We delve into the silent whispers in the city, fleshing out how identity politics and institutions have a say on your having a good time. This is Nairobi up close.
From the time audiences met HBO’s Sex and the City, it became the automatic choice for pop culture references on expressions of sexuality in urban settings. While it is true that Nairobi might have been a few corners back on most of the brave discussions on sex explored in SATC; later date productions, notably, MTV’s “Shuga” which introduced Lupita Nyong’o to Africa tell of a city bravely confronting sex as a taboo.
This installment of our series on a portrait of Nairobi through music, that we’ve titled Nairobi up close, reviews Kenyan songs on love, sex and the city. It is centered on Kenyan music that push the envelope on this often emotive conversation.
Picture an image silhouette of a woman lying on her back, legs crossed and breasts cupped in her hands. The woman we talk of has assumed a deliberate pose that screams seduction. While the photographer ensure that the way the light falls on her like an invisible piece of lingerie, reveals just enough. The result of which is an artistic tasteful play on voyeuristic vulgarity, subtle animalistic references to sex, sensuality and shyness. So is the enchanting story of love and sex in Nairobi.
NAIROBI UP CLOSE IS: Careless Whispers, Hardened Positions
Sexuality in Nairobi is a delicate balance of the whispers within and without. This delicate balance whose bounderies are constantly breached is especially so because Nairobi serves as the seat to a world of institutions. Therefore, the asphyxiating choke hold of these institutions on sexual identities and expressions cannot be missed. That institutions exert a high degree of control over sexual identities and expressions is a well explored thought with sufficient credibility. Thanks to this conflict between individualism and institutionalism, Nairobi up close is dark and twisted.
This is a city where downtown, teenagers have been arrested for filming porn in a public park right in the heart of the city. It is a city that up the hill, several female legislators desperately battle accusations of sacrilegious relationship with a lad (emphasis on singularity) young enough to be their son.
A city where guides on how to bag sponsors ( rich benefactors purveyors of transactional sex ) are splashed out on national dailies. Moreover, such talk does not die with newspapers as it is dissected at peak hours every other day on FM stations. A city fond of selective rediscovery of its morals. On one end, it is swift to ban a local take on a popular pro-LBGT song, Same Love. On the other, government agencies unveil plans in glitzy ceremonies in the capital. Plans to help craft policies to cater for the health needs of gays. Policies that some critics reckon account for nothing beyond whoring for donor cash.
Context: Portrait of Nairobi – The Journey So Far
This essay on Nairobi up close, is part of a series that seeks to paint a portrait of Nairobi through music. To get here, we made a bet on Kenyan music; and it has proven its worth as guide to Nairobi beyond reviews on the best stays in East Africa’s financial capital. Our take on mainstream Kenyan music has yielded city guides better than glossy spreads on coffee tables in any Nairobi hotel lobby. Guides more practical than those infuriatingly out of touch in flight magazines.
Partaking Kenyan music has allowed us to understand the ‘Nairobi State of Mind‘. We have been able to showcase where & how to indulge in the Kenyan capital’s cultural tourism offerings. Moreover, the good music has also served as an apt backdrop to Nairobi’s claim for the title of East Africa’s party capital.
Given such ground covered, which better way then to add strokes to our portrait than caressing the form of the city’s bedroom persona through music? We begin this installment , Nairobi up close, with a love story set in the green city in the sun.
1.The Afro-Fusion Ballad ‘Nairobi’ By The Boy Band – Kaskazini
The YouTube bio describes the group, which I fear may have suffered the inevitable fate of boys bands: the fight to remain relevant, as:
Kenyan afro-fusion band formed in Nairobi by vocalists Eugene Ywaya, Israel Onyach and Chris Clave. They met in the prestigious Sauti Academy but were originally friends. In Sauti Academy they advanced their vocal techniques, song writing skills and music business knowledge and later graduated in April 2017. They are also taking music theory and music production classes at the Redfourth music Academy.
Nairobi by Kaskazini is love. Albeit jilted love. It takes the listener to the excruciating pain that follows a heartbreak. A heartbreak is a moments that when one is in the depths of, makes falling love in the city seem a stupidly insane act. Indeed, those times when a lover becomes a stranger, unsurprisingly, invariably kills the joy in life, even if just for a fleeting moment. Be it in Accra, Jakarta, Nairobi or wherever it be. As the story in Kaskazini reminds us, we a left to pick the pieces and that cuts deep. Still, nursing a heartbreak in the city feels like the most cruel experience thanks to the uniqueness of life there.
