“Shrap over the rest”: The rise of a Kenyan genre for the youth, by the youth

“Shrap ni injili”

As a global phenomenon, rap music’s most popular sonic trends reaches beyond its origin point, inspiring inventive twists from artists thousands of miles away. In recent years, rap music in Kenya has made this form of creativity compelling, through its exploration, and eventual localisation of Trap and Drill. In comparison to Kenyan Drill, which only started finding its identity recently, the Kenyan iteration of Trap–colloquially referred to as Sharp–is an identifiable, vibrant and vital part of its rap scene.

According to pioneering artists like Musau Mumo, Jovie Jovv, Nziira and Boutross Munene, Shrap is Swahili and Trap fused with the main goal of representing the Kenyan lifestyle. These artists want to depict the wins and losses of an average Kenyan and from this, they coined Shraplife. Shrap yielded a culture filled with fashion, flamboyance, bravado, and nonchalance, backed by a sound that is equal parts sinister, exuberant, blunt and hard-hitting. It has been a driving force, especially in the urban peninsula of Nairobi City where the population is mainly young people.

In the sub-genre’s earlier days, Kenya’s mainstream was more tilted towards popular regional acts like Diamond Platnumz and farther international artists. It was not until 2017 that Shrap gained attention with the release of the visceral “Kiasi” by Jovie Jovv. The certified banger rampaged through the mainstream with Trap music’s characteristic 808s kick and the fuzzy voice delivery from the Shrap pioneer. To further amplify the single, Jovie Jovv, with the help of Fred Matunga, directed a searing video depicting a quintessential life on the streets that involved drugs. As “Kiasi” stamped the Shrap image in the scene, Jovie earned the gilded title of Shrap OG. 

Even with this prime example, the content of a Shrap song isn’t limited to just trapping. Many artists in the scene also touch on the bleak standard of living in the hood, making detailed and sometimes affecting observations of life in the streets. For instance, “Tofauti/Different” by Boutross primarily touches on mental health, even circling in on suicide. These days, Boutross is seen as the image representing Shrap. A lanky fellow with a prolific output, he disregarded the old rap star metrics of greatness, like the use of heavy wordplay and sturdy flows, and instead perfected his art in storytelling.

Boutross started rapping at the age of 12, with his musical career kicking off later in 2013. With popular for hit songs such as “Yea Yea Yea” and “Story Ilianza,” he is Shrap’s most successful story yet. He managed to find his voice in his knack for emphasis and his aptitude for infectious vocal versatility, becoming an integral cog in Shrap morphing into a gargantuan beast and bypassing industry gatekeepers. In Nairobi, Shrappers and keen fans often say “Shrap is the gospel,” after Boutross’ legendary line, Shrap ni injili.”

In 2019, Boutross became the first Kenyan artist to feature on the EmPawa100 initiative, receiving a $3000 grant to shoot the flashy music video for “Wrong,” a booming, Shrap slapper that would become a national hit and gain heavy airplay despite its gritty lyricism. Doubling up as a producer, Boutross has become a significant name in the music industry as a creatively restless artist. More than anyone, he has used the frictions of modern Hip-Hop to his advantage. All at one, he is a rapper and a singer, a raw emotional purger, a street-centric braggart and a hopeless romantic. 

Boutross is idiosyncratic and identifiable enough that he’s become the go-to man for bold collaborations, teaming up with Nviiri the Storyteller on “Sin Thea,” and showing that Shrap has even bigger crossover potential. From finding his voice on 2018’s ‘Billy Jean’ EP to the scene-defining ‘6IXVIEWSII8K’ mixtape, which earned him the 2019 UnKut Hennessy HipHop Awards Best Male Artist, Boutross’ growth has not only cemented his music prowess, it has also mirrored the wondrous evolution of Shrap over the years. 

The boom of Shrap culture goes beyond the glorification of good times and has a lot to do with the democratisation of new technologies. Shrap music with its three-note synths and overdose of Auto-Tune, spread from just Swahili to vernacular languages. Kenya’s Wuod Baba identifies as a Shrap artist spreading the Dholuo Trap. His discography shows that music is more than just a language but an emotion that brings people together through melodies. While new names continue to crop up in the scene, Kay Gren is a much smaller name that hovers around Shrap’s pioneer days. His unique rapping timbre is perhaps what set him apart when he first debuted on the scene. Known for his feature in the mega-smash hit “Kibare Kwa Face,” his current absence keeps his fans on the verge of their seats waiting for his comeback.

For Shrap, lack of airplay did not stop the eventual breakout with key players taking a DIY approach that’s clearly paying off. Musau Mumo teamed up with Boutross to form ADF, a label that consists of Shrap artists Boutross and  Dope-I-Mean. While the music is clealry essential, the power players behind the label act as the driving force to the success of Shrap. The label offers services such as studio time, which is still an issue for most artists on the come up.

Musau also kickstarted Shrapnite, a showcase event for rising Shrap artists in and around Nairobi. There’s been about a half-a-dozen successful editions of Shrapnite since 2018 that have geared the recognition and growth of the genre, providing a platform to a medley of rappers, including NATIVE uNder alum Groovy Jo. One of the few female rap artists associated with Shrap, her flow, lyrical precision, and refusal to self-censor defines her growing catalogue. She is frank and outspoken about her sexuality and her desire while still commanding respect as a lyrical savant and dynamic rap artist. 

As Shrap keeps evolving and with the sound becoming indelible to Kenyan youth culture, DJ’s have also played a great role in its continued proliferation. Dj Mawinch is a propelling force to the sound. Making numerous Shrap mixes, Mawinch has been pivotal in spreading the sound to his peers. Apart from that, he designs custom clothing pieces dubbed “Renots Apparel,” which is often seen in Shrap videos. For Mawinch, his role in Shrap is playing unheard creatives as he has become an icon in the industry.  To varying degrees, other key DJ’s like DJ Abubaxter, DJ Hanuman, Magnum the DJ and GI Selects have also been monumental in the shaping of Shrap. 

Becoming an even bigger regional deal within East Africa’s thriving music scene, Shrap Nite has collaborated with the Nyege Nyege festival, a 4-day international music festival known for its unique East African feel and outlook, to create a sprawling line-up for a 2020 showcase that included Ohms Law Montana and Denzel Kong. This is validation for the fact that Shrap music resonates with the urban youth as their voice, through the inventiveness and authentic expression of its purveyors. 

Shrap openly embraces capitalism with its lyrics about success, fame, luxury and money, and its neoliberal pragmatism with a do-it-yourself basis provides testimony that you do not need a big record company to make it big. It is a way of saying “we don’t accept the rules of the game anymore, now we’re going to play it our way.” Shrap has positively added to the music community in Kenya as it is propagating musical democracy among its new and nascent acts.

Shrap is not merely a music genre but a way of living, dressing, talking, and self-expression for an entire generation. From social media networks to dance floors and has put up its functioning codes and systems. You might or might not love Shrap but like any music genre, the diamonds are beneath the surface.