They were childhood friends, ate from the same plate, and pioneered a new genre, Swahili and Sheng rap. Their style ripped Kenya’s hip-hop landscape with an unending laser beam of lyricism and linguistic inventiveness, served, sometimes, with a slew of menace and quirky jokiness, sometimes with Mafioso-like braggadocio, and sometimes with the wisdom of self-reflection, but always reporting from the battlefront about the pot holes in our culture: colonialism, post-independence betrayals, endemic corruption, police brutality, street life and the painful sting of poverty in the ghetto.

It was a new form of musical protest, authentic, seminal, gritty and startling in its boldness.

 

First there was Kalamashaka

Kalamashaka was founded in 1995 by three musicians: Kamau Ngigi, or just Kama, Johnny Vigeti and Roba AKA Oteraw. In 1997, Kalamashaka released ‘Tafsiri Hii, an instant classic. It had been produced by one of Kenya’s long-standing super producers, Tedd Josiah. The song became a blueprint that paved the way for the mainstreaming of Swahili hip hop in East Africa and introduced music lovers to hard-core rap mashed with a socio-political consciousness.

The group’s first album, Ni Wakati, was so successful that one of its singles, ‘Fanya Mambo’, produced by Ken Ring in Sweden, catapulted Kalamashaka to international fame, rising to the top spot on South Africa’s Channel O – an arbiter of hip-hop success at the time. Kalamashaka burst out of the seams of music and became a mainstream phenomenon. It was credited with giving Dandora youth a cool alternative to the street life and keeping young people from violent crime.

“Being a member of the Mau Mau camp was a privilege. It was the royal family of Kenyan hip hop,” says hip-hop singer Juliani. To join, apprentices like Juliani “would go to the extent of washing Johnny K-Shaka’s boots just to be close to him and to feed on the crumbs of his creativity. We wanted to be close just in case he decided to give away a clue on how he does it. If he smoked, we’d smoke. If he stayed up all night, we wouldn’t sleep. If he listened to someone, we would study them even more.”

It was a new form of musical protest, authentic, seminal, gritty and startling in its boldness.

A supergroup is born

Dandora Estate, established in 1970s to offer a higher standard of housing with partial funding from the World Bank, but now a slum, became the capital of Kenyan hip hop. To help nurture talent from Dandora to Mombasa to Arusha, K-Shaka morphed into a super group: Ukoo Flani Mau Mau. It was a diverse coterie of artists, as many as 25 members, collectively releasing more than 800 musical tracks and 42 music videos – some with extensive footage from audiovisual historical archives.

 

Loss of strategic direction

The group grew too big too fast, making it difficult to steer. They fell out with the high-handedness of Nynke Nauta, a Dutch music promoter, who helped record and promote the album Kilio cha Haki in 2004.

Nynke has been quoted as saying that the group members would “be late for recordings, come drunk, sniffing glue and smoking. They even made advances at me! They called me a white supremacist and other bad names. One of the K-Shaka guys physically assaulted me.”

Just like RZA maintained a high-handedness in the Wu-Tang Clan’s formative years, bringing method to the mad creativity of the group and struggling to mould, say, Ol’Dirty Bastard’s off-kilter rhymes and snake-charmer melody into a style, Ukoo Flani owed its stylistic inventiveness to its benevolent producers.

Without support from producers like Tedd Josiah, Ken Ring and Ambrose Akwabi, and promoters like Nynke Nauta and Ciro Githunguri (Ukoo’s official graphic designer, art curator, artist manager, Kenya’s first female DJ and photographer) the group might never have achieved what it did.

A strategic vision and intention help to model a style – the soundscape through which the geyser of content can be channelled – and maintain a group’s creative camaraderie. With no hands-on producer to refine the endogenetic ore deposits of talent into musical gold, and no strong strategic intent to steer the Ukoo Flani ship away from the 100-foot-high waves that threatened to crash the vessel, and no one to realign the group with the changes in the music industry and anticipate the dynamism of tastes and preferences among a new generation of listeners, the ship sailed straight into tempestuous storms and never recovered.

This is the story of many grand hip-hop groups that declined in prominence or collapsed, making way for the single artist, the single commercial brand, whose identity and appeal is easier to manage by teams of super marketers.

In 2012, Michael Cohen wrote about the decline of hip-hop groups in the US, citing label politics and the pursuit of individual fame as the main reason behind these collapses. The same could perhaps be said about Ukoo Flani, which continues to exhibit strange appearing and disappearing acts, and whose boundaries, membership and collaborative projects are becoming increasingly difficult to track.

