East Africa will no longer be ignored in wider Afropop conversations

The vibrant and musically diverse region has several things to say

It’s 9 pm in Nairobi, and the streets are buzzing with loud music; along Moi Avenue, matatus— or public service vehicles as they are known—are bumping Khaligraph Jones’ “Champez.” While it’s been a huge fight to get priority for Kenyan songs in her own country, we offer a live sacrifice to the gods for DJ mixes.

East Africa is a hidden gem that is waiting for discovery. Diamond’s eccentric videos and Khaligraph’s gruff voice are just the tip of the iceberg as you dive deeper into the contemporary urban music from the region. Apart from the excellent success stories of Diamond Platnumz, Sauti Sol, Victoria Kimani and several others, there’s a broader musical landscape grabbing ears locally and waiting to be discovered beyond its borders.

Presently, the curfew has just been lifted. After almost two years of no concerts, the event scene roars fresh, bringing in new acts. Eager fans are ready to go out and let off the isolation blues from the Coronavirus-induced lockdowns. Despite barely being mentioned in wider Afropop conversations—as the West and the South dominate chatter—the music coming out of East Africa is undeniably eccentric. While the mainstream industry is bubbling with unforgettable bangers, the underground scene is seething with new artists like Brain Simba and Sheeba Karungi. Culture curators and enthusiasts are also tirelessly working to uplift this ongoing phenomenon, and even fostering cross-country links. For example, UnKut Africa, a mental health/ entertainment website, has been holding a Kenyan Hip-Hop award show over the last few years and is expanding its borders to Tanzania and Uganda through the best East African Artist category.

That doesn’t mean homogeneity is being promoted. Rather, it’s reaching for togetherness through diversity. It’s a widely-held stereotype that Kenyans are quite picky with their music, but it’s the direct opposite with Ugandans. “Ugandans party a lot, so this translates to the type of music and the life they live,” Kipepeo Agency founder, Maija Rivenburg says, describing Uganda’s music scene as experimental and vibrant. “They prefer concerts hence we hold a lot of shows, which explains the Nyege Nyege festival.” The annual festival is a music and arts event founded in 2015, initially starting off as DJ gigs at house parties. It has grown into one of the most popular festivals on the continent, expanding to other countries such as Congo and even France. It’s a signifier of the region’s incremental recognition, and its limitless potential as more people tap into the multicolour musical trend emanating from the region.

In addition to in-bred musical styles, East Africa has always derived musical influences from its immediate natural environments, including the Arabic sound from the coastal region—which helped in birthing Bongo—South African rhythms and predominant Congolese Rumba. As the umbrella of contemporary African music has broadened to incorporate global influences, East Africa has also obliged, allowing the formation of new, delightful musical styles.

Shrap—an amalgamation of the mixed Swahili and English-based creole with Rap—is a booming tributary flowing from contemporary Hip-Hop, and is easily described as the Kenyan version of Trap. From “Wrong” by groundbreaking artist Boutross to Jovie Jovv’s “Kiasi”, there’s a breezy cool and an addictive essence to the sound.  It is one of the few original Kenyan genres, alongside Gengetone, an offspring of Genge and Kapuka, with Reggaeton influences. Gengetone held the country in a chokehold circa 2017 after pioneering music group, Ethic dropped “Lamba Lolo.” At this time, Kenyan artists championed #PlayKEMusic: a hashtag meant to promote Kenyan music on local airwaves.

In the few years that followed, Gengetone was all the rave, and even though it’s still very much around, its dominance has faded significantly. By grabbing the ears of listeners, however, it’s paved the way for more locally-pioneered sounds to receive the much-deserved attention at home. While Shrap has slowly grown to be mainstream relevant, it was first frowned upon. Young artists including Kaygreen, Boutross, Jovie Jovv, and Dope-I-Mean championed the genre that mixed Sheng with the exuberant ticks of the Atlanta-pioneered Rap style.

Saisa Ndabi, an affiliate of the Shrap movement, says she was transfixed by the genre during her first encounter before it had ardent listeners. “My friend played a Shrap song while we were hanging out, and I was instantly amazed,” she enthusiastically explains. “Later on, I would plan events at my University, and Shrap songs had to be played. Si unajua shrap ni injili—Shrap is the gospel!” Since Boutross’ “Wasoro” received the public nod years after its sonic conception, Shrap has experienced organic, exponential growth, teeming with talented fan favourites like Kahu$h, Chris Kaiga, Silverstone Barz, and more.

The East African musical palate is extensive, but Hip-Hop always seems a constant factor in tying the region’s countries together. Rwanda’s Hip-Hop scene is in bloom, with its own version of Trap—KinyaTrap—and Drill music taking over the ears of its listening public, via the works of star rap artists like Bushali and Ish Kevin. In Uganda, Luga Flow is a broad description for homemade rap music, a form of music that has been thriving for well over a decade, due to its resonant edge with the young generation, and the young at heart. A few years back, Big Tril’s “Parte After Parte,” a Dance-fused Hip-Hop track, became a viral continental hit, showing that the country’s rap scene had its own crossover potential.

