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Nairobi City Guide: Beyond Coffee Table Guides & Glossy Inflight Magazines, This is Nairobi Through Music by Nairobians on Kenya’s Capital

The tracks that feature here are those whose lyrical content and music videos gives the audience a real feel of Nairobi. The songs are essentially Nairobi City guide but in the non-traditional sense. They 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, and which face you are likely to patronize depending on the type of tourist you are: budget traveler, business traveler or service corps types. I’d describe them as less ghetto than Scarface’s On My Block, falling somewhere in the midst of a scale that has Jay-Z + Alicia Keys Empire State of Mind on the upper end.

The words- Portrait of Nairobi Through Music: A seies, the Nairobi City guides; upon the city's citysacpae at dawn

Nairobi City Cityscape, a view from Upper Hill Business District. Photography | James Wahome. Buy James a cup of coffee here.

This article is the second of a series on : A portrait of Nairobi Through Music. This project feels 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 distilled city guides like no other. Unlike coffee table types or glossy inflight magazine cliché types. Like this piece on Nairobi culture, city zoning and Nairobi state of mind.

1 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 the three faces of Nairobi: Nairobbery (more on that later); the electric and vibrant Nairobi nightlife; and the city’s eclectic culture.

On Nairobi’s Nairobbery tag, Jua Cali drops a tight one with this line. Artistic liberty or a warning worth heading? Possibly both. Might I add, nothing peculiar to Nairobi as just about every major city struggles with violent crime. For now, we’ll leave Nairobbery at that as another part of this series on a portrait Nairobi through music conclusively delves into this persona of the city.

City in the sun? hapana siku hizi tunaiita

(No! nowadays we call it) City in the gun

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, Eastleigh neighborhood, East of Nairobi.

City Dreams: Moving on Up

I endeavor to localize Karibu Nairobi as the hit wades right into the circus that every inner city hip hop act unsuccessfully plays at somewhere down their career. The good life Jua Cali raps on about tickles the perennial question: how ‘soft’ can a rap star get without being accused of being sell outs? That they have become agents of those appropriating/gentrifying their inner city culture? As regards this ideological divide, Nairobi is pervasively immoral. If the continuing sucess of artistes of the likes of Jua Cali is anything to go by. Everybody dreams of moving on up, Kuomoka, and those who do are worshiped irrespective of the means/source of their wealth.

Controversy aside, like any good MC Jua Cali seeks to move the crowd with shout outs to Nairobi’s favorite things. Like the ladies, hard partying and drinking. “Wee jiachilie Nairobi itatulinda,” (let loose/flow along, Nairobi shall take care of us) one of Kenya’s hip hop legends preaches.

City Architecture

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. Skyscrapers that are an unmistakable part of the city’s skyline. Including the internationally renown talk shop meet spot, Kenyatta International Conference center, KICC. Not forgetting symbols that serve as reminders of Nairobi’s status as East Africa’s corporate capital. Notably the iconic all blue, glass clad I&M Bank Tower.

He also hails transformation of the city’s arteries that picked up in earnest in 2010 with construction of mega highways. Right at the end, Jua Cali odes the city’s seven lane highways something that Nairobi has only in bits.

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’. 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 yesternight. Or a seven man crew that mocks the listener after engaging with the listener’s girlfriend in group sex activity.'”

Google Map to I&M Bank Tower in Nairobi CBD

A Nairobi City Guide for the Budget Traveler: How To Do Nairobi As Nairobians

Karibu Nairobi wraps it up with its guide to Nairobi, a guide more suited to the budget traveler, by flaunting Nairobi’s erstwhile menu of world-famous Kenya’s cultural tourist attractions. 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).

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.

2 Maisha ya Nairobi by 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 the inevitable feeling of foreboding that is 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:

“Siwezi! Siwezi!

Mi Siwezi!”

(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. Serving to remind us of how the other half lives. That indeed the city is cruel to some.

Slum Tourism in Nairobi

I find it disturbing that the misery of a section, the majority actually, of Nairobians is often packaged as some sort of activity 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. For the tourist hoping to experience this side of Nairobi, they’ve got to be the outliers. To patronize 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.

Nonetheless, in defiance of the grim situation, the rap verse towards the end of Maisha ya Nairobi is 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

3 Nairobi – 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 wrapped up in the expat bubble, burdened by personal loans, 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 the 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. Every song seems to be an ode to the sounds of before. We could blame the resurgence of Rhumba music from its embers in the capital 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, that’s not so distant. The proximity enabling the 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 Tottenham’s 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.

Throw Back

Because they are still active, young guys coming through can still reach out to them. 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 to rural 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.

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. Enriched by alien ones both African and from without the mother continent: Nigerian, Ugandan, Brazilian, Chinese, begetting us a beautiful tapestry.

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