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Kenya Hip Hop Artist Remembers His Roots

24 year-old Henry Ohanga, also known as Octopizzo, may be one of Kenya's fastest-rising hip hop stars
24 year-old Henry Ohanga, also known as Octopizzo, may be one of Kenya's fastest-rising hip hop stars

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Henry Ohanga, otherwise known as "Octopizzo," is one of Kenya's hottest hip hop artists. He says his most satisfying work is helping fellow youth in Nairobi's so-called "informal settlement" of Kibera to turn away from drugs and crime and instead make a living from their talents.  

Born and raised in Kibera, Octopizzo started a youth self-help group called "Young, Gifted and Black" to help members develop their singing, dancing, and other abilities.  And he has also created a tour company and a business that sells T-shirts and watches to fund the group.

Octopizzo may be one of Kenya's fastest-rising hip hop stars, but Henry Ohanga will never forget where he came from - Kibera, one of Africa's largest informal settlements.

And he says he is taking his fellow Kiberians along for the ride. "You have the ideas and the networks that you have for everybody to get something, for everybody to get an air time. So that’s how I work," he explained.

24 year-old Henry Ohanga is Kibera's jack-of-all trades. He is best known by his stage persona Octopizzo, which he created before cutting his first CD in 2008. But while producing his second CD one year later, Octopizzo remembered the friends he lost touch with after the country's post-election violence and the many Kibera youth traumatized by the experience.

To bring healing and development to his community, Octopizzo set up "Young, Gifted and Black," a group in which members train to be singers, dancers, poets, artists, and athletes. "The idea was just to use art to change the youths,” he said. “Nowadays you can't go and preach to a youth and tell him, change or you will not get to heaven - they don't care. The youths want to be entertained first, then you put yourselves in their level and you share the same stories that they are going through."

As he teaches young people rap and other skills, Octopizzo drills into his students the importance of education and living a drug- and crime-free life.

"We call it 'edutainment' - you educate as you entertain. As you educate and entertain, you should be professional. You should go to school. Hip hop is not for people who are drop-outs. I tell them every day, 'Don't think that if you drop out of school, you can rap.'"
And that approach has made all the difference to hip hop singer Slum Dog, who used to do drugs and steal. Kibera is perceived to be a very bad place - violent, dirty place, people robbing people and all that. But we as youths and YGB (Young Gifted and Black) crew, we are reformed. We used to be bad guys, most of us, and now we're trying to live a better life. We are transformed," said Octopizzo.

Octopizzo had his own demons to battle. Orphaned in secondary school, Octopizzo turned to his musical talents to support his four brothers and sisters. He says he first sold his music for $1 a CD.

"I was just networking as much as I can, trying to record my music and sell them everywhere, selling them for cheap just to get more funds and then that's when I can raise it when I already have more funds," said Octopizzo said.  

He says his greatest joy is to recognize and nurture talent among the youth of his community.

Octopizzo says, despite the grinding poverty, there is a lot of creativity and goodwill in Kibera and other informal settlements. "People are living there, people are working hard, and every house, outside the house somebody is doing something in the streets. Nobody is just sitting, crying that they are poor," he said.

He denounces hip hop lyrics that glorify violence, sexism, racism, and other social ills. He says that most people living in Kibera have experienced violence first-hand and are looking for a different way to live.

Octopizzo says he plans to expand Young, Gifted and Black to other informal settlements in Nairobi.

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