“Rap is like manna from heaven. Our rhymes are meant to be revolutionary, coming down to change everything.” _ Kah
Imagine the best rappers Kenya has to offer putting away their egos and petty rivalries for a moment, synchronizing their schedules and coming together to record a well-produced socially conscious collective album. Impossible, right? Even though such a miraculous scenario is highly unlikely to take place in this day and age, there is still great comfort in the fact that such an event has actually happened before.
Sometime in 2003, and as Kenyan hip hop was peaking, Kalamashaka’s Roba met Nynke Nauta, who had just began to be involved in Nairobi-based youth projects through the UpToYouToo and Youth Intiatives Kenya (YIKE) non-profit organizations. Inspired by the Kalamashaka/Mau Mau concept of improving the lives of poor neighbourhoods by facilitating and promoting creativity, the two thought of a project that would provide a space to record songs for a month.
Several months later, all their planning, fundraising and collaboration efforts bore fruit. Under the banner of Nairobi Yetu / Nairobi’s Red Nose Distrikt, a portable studio was set up in a two-bedroom apartment in Eastlands, beginning the process that led to the creation of the collective album Kilio Cha Haki.
The Kilio Cha Haki project was massive in every conceivable way. It involved 54 creators, 38 of whom were the actual recording artists mainly from the Kalamshaka and Ukoo Flani Mau Mau groups. The Eastlands apartment/studio transformed into a bustling commune of sorts, with rappers, producers, apprentices and hangers on streaming in and out; rehearsing, recording, discussing, improvising, sharing meals and sitting through power blackouts.
The project provided a space that nurtured new talents and reinforced the ones that were already prominent. Kalamashaka, Nynke Nauta (as Nynka), K-Swiss (Kitu Sewer), Damu Moto, Juliani, Johnny-boy, Agano, G-rongi, Zakah, MC Kah, Kama-kazi, Kenchez, Judge of Black Duo, L-Ness, Kantai, Mwenyeji, Atu, Ureizo, Cliff-G and many others lent their voices and lyrics to the album. Kilio Cha Haki morphed into an epic 22 track album released in mid-2004.
The album borrows its title from Al-Amin Mazrui’s 1981 play Kilio Cha Haki (A Cry for Justice) which shone a light on the exploitation of workers at Del Monte, a work so threatening to the Moi regime that it swiftly imprisoned Mazrui for two years.The album carries on with the “cry for justice” spirit of the play from a viewpoint of disgruntled and disenfranchised youth living in Nairobi’s slums.
Kilio Cha Haki draws a vivid picture of slum life, death and the difficulties in between. It kicks thiings off with Fanya Tena by Juliani, Johnny-boy, Kitu Sewer and Agano. The track, about the vicious cycle of bad choices or lack of viable good choices at a personal level, institutional level and collectively as a country, sets the tone for the rest of the album. History will repeat itself until the day we’ll learn: “Na ka tunaezaifanya tutaifanya tena…“
The album goes on to tackle many other specific themes and topics, all of which are still relevant today, some even being ahead of their time. Got Drama decries globalization and the preference for sensationalism by the mainstream media. Sisi handles the stress and depression associated with poverty and inequality. Kilio is a commentary on the scourge of HIV/AIDS which had reached its peak in the early 2000s. Dead or absentee parents beget children with little hope for opportunities to better their lives in Mama We and Nijenge. These troubles never seem to go away in 24/7, with the government’s solution being to build more prisons and mental hospitals to house those who have become unhinged. Hebu Rudisha by Zakah and Mwenyeji, in a justified rant about the pollution in Dandora caused by the massive garbage dump site, prescribes a return to the start, a self-interrogation of society to discover the root causes of poverty, inequality and crime.
The formidable lineup of lyricists and story tellers on this album brings a level of lyrical density of a quality that would be difficult to match today. Even though the primary objective of Nairobi Yetu was to explore the small, packed-in environment of the slums, they did it with a realness that could easily resonate with any hip hop lover in the world. The success of All Over The World , featuring New York hip hop artist Rha Goddess confirmed this even more.
Each track offers its own special experience with the kind of impact going door to door through slum dwellings in Dandora and the greater Eastlands area would achieve, as opposed to getting an overhead view of the place from a helicopter. Parties turn to funerals at short notice, the smell of raw sewage and garbage come to life, you are confronted with pitiful fantasies of turning the earth and grass into ugali and sukumawiki, and marijuana keeps depression at bay.
In Mama We, Johnny-boy, Killa Blade, Killah-MBO and Nynka explore the tiny bit of tenderness and vulnerability left deep within the cruel reality of a young, motherless life.
Confessions, inspired by a 2004 newspaper article about a teenage gangster from Dandora similar to recent stories about teenage Gaza gangs in Kayole, showcases some fine story telling by Oteraw, Johnny-boy, Killah-MBO, Damu Moto and Kantai. This is Nairobi; the stench of crime is always in the air.
Msanii by Judge, L-Ness and Atu instantly became Kenya’s definitive battle-rap anthem. The trio progressively break down what it takes to be an MC with some of the strongest verses on the album: “Tuambie jina lako nani nalo jino lako gani lina mistari ndani…”
The production, largely handled by Dan van West (Kid Kamau) and Stije Hallema (Styles), is phenomenal. They create a diverse soundscape that keeps each next track fresh enough to keep the album interesting. There’s a generous helping of jazz-infused classic hip hop sounds, some beat boxing here and there, occasional bhangra drums and smooth R&B enhanced by Nynka’s vocals. Pesa Pesa is the most adventurous track of the lot, offering a mash-up of zilizopendwa, lingala, hip hop, and reggae.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Kilio Cha Haki is an unprecedented musical achievement. It can still be considered to be the greatest hip hop album to come out of Kenya. That such a huge lineup of artists, producers and creators managed to put their heads together and craft an opus filled to the brim with lyrical gold and a revolutionary message in just one month is the stuff of miracles. Unfortunately, the miracle did not last very long. Good vibes turned into mistrust and differences on how to proceed with the project. Plans to build a permanent studio in Dandora from CD sales and concert proceeds imploded, leaving the collective in disarray.
Kilio Cha Haki has come to symbolize the immensity of the struggle to get out of poverty in Kenya. Once in a while, a rare opportunity will come along, giving you a shot at achieving your dreams but a single misstep or bad decision could easily turn the tides against you and throw you back out in the vicious cycle of unpleasant Plan Bs. Only a handful emerge as the poster children for success and the rest of the masses are told to work harder, steal like the others, or simply pray the poverty away.