Nairobi Desperate Lives
The palpable desperateness in the cry of the protagonist in Nairobi by Kaskazini, reminds us that in the city, especially in a cosmopolitan city like Nairobi, the shame, regret, relief and spectrum of other realities that the dejected lover may have pursed over the love gone bad mocks the victim relentlessly.
Cry a river if you will. Not even the possibility of the highs of liaisons when on the rebound tempers the hurt. The Kakazini duo implore that the faster life is in a city, the harder these pangs of pain ride. For the jab to your heart seems to dance with the neon signs, flashes with city lights and throbs to the rhythm of the heartbeat of the city. So much so that it is not uncommon to hate the city, your home. This is the state that we meet the protagonist in Nairobi by Kaskazini.
For a dude, as it is implied the protagonist is, this may mean being overwhelmed by a debilitating doubt in your dating game. As a result, it becomes a case of double tragedy as the sadness consumes you. For the protagonist in Nairobi, the words of a famous Boyz To Men ballad, “love pass you by”, flesh out. In the lyric scanty, Kaskazini melodious ballad, the protagonist is caught in the trap of holding on to the memory of the one who got away. Sadly, they elect to wait. Moreover, the protagonist beseechingly mourns as he waits. Naively, they profess that their resolve is stronger than the tempting ways of the city.
2. Kairetu Ka Nairofi by Cartel, Alfayo & Gathee wa Njeri
Kairetu, damsel/girl, is a Kikuyu word that made it mainstream. In the evolution of Sheng, Kairetu has won as it has successfully integrated into the ever expanding dictionary of Nairobi’s street lingo – Sheng. “Nairofi” is the Kikuyu-nised pronunciation of Nairobi. ”Ka” is simply the Kikuyu take on how the Bantu express the preposition ”of ”. The song’s YouTube description reads as follows:
Kairetu Ka Nairofi a song that celebrates the beauty of Nairobi and the Kenyan woman is one of the release that Cartel and Alfayo Miguel of Katenga are working on in their soon to be released Album . The song is a Mixture of Mugithi, Benga base and Katenga style drums. It’s a track will will definitely take you to the dance floor and keep you singing along. They have featured Mugithi Artist , Gathee Wa Njeri who did the Guitar and the chorus.
The tune and beat of Kairetu Ka Nairofi is Mugithi through and through. It is pop Kikuyu music all the way. This is to emphasise that it is not entirely an unexpected happenstance given the songs title. But the gem of this song on Nairobi up close and personal is in the rap. Done in a Dholuo accent and grounded on Luo stereotypes, the intention here by Cartel, Alfayo & Gathee we Njeri was for ‘shock value’.
Nairobi Up Close: Politics and Sex
This quality embodied by Nairofi: disrupting the monotony of life, is an integral ingredient of pop music. Only that this time, the trios artistic exploits get to the the heart of a phenomenon that dictates, as much as it upsets, the expression of love and sex in Kenya’s capital.
Identity politics, specifically ethnocentric mobilization, rule Kenya’s public affairs. In a country with a history of ethnic flareups during political high season, the influence of the institution of politics on love and sex in the city of Nairobi has to be pursed to get Nairobi up close. The protagonists in Nairofi fan this senseless contest of tribal egoism by remaining true to a dichotomy of Kenyan society: pro-Luo or pro-Kikuyu.
Nairobi Up Close: Sexual Identity in Nairobi
Luo and Kikuyu, are two dominant (not the only ones) tribes of the forty plus ethnic tribes that make up Kenya. The two feature prominently in any socio-cultural discussion in Kenya. This is because their myopic rivalry for political power defines everything in Kenya.
The roots of this fallacy lie in Luo-Kikuyu privilege in post colonial Kenya. From the narrative on Kenya’s independence struggle to this exploration of sexual identity and expressionism in 21st century Kenya, this yoke holds. It dictates a host of disenfranchising ethnic narratives that are under currents defining sexual identity and expression in the city. Sample these ones:
Luo Men Are The Most Romantic
So goes the stereotype. This statement is in fact a euphemism for perceived phallic envy by ethnic groups east of the Great Rift Valley. Envy of lake basin tribes that is continually entrenched by contemporary ethnic stereotyping infused into comedy, radio, Tv and other vehicles of popular culture. Urban legend is that Western studs are the most endowed. Not only that, but with a libido to boost.
