The tracks that feature here are those whose lyrical content and music videos gives the audience a real feel of Nairobi. Each of these songs is essentially a Nairobi City guide but in the non-traditional sense.
The songs are about stuff that we do. Stuff that any tourist to Kenya’s capital needs to partake to be Nairobian. The tell of the different divides within the city. The paint different portraits of the city telling the stories one is likely to encounter depending on the type of tourist they are: budget traveler, business traveler or service corps types. As regards genre, I’d describe this music of Nairobi as less ghetto than Scarface’s On My Block; but falling somewhere in the midst of a scale that has Jay-Z + Alicia Keys Empire State of Mind on the upper end.
Before we get going, the Nairobi City cityscape in the featured image is a view of Nairobi CBD from Upper Hill Business District. The good photography is thanks to James Wahome. Buy James a cup of coffee here.
A City’s Portrait
Great…. now that’s done with, a little about this article. This post is part of our series on : A portrait of Nairobi Through Music. In this project, we feel for the fine contours of the body and soul of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, through review of music.
In this soundtrack filled voyage we’ve ended up with distilled city guides like no other. To be fair, these guides are unlike the usual coffee table types or clichés laden in flight glossy magazines. Take for instance my personal favorite so far on the Nairobi state of mind. On to the music now.
KARIBU NAIROBI- JUA CALI
The father of Genge music, Jua Cali, in Karibu Nairobi delivers what has to be the most up to date Nairobi City guide of the songs that we’ve reviewed. Published on You Tube on 20 February of 2015, and directed by @vjone, Karibu Nairobi in three expertly delivered verses is a tale of three personas of Nairobi. First, it is a quick guide on Nairobbery. Second, it does a good job describing Nairobi’s electric and vibrant nightlife. Finally, it leads us into the world of the city’s eclectic urban culture.
On Nairobbery, Jua Cali drops a tight one with this line. A piece of lyric that leaves us wondering if the intent was expression of artistic freedom or a warning worth heading. The more I listen to the song, the more I conclude that it’s possibly both. Might I add, what we’ve come to label as Nairobbery aside from the clever neologism is nothing peculiar to Nairobi. In the 21st century, with unequal wealth distribution, terrorism, fascism and racism, about every major city today struggles with violent crime.
City in the sun? Hapana siku hizi tunaiita city in the gunJua Kali in “Karibu Nairobi”
I’m not a connoisseur of the Kenyan rap scene, but I find this invigorating Genge hit to have come too late in Jua Cali’s stellar career. Nonetheless, that distinctive, high-pitched, melodic, flute-like tune embedded within the beat is one Kenyan Music lovers have come to solidly identify with music from Calif area, in the Eastleigh neighborhood found east of Nairobi. You might be wondering why this piece of nuance is important. Really, why is this profiling important?
Dreams do come true in Nairobi City: Moving on up
I endeavor to localize Karibu Nairobi as the hit wades right into the circus that every inner city hip hop act unwillingly and unsuccessfully performs in somewhere down their career. In Karibu Nairobi, the good life Jua Cali raps about tickles the perennial question: How ‘soft’ can a rap star get without being accused of being a sell out?
How much can they floss, as Jua Kali does in the track, without losing gangstar points? At what point do they become agents of those appropriating/gentrifying their inner city culture rather than cultural ambassadors of their area code? Answering every of these questions is beyond my remit in this article.
However, there is something we learn about Nairobi form the ideological questions raised. Going by the the content, in letter and spirit, of Karibu Nairobi, as regards this ideological divide, Nairobi is pervasively amoral. If the continuing success of artistes of the likes of Jua Cali is anything to go by, everybody dreams of moving on up, Kuomoka. With Nairobi, those who ‘omoka’ are worshiped. Literally, that is, irrespective of the means/source of their wealth.
Controversy aside, like any good MC Jua Cali in Karibu Nairobi seeks to move the crowd with shout outs to Nairobi’s favorite things. Like the ladies, hard partying and drinking, all which hint at the city’s eclectic urban culture. Take the lyric
“Wee jiachilie Nairobi itatulinda,”Jua Cali in Karibu Nairobi
‘Let loose/flow along, Nairobi shall take care of us’ the Kenyan hip hop legends preaches.