Dandora Estate, established in 1970s to offer a higher standard of housing with partial funding from the World Bank, but now a slum, became the capital of Kenyan hip hop. To help nurture talent from Dandora to Mombasa to Arusha, K-Shaka morphed into a super group: Ukoo Flani Mau Mau.

Lukewarm comebacks

It is common for artists to try to rekindle long-lost fame, but what is often forgotten is that artistic success is a product of a time. Time is the creator of the cultural and aesthetic response to art, which may well explain the lukewarm response to Kalamashaka’s attempt to captivate the listenership of today. In 2008, the group released an album, Mwisho wa Mwanzo, which, despite showcasing solid lyricism, failed to cause any ripples.

Kama released an album, titled Kama, in 2009, produced by Ambrose Akwabi, while Johnny Vigeti released Mr. Vigeti, an album that was produced by Ken Ring in 2015.

Mr Vigeti is a lodestar: It is arguably the best-produced hip-hop album in Kenya today. It is a remarkable experience that is aesthetically and emotionally rewarding. As Dave Heaton noted in 1991, when reviewing The Low End Theory, the second album by the legendary A Tribe Called Quest, “Anything really worth writing about is nearly indescribable; that’s the conundrum of writing about music.” There are probably no words to capture the enthusiasm that followed the rebirth of Johnny Vigeti, especially after years of unending negative press on the degenerating lives of Kalamashaka.

The album features Jamaican international stars Gramps Morgan and Lutan Fyah, as well as the Kenyan dancehall throb Wyre and the hip-hop head Abbas. The lead track, ‘Mr Vigeti’, details the valleys of thorns the artist has walked through, while the introspective track ‘Mama’, featuring the Congolese songstress Alicios Theluji, she of the delectable ‘Posa ya Bolingo’, is a tearful tribute to mothers. (Alicios fuses rumba, zouk and Afro-pop melodies.) However, the 12-track album continues to receive minimal play, despite Vigeti distributing 25 000 copies of the album across the country.

In an industry whose musical vision has been subsumed by the subgenres kapuka and genge – and many other not-so-clearly-defined categories – a comeback needs to be much more. It has to be more than a cautionary reunion to satiate the thirst and cuddle the nostalgia of ageing fans.

A comeback must be a complete transformation, or at least project a futuristic imagination that has the ability to challenge current norms. At best, it should push the prevailing trends into new realms. It is then that an artist can gain a new legion of fans and retain older ones, even if a sizeable number of older fans remain stuck in the old era and are unable to appreciate the new artist. An artist of the time is an innovator, one who constantly re-invents himself or herself; whose aesthetic constantly disrupts trends.

A comeback needs to be more than a cautionary reunion to satiate the thirst and cuddle the nostalgia of ageing fans

Inheritors of the dynasty

Rising up the imaginary rank of ‘who is king’ in Kenya’s jungle is no easy task. But the hardest, the iron-wrought young ones, often from sprawling slums – those mines of talent – wade through bee-infested rap battles, with a truckload of attitude and skill, hope, and a folded note for bus fare back home hidden in the innermost pocket. Juliani, an off-shoot of Ukoo Flani, an exemplar and a most exportable voice, who just released the Mtaa Mentality (2016) album, can attest to this.

Yet Ukoo Flani’s historicising of Dandora with songs like ‘Dandora L.O.V.E’, using the trope of ‘the projects’, just like Nas did for Queen’s Bridge or Wu Tang for the mythical Staten Island, has influenced groups like Y.G.B (Young, Gifted, Black). Y.G.B is fronted by Octopizzo, which uses Kibera slums as its canvas, or even individual artists like Khaligraph Jones – a rapid fire who displays versatility, adaptability and rhythmic experimentalism – who uses the Kayole area to reaffirm his street cred.

Other younger artists, still making their bones, like Trabolee and Romi Swahili, are more drawn to poetic lyricism and historical memory, and are in a bruising contest for Kenyan ears with genge and kapuka scions, make-believe rhymesters who have the attitude of ‘fake it till you make it’.

Today, Ukoo Flani is like a demobilised nationalist militia: bored and frantic, but with no war to fight. The days when the mic was a battle for personal freedom are fading and they are unable to re-invent themselves. Still, the legendary storytelling of Kitu Sewer in ‘Pesa’, ‘Pombe’, ‘Siasa na Wanawake’ or ‘Magazeti, Maradio Na T.V’, the grit of ‘Mangirima’ or ‘DC Na Sisi’, the lyrical deftness of ‘Mizani’ or ‘Kuwaharibia’, the deep introspection of ‘Mama’, or the eclectic urbanity of ‘Moi Avenue’, testify that other dogs have yet to earn their license to urinate on Ukoo Flani’s iron gate.