NAIROBI – Kenyan hip hop took off in the mid-1990s, when the group Kalamashaka started rapping in informal Swahili, instead of English. The musicians were from the low-income suburb, Dandora, which is now widely considered the birthplace and center of hip hop in the country. Kalamashaka started the Ukoo Flani Mau Mau movement, which has helped many other hip hop artists practice and perfect their craft in Dandora. In gratitude, many of them even rap “Dandora” in their lyrics, regardless of whether or not they live there.
Dandora is most notorious for hosting Kenya’s largest dump site. The area is riddled with crime, people scrape together a living, and life is generally difficult for residents.
“It’s where hip hop was born in this country," explains Kevin Sisei, aka “Kev Mamba Mshamba Wenza,” a member of the group Washamba Wenza
. "Even you, you know, you have to respect your father. Your father brought you into this world. Before your father, you were not there, you were nothing. But your father brought you into this world. So, with us, Dandora is like, it’s our father. It brought something to us, and this something, it’s kind of feeding us.”
Fellow group member, Flaming Avulala, or “Flamez,” was born and raised in Dandora. He says like hip hop around the world, the Kenyan style deals with life struggles.
“It’s the life in Dandora, the hood. The hood itself, you know, it has a lot of problems," he says. "And [for the] guys, it was either, you do music, or you do something else or become a thug, because a lot of guys in Dandora are thugs…Dandora now is so much infected with cocaine and heroin and gangsters.”
As one of the few female hip hop artists in Kenya, Lydia Akwabi, aka “L-NESS,” who has worked with Ukoo Flani Mau Mau
since the mid-1990s, says she has always had to “act hard” to gain respect from the guys, especially in Dandora.
“I’m saying it was a hip hop city, it was a crazy city, crime, and what have you," she explains. "But I could go there, and you know, I don’t know, maybe the guys just respected me or something. Nothing happened to me. I was never attacked, but I could go there, perfect my skills, hang out with them and hear what they’re all about, learn how to rap, you know, just free-styling, chilling out with the guys.”
Hip hop in Kenya does have some differences from its counterparts elsewhere. Here, artists are proud to say that they do not curse in their lyrics and they are not disrespectful toward women.
Franklin Milan, known as “Judge,” raps with his brother in the group Black Duo.
“Even if your mom is that harsh, you can’t curse your mama," he says. "Even if, let’s say, even like, calling ladies the ‘b-word,’ here in Kenya, it doesn’t work. Because this is Africa and we respect our women and our sisters and stuff like that.”
In a country that has experienced much violence in recent years, especially following the 2007 elections, Flamez says he and his fellow artists do not use their music to advocate for more.
“If you’re doing music that’s not inspiring someone or telling me something positive, to me, that’s really, really lame," he says. "Because music is something powerful. You should use it to empower, to uplift, to change someone’s life.”
L-NESS says that even though life is difficult in Dandora and so many other slums in Kenya, young people should do something constructive instead of resorting to violence.
“But these guys do listen to our music. So if we tell them something positive, they’ll follow it, you know," she says. "You can tell them, don’t go take a gun, don’t go shoot somebody, do something. Start a project, start rapping, or start painting. We can tell them that in our music and they’ll do it.”
Kevin says even if they’re not from Dandora, Kenyan hip hop artists are grateful for what it has helped them become.
“I won’t feel very shy mentioning Dandora in some of my songs, I’m proud. Proud because it brought me, it has helped me so much,” he explains.
Washamba Wenza will release their second album From Ocha with Love
in October. L-NESS will soon be launching her album, Gal Power!
which is a collaboration with other female rappers in East Africa.