Kevin Teryek Kusini/Kevlexicon, edited by Monaja
28 November, 2012
Kazi Kwa Washamba
Hip Hop and Hustling in East Africa
First of all, I’d like to dedicate this lecture to all the East African hip hop heads I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. With this project particularly I’d like to thank Mwongela Kamencu, aka Monaja for editing and for his translation and analysis of “Angalia Saa.”
Brief outline of Kenyan History
I’d like to provide a context for understanding East African hip hop. To this end, I’d like to give a brief outline of Kenyan history.
• The two official languages in Kenya are KiSwahili and English. There are over 42 other local languages, referred to as “mother tongues.” Swahili is a mixture of coastal Bantu and Arabic. Studies have established that Swahili was actually a Bantu language with heavy Arabic influences. The Swahili people existed before the coming of the Arabs. The Swahili language spread inland with the Arab slave trade. English spread with missionary activity, then colonialism, since the 1880s and 1890s.
• In 1920, Kenya became an official colony of the British. White settlers profited from African forced labor on coffee and tea plantations for over 50 years. Local labor struggles seeking higher wages, and benefits were met with police violence. The religious anticolonial resistance movement, Dini ya Msambwa , (composed of Pokot ethnic group) was put down in the Kolloa Affray. This paved the way for long term struggle. A militant group called Mau Mau began large scale resistance. One of the Mau Mau leaders was Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi. On October 20th 1952 the colonial government declared a State of Emergency.
• Europeans’ legalize ethnic group status thru the “Kipande” system. Kipandes allowed Europeans to assign ethnic identities to Africans, dividing the multi-ethnic region. This laid the foundation for future internal conflicts. People were given Kipandes, or passes, limiting them to their areas of habitation, which prevented cohesion between ethnic groups. If an African wanted to leave his region, he needed the signature of a white settler on his kipande.
• During the Emergency, European settlers armed African vigilantes loyal to the colonizers, named the “Home Guards.” The “Home Guards’” role was to protect villlages and assist military and police in the fight against the MauMau rebels. Most of the fighting took place in the Highlands region in Central Kenya also known as the “White Highlands”, where the Kikuyu ethnic group were located. The fighting involved many Kikuyu on both sides, and resembled a civil war.
• Mau Mau fighters included men and women. Various ethnicities and language-speakers were involved with resistance to colonialism. The colonial authorities however tried to depict the movement as an ethnic outfit that mainly involved the Kikuyu.
Hip Hop in East Africa
• During the 1990s, hip hop in Kenya began a shift in emphasis from the imitation of United States artists towards hip hop drawn from local content and in local languages. (In Kenya, Sheng slang is an example of a local language used in hip hop). Mtaani life, or “life in the ghetto” became the focus. Emcees talked about issues ghetto youth could sympathize with, including unemployment, crime, [drugs, ]police harassment and poor living conditions.
• Arguably the most influential sheng rap pioneers in Kenya was the group Kalamashaka, whose members included Rawbar, Joni Vigeti, and Kama. Their single “Tafsiri Hii” (Translate This) gained explosive popularity. K-shaka’s fanbase grew from the students who had gone to university on government scholarships. Other influential sheng rappers included Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, Fundi Frank, K-South, and Ma-shifta. Tanzania in the 1980s there was Kwanza Unit, Hard Blasters, The Diplomatz, Mr 2., …and later, the conscious Swahili rapper Professor Jay, who was enormously influential.
• Following their economic success and wide acclaim, Kalamashaka went on to form Mau Mau kambi in Nairobi. Kambi means “camp” or “base.” Other emcees and hip hop activists helped form a similar base in Mombasa called Ukoo Flani (meaning “a certain clan”). The bases were places for young people from mitaa (ghettos) to avoid getting involved in crime. Young people could rap, breakdance, and build their graffiti skills. Eventually the two kambis merged to form UKOO FLANI MAU MAU (UFMM). [In the present day, hip hop communities continue to support ghetto youth. Communities such as free-to-join MAONO Trust and Kalahari Kambi in Kenya, End of the Weak in Uganda (also EODUB working with Ugandan emcees in NYC)] are helping develop talents from singing to football. In addition many groups provide social and educational services. [Flamez:] Many mtaa artists support upcoming youth, offering places to stay when moving from town to town during hustles, sharing links with promoters, producers, etc.]
U.K.O.O. F.L.A.N.I. M.A.U. M.A.U.
