warriors in a war” allows the masculinizing gendered structure of Nairobi rap to appear as an obvious and understandable response to social realities. Ultimately, these gendered dynamics contribute to the solemnity and intensity of the music.
Upendo Kwote! (Love Everywhere!)
Notions of love appear constantly throughout Nairobi hip hop. The sentimental song “This is the Life” by Skobo, Ananda, & Washamba Wenza, argues that hip hop provides safety, spiritual nourishment, and teachings. Likewise, the rappers discuss how love is foundational to the culture, as Skobo raps in the third verse, “Tunazidi learn, Jinsi ya kuishi, Upendo lazima ka moshi” (We continue to learn, In ways we live, Love is a must, like smoke). Rappers’ love, similar to smoke, has the capacity to fill up a room, and permeate Kenyan society and Africa at large. Here Skobo articulates a type of belonging, shared community, and a politics of affirmation, which I term “political love,” or the deep affinity, dedication, commitment, and loyalty to hip hop culture. Marcyliena Morgan comparably notes, “The underground is the place where truths can be told […] [and it] is the ultimate space and place of humanity” (16). Derek Pardue discusses hip hop “salvation” (salvação), as “a force and set of beliefs that helped reorient their lives” (5). Like salvação, political love is earnest concern for others and the music, which is a sentiment that exists deeply inside artists, or as Amora noted in the last section, “As long as you have the culture in you.” UFMM solidified the notion of love in hip hop culture; their name stands for Upendo Kwote, Ole Wenu Ombeni Funzo La Aliyetuumba Njia Iwepo, meaning “love everywhere, woe unto you, seek the teachings of the creator for there to be a way.” Mickie Koster observes that UFMM’s notions of love are tied to social change: “The group [aimed] to use love and the power of the Creator as a force for equality and justice” (2012:92). During my interviews, several artists mentioned upendo kwote as a significant theme in hip hop. Demaine Jabez noted, “Ukoo Flani, yeah, they used to inspire me because they used to sing ‘hip hop is upendo kwote’” (interview, Nairobi, December 10, 2011).
Most artists do not rap explicitly about love, but rather use it as a guiding principle in their music. Judge’s song, “The Way to Go,” however, is noteworthy because it is entirely about how to love without divisiveness, while encouraging communal togetherness and unity: “One love, bado ni upendo tunazambaza, tofauti weka kando tuone zote mwangaza”[One love, it’s still love we spread, put differences aside so that we can all see the light]. Judge does not name the differences in the song, but listeners can assume inferred here are religion and ethnicity since major conflicts often occur along these lines. Ethnicity continues to surface in formal politics, producing longstanding tensions and violence (Atieno-Odhiambo 2002; Kagwanja 2009). Additionally, the war with al-Shabaab engenders divisive public rhetoric along Christian/Muslim lines (Anderson & McKnight 2015). The song’s absence of naming such social cleavages leaves them to listeners’ interpretations, which undoubtedly limits what it can do to address problems like ethnic tensions and Islamophobia. Nonetheless, Judge offers love as the cathartic solution. He raps, “[...] Ni njia gani tutafuata, ni njia gani tutapitia, mi naona njia upendo” [What path will we follow, what path will we pass, I see the path as love]. This societal love is not nationalistic (for example, the love of Kenya, the nation), but rather is about the compassion that people should feel toward each other.
This song has simple, standard synthesized beats and elaborate rap lyrics. The song is mostly in Swahili, with very little Sheng used, including a repetitive female voice singing the chorus. So many songs are done in Sheng, and rapping in Swahili creates a sense of solemnity that coincides with the lyrical content. The chorus includes an unnamed female and male artist singing in English, “the righteous way to go, one love, for you” (“The Way”). The opposing sounds of the rapping male voices and the feminine voices as the chorus emanate unity, perseverance, and optimism, contributing at the same time to the subtle messaging of normative masculinity. The authority of these songs rests with the male rappers, whose lyrical content is positioned at the forefront, on top of the repetitive lighter feminine-sounding background singing.
Political love in underground rap is juxtaposed with the intentions of commercial musicians, which rappers believe is void of meaning. Evaredi expressed this sentiment:
But underground hip hop, I can say, is like when you do it for the love. You do it from your heart. Like you are doing it for the people. You’re doing it for the correct way. Not basically because of the money. […] But when you say commercial music, it’s like you’ll do it for some time, get your money, move on. Yeah. (interview, Nairobi, November 20, 2012, emphasis added)
To make his point, he compared his reasons for rapping to mainstream music. Of course, artists need to make money in underground settings, which Evaredi acknowledged, but rappers do not want to abandon the principles of social change and activism in order to acquire economic mobility. According to underground rappers, commercial artists are vacuous and money-driven and do not comprehend upendo kwote. To be sure, the regular presence of commercial songs with socially conscious messaging does not stifle these critiques. Instead, mainstream artists who rap or sing about societal problems are seen as fleecing from hip hop’s core values and are thus inauthentic to hip hop culture. Rappers and singers such as Octopizzo, Jaguar, and Nameless are often read in these ways.
