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Kenya’s Hip Hop Colony

September 29, 2007

Hip Hop Colony: The African Hip Hop Explosion

By Kwan Booth (October 06,

Hip Hop Colony, the new film by Director Michael Wanguhu and Russell Kenya, explores the emergence of Kenyan Hip Hop culture and it’s struggles to gain legitimacy. The film screened recently at the Oakland International Film Festival and I talked to the director about his inspiration, Kenya’s current music scene, and Hip Hop’s ability to break down boundaries.

Why did you to make this film? What’s your relationship to the Hip Hop community?
I’ve always been intrigued by African Hip hop since my first visit to Kenya in 1999 after about three years away. When I left home/Kenya, there was no such thing as “Kenyan Hip Hop” and in only three or so years away, it was a whole new world out there. I was about to finish film school and that’s when it hit me. I wanted to tell our own story, to tell a story that celebrated our own people. However the main inspiration came from watching 8mile. In the film, Eminem plays an aspiring rapper struggling to find the strength and courage to transcend boundaries that define his life. In a way this applied to me and my business partner Russell Kenya. We simply wanted to break in the film and video industry with a captivating story. Another reason was that Africa is one way or another plagued with the impression of wars, jungles and hunger. This bothers me and I felt I had a chance to show Africa in a shinning new light to help the world see us from a different angle.

My visit back home in 1999 brought us to the realization that unlike any other American music such as Rock & Roll, R&B, Big Band, Blues, Jazz, etc, Hip-Hop is the only American musical genre to have a defined worldly culture and have an immense popularity in Africa. Hip Hop and Rap are the preferred music of today’s African youth. In fact Hip Hop is doing what the African-American Civil Rights movement failed to do: bring Africans and African Americans together under the same flag.

Kenya’s urban cities are just as developed as any western country. Our vision strongly tooled with these truths, we set to do a documentary to invite, entertain and educate the world about a new Africa. While trying to transcend previous notions that have created boundaries, defined and prevented investors from empowering Africa by opening business ventures. Let me give an example of how big Kenyan Hip Hop is. The film Constant Gardener, recently opened at the theater’s in the States. The song “Forever” by Necessary Noise (Nazizi & Wyre featured in the film Hip Hop Colony) was featured in the soundtrack. That was a pay off for the efforts our local hip hop stars are doing. Previously when movies were done about Kenya, they’d feature mainly traditional folk songs, not that there’s anything wrong with that but now times have changed. Hip Hop is an integral part of the musical canopy as Hollywood and others have also come into the realization.

Kenya gained it’s independence from Britain in 1964, and now its being “colonized” by Hip Hop, originally a Black American Art form. How do young people navigate and define themselves as Kenyans in the face of these outside influences?
What makes hip hop very unsuspecting in terms of its influence, is its ability to integrate, it’s chameleon-like quality. In Kenya it’s camouflaged in Swahili, which gives it instant authenticity and acceptance. MC’s rap in both English and Swahili and issues relate to the youth, more especially. So at any one time you’ll find youth singing along without question the music’s source of origin. Today the artists proudly refer to issues that Kenyan audiences can relate to. It’s wonderful when a Kenyan artists can make smart rhymes that articulate and offer possible solutions to their situation as a result mastering the art of rapping, seeing their situation and articulating it with their own voice. Everyday day they strive to localize everything from abroad, because at the end of the day those international stars and celebrity influences couldn’t care less about them anyway. 50 cent won’t worry about going to Kenya to promote his album, so why should the locals care?

Describe the music scene in Kenya. Are there opportunities for the Hip Hop artists in particular and have they been welcomed into the industry?
I think it’s the most vibrant scene in Africa, I mean being in Kenya is just one big party. Kenya is generally a peaceful country and like “Bamboo” says in the film, “It’s a cultural melting pot. Cultures from all over come and meet.”