At that, charity begins at home, and Ugandan Hip-Hop keeps doing its part to connect with national listeners, and even uplift itself via its annual 256 Hip-Hop Awards. It’s also a sign of self-awareness on the path of the artists and creatives who, while looking to reach beyond Ugandan and East African borders, are making moves with primarily parochial concerns, in the hopes that things fall into place and the rest of the continent sits up to take proper notice.

The main barrier to that full-on African crossover is lingual. The question of whether or not language affects crossover potential is slightly complex. Where the majority of artists from Nigeria sing and rap predominantly in English and Pidgin English, undeniably assisting their dominance in the Afropop scene, counterparts across Sub-Saharan Africa who perform in their native, everyday language don’t seem to land the same impact. At the same time, though, it’s impossible, for instance, to diminish the constant influence of South African music on the wider fabric of Afropop, and that’s with its artists singing and rapping in the variety of languages.

While language will always be a constant debate on whether it limits the growth of a genre, Jakkquill, a rapper based in Nairobi, explains that it’s all about your target audience and the type of song. “If you are making a dance song, definitely what matters more is the beat over the language, he says. “But if you are making a Hip-hop track, language serves as a huge factor, and very few artists understand.” It’s conventional wisdom, but perhaps an unconventional sense of adventurousness from the wider African audience might quicken the process of external validation, which might turn out to be a rewarding interaction because of the array of experimental, innovative choices of music to dig into.

In addition to Shrap and other forms of Rap dalliances, Kenya has its fair share of pop singers, as well as a burgeoning Rock and Metal scene. Some of the most inventive Dance rhythms on the continent is being pioneered by Ugandan producer/DJs, some of who are affiliated with the Nyege Nyege collective. Flowing from Tanzania music is Singeli, a reasonably new genre combining traditional and modern instruments, a feature that makes it a favourite of the younger generation. Conceived in Dar es Salaam and gaining attention at the Nyege Nyege festivals, the traditional African drums, and playful rhythms brings fun to the dancefloor. Whether it is the nostalgic “Ninae Share Nae” by Seneta Kilaka or Ant Doty’s unconventional “Walianza Wao”, Singeli diversifies the country’s music terrain.

East Africa could also use more access. In many African countries, digital streaming platforms like Apple Music, Audiomack and Spotify are growing to become the primary tool for music listening amongst the youth. In East Africa, the major platform is currently YouTube. You can easily find an East African artist on YouTube compared to other streaming platforms. This is primarily due to the low data rates, mobile network deals with YouTube, and the low knowledge of music distribution in comparison with their African colleagues. An easy example is Otile Brown’s single, “That’s Why I Love You,” which raced to the 500K mark on YouTube within two weeks, clearly showing YouTube’s vast usage in East Africa.

While lacking an extensive digital footprint may serve as a disadvantage, Tanzania pop stars continue to use this factor to their advantage. They invest in their visuals, making them colourful and vibrant, sometimes with seductive gist, other times with high octane choreography, and other eye-catching gimmicks. The viewing numbers on YouTube enable cross-country collaborations and continuous consumption, which mainly favours mainstream artists. Even with this manoeuvre, they still face the same problems experienced across East Africa’s music terrain, including the lack of genuine record labels. The absence slows down the growth process, as artists constantly have to dig in their pockets to cater to their songs.

In the spirit of self-reliance, mainstream juggernaut Diamond Platinumz founded a media conglomerate, Wasafi WCB, which houses a record label, as well as television and radio stations to support artists on his roster and other upcoming acts in the Bongo scene. It’s reminiscent of label Kennis Music, who controlled the Nigerian mainstream music market in the 2000s with the same all-encompassing strategy. If Kennis Music’s significant relegation to role players these days proves anything, it’s that the playing field needs to be democratised for wholesome growth, and East Africa might be on the verge of that.

While more digital platforms have been eyeing the East, the attention is getting even more pronounced. Spotify has an Alt-Kenya playlist targeting the experimental alternative sound that is yet to hit the mainstream. Boomplay has been offering exclusive deals to enable the exposure of artists in the East African realm. Very recently, Apple Music launched Mali Safi, a section catering to the region’s diverse soundscape, through guest-curated playlists and artists and albums spotlights. All of this will culminate in increased visibility, both for the more popular artists and those hovering under the radar of ubiquity.

From the sensational Kelele Kollektiv with their prepossessing tape to dynamic rap lyricist Lagum, to Turunesh’s sultry vocals and aqueous sonic choices that will put you on edge, and Buruklyn Boyz’ chilly and exuberant Drill explorations, East Africa’s urban music landscape is taking form through its diversity. The scene is earning its place in wider Afropop conversations through increasing musical excellence and authenticity that resonates with its immediate audience. It’s a remarkable recipe, and now, the possibility of breaking out is looking more realistic than ever.

Tela Wangeci is a music journalist and entertainment curator in Sub -Saharan Africa. Hailing from Nairobi, Kenya she is an avid fan of African Hip-Hop. Tela is passionate about bringing Kenyan music in a new light and showcasing various acts contributing to the culture.