The Kenyan underground scene is strongly rooted in activism driven by compassion for society at large. Artists’ goals are to “decolonize their own and their fellow citizen’s hearts and minds” (Saunders 2014:8). Graffiti artist, Esen, provides a description of underground hip hop that emphasizes these sensibilities:
[Underground rappers] are more politically aware, socially aware, [and] economically aware, of what is going on in the country. […] They are open-minded. One can do a song like, praising women, and all that. At the same time the next track could be about the president. Or about the community he is living in, or about the police [police brutality]. They’re socially aware, economically aware, and all that stuff. (interview, Nairobi, November 16, 2012)
Judge believes hip hop is an instrument that activists can use to create peace, “[…] You know like [the 2007–08] post-election violence, […] hip hop is like a tool right now that people are using in peace” (interview, Nairobi, November 16, 2012). There is a general notion that hip hop is able to reach an audience outside of rap communities. For example, Demaine Jabez exclaims, “Hip hop is like a vuvuzela […] Hip hop is a way of expression. And hip hop is music is powerful. Music changes societies,” (interview, Nairobi, December 10, 2011). A vuvuzela, the instrument that is used during South African football (soccer) matches, became globally popular during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Jabez used this metaphor to assert rap’s social force. Esen, Judge, and Jabez’s statements contend that hip hop remedies deep social problems by emitting messages of justice and hope.
Hip hop love, like Mau Mau legacies, is used to counteract the discourse that Kenyan rap is unimaginative mimicry. For Mũngai, “Kenyan musicians are aware of the politics of (mis)representation and they are consciously deconstructing this discourse” by constructing themselves as the common mwananchi, or common citizen/person (2008:62). Therefore, a rapper must have a commitment to the struggles of working class individuals, a political love that is innate and pre-existing; it cannot be created or fostered. The notion that “the culture is in you” means investments emerge from the artistic soul, giving way to a hip hop love dedicated to ideologies of resistance, artistic creativity, and enlightened consciousness. Artists do not “ape the west,” so the adage suggests, because not only is rap inherently African, but also because artists possess internal, resolute investments that do not waver. Many recognize they are viewed as imitators, and they use their own intrinsic affection for transnational rap culture to buffer themselves from outside criticisms. Hip hop’s reliance on love, similar to its appropriation of Mau Mau characteristics, is used to solidify Kenya’s participation in revolutionary traditions in music culture. Only those who are removed from the culture seek to copy or imitate it. Underground Kenyan rappers are deeply entrenched in the mission of hip hop, and they cannot imitate it because that mission is believed to live in their souls.
The discourse of Kenyan hip hop’s supposed mimicry is knotty because of Kenya’s geographical distance from the Black Atlantic. Rappers recognize they cannot easily call on the common origin story that asserts that hip hop is the result of West African roots and cultural sharing in the Black Atlantic (Gilroy 1993:72–110). Therefore, Nairobi rappers assert their own participation in global rap culture, mostly by resituating it as broadly African aesthetic expression, whereby each region contributes something unique to the culture.9 This notion ensures they are included in the cultural formations and gradations of rap music, instead of their music being disregarded as an insipid by-product. Furthermore, rather than rap being viewed as foreign, it is seen as an extension of East African or Kenyan culture. Consider graffiti artist, Esen’s statement:
That’s what they usually say; we are trying to imitate the west. So, to me, that’s kinda messed up because it means these guys don’t even have, you know, the right material to criticize us. So, when they see hip hop artists wearing earrings, they’d be like “hey, these guys are copying the west.” Blah blah blah....but in real sense, we’ve been wearing earrings even before the west knew what earrings were. All these Africans, or Kenyan communities were wearing earrings, from the Maasais, the Kikuyus, and all that. We used to rock dreadlocks and shit like that. (interview, Nairobi, December 15, 2010)
Reconfiguring this history, as Esen does, allows artists to claim hip hop as inherently Kenyan. Esen’s comment demonstrates an undying and firm affinity for the fundamentally African aesthetic of hip hop that works to solidify their legitimacy as artists.