Upendo Kote Olewenu Ombeni Funzo La Aliyetuumba Njia Iwepo
“Love everywhere all who seek teachings of the creator; there is a way”
• From UFMM website: (Note: I edited some of the spelling) [Website opens with a quote from the Mau Mau Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi:
• “It’s better to die on our feet than live on your knees.”
• ….They prefer to be just known
as “ukooflani maumau” whose loose translation from kiswahili
translates to “a certain clan of maumau.” Mau Mau were a guerilla movement
for freedom during [Kenya’s] struggle for independence in the 1950’s. This
group of artists relate to the struggle of their forefathers who
fought for equal opportunities for all….
…The objectives of the group are quality enhancement to enable hiphop
to be the language to pass the real/true message to society. Through
enlightening people on the economic prospects of hiphop they’d like to
prove its viability as a business and a way to sustain an income for
fellow youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. UFMM believe hiphop is a
tested and proven way out of the ghetto, because it has been their
rehabilitation. Each member has a story to tell about how hiphop changed their lives into artistic superiority. Coming from an environment where its an achievement to see the age of 25, and where an average person earns less than $1 a day; UFMM happily prove that with wit, clever poetry, leadership, wisdom and love, one can control their destiny.
Gas Fyatu Interview (emcee, writer, entrepreneur, Ukoo Flani Mau Mau / Moshikali) (Kenya)
• Where are you from, What was it like growing up?
… I grew up in Nairobi eastland inner city dandora, growing was
normal life for ghetto childrens with parents working in industrial
What kind of hustles were people involved in?
In dandora there were all sorts of small businesses, small kiosks, selling
scrap metals, matatu touts, vegetable vendors, mandazi and chapatti or
roadside. Basically hawkers everywhere.
• What was the Mau Mau camp like?
Mau mau camp was born on the alleys of dandora, by youth with a love
for hip hop music and yearning for change. There was so much police
harassment and unemployment rate was very high, we found solace in
music and formed a street family, unlike the freedom fighters with guns
and spears. We decided to use microphones and pencils as missiles to
fight for change, and to decolonize minds. Mau mau became a hub for
art, football acrobats and rehabilitation. It spread all over. Maumau still exists now as an East African movement called ukooflanimaumau with members all over east African cities and towns.
What does hip hop mean to you, What motivated you to become involved?
“…while I was still in school Kalamashaka were taking Kenya with their single “Tafsiri Hii” so when I cleared high school I joined mau mau camp. Mau Mau camp was a street hang out for people with a love for conscious music. Edutainment- precisely…
….Hip-Hop’s  origins date back as far as late 80’s, the fire was
burning in Tanzania… In the 90’s. the Kenyan rap scene flourished. Pioneering groups like Kalamashaka  set the scene using their vernacular language to win the hearts of many. Similar growth was happening in Kampala…DJ’s took their stand like Dj Pinye, Dj Adrian, Skratchaholics, the homeboyz setting their wheels of steel blazing with creativity. B-boys grabbed the stage too. [ [Breakdancing] is an art of dancing composed of movements which makes the dancer look like he is literally breaking. It also comprises of many [movements] such as bopping, waves, body spins and also incorporates Capoeira, another form of dance expression who’s origins came from slaves, who spent their time with their hand and feet chained. Slaves used it as a way to exercise/dance/fight (while chained) without being discovered. For neither of the above were allowed and a death penalty would follow if one was discovered practicing…] [[Graffiti] was the underground visual way of relaying messages by spray painting public spaces, like street walls in a colorful artistic form and style with illustrations and special scriptures that was only understood by hip hop’s people.] Kenyans took graffiti to another level by using public service vehicles as their canvas. [Aside: Known as “Matatus.” Matatus are privately-owned minibuses that took over as the most affordable means of transportation, after the government bus system collapsed. Often college students create music video mixtapes that play inside matatus. Matatus are flamboyantly decorated with motivational phrases, the likenesses of international and local hip hop artists and celebrities. More recently the government has applied pressure to tone them down, citing noise complaints, etc. ] Hip hop made such a proud stand that [politicians] used the music to [promote] their campaigns.
Economic Policies’ Impact on East Africa
• After Kenyan independence (12, December 1963), international financial institutions began to create a system of debt and aid, demanding East African governments cut spending (“austerity”) and implement Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs). These international financial institutions
• include the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
• SAPs were inspired by an economic philosophy known as Economic Neoliberalism. Economic Neoliberalism paved the way for the privatization of social services, such as healthcare, public transportation and education, which were formerly funded by the government thru tax revenue. Nigerian Writer Chinua Achebe claims many of the austerity measures implemented by complicit governments in Africa would not be applied in the Western countries that promote such economic policy.
