50 Years of Hip-Hop: A Current Look At Nairobi’s Thriving Rap Scene

the golden era of Hip-Hop

Hip-hop culture is intricately tied with youth identity in Kenya, made even more evident by the progressive rap scene in the country’s capital city, Nairobi. Associated with creative freedom and exuberance in the three-plus decade since its emergence, rap music has evolved into a dominant art-form and hip-hop culture is a way of life with distinct quirks morphing alongside different generations.

As with most early rap scenes across Africa, the beginnings were humble but the ambitions are no less inspiring. In 1991, artist-turned-actor Jimmy Gathu released “Look, Think Stay Alive,” and the pairing of his laid-back flow with hard-hitting drums helped make it an impactful single. The song, which publicised safe driving, received massive airplay and caused a shift in a music industry where foreign songs received more attention. At the time, the local mainstream’s focus tilted towards bands and artists whose sounds were heavily built on the fusion of traditional instruments. All this included a lot of singing, which meant rappers did not have a platform. The commercial success of Jimmy Gathu’s single and the rise of rap-centric shows such as Mzizi helped in fostering the rise of Kenyan Hip-hop.

There’s a ton of historical gaps to fill in the 30-plus years since rap music’s mainstream advent, but there’s an overflow of talent and success in the present that suggests that Nairobi and Kenyan rap is enjoying a prolonged golden era. In this moment, and stretching back over the last decade-plus, the most obvious names are Khaligraph Jones and Octopizzo, two relentlessly prolific rap artists that played primary roles in Kenyan rap growing beyond borders—creatively and commercially. In an interview with the Youtube channel Cleaning The Airwaves, Khaligraph rubs his impact in the industry by insisting he was the first Kenyan to jump on a trap beat. While this is an issue that is greatly debated between the Khaligraph and Octopizzo fandom, its result saw the rise of rappers switching from social-political issues and adapting more accessible themes that not only showcase their writing ability with wordplay but also their flexibility in production.

With the success and dynamic artistry of these two superstars—and more forebears—as OGs, new classes of rap freshmen emerge with distinct approaches and identities to their craft. It’s still all Hip-Hop: Shrappers, Drillers, Kilimani babies and more have carved a new niche in the scene. Creating a ubiquitous sound that peels new layers to their artistry, the current classes of younger rap artists have seen new names rise up defying the odds. “Boutross has to be the biggest artist in Nairobi and this was not the case three years ago,” a rap enthusiast tells the NATIVE. Often known as the shrap god, Boutross has stood the test of time as a pioneer of Shrap. Unlike rap, the subgenre took a new approach to its creation. Paying attention to flow rather than hard-knocking lyrics, the genre thrived with witty bars and occasion bragging. New ideas are rarely welcomed in a confined society where rules define your every move and to many Hip-Hop heads were adamant to reject the subgenre teaming it as not “hard enough to be termed as rap.”

In 2016 Musau Mumo, Dope-I-Mean, Jovie Jovv, Boutross, Kay Green, and more affiliates were creating an upbeat breed of rap that resonated more with the current generation. On heavy 808s, bouncy drums, and hi-hat electronic beats, they combined English and Swahili creating slang that saw the birth of Shrap. Its defying moment came with the release of Jovie Jovv’s “Kiasi,” the lean-advocating song that coupled with weed and sex lines saw an attention shift. Unlike the rap songs that were flooding the mainstream industry, “Kiasi,” was playful and one you could trap to. To most Kenyans, this is how they were introduced to the sub-genre. Like a foreshadowing of their greatness, Boutross is a testament to their gospel. One of the biggest artists in Kenya he has built a fandom of shrappers who are loyal to him and he stamped shrap’s authority with Shrap Over The Rest.”

Like Boutross, Wakadinali also has played a huge role in shaping the rap industry. According to 2022’s Spotify Wrapped, they were one of the top three streamed artists in Kenya. Consisting of Scar, Mad Munga, and Sewer Sydda, the trio has revolutionised the face of Hip Hop in Nairobi. There’s an identity that Wakadinali represents that people are drawn to. For over two decades, they have written Hip Hop on their own terms with each release unveiling greater potential. Whether it’s fusing reggae with hip-hop as seen in Rong Reggae or scintillating on cutthroat cyphers, Wakadinali is incredibly dynamic without losing any of their gritty edge. With over four projects under their belt and still flourishing as solo acts, the trio has a dedicated following among the Nairobi youth.