As a consequence, in Nazi-esque propaganda, as a rule, Western Men (Luo as surrogates here) are better warned (through tools of social engineering in African culture, notably oral literature) of liaisons with Eastern women (Kikuyus bear the burden of surrogacy here.).
Kikuyu Women Are Femme Fatale
Allow me to wrap up this issue with this statement: If we take Kikuyu privilege as a social phenomenon, then we have to correctly label the stereotypes laden on Kikuyu women. Stereotypes are just another manifestation of the excess of patriarchy. This time it victimizes in an attempt at getting back on perceived beneficiaries of a complex social phenomenon.
For more examples of ethnic stereotypes shaping love and sex in Nairobi, read this article published in a Woman’s pullout magazine of a leading local daily: Marry Women From These Clans At Your Own Risk .
3. Kenyan Girl Kenyan Boy by Necessary Noize- Wyre& Nazizi
For all the bad tales of sexual harassment in matatus, Kenyan Girl, Kenyan Boy reminds us that there are happily ever after endings too. I dare say every Nairobian has had a thing in a matatu. Caught up in the infamous Nairobi Traffic a guy/girl has got to try. Why not ? In this song of Nairobi up close, Necessary Noise offer a version of a likely encounter with the Kenyan music classic: Kenyan Girl Kenyan Boy.
Nairobi Girls Got Game
Nazizi, pioneer Kenyan female rapper drops this verse:
Nilikutana na yeye nikipanda 23
Kwenye bus stop akinicheki secretly
Jamaa was so fly yo karibu mi nibleki
Akapanda mathree karibu nami kaketi.
Immediately sikungoja sikusleki Nikajidai excuse me unafegi
Got his attention sasa poa mambo deadly Niaje chali vipi unaitwa nani? Mi naitwa Nazareth na buru ndio mataani
Where are you going to?
Unashuka upande gani?
And if you don't mind twende roundi mataani
I like the way you smell hiyo ni Cologne gani?
Umenibaba style nyingine deadly yani
Unapenda reggae nina collection nyumbani
Tumefika kuja piga left hapa njiani
Have some of that tuongee mambo flani (mambo flani).
In those rhymes, she answers many questions to the affirmative: Can a Nairobi girl ask a guy out? Is she liberated to make choices – like pick a man she fancies? In control enough to ask for what she wants, say a cigarette – ignoring all the perils of the habit? What kind of man does she want ? Seems like smelling good will get you places dating this side of the Sahara. Maybe this verse also serves as an inkling for well groomed men by Nairobi women. More importantly though is that this verse should be seen as a seminal point in the feminist movement in Kenya.
Feminism, Love & A Nairobi Female Pop Icon
For many reasons Nazizi’s vibe occupies this hallowed spot. Some of its stock is elucidated in the rhetoric questions that we’ve asked above. Mostly though it’s because of the person who utters the words. And it is simply not because Nazizi is a household name in East Africa by the time the song comes out. Or the fact that she portrays an assured, independent demeanor, but in the way she owns the feminist agenda. Writing for The Guardian, Nancy Fraser distills the noble roots of feminism as movement that promised:
a new form of liberalism, able to grant women as well as men the goods of individual autonomy, increased choice, and meritocratic advancement
Nairobi Up Close: Keeping It On The Down Low
For all its rich history, Nairobi never has really been a Graffiti city. I’d equate this Ogopa Djs production to a subluminal piece that sought for street art’s place in Nairobi’s then nascent hip hop culture scene. In the then pioneering music video, vibrant portrayals of graffiti art serve as the backdrop of a uniquely Nairobi love story. Here graffiti is beyond an ode to matatu culture, serving to embody Nairobi’s younger generations defiance of prescribed sexuality.
That said, non-mainstream sexual expressionism and identities are hush hush in Nairobi. Indeed, most are illegal in Kenya. But that doesn’t stop Nairobi from offering an array of treats that can satisfy any fetish, thirst or kinks. You won’t find spots openly advertising as Gentlemen clubs here. But by any other pseudonym, operating on the thin margins of legality, they light up the city, going by such harmless tags as Bars & Restaurants with “shows”.
