Nairobi: A Portrait of Kenya’s Capital through Music

Last updated on April 20th, 2018 at 01:17 pm

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. So effectively so 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.

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Thanks 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.

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?