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21st Century Kenyan Music : Find Out Whose Songs Make It Into Our Top 3 Conscious Sociopolitical Hip Hop Hits Rocking Kenyan Airwaves

I wouldn’t say that “Problem” By Naiboi is my all time favorite Kenyan hip hop song. Far from it. What holds though is that I dearly love the song beyond its infectious groovy fast beat that’s typical to pop Kenyan music, as it is the most practical so far.

Practicality might be a strange metric by which to rate a song–but in that corner of my world where I sit on my egomaniacal throne and judge people and things–it makes sense.

Here, on my high horse skeptical of anything Kenyan as only a Kenyan would do best, beyond the normal metrics used in the struggle to define Kenyan-ness in Kenyan music, practicality comes up top.

What Is Kenyan Music?

Kindly indulge me as I explain what I mean by practicality and Kenyan-ness.

Kenyan Flag

Simply put, beyond the song being sang by a Kenyan or in a Kenyan language. And above its claim to nest somewhere in spectrum of Kenyan music genres from Kapuka to Ohangala; to earn my love, the song has to resonate with my everyday run-the-mill 21st century life as a Kenyan.

Let’s Indulge further;

Kenyan-ness: How Politics Defines What It Means To Be Kenyan

You can take this to your bank, safe deposit it and use it to pay your NHIF.  Kenyan-ness i.e. being a proper Kenyan, means that politics is always pinging my mind. Americans have their Kardashians. We Kenyans have our politicians who hate to keep up with but die to prop up.

You see being a Kenyan, politics defines me. Aside from being male/female, Caucasian /African etc; I constantly have to be aware that my countrymen like some google-bot are actively analyzing my existence. Stereotyping me, using tribe as the only measure, and placing me in this political grouping or the other.

With this unsolicited constant analysis it means that you can’t just, for instance, proclaim your dream for your children to work with NASA (pun intended). Or even offer that you have been able to sleep more soundly lately because you know that your relationship with JUBILEE (again pun intended) will take care of your children if something untoward happened to you today.

Our politics is like a malware infested porn site

Why is it so? Why would a father minding his children’s future be unwelcome? Because in 21st century Kenya, such harmless statements can be toxic in the ‘wrong’ environment.I’d liken this to what happens you forget to ‘private browse’ when you visiting some ‘not for office viewing’ websites and “accept cookies“.

Cookies word pun in relation to diabetes: "Do you accept cookies?"

And before you know it uko ndani ndani kabisa with your demons are out in the open causing you embarrassment.

In your inbox there are messages from dodgy persons with names like “Pat Stevens” telling you that they are nearby and would like to hook up. Worse, it might be the calls from distraught kindred inquiring about your safety having received embarrassing emails from you.

With the artificial intelligence thing in advertising, whenever you search the internet, you have all these flashy advertising banners calling for you to accept the 50% offer on some ‘enlarging’ cream and ‘endurance’ pill.

I digress! Kind reminder though that while in Nairobi, be careful not to faux pas with your political speak. It can go south so quickly the next thing you know you are losing business and friends as doors are being shut where they had been opened.Boss! Being Kenyan in the 21st century is something.

But then, The Music Hits You

Music hits you when you least expect it. Like on this random moment when I was having random thoughts on such things as my Kenyan-ness. On the car radio, there was a street Dj mixing up Kenyan music. Naiboi’s Problem comes on and the practicality of the song hits you so hard helping you drift further into thought.

I remember that on that particular day, I was stuck in Nairobi traffic as usual when “Problem” came on. It was the first time I was hearing the song. At first, since the song was unfamiliar,my brain footnotes it and hums on in yada yada mode.

Then inconspicuously, Naiboi’s hit single sneaks up on me. It navigates quickly, scaling up the depths of my random thoughts to be joint 1st with my Sports Pesa bet; blinking fuel gauge; fantasies of escaping to Haleakala and the hawker selling ripe bananas (who,by the way, my Nairoberry instincts characterizes as the camouflaged open-car-window-snatcher-thief type). In between all that I instinctively check out my phone’s location and move it to a safer spot.