Their relentless consistency has seen them rise from underground stars to household names. With Hip-Hop inspired percussions, the trio’s precise skills and knowledge of their audience places them on a pedestal. Representing the ordinary Kenyan youth their brevity matches Mashifta’s with the technical skills of Ke rap forefathers, Ukoo Fulani. Three years ago when Nairobi was undergoing a musical renaissance, Wakadinali’s “Morio Anzenza” emerged like a fast and furious bolt from the blue. Fusing raw sounds and grimy beats, the single sounded like the past, present, and future of Kenyan rap music all wrapped up at once. Mad Munga’s helter skelter flow and Scar’s lethal lyricism opened up the minds of the youth and the people and become aware of our people, our situation, our community, and our knowledge of self. Featuring Dyana Codds her ice-cold cadence brought new conversations to the table: Women rappers in Nairobi. Her ability to match up to Wakadinali’s proficiency proved that women can own the mic and drop flows. While the conversation of needing more women in the spotlight is unending, this was not the first time a woman outshined expectations in rap. Just like US Hip Hop had Lil Kim, Missy Elliot, and more, Nairobi has its fair of rap first ladies.

“Nazizi was the first lady to boldly step into the scene when ladies weren’t really at it. She had a very impressive run in the rap game as a solo act before forming the group Necessary Noize with Wyre, and while at it she worked with the best in the game at that time, namely Kshaka, Ksouth, Tedd Josiah and the list is endless. The First Lady of Hip-hop as she’s known, Nazizi had a very dope run when coming up.”Ondu, a Hip-Hop enthusiast and podcast host tells the NATIVE. Shaping the space for women, Nazizi’s pen game was adorned with punchlines and wordplays that went above sexism and misogyny. Her songs covered a wide range of themes encouraging girls it’s okay to make the first move in “Kenyan Girl, Kenyan Boy.” For many women in the industry, Nazizi was the first embodiment of a Kenyan woman rapper.

Currently, Nairobi’s rap scene is undergoing an exciting period celebrating the highest rate of women in the industry. Rappers such as Tulia, Silverstone, and NATIVE’S 2021 Fresh Meat Alum Groovy Jo are dominating the industry. Preaching body positivity, sexual liberation, and freedom, female rappers have a platform that was not there previously. While the number still lags behind, the growth is commendable highlighting the genre has evolved making space for both men and women.

Rap groups have always been an aspect of rap. Creating a catalogue of hits, rap groups such as Kalamashaka, Mau Mau, K-South, Mashiftar, and more showed that unity is the basic unit of a rap group.”Kalamashaka is one of the most successful Rap Groups ever do it in Kenya and East Africa.”Ondu tells the NATIVE. “These guys were heading major gigs in Kenya mid to late 90s. They even opened for Coolio and Lost Boyz Crew between 1996-98, performed for a crowd of 70,000 people in Nigeria, rocked stages in Sweden, performed and recorded jams with Dead Prez, and were even featured in the Source Magazine, the longest-running Hip-Hop/Rap publication in America. They were so huge Snoop Dogg talked about them back then saying they were the African WU-TANG CLAN. They later formed MAU MAU CAMP which comprised Nairobi-based rappers mostly from Dandora.

“Ksouth were the originators of that new Funk that wasn’t revolutionary raps as much as they did some social political & conscious tracks. They did comical rap which in Tanzania is called Rap Katuni. The duo which consisted of Bamboo and Abass created the sub-genre dubbed Kapuka which has been an intricate part of Kenya’s sound. K-South were so huge that by just dissing the new style Banda which Ogopa Djs was experimenting with, they gave birth to a whole genre called KAPUKA,” Ondu shares. Originating in the late 1990s with artists such as Redsan, Bebe Cool, and more, Kapuka is a fusion of hip-hop, reggae, and African traditional music styles and has grown to become one of the founding sounds of East Africa’s music scene.

Looking back, Hip-Hop has evolved into a solid reflection of Kenya’s ascendant talent. Stars such as Mashifta who enjoyed massive success when they dropped their first two tracks, “System Ya Majambaziand “Pesa Pombe na Wanawake,” which were well received by the masses thus enjoying airplay on mainstream media before the government flagged the songs down due to their message. The genre has made an impact socially, politically, and emotionally.

Currently, the present class of Hip-Hop freshmen looks hopeful and the future is brighter for Hip-Hop on the continent. Buruklyn Boyz is the biggest export from Nairobi in the rap scene making astronomical steps with the release of their debut album ‘East Mpaka London’ and even featured as curators for 2022’s Boiler Room, they showcased the genre has moved from the streets into boardrooms. Solo acts such as STL and Lness have shown ladies they can spit bars and look pretty while groups such as Camp Mulla, Bamboo, Big Mike,Kapten, and Kantai made it cool to rap in English making space for the Kilimani rap babies.

“We are at a space where KE HIPHOP is the genre with the most Nominations and most consistent appearance on most if not all Music Award shows in Kenya, East Africa, and Africa at large,” Ondu says about Kenyan rap at the moment. “At the recently concluded SOUNDCITY awards, Ke Hiphop had 4 Nominations and a major performance on the big stage in Nigeria. Tell me what that is if not GROWTH?? The only stand-alone genre with its own Award Show. That looks like growth to me.”