• East African governments’ debt, resulting from SAPs, makes it difficult for East African leaders to provide adequate services to their citizens, many of whom are young and impoverished.
• In Kenya, the investment in youth and implementation of free primary school education in 2003, perhaps has lead to the country being an economic success story for the East Africa region. However the gap between the rich and the poor has increased steadily.
• Economic Neoliberalism cuts local investment in infrastructure, instead favoring imports and fostering African dependence on foreign aid. In Kenya, there is a proliferation of Mitumba (literally “bundles,” from clothing wrapped in plastic). Second-hand markets sell goods donated by wealthy countries at subsidized prices. Many NGOs acquire clothing meant as donations and sell them. Mitumba are blamed for decline of local textile production. This is an example of decreased economic self-sufficiency in Kenya under Neoliberal Economic policy.
East African Youth
• 43 million people in Kenya. 73% of Kenya’s population is under 30yrs old. The Kenyan Government’s statistics show, 14.6% of the populations is unemployed (as of 2003). Of the 14.6% unemployed, youth constitute 45%. Although 73% of the Kenya’s population is under 30, a majority of Kenyan (and East African) politicians are over the age of 50 [Ntarangwi 68]. Youth are often left out of meaningful political participation, yet exploited when election times come, votes are bought and youth are used to intimidate rival parties.
• International aid organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are left as gap-fillers, to provide services an impoverished government cannot. [The example of Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya, illustrates the failure of both the government and international aid organizations to provide refugee aid and assist local host-communities such as the Turkana ethnic group. Money is mismanaged, and used to benefit NGOs and the Government of Kenya. [Ekuru Aukot] ]
• 83% of Kenya’s population is Christian. Due to the legacy of European missionaries during colonialism, religious institutions are often providers of healthcare and education. Religious ideology is a major factor in the healthcare choices available to Kenyans. HIV/AIDS prevention is limited by the abstinence-only policies promoted by the Catholic Church. The neocon ideology found in George W. Bush’s program, the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) also advocates abstinence-only sex education over condom use. This policy is failing to decrease HIV/AIDS transmission in East Africa.
• The culture of silence regarding sex has also contributed to increased transmission. There’s also a double-standard in which it is considered acceptable for young men to have knowledge about sex, while young women are stigmatized as “promiscuous” or “loose” for seeking information that would safeguard their own sexual health. Also, the use of male condoms is often a decision the male partner makes.
• Fortunately, many hip hop artists speak out and promote safe sex and condom use. Artists, such as Circute and Jo-el, distribute condoms at their shows. [Technically Circute and Joel are considered by other Hip Hop artistes as part of the genge outfit but for all practical purposes they are rappers.] Many artists feel the disproportionate number of femcees in hip hop reflects the larger gender inequality in East African society. Many artists also admit many women make invaluable contributions, doing behind-the-scenes work, promoting hip hop, acting as event organizers etc.
Hip Hop, Local Languages, and “Piracy”
• Hip Hop has been a medium for East African youth, particularly males, to uniquely position themselves in a context that is simultaneously international and local. The choice of Nairobi rappers to perform in slang, known as “Sheng,” showcases this reality. Sheng is a mixture of the two official languages of Kenya, KiSwahili and English, utilizing KiSwahili grammar structure, in addition to words borrowed from several of the more popular, local, vernacular spoken in Nairobi (such as Dholuo and Kikuyu languages). Though sheng rap was initially unpopular, it found its audience among young university students that graduated on government scholarships. [It has also gained popularity to a younger audience – high school kids like it too.]
• The form of hip hop and deejaying originated in the Bronx. Artist mixed pre-recorded materials in a process of positive “piracy,” that later allowed emcees to express and critique the ills they saw in their communities. Unfortunately, hip hop has also been appropriated by people whose interests are disconnected or even hostile to poor black communities.