Others go by the names of exquisite globally known sex tourism locales. Then there are houses in posh neighborhoods serving as ‘massage parlours’ and ‘private party’ members only establishments. Pretty much everything is served, you just need to find the way to those corners.
4. Moto Moto by French Boy & Ray C
The YouTube description calls out this evergreen hit as having a ” good feel of out door Nairobi inter twinned with the 2 musicians having a musical conversation.” It is the songs conversation bit that brings Nairobi up close. This could as well be a simple boy meets girl thing. Only that the girl is the sexy Tanzanian songbird Ray C. Going by this, it could be a story of exotic passion as we are made to believe cross-cultural relationships are. But really it is an ode to the smooth ways of Nairobian boys and by extension, the charm of Nairobi as a love spot. A city of love not in the romantic ways of Paris, but in more hot, hot ways, as the song’s title announces.
Moto moto is a night out in Nairobi. It is how city flashing lights can ignite sparks of passion. Guaranteed, in Nairobi, you will dance, get high and fall in love. Any day of the week, all year long. Almost any time of the day. That is if you know the right spots as day time drinking is largely Nairobi is illegal. It is not Spring Break crazy. Rather more Party and Bullshit in the Rita Ora sense. Kenyan group (Sauti Sol) whose music we feature in another installment of this musical take on Nairobi offers a clue in the ballad Isabella :
Hey Isabella are you gonna come out and dance with me tonight
The stars look beautiful outside, so so beautiful
Tell your mama I said sorry I didn't bring you home early last time
And I was a little tipsy I know she doesn't miss me
So put on those shoes that I like and we'll go and dance the night away away
Because YOLO YOLO (you only live once) so, and me I wanna have some fun vunja mifupa kama meno iko, up and away we go, and spend all my money on you baby 'cause I can't take it with me when I'm dead
So tonight, tonight we are young, high and in love
5. Nyakadem’s Take on Nairobi Up Close – Nya Nairobi
Once again, the bio on our chosen portal for this trove of music on Nairobi has this on Nyakadem’s take on Nairobi up close: Taken off Makadem’s CD OHANGLAMAN. It’s a song in praise of the daughter(s) of Nairobi.
“Nya” is the Luo equivalent of the Bantu preposition of “Ka” particularly when in reference to the geographical origins of a woman. It is interesting to note that unlike the Cartel, Alfayo and Gathee wa Njeri song, there is no Luo-nisation of the word Nairobi. Could be simply thanks to geographical constructs. But there is no denying the deliberate pick of the woman lead in the music video.
Cartel and co. went for the quintessential Nairobi woman of the night/ Slay Queen /party animal. Need I say she is stereotyped as Kikuyu? Nyakadem goes for the other stereotype: Western women. The surrogate here is the lead woman with Nilotic features – possibly Luo. She is fortuitously portrayed as ‘unsullied’ by city life. So much so that the courting game involves a would be suitor playfully chasing her round. A chase designed to reincarnate encounters in romance novels.
Cartel & Co. are doing pop while Nyakadem is one of the capital’s most accomplished Afro-fusion artistes. His internationally acclaimed music is heavy on ethnic influences. This stylistic ocean could explain the differences so brought out here.
Still, does this song tell of a forgotten facet of relationships in Nairobi ? Spice is the flavor of life so they say. And Nyakadem shows us that Nairobi up close is definitely not a bland city.
6. And If Just Want To Have Some Fun, Manzi wa Nairobi By Nonini & Sylvia Spells The Possibilities
Now this song. This song taught us to dare. The visuals, believe it or not were radical at the time of its release. The message, well, the so called ‘militant feminists’ wouldn’t take to it too well. Nonetheless, the song’s lyrics also play on the ethnic stereotypes that we’ve tackled on here in our attempt at getting Nairobi up close.
It appears like all intents were for a song that sing praises to the voluptuous beauty of the Nairobi women. However, it ended up pronouncing the arrival of a sexual revolution whose main streak was sexual liberalism we see today in Nairobi. The protagonist sings of his escapades with Nairobi women of different ethnic extractions, doing well to highlight ethnic stereotypes.
Manzi (old school sheng for girl) wa ( Swahili variant of the Bantu preposition ‘of’ ) Nairobi is a nice place to start learning Sheng. Sheng can’t be said to be the language of love in Nairobi. But anyone planning to visit Nairobi for a bit of fun would do themselves a whole lot of good picking up a few words. That is, if they desire to get up close and personal.