Poetry’s Influence On Contemporary Kenyan Music

Posted on Posted in Articles, Artists, Events, Nairobi Experiences, Poets

Saturday 10th May, 2014. Around 5:30 pm. PAWA254’s rooftop. The skies are dark as a demon’s heart, rain is pouring as if it has a demolition agenda. Thick heavy drops that hit and go right through my denim pants. It is the characteristic Nairobi rain that hides all day behind a smiling – and mostly blazing – sun, and then descends unexpectedly. I’m standing in the mini-storm with three other guys trying to set up a canopy. In the next five minutes, a music system, a table and filming lights will be sheltered under the canopy. Hunched under an umbrella will be Ricky, an upcoming music video director, trying to keep his lenses dry and still get good shots of the suit clad rappers rhyming away in the rain. This part wasn’t supposed to be in the shoot. The plan was to have the city’s skyline as a background; probably roping in the whole “green city in the sun” hullabaloo, but the skies opened up and brought with it an experimentation bug.

The rappers are members of Jade the Kenyan Dream (JKD), an ambitious and fast growing boy band. They are (as someone with a sense of humour pointed out) some of the few rappers who can actually “make it rain” – literally.

The video is for “Nairobi”, a piece that JKD has been working on with Namatsi Lukoye – a spoken word artist – for the last several months. Kiu, another young (all girl) group is also in the picture, having provided exquisite vocals. While the rain drenches their adventurous male counterparts, the ladies are shooting pool and laughing at the incredulity of filming in the rain.

Namatsi Lukoye
Namatsi Lukoye

It is important to note here that Namatsi is the lead artist in the project. The musicians are offering an essential melodic support structure for her poetry. Such collaborations happening more and more in the Nairobi art scene – especially with performance poetry. The basic most common coupling is where the poet recites over a live guitar accompaniment. Several others have included a vocalist to the guitar and in some instances, a full band – drums, shakers et al. Some, like FlowFlani Wakaba, Number 8 and Yung Nnoiz prefer incorporating beat-boxing (a form of vocal percussion that involves simulating musical sounds with one’s lips, tongue and voice).

As the rough combinations keep evolving, they shed the edges and produce fine products where the artists involved have perfected combining their forms to provide a seamless fusion. One of the products of such partnerships is H_art The Band. They originally consisted of a vocalist/poet, a guitarist and a spoken word artist/vocalist. Along the way, they have added a percussionist and a bass guitarist, filling out beautifully. Their song “Uliza Kiatu” (presently gaining more popularity the airwaves) is a perfect example of such collaborations.

Source: facebook.com
H_Art The Band. Note the shoes.

It is easy to paint the relationship between Kenyan poetry and music as parasitical; with the former using the latter’s softer melodic quality to cushion its punches and eccentricities. The relationship is has more mutuality though, poetry has offered upcoming musicians a perfect spot for growth and testing. It is common for poetry sessions to be punctuated with a song or two – to offer breathers. Since most of these sessions are run on low (and, in many instances, zero) budgets, the spot is given to musicians who are hungry for a platform, an audience and a chance to prove their worth. On the other hand, the audience in such spaces tends to be friendlier and more accommodating than in regular music concert scenes. They appreciate the artistry, the effort, simplicity and most importantly the content’s quality.

I first saw JKD (hip-hop) at Hisia Zangu – a literature (mainly poetry) workshop, where some of their raps used to be submitted as poems for critiquing. This space has also given a spot severally to a brilliant rock band called Bedslam and Afro-Fusion one – Lele. Poetry At The Park, which is held at the 1998 Bomb Blast’s Memorial park every month, has played hosts to several musical talents including Josie, Wambi, Christ Centurion and Phy And The Band. The last one being the most prominent and flowery. Poetry Spot has natured Siri Ya Muziki…Kwani? Open Mic – Man Njoro and Checkmate… Words Galore is home to The Crater Band while Fatuma’s Voice gives numerous artists every week – H_art The Band leading the line. I remember meeting Mordecai and Abednego – two of H_art’s members on different occasions as competitors at Slam Africa. That was before they formed the band. They both won and were crowned Slam Kings.

Elani is currently blowing up the airwaves with their honey-laced tunes, infecting new fans with the Elani fever on a daily basis. Two years ago, they were doing the same thing at Wamathai Spoken Word, on a small stage at Michael Joseph Center. On the same event, Namatsi was doing collaborations with Carol Njenga – a poet – and Vivian – a vocalist who did a song with Jaguar a few months ago. Sarabi, arguably the hottest band in town at the moment, has been holding concerts at Alliance Francaise, featuring a poet every time. In September 2013 Imagine The World; a musical concert in the StoryMoja Hay Festival, a literature fest, put Sarabi, Kiu, Jemedari and Band 254, Kiu, Stan and Fena Gitu on a single stage. Thereby elevating the musical careers of some of them.

Source: http://www.upnairobi.com/dt_portfolio/dancing-in-the-rain-at-the-experience-3-with-sarabi-band/
Sarabi at a previous event

Several hours after the rainy shoot, we’re headed home, walking downtown with a few friends. One lady who’s just been introduced the poetry circles reveals that she is a songstress and inquires about performance opportunities. She is worried that the audience may demand covers of popular songs. The advice she gets is to keep to who she is. Experiment with less judgmental audience before she is in front of crowds baying for blood. This is her first step to building a brand.

It may not be that visible, but this relationship might be the most advantageous to Kenyan music yet. The common thing about all the above named artists is their quality of music which is content driven, intelligent and poetic. Is that a result of regular interaction with poetry? I’d say yes. As long as the open (and closed) mic events keep breeding the musicians, our faint music industry will keep receiving kisses of life.

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