The Built Environment and Architecture of Nairobi City as told in Karibu Nairobi by Jua Cali
In an open show of love to Nairobi – the city that made him – Jua Cali, never lyric scanty, hails some of the city’s architectural master pieces. The song Karibu Nairobi is and ode of sorts to skyscrapers that are an unmistakable part of the city’s skyline. Those sang about include the internationally renown talk shop meet spot, Kenyatta International Conference center, KICC. Not left out are symbols that serve as reminders of Nairobi’s status as East Africa’s corporate capital. Notably here is the iconic all blue, glass clad I&M Bank Tower that features heavily in the song’s music video.
Jua Cali also hails transformation of the city’s arteries whose expansion picked up in earnest in 2010 with construction of mega highways. Right at the end, Jua Cali odes one of the city’s seven lane highway.
The number seven in reference to city highways could be an ode to the more hard, gangster rap beat, hit “Mtu Saba” by Jua Cali and the Calif Records crew Mahatma and Nonini. The socially conscious hit has a rhetorical hook: ‘labda sisi ni wageni mtu saba’. This is in reference to an amorphous seven man ‘gang’. A group that comes over uninvited and forcefully demands more than is being offered by the unwilling host. In the song done entirely in sheng, the number seven is used to qualify social phenomena. Like charting a web of sex in the city along which HIV spreads. To referencing a seven man gang that brags about mugging the listener’s father yester night. Or a seven man crew that mocks the listener after engaging with the listener’s girlfriend in group sex activity
Karibu Nairobi is a Nairobi City Guide for the Budget Traveler. This is how to do Nairobi as Nairobians
Karibu Nairobi wraps it up with its guide to Nairobi. It’s a guide more suited to the budget traveler as it flaunts Nairobi’s erstwhile menu of world-famous Kenya’s cultural tourist attractions available on a budget. According to Jua Cali’s hit, for one to experience Nairobi’s offerings of a local feel, see and eat, a bag packer visiting Nairobi ought at least:
- Visit Burma market for Nyama Choma;
- Enjoy lunch ( cold soda accompanied by either a baked confectionery/smokey/hard-boiled egg). All hawked under the shade of Uhuru Park enjoyed whilst taking in the city from a distance;
- Ride on a matatu
- Try some gomba (Khat).
Speaking as a Nairobian, Karibu Nairobi (Welcome to Nairobi) is just the song that I want to be playing on the matatu’s high end music system, somewhere along me finding my way back home after a sojourn away.
MAISHA YA NAIROBI – SIRI YA MZIKI
Maisha ya Nairobi (Nairobi Life) is an acoustic afro-soul sociopolitical conscious song replete with an open mic feel. Starting off with a low score and defeated tempo, Maisha ya Nairobi ushers in the listener to an inevitable feeling of foreboding that is this reason for this song. Indeed this is one melancholic piece by a little known group – Siri ya Mziki. It’s opening verse, done in solo, is very much a dirge:
(I can’t! I can’t)
(I can’t! I can’t)
(Surely, I can’t!)
Set in Nairobi’s largest, and Africa’s second largest slum, Kibra, the dissoluteness of all hope lost is palpable in Maisha ya Nairobi. After jamming to Jua Cali’s Karibu Nairobi, this poetic piece is the perfect antidote. For it serves to remind us of how the other half of Nairobi lives. It is a stark reminder that indeed the city of Nairobi is cruel to some.
Slum Tourism and Nairobi City
I find it disturbing that the misery of a section, the majority actually, of Nairobians is often packaged as some sort of activity to experience; and marketed as a thing to do while visiting Nairobi. Tourism cannot be partaking in sadistic parading of misery and photo-oping in the name of charity fundraising. Nonetheless, for the visitor to Nairobi hoping to experience this side of East Africa’s capital, they’ve got to be born outliers. This is because patronizing the Mukuru complex, Kibera, Korogocho or any of the twenty slums in Nairobi, there are no in betweens.
You either have to be rich enough to afford personal security and/or cultivate links with local NGO types for guided tours.
Or you’ve to be a dare-devil with super people skills and the time to build friendships across the city’s physical, economical and social divides.
Usually though, most heads that tour the slums are the peace corps/volunteerism types.