Sue Timon raps in “Ulimi,” “Mi naifanya juu ya mapenzi!” [I do (hip hop) out of love!], expressing a larger idea that practitioners’ legitimacy as rap artists is measured through dedication to the music, not financial success. They show their duty through their time investment, hours in the studio, afternoons at Sarakasi Dome, days spent hustling their CD, and weeks spent shooting music videos. To have affinity for and attachment to hip hop culture is, for these artists, to make hip hop regardless of whether it pays economically. Earning substantive compensation is always the goal, and yet it remains out of reach for most.
“Hip hop is Like a CV!”—Neoliberalism and the State
Artists want to earn a living from music, but they do not want money to be the driving force. Many of them incorporate theories of economic survivals that draw from neoliberal ideas. Lester Spence, in his U.S. analysis, asserts that hip hop culture perpetuates conventional economic values, “[...] that rap and hip-hop’s productive, circulative, and consumptive politics both mirror and reproduce what I call the neoliberal narrative across space and the most dominant aspects of black politics across space and time” (2011:11, emphasis in original). The neoliberal narrative in Nairobi rap materialized alongside societal shifts, most prominently when former president Mwai Kibaki replaced Daniel arap Moi in 2002. This period ushered in new waves of investments and privatization efforts, which had begun during the end of Moi’s presidency (Murunga & Nasong’o 2007; Kagwanja 2009). Many rappers know plenty about the greed and corruption that marked Moi’s brutal one-party rule, although most are too young to remember living through it. Following the regime change, massive social shifts occurred, the supposed opening of markets, selling of government-owned companies, and increases in foreign investments. This solidified ideologies that hard work promises social and economic security and indicates human value.10 However, the state has continued its oppressive rule, regardless of who is president. As a result, rappers contribute to resistance traditions regarding “popular music [as] a potent tool for anti-state social mobilization” (Mũngai 2008:68). Practitioners identify the state as the largest, most forceful impediment to success in their lives, responsible for police brutality and killings, political corruption, and general apathy and indifference of state officials. Thus, underground rap’s neoliberal narrative, adopted by much of Kenyan society, is that capitalism is a solution to social ills and a corrupt state.
Central to that story is the hip hop artist as entrepreneur. Dale Chapman argues that in the field of popular music, “one-person musical performances works in tandem with a pervasive set of discourses that privilege the individual as an economic actor” (2013:452). In African popular music, this dynamic influences the messages of political and social justice. Jesse Shipley notes that Ghanaian artists “[reconfigure] Pan-Africanism as an entrepreneurial project” as “the global market has become in recent decades both a structural and moral metaphor for political power” (2009:634). In Kenya, market fundamentalism shapes rappers’ political opposition to the state, thereby relying on the capitalist frameworks for discussions of social justice. Nairobi hip hop practitioners look for spaces to resist these social norms, such as eschewing a “normal” nine-to-five job. Yet rappers purport, perhaps understandably, that to survive in the hip hop game, however, one must be an entrepreneur. Artist-as-homo economicus means that one adopts an economic lens from which to operate in the world. That notion begets the faulty notion that the entrepreneur can function in the absence of social determinants. “[At] stake in all neoliberal analyses is [...] homo economicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being from himself the source of [his] earnings” (Foucault 2008:226, emphasis in original). I have had several conversations with artists who believe that owning their “brand” is necessary in order to be visible in the marketplace and to overcome music industry restrictions. Current practitioners have strong words for early UFMM practitioners, whose largest failing supposedly was their inability to make money. Graffiti artist Esen contends, “[…] Most of the guys from Ukoo Flani Mau Mau camp are very popular. Most of the guys, ah, […] most of them are the pioneers. Um…but majority of them are broke” (interview, Nairobi, July 15, 2011). I do not think the use of “guys” is accidental here, but instead reflects the masculine gendering of the rap artist as “businessman.” Furthermore, many artists communicated this belief of paying homage to UFMM, while also criticizing them for not attaining financial security. These rappers believe they have learned from UFMM’s example and can succeed economically.
