(Editor’s note: Currently at Harvard University, Shannon Schaubroeck has spent a good part of her life living in Kenya. This is the second of a two-part series about music today in Kenya.)
Over the past few decades, Kenyan hip-hop artists have been defining and refining the genre in their own context, finding ways to encode the nation’s grievances and hopes into sound. Until recently, Mombasa’s music industry has been largely overshadowed by the more prolific music dynasties of Nairobi in central Kenya and Dar es Salaam in eastern Tanzania. But now more than ever, Mombasan artists are bringing their own distinctive content and flow to the East African music scene. Mombasan music is famed for its pluralistic quality—namely, its incorporation of reggae and traditional Swahili musical sounds into the scaffold of hip-hop. As with Nairobi’s artists, their lyrics shift easily between Kiswahili, English and local dialects, making wordsmithing not only possible, but too full of possibility to forego.
Ufuoni (Seashore) Records deserves more credit than any other recording company for the popularization and distribution of Mombasan music. While the studio has a near-monopoly on Mombasa’s music industry, it’s been a vital marketing platform for many of the city’s most talented artists. Ufuoni Records was founded by Frederick Kiama a.k.a. Nje, a precocious musician and charming self-starter who grew up in the Changamwe district of Mombasa. In primary school, he petitioned local DJs to record instrumentals that he could use as background sound for the raps that he composed with his friends. His hip-hop group called GOB (Gee’s On the Block) became famed in Kenya during the late nineties, and in 2004, Nje had the resources to open Ufuoni Records in Mombasa. Nje now releases tunes with his rafiki Nguchi P under the moniker Ufuoni Family.
‘Mapenduzi ya Muziki’ by Ufuoni Family
One notable artist fostered by Ufuoni Records is Fikrah Teule, whose alias means “Chosen Thoughts” in Kiswahili—a nod to his socially conscious lyrics, which draw upon ancient Kiswahili proverbs and metaphors for their richness. But perhaps the most illustrious group produced by Ufuoni Records is the hip-hop collective Ukoo Flani. Ukoo Flani is concerned with much, much more than music: they are aggressive activists, constantly treatin’ and streetin’ social issues, both contemporary and historical. Ukoo Flani has lost and gained members over the years, merging for awhile with the Nairobi collective Mau Mau. These days, Ukoo Flani consider themselves distinct from their Nairobian counterparts on an ideological basis. Ukoo Flani insists on creating art that is more than sensational entertainment; they define themselves against Genge-style music, a mainstream form of Kenyan music that bears some similarities to American hip-hop.
‘Msoto Millions’ by Ukoo Flani feat. Jahcoozi
The idea of “conscious” music (usually referred to as “Kaya” by the residents of Mombasa), is at the heart of the city’s music culture. Kaya rappers tackle highly-charged social and political themes, but they aim to keep their tone positive, ethical, and unflinching. Kaya roughly translates to “homestead,” and endorses a music culture created by the people and for the people, a philosophy that’s especially relevant in the parts of town where life ain’t easy. This is why Tupac, Wale, and other socially conscious American rappers are still honored at the Kenyan coast, alongside groups like Ukoo Flani: they represent a clear stance contra music-as-opiate, and instead treat music as a weapon, music as wings, a way to face the harshness of reality full in the face while resisting defeatism.
‘Mitaani’ by Ukoo Flani, Nje, Mzedy, Nguchi P and Lavosti
In Mombasa, the gap between music production and consumption is almost invisible; producers and consumers exist in symbiotic and fluid relationship. Mombasan artists earn most of their meager revenue from giving local performances. This isn’t a bad thing—the idea of music as a de-mysticizing and equalizing force is given shape and form when audiences can interact in person with local hip-hop stars. Producers like Nje emphasize the importance of engaging in local politics and culture, rather than pursuing maximal profits. Part of this ideology may be reactive, since artists in Mombasa readily admit that their chances for commercial success are much lower than those of Nairobian artists. But Mombasans have forged a matchless hip-hop culture that deserves not only recognition, but accolades. They’ve created music that’s marked by intentionality, rare idealism, and more than a little beauty.
‘Mumesahau’ by Fikrah Teule feat. Nje