Politics a problem

Without realizing it am drumming on the steering wheel to this new song. By the end of second hook, am sure that I will be able to sing along the next time it’s on. As the Dj layers on the next song in his Kenyan Music set, subliminally cued by the litany of campaign posters plastered on walls everywhere, this rendition pops up in my mind:

Politics ni problem…Ooooh! ni problem…Aya! Siasa ni problem…Sasa kuna problem….Naiboi in Problem

Practicality? There you have it.

It is at such voilà moments might I add, sitting on my egomaniacal throne, when the music that was otherwise just a footnote in my thoughts transforms and becomes Kenyan Music. The soundtrack to my Kenyan existence.For that fleeting moment, it feels proud to be Kenyan. And the 21st century hustle becomes bearable once again.

What Makes Music Consciousness or Socially Engaged Even Sociopolitical?

The ability to jolt one from the mentally numbing din of everyday life to consider the substance of their existence in a given context is what makes music conscious. Truly conscious music goes beyond style. It goes beyond the contemporary quintessential image of clever rumblings of a guy strumming away on a guitar or rhymes over some dope hip hop beat

Having got the semantics out-of-the-way, when we speak here of conscious Kenyan music, conscious Kenyan Hip Hop; this is what we are listening to:

Kenyan Message by Muthoni The Drummer Queen, MDQ, fits the bill for Kenyan Music that describes the current times

Muthoni Drummer Queen’s music would have had greater popular acclaim were it not her insistence at not simply being ahead of her time, but being stubbornly at it. Her latest song Kenyan Message is opportunistic and in that way,becomes Kenyan and relevant. I just love the way MDQ pushes the envelope on Kenyan Music on the song’s hook with her ode to The Message by DJ GrandMaster Flash and The Furious Five. Watch and Listen:

MDQ knows that Kenyan-ness doesn’t take well to balls out avant-garde ideas. Especially not in our music.Nonetheless, middle finger out, Muthoni The Drummer Queen’s style in this hip hop track continues to evolve and in doing so tells the world of our national shame.

That shame of not knowing how to define Kenyan music. The way the Congolese can with their Lingala, Ndombolo and Rhumba or South Africans are with their Kwaito.

In the midst of this debate that has been there since the days of Kalamashaka, MDQ does not hide under some generic term like Kapungala but rather challenges Kenyans by going about her do and letting them categorize as they please as hit after hit of her songs invades their consciousness.

MDQ Breaking barriers, changing the game

Check this out:

  1. MDQ is a woman in patriarchal Kenya.
  2. She is a woman who raps!
  3. Then (as I had earlier indicated of our bad habits as Kenyans) her second name ‘betrays her’.

A combination of all these outlier traits is likely to confuse the average Kenyan mind of pre-election 2017 Kenya, why her songs are so liberal and so anti-establishment.Her courage to solider on regardless is what earns her a place among the medals here. By all accounts her Makmende ways- of refusing to go away like in the Wikipedia Makmende duel, which need I say, Makmende won- is thoroughly Kenyan-ness.

Beyond Her Music, MDQ is An Activist By Heart

MDQ is so real that she earns a second video spot. This time it is a You Tube clip of an interview she had in a popular Friday night TV show in Kenyan Message media promo. Watch as MDQ breaks it down for the masses.

With the prevailing Kenya Health Crisis that is so hard to understand, I can’t get over this verse in “Kenyan Message”

Nowadays hosi hakuna madoctor….Na gava hijali​ juu sisi wagonjwa…Tukienda private tutapay so ni obvious nani ana say

Which translates to:

Nowadays hospitals have no doctors….It is the government that doesn’t care for us the sick…When we go to private hospitals we pay so it’s obvious that whoever pays the piper chooses the tune.

