For the Girls: How women’s place in Kenyan music continues to evolve

On the verge of a new norm

To many, the Kenyan music scene is an enigma. Over the years, emerging sounds from the East African country have occasionally caused international conversations with the raging rise of Shrap and an inventive take on Drill, adding to its vast palette. While music from Kenya has sometimes been left out of the picture, the scene is undeniably sprouting, but at its own pace.

For years, Kenyan music has been heralded by a long line of male artists. Reggae artist, Hardstone is considered the godfather of Kenya’s contemporary urban music released, with the seminal impact of his Hip-Hop-fusion album, ‘Nuting but de Stone’. Teaming up with prolific producer Tedd Josiah, he ruled the Kenyan airwaves with the timeless hit, “Uhiki,” with its remix even receiving international recognition via its placement on the 2003 ‘African Groove’ compilation released by New Orleans-based record label, Putumayo World Music.

Concurrently, producer Clemmo and rappers Jua Cali and Nonini were crafting Genge, an alchemisation of Rap and Dancehall with a distinctly Kenyan verve. To a large extent, the evolution of Kenyan music has been defined by its Hip-Hop influences, with Khaligraph Jones reigning as the perennial king of Rap, alongside male rappers Octopizzo and King Kaka. However, the terrain has diversified greatly, widening to accommodate a panoply of sounds and a multiplicity of artistic inclinations. 

In recent years, there has been the outburst of Alt Nai, a predecessor of Nu Nairobi, which has grown through urban artists whose music cannot be put into a specific category. They focus on the importance of the city’s own impressive set of sounds, championed by rising acts such as Karun and EA Wave. This liberal approach is helping the democratisation of the playing field, ensuring that it is not totally dominated and defined by the men. Finally, the long-awaited renaissance of women involvement in Kenyan music is becoming more pronounced than it has ever been. 

Around the turn of the millennium, Kenyan music was dominated by Ogopa Records and Calif Records, two power players who provided the necessary foundation. At this time, the mainstream was filled with back-to-back hits from the controversial Genge to fan favourite R&B, and it was in these conditions that the greatest women to pioneer Kenyan music were born. 

In the early 2000’s, all Kenyan channels broadcasted Niangalie,” the debut single from the Kenyan singer and songwriter, Wahu which gained regional recognition from all over Africa. At this time, female artists were a fairly new to the industry, and the then-20-year old Wahu was among the first female artists in contemporary Kenyan music. Her enticing vocals and larger than life stage presence brought the spice Kenyan entertainment was missing: women.

Ogopa Records was also flourishing with their next big hit, Amani. Known for her sultry singles and catchy hooks, singer Amani released instant hits that catapulted her to mainstream success, receiving public nods and even collaborations from household names, like the Nyashinski-assisted Bad Boy in 2005. Wahu and Amani became jewels adored by Kenyans as they brought home not only recognition but also regional awards, each winning Best Female at the MTV Music Awards in 2008 and 2009, respectively. These were important precedents and breakthroughs that signalled that female artists could showcase their craft and reach wider audiences.

While R&B and Genge were the main Kenyan music export, a reggae and rap group dubbed Necessary Noize was in the making. Consisting of Wyre and the gritty Nazizi, the dynamic duo vibe they had was what the industry needed. Sprouting with Hip-Hop and Reggae tracks, it was impossible to ignore Nazizi. Whether it was her punchy cadence as she flowed over the 808’s, or her androgynous image complemented with shoulder height dreadlocks, she expressed a level of autonomy that may not have been typically associated with women in Kenyan music.

This was made clear in the defining Kenyan Boy, Kenyan Girl,” where she made it okay for women to make the first advance in romantic situations. Dubbed by the Kenyan streets as the “First Lady” of Kenyan Hip-Hop for her crisp and incisive flow, Nazizi challenged the African social construct and the role of women in society. Eventually, Necessary Noize disbanded and Nazizi continued as a solo artist with several Ragga songs, while refusing to put the mic down, as she still works as a radio presenter. 

Since Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya, it is unconsciously seen as the hot bed of music, but in Mombasa, a storied genre known as Taarab, which was pioneered in the 1920s and consists of Swahili and coastal soundbeds, was being updated by a younger generation of artists and was making waves in the 2000’s. At this time, Kenya’s Nyota Ndogo was a lyrical Taarab genius in the making. Inspired by a popular local rap group K-South, she took the entire East African airwaves by storm with popular Swahili tracks that engaged social topics, like one of her signature hit tracks, “Watu na Viatu” which touched on corruption, injustice and hate among peers. Still an active artist, Nyota Ndogo represents Kenya in various festivals in East Africa including Sauti za Busara and Ziff in Zanzibar. 

