Lyrical Giants in Kenyan Hip Hop


By Edwin Kaguri
It’s a popular culture with four main elements—Deejaying, emceeing, graffiti and b-buoying. The term Hip Hop is generally used to refer to the musical facet of the culture also known as rap music. The movement started in the early 80s in Bronx, USA but was imported to Kenya a decade later. In the 90s, groups like Kalamashaka, K-South and Nannoma emerged. This is how Swahili rap came into being. Kenyan Hip Hop now consists of vernacular, Swahili and English languages. Years later, more youths, especially from Eastlands, ventured into the art. Afterwards, their counterparts from the upper-class suburbs joined in as the art had become lucrative. These are the giants that can be credited with possessing the lost element of Hip Hop—Knowledge.

Octopizzo, Namba Nane
He was born Henry Ohanga in Kibera, Nairobi. In his short career, he’s managed to release three mix-tapes and one album. Octopizzo is renowned for his excellent freestyle skills and punchlines. The rapper is hardcore by definition and mostly uses Swahili/ Sheng’ to deliver his rhymes. In the hit song ‘On Top’, he says: Walidhania wakibuy Subaru watakua wamewacha legacy (They thought that by buying a Subaru they’d leave a legacy)/ Octo niko juu ya madawa ni kaa nimekalia pharmacy (Octo am on drugs like am sitting on a pharmacy).

Khaligraph Jones
Khaligraph Jones was born in Kayole, Nairobi in 1986. The artist has recorded more than 80 tracks ever since he first stepped in the studio in 2004. He’s versatile and highly creative using daily events as inspiration. Khali, as he’s popularly referred to, is fluent in English and Swahili/ Sheng’ which gives his music an international appeal. One of his punchlines comes from the new track F*** Off! He says: I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death/ I stay cautious like there’s only one hour that’s left… for me to pass away.

Ukoo Flani Mau Mau
This is a group of artists from Nairobi and Mombasa. Their music is quite philosophical, conscious, social and political. Ukoo Flani Mau Mau has many lyricists such as: Mc Kah, Nguchi P, K-Swiss, Alai K, Vigeti and LaVosti. In ‘Angalia Saa’, regarding to what happened to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, K-Swiss says: Writer mfamous aliibiwa (a famous writer was robbed)/ na wife yake aka-repiwa (and his wife was raped)/ na hiyo ndio asante alipatiwa (that’s the thanks he got)/ kufanya nini? kwa kuwatolea ma idea za kuwasaidia (for what? for giving them ideas to help them).

Rabbit, Kaka Sungura
Kenyan emcees are well-known for punchlines but not storytelling. This is what makes Rabbit unique. Born in 1987 as Kennedy Ombima, the artist usually fuses deep poetry with hardcore/ conscious rap to create his hit songs. He receives massive airplay on the media and street credibility as well. In ‘Swahili Shakespeare’, Rabbit says: Ati swag ni kubakisha food ndio itupwe kwa taka… fala! (Swag is leaving food to be thrown to the garbage… stupid!)/ si tukeep-iane ki-ubrother (let’s keep each other like brothers)/ uzuri love ni virus (the good thing; love is a virus).

Kayvo K-force
Even before Octopizzo started representing Kibera Namba Nane, Kayvo K-force was already doing a splendid job at it. In almost all his records, he always sends a shout out to Kibera. All this he managed while still on the underground. Kayvo mostly raps in English and is actually one of the few Hip Hop artists in the region to effectively adopt the American slang. In one of his conscious songs ‘Hello Mr. President’, he says: The people feeling the pain/ the kid stuck in the same/ spot for so long… they almost quitting the game.

When Sony Music Entertainment, USA came to Kenya to search for local talent, Xtatic gained favor in their sight. This female emcee is now signed to the record label which makes her an international Hip Hop artist. Xtatic is smart, witty and profound. She raps in a deep voice using the American Slang. In ‘The Prep Track’, she says: Taking a number back now retaining position/ see me on a track call it insane condition/ taking all the extras invading commission/ wanted to be the best and I made it a mission.

The multi-talented STL is undeniably one of the best Kenyan artists in the Diaspora. She was born in 1986 in Murang’a, Kenya as Stella Mwangi but later on relocated to Norway. At the tender age of eight, she was already playing the piano, singing and rapping. She has released two studio albums namely: Living for Music and Kinanda. In the new hit ‘Bad as I Wanna Be’, STL says: Now F*** what they think/ my daddy told me walk your way do your own thing/ but then these fakes try to gossip and soften me.

Chiwawa is a revolutionary Kenyan emcee who helped push hardcore Hip Hop to the mainstream. He’s deep and controversial with a clean flow. After releasing ‘Mna Feel Aje’, he went underground but recently resurfaced on Rabbit’s ‘Ligi Soo Remix’. In this song, he says: Tangu kitambo niliwashow (since way back I told you)/ niko mbele sana buda… kwenye kipaza na maflow (am so dope… on the mic; my flows)/ when they said I couldn’t do that/ tume-change game for the better… ata kaa imetake muda (we’ve changed the game for the better… though it’s taken time).

Of all the artists nurtured by the Ukoo Flani Mau Mau Camp, he’s without a doubt the most successful. Juliani, real names Julius Owino, is normally described as the street’s conscience. His flow is sleek and passionate. He’s won numerous awards as well. In his new song ‘Utawala’, Juliani says: Unaeza argue that crime doesn’t pay (You can argue that crime doesn’t pay)/ lakini huezi dismiss justice ina-pay (but you can’t dismiss justice pays)/ mwizi ana 40 days (a thief has 40 days)/ 3-6-5 days later anaendelea ku-grow fatter (3-6-5 days later he continues to grow fatter).

This group was formed in the 90s and consists of Abbas Kubaff and Bamboo. After two studio albums together—‘Nairobbery’ and ‘Nairobism’—Bamboo relocated to the US for close to a decade. Abbas continued to represent K-South. They’re both regarded as legendary Kenyan Hip Hop artists. In 2013, Bamboo came back to reignite the fire but was received with mixed reactions by the audience. In their classic ‘Nairobbery’, Bamboo says: In the beginning now God created Adam and Eve/ and Adam took Eve and Eve conceived and bore seeds/ by the name of Abel but before him was born Cain.

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