Over the years, Hip-Hop has chronologically evolved into tributaries, forming sub-genres such as trap, shrap and drill. During the 1970s in the Bronx, these elements are shaped by the realities of poverty, police presence, and racial inequity that black people experience in America.1 Similarly, after colonization, Kenya was entrenched in poverty, classism, and tribalism. Though these origin stories seem quite different, many of th ese mirrored experiences and inequalities birthed legendary Hip-Hop groups like Kalamashaka.
Originating from Dandora – an urban slum, came the outcry of oppressed youth with fierce lyrics. Singles such as ‘Tafsiri Hii” brought out the tough life in the ghettos.2 Here, the first foundation of Hip-Hop was laid as groups such as Ukoo Fulani, Mashifta emerged, forming an era championing freedom of speech through political awareness and social activism. Their main job? To find a way to educate people on democracy. Groups such as K-South tackled these issues in a humorous manner with hit songs such as “Nairoberry” which was banned by the late president Daniel Arap Moi as they preached of his less than democratic regime.3 Despite Hip-Hop being associated with the less privileged it is believed that before the breakout of Kalamashaka, Hip-Hop was rapidly growing in the underground. This was through rap battles and B-Boy dancing—heavy elements of rap culture.
As the genre matured, new sub-genres such as Kapuka and Genge emerged. Moving from the focal point of their predecessors they shifted their lyrics to issues such as girls, and simply having a good time. Remember “Under 18” by Jimwatt? During this period, the media was also receiving liberation, shifting from state governed stations to private media stations.. This new side of Hip-Hop was more appealing to the media. It was harmless as it didn’t touch on sensitive issues like corruption or tribalism and so they could easily air it on radios and TVs.
Media stations such as Kiss 100 formed a partnership with Ogopa Dj, a record label. This allowed them to push music from Ogopa and affiliated labels and artists for example, DJ Kleptomaniax, E-Sir, Amani, and Nameless. The music business was slowly turning towards commercialization, and this drastically affected the industry landscape. At the beginning, Kenya had only few entertainers, but now there are numerous acts across various genres. The issue is that there’s more people but fewer distinct genres. Considering the current social media landscape, we’re living in a time where trends come and go in the space of a few months or even a few weeks, where before it might have been a few years. Information spreads so quickly, and this has allowed very little space for sound diversification because your “one shot” is often to make the kind of music most popular at the time, so you can be swiftly catapulted to fame.
While artists in the underground scene, such as Maburguda Nation are still speaking on socio-political issues, mainstream fame is difficult to establish without engaging with how the internet has changed the musical landscape. Artists are less likely to see longevity, and it makes it easier for young artists to be taken advantage of by their management as they try to gain a foothold on all platforms to appeal to their chosen demographics.
Over the recent years, I feel a new wave of Hip Hop seems to be on the rise with acts such as Baraka and Kelele Kollective who are bringing in new features such as auto tune into the Kenyan Hip-hop market. Some of the new-school rappers have introduced new Hip Hop movements such as Boutross, popularizing Shrap. One core element has changed though, the underdog status of Hip Hop no longer exists in a wide sense: the world, aesthetic, and artistry of hip hop has changed from identifying primarily to the poor and to the disenfranchised. It’s shifted to include the 1 percenters and tax evaders too. The language, the style, the tropes, and the performative aspects of the genre have become a mirror of the luxurious life we’re all encouraged to want.