Around this time, circa 2005, Califf Records was still enjoying its dominance in the music scene, a period when mainstream airplay was tilted greatly towards local Genge tracks. Playing their hand, Lady S, Chokuu and Ratatat were the perfect female trio behind the Calif Angels. They inevitably set the tone for other female emcees coming in behind them. Calif Angels created the way for females to be menacing, gritty and appreciative of their sexuality.

Among their many achievements, Lady S is also credited for bringing a new flow to Kenya’s widely popular sound, Gengetone, which many wrongly attribute to male icons such as Nonini and Jua Kali. Historical inaccuracies such as this tend to happen often, due to Kenya’s lack of tangible music archives. As time went on, many of these female pioneers either put down the mic, passed away unexpectedly or faded to the background, with no way to find them. In turn, this brought a vast gap that would take years to fill as the record labels also faced uncertain futures. 

A shift occurred in 2011, with the advent of the digital age, and the growth and easy accessibility of the Internet. Women began unlearning the language of patriarchy. They learnt they could speak out against inequality and call out men for their indecent behaviour. It was during this period that artists such as Avril and Marya teamed up for the anthemic number, “Chokoza.” Seen as the new generation of female leaders in music, they set out to revert the norm that male dominance had asserted itself in the industry and instead, proved it to be toxic with songs armed with egalitarian principles.

From unsavoury sexualisation to inequality, this new generation of female artists faced a hard time breaking through to the public. At the same time, the media constantly pit women against each other, creating the misconception women can’t support each other. Even as recently as 2017, women in the Kenyan industry ensued in various diss raps against each other, further muddying the conversation on the role of women in Kenyan music. 

As much as the industry seems ungiving, artists such as Muthoni The Drummer Queen cropped up, calling out social injustice and giving space for a new wave of Alternative musicians. She organised an event dubbed ‘Blankets and Wine’ that looked to support the alt side of music, which was catering to broader public tastes that were looking beyond the orthodox Hip-Hop and Genge genres. 

At the same time, the cutthroat male-dominated industry provided a few allies such as King Kaka, who gave women a platform on a cypher dubbed “Ligi Soo,” and signed female rapper Femi One to his Kaka Empire music label. It was a notable development at a time when Hip-Hop was deemed to be a man’s game, which is ironic, as we had Nazizi once ruling the airwaves in the early noughties. 

At the moment, the scene is experiencing a medley of new female artists. Karun, who is seen as the forerunner of this new generation, is effortlessly breaking barriers as she was recruited in the inaugural class of the EmPawa 100 initiative, alongside fellow Kenyan R&B/Pop riser’s Xenia Manasseh and Maya Amolo. The women are currently asserting their position in the Kenyan scene through strategic collaborations. In 2020, Xenia Manasseh was a contributor to Teyana Taylor’s project, The Album’, while both artists made searing appearances on “Say You Love Me” off British-Ghanaian producer Juls’ 2021 album, Sounds of My World.

More young female artists are cropping up bringing new ideas, sounds and artistic approaches. Nikita Kering recently won the Best Artiste R&B/Soul Award and Best Female Artiste East Africa Award at the AFRIMA 2021 awards, on the back of her chamber-filling voice, R&B-inflected tracks, and pop balladry. There’s fierce and dynamic rap artists like Groovy Jo, Ssaru and Silverstone Bars injecting a fresh edge to the Kenyan hip-hop scene, while producer-DJs like Coco Em and [MONRHEA] are increasingly integral to the inventive verve of East Africa’s Electronic music scene.

Veterans in the industry also have a huge role to play as they support upcoming women in the industry, and they’re playing the part. Last June, Fena Gitu rallied the gutsy Valerie Muthoni and uniquely talented Maandy for an empowering track titled “P*ssy Power,” while Sanaipei Tande lent her vocals to Nadia Mukami’s electric single, “Si Wangu” in late 2020. 

Today, the presence of women in Kenyan music continues to rapidly develop. As more female voices come up, and more veterans offer guidance and continuity, there is increased hope. We’re now firmly coming into times where there is more recognition of women from the listening public, helping to break biases and fully ushering in a new norm.