Not many Kenyans seem to understand hip-hop as a dynamic cultural practice. Even some local artistes who have been identified with such genre of music seem to be off the mark about what hip-hop means.
But the tragedy is that most people do not bother to find out why young fanatics prefer to wear sagging pants. This baggy mechanism is further consolidated at the hems by wheat-colour Timberland boots in what might appear as just another wave of degenerate fashion.
Ironically, some young people who use the hip-hop clothes and symbols don’t understand their meaning. Hip-hop is more than braided hair, shiny earrings and talking in New York twang while chewing PK gums. It is a way of life.
In defending hip-hop against bashing from people who little understand it, the American MC, producer and philosopher Lawrence Parke (aka Krs One), argues that the negative image of hip-hop results from people equating it with rap. He argues that “rap is something you do, while hip-hop is how you live.”
A few scholars, such as Joyce Nyairo, George Gathigi, Mwenda Ntarangwi, and James Ogude, have done commendable work in helping us understand the social and political imperatives in Kenyan music.
But Kenyan scholars and the media have largely turned their back on hip-hop culture in the country. There are few meaningful engagements with the music, especially the much more philosophically and socially engaging sub-genres of hip-hop. Without any flicker of guilt, scholars and the media continue to crown a few pop artistes as the template for Kenyan hip-hop. We are especially busy burying any form of hip-hop that does not make it to the mainstream.
As an artiste, if your song is not extensively played on the local stations, or is covered in local newspapers and magazines as a celeb who was partying at a popular city joint or get advertising endorsement, you will rarely make it to the footnotes of hip-hop discourse.
Hip-hop in Kenya has also become a class issue. Artistes from certain geographical city locations, such as Kibera, play a particular kind of music. Their music is the voice of disenchantment. They sing about the sorry state of our country. They question the unequal distribution of resources, political exploitation of the youth and underemployment in the city. They voice concern about teenage pregnancy and HIV/Aids.
Yet the voices of Kalamashaka, Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, and Mashifta are rarely heard. Even if these Dandora-based groups slowly get recognition in the mainstream media, we don’t hear at all prominent underground names from other under-privileged parts of Nairobi such as Kangemi and Kibera.
These groups include Lethal Dynamic, Octopizo, Dream, Mr Ree, Rabbit and K47.Kforce. They opt to do underground hip-hop whose content is more than raise your hands party-themed music we are accustomed to. As the US-based Kenyan hip-hop scholar Dr George Gathigi says, while no one can take away the role of other local artistes in entertaining their audiences because that is what they like, to sanction one variant as genres flag-bearer and mask the other is unfair.
In Kenya hip-hop is largely seen as a post-modern Western genre brought to us by globalisation in the 1990s. However, academicians such as Russell A. Potter, in his book titled Spectacular Vernaculars (1995), trace the origin of hip-hop roots to Africa.
The West African oral literature griot culture and South American slave dance capoeira are but a few proofs left to reflect the existence of a strong African culture in the diaspora. These African elements are unmistakable in hip-hop, especially in the artists concern with humanity.
Hip-hop evolution path passed through the middle passage into South America. A variation occurred during its sojourn through the Caribbean. Gradually it settled in different forms of genre in North America – from the blues to jazz and even rock music.
Hip-hop kept morphing, till it reached its threshold in the Bronx, New York, during the 20th century. It was then carried back by the wind of globalisation across the continents. North America continues to be the trendsetter of its continuous evolution. But the mother of hip-hop is Africa, to whom the culture must return to liberate us.
Thus, when we practise hip-hop culture in Kenya, we should always have in our mind the traumatic pain of slavery that gave it impetus. We should practise it not just as another form of cool and fashionable music, but as a mode of expression based on resistance against all forms of oppression and exploitation – including economic and gender oppression in Africa.
As the Kenyan scholar at the University of London Carolyn Mose observes, Kenyans seem to mistake hip-hop with mere rapping. In practice hip-hop culture is characterised by five major elements: Mc-ing, Djaying, break-dancing, graffiti and street knowledge (entrepreneurship).
Hip-hop offers a privileged platform for urban protest. In this configuration, hip-hop assumes a socially responsible role. Every form of representation in hip-hop, from dressing to rap music, sows the seed in defiance. It opposes both conventional standards set by society and fashionable moves that threaten to congeal into a new orthodoxy.
When people hear the word hip-hop, they mostly think of violence and abuse of women. We must point out that gangsta rap, which glorifies misogyny and violence, is only a small segment within the hip-hop community gone rogue. The mainstreaming of gender issues in American hip-hop has seen female rappers seeking equality.
There are many books exploring this tread. They include Imani Perry’s Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (2004) and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women (2007). Although taking different perspectives, they are energised by thoroughness and inter-disciplinary rigour that the student of Kenyan hip-hop should adopt in order to see the culture as a whole rather than just dirty rap.