Monday, January 18

Nairobbery: Revealing The Nakedness of Nairobi’s Notoriety Through Kenyan Hip Hop

What is Nairobbery? A common refrain would be Nairobbery is a song.  A title to a song and album made famous by a dynamic, legendary Kenyan hip hop group. We start this journey that takes us to a delectable spot in the evolution of Nairobi’s urban culture from this spot. This edition of our series on knowing Nairobi through its music  goes deep into the genesis of an African urban culture, in search of the most complete answers to the question: What is Nairobbery?

 Nairobbery by K South

K South, the pioneer Kenyan hip hop group, not the infamous Eastlands’s Nairobi suburb, ruled the streets at just the moment. Indeed, by the time the Bamboo and Doobez released their hall – of – famer album, Nairobbery in 2002, the duo were well-known within Eastlands’s underground hip hop circles.

By this accord, Nairobbery was Testament to every artist’s narcissism. It was an affirmation of the duo’s rap prowess beyond the nooks and crannies of 21st century Nairobi. By reaching for international appeal through its stylistic elements, Nairobbery was an unveiling of untold Nairobi to the new millennium. A brave new world of the internet and global villages.

Moreover, this album served to illuminate the fruits of the work of pioneer new age Kenyan music acts. Kalamshaka, Hardstone, others and FM radio shows hosts – namely Muthoni Bwika and Eve De Souza, had gone before. They had made Kenyan Music claim its rightful space on the airwaves never to leave. If the audacity of the work of these legends of the game was to be likened to that of John the Baptist, the release of Nairobbery was the coming of the messiah himself.

Nairobbery is Muziki Wetu

Like a topping of kuchmbari on mutura ya damu,  atop this base of increasing acceptance by a demographically younger Kenya of new age Kenyan music, something good blossomed. With Nairobbery, critics, fans and haters were all in unison. We all termed It a match made in heaven when the tested lyrical pedigree of Tim Kimani (Bamboo) and Jerry Manzekele (Jerry Doobez later Abass/ Abass Kubaff) fused with the refined bars of then Nairobi’s foremost production house, Samawati Studios, in Nairobbery.

It being that the stage had been set by pioneers – brave hearts who had broken down the barriers for Kenyan music thrive – a singular ingredient still lacked. Someone, some people, ready to own the spirit of the times. And interesting times those were.

Y2K Nairobi, the Birth of Nairobbery

Early 2000’s Nairobi, had a sense of urban culture maturity about it. The exponential cultural growth of the 90’s had morphed into a plateau. If urban growth lexicon has a term like a “nascent metropolis”, that would be 2000’s Nairobi in two words.

Kenya’s economic contraction of the 80’s through the 90’s had resulted in massive rural to urban migration that had nee slums. The Mukurus, Korogochos, Kiambiu etc., had grown beyond a smattering of a few polythene, mud and tin structures hugging the banks of Nairobi River and its tributaries.

Thanks to unplanned intra-migration, most of the city now lived in these necks of the hoods. And in confirmation of the unequal growth that neoliberal capitalism brings to lands where governments fail at their jobs, 2000’s Nairobi saw filth border prosperity. Nowhere else was this manifest as in Eastleigh which bustled along as Nairobi’s second co-city. Yonder, Westlands had established itself as Nairobi’s other commercial district. In Karen, horses still dirtied the streets up there with their poop. In downtown CBD Nairobi, gangs ruled frequently clashing for control. The most famous of which, Mungiki and Kamjesh, had become proper criminal enterprises complete with taxation and law enforcement arms.

In short, Nairobi, the green city in the sun had become the Big Bad City. Just like any other city, survival depended on mastering its speak. Getting about 1930’s New York needed one to be fluent in Great Depression inspired dirty slang. For late 90’s to early 2000’s Nairobi, your versatility with Sheng was your key to the city.

That Way You Speak, You Mustn’t Be From Around, or Are You?

Unlike today, Sheng – the lingua franca of what some have termed as East Africa’s New York – was not universal. In turn of the century Nairobi, Sheng was strictly local. In fact, the dialect of Sheng that one spoke was an identifier of the area of the city that one came from. For example, Nairobians from the Eastlands hoods  of Jerusalem (Salem) and Maringo (Marish) area were the originators of the reverse Sheng thing.

They would say dingo rather than gondi (thief). Ndirao rather than raundi (doing rounds – being out and about). Sheng from Dandora (D), Korogocho (Koch), Mathare, Kariobangi North & South had strong ethnic influence of the tribes predominantly residing there. Whilst Nairobians from South C, South B, Langata area, Parky (Parklands), Westy (Westlands) and Fedha Estate (The original Fedha Estate) were the Babylonians (Rastafarian meaning) with their heavily English/ American slang peppered Sheng.

Beyond Sheng dialects, these divisions in the city were manifest in Nairobi’s urban culture. Such as in the graffiti plastered on, and genre of music played in matatus plying various city routes.