Underground artists additionally hold on to the notion that cultural production must be beneficial, useful, and productive; music cannot simply be music, nor can it be the site of excesses. Artists must take their craft seriously. The following statement from Demaine Jabez measures hip hop’s worthiness through a register of usefulness in a capitalistic framework of hard work ethic:
Hip hop is a way of expression. And hip hop music is powerful. Music changes societies. Music shapes cultures and music brings up generations, you know? So, I find hip hop, huh, as a tool where one can stand out and do music and cause his plea to be heard. It’s like a CV, you have to bring your CV before the guy you want a job from. So, hip hop is like a CV. (interview, Nairobi, December 10, 2011, emphasis added)
Here I asked him a general question about rap’s significance, and his response reflects a popular idea that hip hop music is a set of practices that offers up economic solutions. Jabez’s claim reflects what David Harvey calls “entrepreneurial common sense,” a mode of thinking about the world in terms of marketplace ideals (2005:68). According to practitioners, rap must be useful, not meaningless, nor nihilistic, excessive, or wasteful. This line of thinking is common in Kenyan political spheres, as “the state is one of many sites framing the calculations leading to social behaviors that keep costs low and productivity high” (Brown 2009:43; see also Harvey 2005:64–66). The Kenyan state facilitates, and often demands, the obedient worker who is not left too idle to think critically. Rarely is this notion interrogated. Consequently, practitioners borrow from this dynamic and assert that rap music must be a productive use of time. Ideals of artistic productivity support a culture of political seriousness. For hip hop’s dedicated artists produce what mainstream commercial music cannot—a social consciousness about the world.
Neoliberalism in hip hop additionally contributes to political seriousness because it encourages the disciplining of one’s actions. Rappers discuss personal change and individual choices, even when they exist within difficult circumstances that largely can determine and structure people’s lives. Listeners are encouraged to discipline themselves, to accept reality, and to be “eminently governable” (Foucault 2008:270). Songs like Sue Timon’s song “Weee” and Karpchizzy’s “System” are calls for people to choose what they see as “good” actions and to alter their lives rather than engage in negative behavior. For example, “Weee” calls people to stop smoking marijuana and cigarettes, as well as drinking alcohol. In the first verse she raps, “Badilisha njia ndo ubadilike pia, mabangi ni hatia, ubadilishe pia” [Change your ways and you will also change, weed is a crime, change that too]. This song has heavy beats and a hard style of rapping that creates feelings of dissidence and opposition to the status quo, even though the lyrics take a rather mainstream or even conservative position of abstinence.
Rap music asserts that it is the common mwananchi who should accept and conform to their realities. The conditions of late capitalism are rarely held up as intrinsically flawed and considered much more inevitable and untouchable to those who act on its behalf. Difficult obstacles are not a reason to stop making music. Lness fully acknowledges the difficulties of developing a music career, viewing the process as inevitable hard work and personal sacrifice:
Most artists, some people actually stop, they give up the game […]. [They put] their money into it, then they take it to the stations, it runs only one week. Some people are just like “fuck it.” (interview, Nairobi, November 20, 2011)
After I asked whether this was an understandable reaction, she answered, “I don’t agree with it, because there are so many ways, so many things happening in the scene. […] But that shouldn’t make anybody give up” (interview, Nairobi, November 20, 2011). Right before this explanation, she objected to the music industry’s informal payola system. Elsewhere in our conversation Lness discussed how female artists encounter hardship in maintaining a rap career because of familial duties and pressures. It is not that she fails to acknowledge impediments, but rather she believes that people should brave them despite the difficulties.
“System” by Karpchizzy is a song about the injustices in the hood, inspiring individuals to make the best decisions they can in unfair economic contexts. “System” has an uncompromising and staunch sound and a standard repetitive underground beat with little change or innovation. Karpchizzy raps: “We ni soldier, kaza kamba, tunakaready steady ka mamba” [You are a soldier, we tighten our ropes, be ready and steady like a rock]/ “Ngazi pole pole, mdogo mdogo, tunapanda, life ikigo hard, mwanangu unago harder iki get rough, mi hugrow even tougher” [You can’t go slowly, small by small, we climb up, when life gets hard we go harder, when life gets rough, I grow even tougher]. Obstacles, according to him, need to be met with toughness, like adopting a solider mentality. This is a part of the masculinizing armor and Mau Mau rhetoric present in the music. He raps, “mi hugrow even tougher,” as a response to his social conditions, rather than become vulnerable or succumb to the harsh realities of the hood. Karpchizzy and I watched the song’s video during our interview, and he stated, “I’m trying to motivate the same, same guys in the hood. I’m telling them, there is this system [to watch out for]” (interview, Nairobi, December 20, 2011). This system is created by the political leaders of Kenya, according to his lyrics, “Ukimweka ndani ya bunge punde anasahau na anaanza madharau” [As soon as you elect them to parliament they forget you and start disrespecting you]. Yet, according to him, it is the poor, specifically poor men, who should discipline themselves around the inevitable realities of inequality because politicians will not change.
