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Nairobi: A Portrait of Kenya’s Capital through Music

Can a city’s soul be seen through its music? Music lovers will tell you that Taarab music is quintessentially Swahili culture. In that wherever you are in the world, when Taarab comes on, it strums the innermost, purest depths of the soul. In a manner that ends up stirring up the pool in one’s soul filled with all emotions, memories and regrets of their last visit to Mombasa, Dar-es-salam or Zanzibar City. In 3D-like fashion that one can almost taste the air of that East African coastal enclave where they last lazed about on the sandy white beaches. Anyone can get that. But still, I ask: ” Can you know a city through the songs sang about it?” That’s the question I faced with my home city: Nairobi.

A pirates tools of trade include a dagger, bandana, telescope and treasure map all which come in handy in unpacking Nairobi' Eastleigh's neighborhood as to sucessfully do that, one needs to follow the money and watch their back while at it.

Time Portrait of Nairobi’s Eastleigh: From Home of the Nouveau Riche, to Bustling Satellite Town Battling a Reputation of Crime

Contemporary conjecture on the piracy-industrial-complex implores that taking a drive through Nairobi’s Eastleigh would be of great benefit. We explore why [dropcap]E[/dropcap]astleigh is a neighborhood east of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. As it follows, like in most other cities in the world,  the east end

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hanks to YouTube, what would have been otherwise an impossible task, was doable. Nonetheless, undertaking such a project whilst restricted to digital music, no less a single repository, has its pitfalls. First, Google is not UNESCO. Secondly, obviously rather, not all songs are readily available in digital format. All that considered though, it being that YouTube’s content is user-generated, chances are that musical pieces that are most important to its global community are representative of global tastes.

Painting My City’s Portrait With Music

Moreover, it’s precisely these handicaps that got me excited about this project. The fact that there was a significant chance that all my scouring , scraping and digging would still leave some gems hidden. That even with the support of the team here, I could still turn up short. This imperfectness means that there can only be one outcome. That you, dearest reader, will hit us up with song titles that we’ve missed.

With you working with us, our shared resfeber will surely answer to the insistent tug of our wanderlust. Together, we will voyage in search of those songs about Nairobi, that will lead us to knowing the city’s soul. In this journey, like in any trip, the dividend of a chance at  colliding with kindred souls is ever a welcome possibility.

This is because discovering new music is always a process of self discovery. First the listener wallows in the Yūgen of the world revealed to us by the artiste. Then you get to know the musician. Savor the genre. Decipher the song’s message, and cap it all by juxtaposing all that against the spirit of the times. What a feeling that is, I tell you!

With Kenyan music — the chunk of songs about Nairobi that we will sample here — this couldn’t be especially true. Confucius must have been talking of Kenyan music when he proclaimed: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” Such is the jungle of Kenyan music out here.

Different Shades, Different Songs About Nairobi

In this voyage, you will be meeting Kenyan artistes who’d want their music to be classified as Kapuka for what it’s worth. Then there will be the anathema who release dis-tracks , playing on subtle stylistic deviations, in order to profit from the business of distancing themselves from being labelled a Boomba artiste. From this group we will sample music from Genge, Kaya Hip Hop , Afro neosoul, Afro fusion and Kenyan underground hip hop artistes.

We needed to appreciate this tag-of-war in identities for it is an important strut in understanding the architecture of Nairobi’s soul. Because in this journey of knowing Nairobi through its music, will unearth some of the roots of identity politics in Kenya’s capital. We shall also come to appreciate that, with Nairobi, it is not always about sharp cultural divisions. There are strong assimilationist, arguably appropriator, types roaming Nairobi streets. They too have sang songs about their view of the city.

Nairobi State of Mind

Take the case of folk musicians who envision Mugithi  and Kenyan Hip Hop as a good idea. Through the struggles of these adventurous types experimenting with fusing genres, we see how Nairobi is like that. Alike to New York, Chicago, Cape Town or any other metropolitan city in the 21st century – modern villages.

Spaces of tribal existence loosely sewn together by brittle bridges of urban culture. The taut strings that barely hold cities together are in the form of urban lingo, street food, shared vanities and for Nairobi, the unique phenomenon – matatus.

We learn that Nairobi is a fragile equilibrium of modern hedonism, postcolonial relics of existentialism and the communiterian ways of our ancestors. In deed, some artistes whose songs we feature, attest to what unfolds when this delicate equilibrium gets upset. These underground group just do not feel the love and unashamed sing about not feeling the love.

With their awakening lyrics, they conscientise us that the city is cruel to some. They empathize with those who feel that  Nairobi is not their city in a somewhat reverse KeNako paradigm. Their songs (dirges? conscious music?) showcases the Nairobi chapter of the global story of a widening wealth divide.

They too have an anathema group. Artistes who in keeping with global Hip Hop trends, offer an ambitious, aspirational, largely fantastical take on the same phenomenon of income inequality. An increasing majority of the younger hipper ones who boast of not only running the city, but are also so in love with city life they are that they belt out ballads.

Enough with the spoilers already, why don’t we just dive in? For an insider feel, taste and see of Nairobi, follow the links in dark orange in the titles.

Know Nairobi Through Music: The City Guides

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.

Discover Nairobi Nightlife Through Music: How East Africa’s Party Capital Gets Down

Nairobians love their drink. Could be a cultural thing or just collective escapism from living in an African city faced with the varagities of being on the shot-end of neo-liberalism. But that’s not the story for today. There are loads of songs about partying in Nairobi and other aspects of Nairobi nightlife but we picked only these two. Here is why.

Nairobi Up Close: Love, Sex and the City

From the time audiences met HBO’s Sex and the City, it became the automatic choice for pop culture references on explorations 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, the Lupita Nyong’o stared MTV’s Shuga tell of a city bravely confronting sex as a taboo. This installment of our series on a portrait of Nairobi through music, 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.

Living in Nairobi: When you find A home away from home in Kenya’s Capital

We have all gone traveling somewhere and never wanted to leave. This installment of our series that paints a portrait of Nairobi through music dutifully builds on our offerings of  Nairobi city guides beyond coffee table and glossy inflight magazines. In this edition, the experience of living in Nairobi inspired these chart topping musicians to sing about home.

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

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?