Keeping to form, Kenyan hip hop groups – in the vein of American hip hop West coast and East coast rivalries – were de-facto ambassadors of their hood’s hyper-local culture. Devoid of wide acceptance of Kenyan hip hop (that saw minimal radio play of Kenyan hip hop) the only place and time where the city’s neighborhoods could battle somewhat safely for supremacy, the only spot that one could imbibe Kenyan hip hop to their fill, was at the epic rap battles at the iconic Florida 2000 jam sessions every Sunday afternoon.

Florida 2000, Jam Session & Nairobbery

It being that there was no social media and thank god only a smattering of FM radio stations – going by their ways today, we contend that these two pillars of the contemporary Kenyan information space would have stymied the broad evolution of Nairobian culture given their singular obsession today with love, sex and the city.

In the absence of these two forces of 21st century life, Y2K Nairobi was ultra conservative by today’s standards. The few FM stations – might we add that you could hardly tune in a few scores of miles outside Nairobi – hardly embraced Nairobi’s local cultures and subcultures as they do today.

What this meant was that here was no way for new Sheng words to spread as fast they do today (lamba lolo comes to mind). So, Sunday afternoon you’d be chilling next to from guys from D outside Florida 2000 (F2), too broke for the entry fee for Jam session, a fest of underage drinking and partying where groups like K South Flava fought for the city through rap battles.

Got Your Number

Fresh from church with the family, the preacher’s warnings of an impending Armageddon ringing in your ears, you’d hang about waiting for guys from your estate to escape their attention of their parents so that you’d gang up. Those streets were never safe alone. The guys from D would be in conversation – scheming on how to rob you off your second-hand Fila sneakers – and you would pick nothing from their convo. Soon, your feet will be up in the air. In the seconds it takes for you to come down, you would be shoe-less, pockets turned and with a sore neck to nurse for weeks to come from the veracity of a wooden flint augmented choke hold.

These nasty experiences outside F2 highlighted that Nairobi’s suburbs – like any city as modeled by schilling – were evolving to type. Exhibiting a strong identity influenced by the ethnicity, socioeconomic profile and other designs. It was a matter of pride therefore when your estate had the meanest matatus, hip hop group or had a rapper who killed other MCs on the stage during the rap battles at F2.

These children of culture (matatu, hip hop) afforded one some security in the neck of the hoods. Being identified by way of them meant respect. Respect is the currency of big bad cities like Nairobi. So when K-South dropped Nairobbery, Nairobi sat up and took note.

Nairobbery The Album – A Claim To Kenyan Hip Hop Classic Status

First, Nairobbery was a full album by a Kenyan hip hop act. Save for the Dandora based group, Kalamshaka, no hip hip act at the time had done a full album. The production was obviously high quality. It was nothing like the Fruity Loops of bedroom producers ruling the market then. Kapuka, Doobiez termed them. Even more, the album had more than hints of beats in the hip hop tradition, way before Nas certified hip hop dead.

Secondly, these guys rapped in hard Sheng, proper English and American slang. K  South masterfully blended Sheng’s lazy drawl accent with American slang’s sharper trot. The shock value of this stylistic tool was seen by the most eminent of observers as an affront to the city’s informal caste system.

As such, K South was a manifestation of the ongoing silent disruption of the urban culture of 2000’s Nairobi. This was because Nairobbery was a melt of Nairobi’s different identities into one gentrified one. Today, some might argue that K-South flava’s Nairrobery was a celebration of cultural appropriation.

K-South’s Nairobbery Cements Evolution Of Nairobi’s Lingua Franca Sheng

K South’s appropriation is in their introduction of new words into Sheng’s lexicon. K South’s rap linguistics went against the etymological pattern of the day. These words, as is the case with most Sheng words, weren’t simpleton combinations of Swahili and English words via some phonetic play.The word Sheng, for example, is an amalgam of ‘Sh’ from Swahili and ‘Eng” from English.

Nor were K-South’s new words ethnic versions of Swahili words. Take the case of the Sheng word manya (know), which is the Western Kenya Bantu language Maragoli word for know.

Their new Sheng words were descriptive. Take the term Kapuka that they used to derogatorily describe the predominating bass line in pop music that was then dominating Kenyan airwaves. Fronted principally by the South B based music production house Ogopa Djs.

What Nairobbery is to the non- Nairobian

These new sheng words flew in the face of Nairobi’s established neighborhood clichés. The title album’s title song: Nairobbery, which is Nairobi + Robbery is the prime example. Today, observers – from The Economist to Aljazeera have written about Nairobbery.

screenshot of a quote from article on Nairobbery describig how Kenya's colonial and post-colonial history is written into the fabric of the city
Nairobbery is a product of Kenya’s colonial and postcolonial history as this quote by a Kenyan tour guide on an article reveals

In these annotations, the authors, might we add Nairobians some of whom found a home away from home in Nairobi, talk of Kenya’s  capital B side. Their take on Nairobbery is filled with tales of the city’s notorious side: traffic jams, crime, corruption, the hard knock life of Nairobi. But as this next song reveals, Nairobbery is more than the external, it is principally a state of self.


