Nairobi: A Portrait of Kenya’s Capital through Music

YouTube made what would have been otherwise an impossible task doable. Nonetheless, undertaking a project such as this one whilst restricted to digital music, no less a single repository, has its pitfalls. Most obvious of all being that not all songs about Nairobi are readily available in digital format and online. All that considered though, it being that YouTube’s content is user-generated, chances are that musical pieces that are of most value to its global community can safely be assumed to be representative of global tastes and acclaim.

Painting My City’s Portrait With Music

Moreover, it’s precisely these types of handicaps that got me excited about this project – the painful realization 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 at MMIMMC, 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, the listener gets 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.

About The Series

Can a city’s soul be seen through its music? Lovers of African music will confess that Taarab music is quintessentially Swahili culture. Meaning, wherever one is in the world, whenever Taarab music comes on, it strums the innermost, purest depths of the soul – in a manner that stirs up the pool in one’s soul filled with all emotions, memories and regrets of their last visit to Mombasa, Dar-es-slam, Zanzibar City or their favorite East African coastal hideout.

Just like that, in 3D-like fashion, the Taarab teleports one  to the sandy white beaches, that one can almost taste the air. Anyone can get that. The power of music. But still, I ask: “Can you know a city through the songs sang about it?”

That’s the question we faced with our home city: Nairobi.

Nairobi City Guides

The music that features here lyrical content and music videos give the audience a real feel of Nairobi. These songs are essentially Nairobi City guides 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 – whose face visitors are likely to patronize depending on the type of tourists they are: budget travelers, business traveler or service corps types. Sometimes we will give you that taste and feel of Nairobi through I’d describe as less ghetto than Scarface’s On My Block. At times we will fall somewhere in the midst of a scale that has Jay-Z + Alicia Keys Empire State of Mind on one end and underground street anthems on the other. The music may assume a continental feel, be proudly ethnic or go after the heart of the world.

"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. Our series on a portrait of Nairobi through music includes a piece titled 'Nairobi up close' which reviews Kenyan songs on love, sex and the city. It is centered on Kenyan music that push the envelope on this often emotive conversation."
The lwandaz Tales attitude
Lwandaz Tales
MMIMMC Editor-at-Large

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.

Pinterest image for Nairobbery Revealed: A free e-guide to travelers to Nairobi on the notoriety of Kenya's capital

What Is Nairoberry?

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?.

Nairobi Music: The Sound of Nairobi

In this musical voyage of discovering Nairobi through its music, you will be meeting Kenyan artistes who’d want their music to be classified as Kapuka, Kenyan bubble gum pop, for what it’s worth.

Then there are the anathemas who release dis-tracks that play on subtle stylistic deviations, seeking to profit from the dividend of brand differentiation by distancing themselves from being labelled a Kapuka aka Boomba artiste. From this group we will sample music from Genge, Kaya Hip Hop , Afro neosoul, Afro fusion and Kenyan underground hip hop artistes.

In discovering Nairobi through its music, we need 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 musical journey, 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.

“Different Shades, Different Songs About Nairobi, One People One City”

 MMIMMC

"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. Find out why in our post on discovering Nairobi nightlife."
The lwandaz Tales attitude
Lwandaz Tales
MMIMMC Editor-at-Large

Our about

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