In the 70’s Nairobi, Kenya, became a popular crossroads for African musicians, who either made Kenya their home or a frequent stopover concert venue. Their influence on Kenyan music was considerable, and much of popular Kenyan music derives its central rhythms and guitar lines from Congolese pop. Even today Lingala and Congolese music is extremely popular throughout Kenya. We also have some influence from the coast using Swahili and Arabic styles, resulting in a unique Kenyan pop music, spearheaded by Them Mushrooms (featured in Hip Hop Colony). The 90’s have seen a great deal more of Western influence, and the adoption of reggae, rap, rhythm and blues and swing into Kenyan music. Kenyan Rap has become increasingly popular among the youth, and there are several Kenya-based rap acts, most of them featured in Hip Hop Colony.

While the sounds of groups like Kalamashaka or Necessary Noize are virtually indistinguishable from US-based rappers, the lyrics are most definitely Kenyan and say a lot about life in modern Kenya.
Ragga/Reggae/dancehall has also become popular, with blends of Afro-reggae and rap. One of the better known Kenyan Ragga artist is Redsan, a male vocalist very popular in East Africa. As the current trend for fusion of world and western styles grows, many Kenyan artists are exploring this new realm of musical possibility.

What is Genge? How did it evolve and how does it differ from American Hip Hop and traditional Benga Music?
Genge music means music for the people. Genge in Swahili mean a large crowd of people. The music has a large following in Kenya so they call it Genge music. The artists combine Benga music (which is the original Kenyan sound from the 60’s with influence from African Jazz with guitar work and a rumba rhythm of the Congolese pop which is every popular among the older folks) and mixes it with the hip hop beat and a lot of other local languages (Sheng, English, Kiswahili & dialects). So you find that as the industry grows more and more artists get involved, it’s now beginning to shape up into something distinctive. Now in East Africa you can tell the difference between a Tanzanian rap artist from a Kenyan rap artist.

In Kenya, Hip Hop seems to have been embraced by the political community. How did this evolve and is it helping to legitimize the culture?
Kenya ‘s current President Mwai Kibaki, rode in part on a Hip Hop ticket. It’s a unique marriage. Hip Hop helps the President win the elections by reaching out to the fans, the same hip hop turns around to rebuke the president and his government when they don’t live up to their billing. What happened was the NARC (National Rainbow Coalition) officials approached Gidi Gidi Maji Maji and their producer, hit-maker Tedd Josiah, and paid them to use the song “UNBWOGABLE” (which means Unshakeable, Unbeatable, Unstoppable. They used it in their campaigns to help get their message out. The notion of “unbeatable ” invincibility caught hold of the Kenyan general public and helped wipe out the previous corrupted regime.

One of the themes in the movie is the way that, similar to the US, Hip Hop is starting to provide jobs and ways for youth, many of them with college degrees but no job prospects, to make a living. Hip Hop is creating massive demands for graphic designers with every CD, every event there are attractive banners to be made. The artists have genuine fans who want to dress like them, hence opportunities are created for designers to dress the artists and their fans who admire them. Due to the popularity of the artists there’s more demand for them and this in part also helps create opportunities for mobile DJ’s to play live at these events.

Do youth in Kenya feel a connection to Black Americans?
Yes they do, more especially because of the color of their skin. Most of them wish for the same opportunities to make something significant out of their lives. The likes of Jay-z, Diddy, 50 Cent, Will Smith serve as inspiration due to their significant accomplishments.

Has there been any discussion over the Katrina Disaster?
Actually a lot of folks we’ve talked to out there say they don’t understand Katrina and it’s effects as a hurricane however the media has really focused on the black people that have been sidelined by it. All in all, everyone wishes the city and the affected areas a quick recovery.

What’s next for the film?
To get the film out to every household in the States, Europe and the World at large. Hip Hop is a global culture; hence we intend to get it distributed globally.

What’s next for Michael Wanguhu and Emerge Media Films?
There are a series of projects in the Pipeline stemming from Hip hop colony. We are developing a short film, finishing on our second narrative screenplay and in development on another documentary feature.

A version of this article first appeared on

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 24, 2008 4:34 am

    Kudos for the educative and entertaining piece on Hip hop colony, I really learnt a lot. This is the way forward for the Kenyan youths out there. One love…………

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