Nairobi by Johnny Vigeti, Abbas & Sati

We could have made a pick from any of Kalamashaka’s hit songs- Tafsiri Hii, Fanya Mamabo. Maybe even chosen another hip hop joint from K-South’s Nairobbery. But we chose to seek 2.0 takes on Nairobi’s notoriety by two Kenyan hip hop legends. Hip hop gods who featured prominently in the preceding dissection of Nairobbery. None other than Abbas and Johnny Vigeti. Abbas of K South and Johnny Vigeti of Kalamashaka.

Off the critically acclaimed but poorly received comeback album Mr Vigeti, Johnny Vigeti – one-third of the Kenyan hip hop gods Kalamashaka – sought help form Abass and Sati in this triumph over drug addiction and scars borne out of the sacrifice of being a pioneer.

A collaborative effort that roped in Europe based producers Viktor Ax and Ruben ”Subcon” Keikhwa. Unlike K South’s Nairobbery, where the stars aligned to make a great effort, Mr. Vigeti is a child of poor timing. Would it have waited a couple, three, fours years to be released? Would today be better suited for its genre, when 90’s style hip hop attempts a comeback?

Nairobbery is Nairobi State of Mind

Nonetheless, this track “Nairobi” speaks of the city’s famed notoriety. In his verse Abass  defines Nairobbery succinctly as: Life’s a b*tch. The ever glassy-eyed, injected conjunctiva rapper goes on to add that

“Nairobbery ni mji wa click clack”.

Johnny Vigeti decries corruption, Nairobi’s money first mentality that afflicts even children and makes disreputable ladies of women.

He reminds us that Nairobbery is about donning a solid hustler mentality that never fades. Sati serenades the hard-hitting rhymes of these pioneers of conscious Kenyan hip hop dropping soothing notes on Kenyan cops love of a bribe, satirically upping their greed as a route of doing away with being broke/poverty (msoto).


Nairobi Yao- Johnny Span One & Kunta

Admittedly, Kenyan hip hop heads who were drawn by the word hip hop in this discovery of Nairobi through its music, must by now have termed this article as click bait. Nothing frustrates practitioners of an endangered art when mainstream acts steal their shine. When popular artistes, who at best only appropriate elements of their art, eat their sauce while they scrape pan bottoms.

For instance, Obama’s delivery of the keynote speech in South Africa during 2018’s Mandela day was frowned by a core of social rights activists as gentrification of their higher calling. The former US president arrival in a private jet complete with bodyguards and other razzmatazz of 21st century celebrity life must have been frowned by the activists of before-  the likes of Jesus, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

Likewise, to sections with similar  purist inclinations, our fronting of K South and Kalamashaka’s Johnny Vigeti’s music as emblematic of Nairobbery must be a smack in the face. This next choice, comes from the only other places where one could  enjoy Kenyan hip hop unfettered outside F2 on Sunday afternoon in late 90’s early 2000’s Nairobi: the bedroom, garage if you like, music studios of Nairobi’s Eastlands neighborhoods.

Underground Hip Hop and The Consciousness of Nairobbery

Flashing a middle finger to corporate hip hop, Johnny Span One disses a popular Kenyan deejay. By questioning the deejay’s sanity in releasing a sex tape rather than playing real hip hop, this Johnny questions the reward system of Nairobi’s entertainment scene. He by  extension puts Kenya’s sense of meritocracy on a balance. Keeping with this theme, Johnny Span One also throws barbs at politicians for their role in creating two Nairobis. One for the haves (the connected). The other for the have-nots.

Having deconstructed the folly of their Nairobi – the politicians, celebrities and elites – Kunta’s verse delivers the philosophy of another Nairobi. The Nairobi of the ones left behind. With odes to black supremacy icons like former Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie and South African anti-apartheid icon Steve Biko, the ethics of Span One’s and Kunta’s version of Nairobbery is set.

Nairobbery in this sense is therefore about resistance. It is about self belief. Nairobbery is an awakening of black consciousness that revokes the idea that black history starts at colonialism or slavery. It is beyond crime, dirt and grime in character as it trumpets black contributions to modern civilization such as mathematics

Finally, Is Nairobbery a Legalize it Movement?

We’ve made cheeky reference to Abass’s eyes. Johnny One chides Nairobi’s famed eclectic night life paying homage to weed filled nights as the real deal. We have drawn numerous casual relationships to the call of legalizing marijuana in this guide to Nairobi beyond the usual. This begs us to wonder out loud, is Nairobbery a marijuana smoke-filled existence? Or is it a state of mind?

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