MC Kah discusses drugs in East Africa:
MC Kah: “Of course many people blame the victims for example if they find you doing drugs (madre) they blame you as an individual. In the real sense however, it is the responsibility of you as an individual plus the society as a whole. Therefore, the assessment should not be one-sided when you look at that. There are people who will benefit from those drugs so they will sell them. There are other people who get into those drugs because of escapism, while there are people who get into it because of peer pressure. There are many circumstances that influence people to get into drugs but I think the biggest influence is the availability of the drugs… there is clearly someone behind that. This person has a distribution network; there is a system that he operates under – he is not just your ordinary guy. So if it was up to the ordinary person,– we wouldn’t have a big drug problem. I basically blame the people who make the drugs. They shouldn’t get to the people in the first place. When they do reach the people however, people should have an open mindset to understand the drugs problem because they affect people who are poor or people in depression. Blaming the individuals it not the way to go, that would only bring about temporary solutions and the individuals involved would relapse. It is the responsibility of the individual and society; society should look at a drug addict as one of their own, and as a human being. The individual concerned should also look at himself as a human being and accept his mistakes. It is not easy to get out of drugs once you get into them.” Flamez Mshamba Mwenza agrees, “the people responsible for stopping [drugs] are the ones dealing behind the scenes.” ”It’s the life in Dandora,. 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.” Flamez feels “mitaa kwa mitaa kampaini” [Hood to hood campaign”] is a positive force in combating drug problems. Many hip hop kambi [including bases, such as Mau Mau kambi, Kalamashaka started in Nairobi], not only provided activities and fostered the development of hip hop artists, but also served as drug rehabilitation centers.
• I’d like to return to the idea of “Negative” Piracy.
• This “negative” piracy of hip hop is nothing new in East Africa. Tanzanian artist Professor Jay wrote a song “Ndio Mzee,” which criticized politicians who make impossible promises in order to get elected, and extract public money through corruption. Through fear of the song being hijacked (by both the incumbent and opposition parties), he delayed its release until after the general elections in Tanzania. However, Professor Jay was proud to be honored (alongside a former prime minister and an ambassador) by the Tanzanian government for “sensitizing people on good governance.” His songs are famous for containing “mada nzito” (serious themes), talking about equality for women, HIV/AIDS and political accountability.
• Piracy affects hip hop artists in East Africa in negative and positive ways. At any kiosk in Nairobi, any artist’s music can be burned onto a customized mixtape for 200bob or less (about 3USD). This creates a larger audience, but also reduces profits. However, East African artists have also been able to extend the market for their music by selling online. Many successful hip hop artists make money from doing performances rather than from record sales.
Burney Mc Interview (Uganda/Luga Flow Army)
Uganda has its own movement localizing hip hop, similar to sheng rap in Kenya. The movement is called Luga Flow. I talked with Burney MC of Luga Flow Army to get his perspective.
Talk about the ‘Luga Flow Revolution’ in 2005.
…in 2005 MCS so much started celebrating rapping in Local languages. Before that it was mostly rap in English. Of course rappers started rapping in Local Languages way back from the 90’s but it wasn’t until 2005 when it was termed LUGA FLOW  by Bataka Squad member Babaluku. So 2005 was a big year for HipHop in Uganda. They…used to just rap about rap  like Saba Saba’s track Tujjababya meaning we will blow up/ have a break through. A lot of HipHop nights were started and the Annual Uganda HipHop Summit [began.] Since then this was like the birth of rap in local languauges termed as LUGA FLOW.
…. [the] first time I heard rap in Luganda [language] I was just surprised on how those words were twisted to an extent of making sense. [I] got my hands on a bataka squad mixtape, which had tracks talking about mostly  villages where they came from…rapping about Kampala and stuff like that. But it was just so interesting that it was in a language I understood best.
You know usually its always hard when rapping in your Language and you
don’t keep it real, its very hard to be rapping in Luganda and you talk about the Bling Bling. Because that’s not our Life. I believe this was the biggest change the LUGA FLOW MOVEMENT brought to UG hipHop. Now, MCs started being real rather rapping in English and imitating the American rappers. We were talking about the Hardships the people go through, so LugaFlow just allows you to be true to who you are hence allowing people relate to what you trying to pass to them.
Talk more about End of the Weak, what it’s mission is and how it works
End of the weak being a global movement ..each chapter has it goals
..what brings us together is the MC CHALLENGE. With End of the weak
UGANDA we run a project called
Hip Hop Artists for Empowerment
The Hip Hop Artists for Empowerment Project is
dedicated to providing youth education, HIV/AIDS
awareness, female empowerment, cultural develop-
ment and artistic growth, through Hip-Hop culture, in
So how have we been doing this from Day to Day, through hip Hop Artist
for Empowerment project, as End of the Weak, we donate free performances
to different organizations that [share] the same goals we [have].
So here I call up for those MCS that came from the MC challenge, and
still wanna support, to come through and help whoever invites us to be
part of a positive initiative!
1. Angalia Saa