Think by H_ART The Band Shows That Kenyan Music Will Thrive In The 21st Century

Ladies and gentlemen, allow us to reintroduce to you: H_ART The Band. This Kenyan boy band first serenaded us with love songs spiced an urban feel like Uliza Kiatu and Nikutazama before finally hitting us with a heavy one in “Think”.

In their signature spoken word fashion,Think delivers raw thought-provoking messages via rhymes and audiophiles. This choice of genre by H_ART The Band is interesting as it remains true with the Zeitgeist of 21st century Kenyan music where individualized art forms like spoken word are going mainstream.

You can find the full script of Think (feels like an injustice to call them  Lyrics) by following the highlighted text.

You see,“They”… Call us… the “leaders of tomorrow”,…Cliché huh?…But we’re just the riders of sorrow,Hart The Band in Think

The All Time No. 1 Sociopolitical Conscious Hip Hop Kenyan Music Hit has to be Utawala by Juliani

First of all, I remain a fan of the Juliani of Ukoo Fulani Mau Mau.  Moreover, before you guys label me a hater, let me offer here that I have also come to learn we all need appreciate a man’s choices and respect his hustle.

Circa 2004, I had a chance meeting with Juliani hawking CDs of his music at around midday smack in the high African sun. It was just outside the gate leading to the University of Nairobi medical students hostels at Kenyatta National Hospital, Nairobi. There by the road that leads out of the Hospital’s gate B.

Needless to say, Juliani is today one a 21st century Kenyan music icon. With the benefit of hindsight it now appears to me that the Lyrics in Utawala are a culmination of this journey by Juliani from grass to grace. Listening in, one gets the impression that Juliani rediscovered his Ukoo Fulani Mau Mau voice again. I dare say that Utawala is the voice of Juliani’s roots.

Why is the song a classic? It embodies the mantra that the role of an artist is to raise the consciousness capital of society

As he rediscovers his roots, Juliani personifies what it means to be a true artist: a mirror (Micheal Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror”) that reflects society.

In our case here, Juliani in Utawala speaks for the Kenyans stuck down there struggling to stay afloat. One would say that all this whilst still reminding himself that having found some respite from this struggle,like poorer Kenyans he still suffers from the effects of bad governance and leadership. Juliani refuses to bury his head in sand and chooses to use his stardom to fight with the downtrodden.

The song’s nostalgic take-us-to-church chorus gives Utawala its Kenyan-ness cred.

Niko njaaa hata siezi karanga….(hoehae shaghala bhaghala)… niko tayari kulipa gharama….sitasimamaa maovu yakitawala….sitasimama maovu yakitawala….Ufisadi, ibinafsi ukabila…kuuza sura wataki kuuza sera….Undugu nikufaana…sitasimama maovu yakitawala….siatasimama maovu yakitawalaJuliani in Utawala

For our non Swahili speaking readers, please follow the highlighted text for a full English translation.

Special Mention: Holy Dave Representn’ Gospel Kenyan Music With Ushai Notice

Tight lyrics in there, good rhyming and sufficient imagery ensures the listener follows through. Good job here Holy Dave. It’s not often one says that about a conscious track. The easy route for most artists when doing a socially engaged song is to be as obscure as possible in pursuit of elusive artistry.

PhD studies and all, Holy Dave is a class act too.He takes the trouble to reply to every You Tube video comment. For that , I too will go the extra mile and quote the full video credits as per his YouTube post:

Director: Jim Skritchy. Producer: Ace Beats (Studio 8). Cinematographer: Maurice Murage. Cast dressed by Timmah Mann #MasterTailors. Produced by Ace Beats & Sir Vin (Studio 8), Ssence Studios, Folklore Films. Adlibs by Linda Wanjiru. Guitar by Fredy. Piano by Emmanuel Irungu. Written and performed by Holy Dave. Connect with Holy Dave: Instagram: @holydavemuthengi Twitter: @holydave Facebook: Holy Dave a.k.a H.D

For sure though, Kenyan music is coming of age.

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