That said, in defiance of this grim situation, the rap verse towards the end of Maisha ya Nairobi is quite uplifting. First, it’s done by a female MC. And nothing sounds better than a chic rhyming. Our female MC does well to pump tempo into Maisha ya Nairobi. She also has some tight lyrics in there too. My favorite has to be this one liner. A rhyme that packs all that there is to know about the green city in the sun in six words:
a high life fueled by nightlife
‘NAIROBI’ BY MAYONDE & STONEE JIWE
This groovy song about Nairobi ushers us into the Kenyan capital in the 21st century. Let’s put this way, this song is the equivalent to the reflective yet self promoting, brazenly air-brushed answer supplied to answer this question expected in every job interview: “Tell us about yourself.”
What Mayonde and Stonee Jiwe serve is how Nairobi would like to be seen. Vibrant colors and all. None of the black and white melancholy of Miasha ya Nairobi or the hard truths of Karibu Nairobi. In truth. Nairobi by Mayonde & Stonee Jiwe is the self-image of young, middle to upper class Nairobi. A generation accused of being wrapped up in the expat bubble, burdened by personal loans and barely keeping up with appearances.
This Nairobi of twenty seventeen is Hip, energetic, happy. Yes, happy ! Young too. You know how DeBarge’s Rhythm of the Night is 1985? That’s how Nairobi by Mayonde feat Stonee Jiwe is 2017 Nairobi. Not quite, but you get the drift. If you are visiting Nairobi for business and a fair bit of pleasure, this right here is the weekend packed in three or so minutes.
Then there is the way vocals have been arranged. That, together with the high score give the song a Jay Z /Alicia Keys Empire State of Mind feel. High praise here, but I absolutely love how these new age Kenyan musicians are emblematic of Kenya’s swelling numbers of educated, globally connected youth. Dreamy types who in a manner akin to some costly serum treatment at a beauty spa are invigorating the city. A city so young it just recently celebrated its golden jubilee as the capital of post independent Kenya.
Nairobi is Young and Bossing It!
These young fellas are not only courageous, but respectful too. I arrive at this conclusion based purely on nothing but the conclusion that lately every one of their music seems to be an ode to the sounds of before. We could blame the resurgence of Rhumba music for this sound, but in many other ways, this is Nairobi in the new millennium. A young city with a rich past. A city with a history, both proud and regrettable. It’s a past that’s not so distant. As it’s not to far into the ages, Nairobi’s past enables thinkers and doers of today reach out to it for magic.
Consider this: A young Kenyan deejay starting out a decade ago might have had to bear the brunt of the learning curve all alone. No mentor, neither a North nor anyone to look up to. Today, they can look up to the career of Kenya’s top corporate events Deejay, Dj Kamjo, an engineer, entrepreneur and husband running the industry leading outfit Discmen Entertainment. Or study street kings Djs Kalonje and Dj Demakufu and learn a thing or two about market segmentation, niche creation and brand equity building. That’s even without considering the legends. The likes of Dj Adrian who keeps representin’ or Dj John Rabar who built the behemoth Homeboys Entertainment.
A young footballer has the path of Victor Wanyama to emulate. A rugby head has IRB 7’s circuit star, Collins Injera to idolize. And so on. What’s crazy is that these guys, the Kamjos, Injeras etc, are still redefining their fields. We therefore can only expect them to push the bar higher, their work inspiring young upstarts.
Because these legends are still active, young guys coming through can still reach out to them. As a result, the upstarts can learn and emerge on the other side with gems that make today bearable and tomorrow a dream. In sync with this spirit of the times, the groovy R& B sound of Mayonde & Stonee Jiwe’s Nairobi takes us back to early to mid 1990’s Nairobi. A time when R& B, Reggae and Hip Hop ruled the streets.
Early 90’s Nairobi was a time much like now when Kenya’s capital was discovering itself. Then, Kenyan cultures melted to form bridges, most notably sheng, as rural to urban migration ebbed on. The search for opportunity in the city made Kenya’s eastern cultures meet western cultures. Coastal cultures blend with those of the mountains, valleys and lake regions. So on and forth.
Today, thanks to the digital age and Nairobi’s continued rise to prominence as a cosmopolitan international city, cultures again mix. This time though the blend consists of urban and rural Kenyan cultures on one side. On the other side is a beautiful cocktail. An enriching blend of alien cultures ones both African and from without the mother continent. Today we have Nigerians, Ugandans, Ethiopians, South Sudanese, Brazilians, Chinese etc; thus begetting us a beautiful tapestry.
Now go on and enjoy Nairobi city…. will you?