Rappers believe that the call for personal change for themselves and their devotees is much more reasonable and practical than for them to make demands on the state. Most have little hope of there ever being a government that will serve the people. Judge stated, “…[The] government sometimes don’t [sic] have time to listen to the people who are down underground” (interview, Nairobi, November 11, 2012). Wise contended, “[You shouldn’t] take what society, or government, or whatever it is, tell [sic] you, this is how it is supposed to be. I think hip hop music gives you a way of addressing it without really being violent about it, you know?” (interview, Nairobi, July 20, 2010). The government is viewed as misusing capitalism, which could be easily beneficial. If only politicians would not be so greedy, so the belief goes, people would be able to exercise their personal potential. Rappers I spoke with argued that the state does not allow them opportunities to obtain steady employment and acquire wealth, which is an impediment to economic freedom. As a result, many rappers adopt and exercise a neoliberal subjectivity as a response to a repressive state. Rapper-as-homo economicus is not only a disavowal of the pernicious nature of the state, but also a claim to one’s humanity in a context that measures a person’s value along economic lines.
While practitioners refuse commerciality in music, they embrace the subtler forms of productivity: self-policing, hard work, and discipline. These characteristics produce an unresolvable tension in the music that adds to the complexities of political earnestness. Neoliberalism is a way of thinking about the world, and its economic ideals inform the charged sentiments within rap culture. The intention of these songs is to inspire people and encourage them not to capitulate to the difficulties of society, while interpellating youth as “disciplined as subjects of institutional power” (Shipley 2009:633). Rap devotees, hence, must conform economically and otherwise, making good choices even when confronted with society’s unfairness.
Hip hop’s political seriousness involves rap’s much larger philosophical practice of creating what artists see as “authentic” hip hop, thereby exercising their subject positions as both local and global practitioners. Nairobi artists use political seriousness to define the authenticity of their music. Citing Alastair Pennycook, Laura Speers notes, “[Hip hop] authenticity is ‘relational’ in that it cannot be understood without taking into account social contexts. […] [It] demands an account of matter beyond the self, as we are connected to a wider whole” (2017:128). Rap music, therefore, is an expression of Nairobi urban subjectivity; it enables artists to contribute to a long history of “the [Kenyan] musician as a political activist” in the face of state repression (Mũtonya 2014:160). Additionally, hip hop practitioners deliver affirmations that their music has a place in the wider global rap culture. Hip hop, thus, allows artists to assert themselves as agents of cultural production in a context where they lack other forms of political and economic agency.
Rappers, recognizing their disenfranchisement, seek ways to incorporate normativity into hip hop’s ethos, as a way of arguing for their own humanity. Admittedly, normative logic about gender constructions, neoliberalism, and even conventional Mau Mau histories can in some ways be seen to undermine the music and even send harmful messages. However, rap culture’s reliance on these privileged sites of power situates the music within Kenyan social context. The music’s dependence on these forms of privilege gives practitioners credibility as Kenyan musicians. To break from the normalizing ideas of gender and history, for instance, might be easily read as antithetical to Kenyan culture. Practitioners produce critical interventions, instead, by participating in a global hip hop aesthetic culture that produces local critiques of the state, but beyond that calls on people to formulate communities based on radical love and social consciousness. In an often complex commitment to individual improvement, artists are extremely invested in using tropes of personal betterment and discipline that are readily available in a Kenyan neoliberal context.
In Nairobi rap, tongues are weapons—ulimi ni silaha—responsible for decrying societal ills and calling people to persist while they acknowledge and resist injustice. Artists maintain a steadfast duty to address the problems of underclass communities, even though how rappers respond and what particular injustice gains attention is in many instances a flawed endeavor. Despite numerous barriers, rappers continue to sell music, make videos, and perform at non-commercial venues, with a pledge never to sell out to mainstream pressures. Artists believe that their music exists in spite of, and not due to, capitalism. Even while they frame the music outside of capitalist practices, the normalizing tendency of neoliberalism is appealing and practical for rappers. To focus on personal change as a way to think about social justice does let politicians, the police, the bourgeoisie, and large systemic structures off the hook. Yet, perhaps rightfully so, these practitioners recognize that their devotees are much more open to these messages than the groups just named. The seriousness of rap culture, the compromises and contradictions included, helps to form a parallel public that seeks an alternative method of articulating subjectivity and imagining community.
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Agano, hip hop artist, Nairobi, December 10, 2011.
Amora, hip hop artist, Nairobi, November 20, 2012.
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Wise, graffiti artist, Nairobi, July 20, 2010.