DJ Ned, 3rd generation Kenyan-Indian rap recluse, thumbed a dreadlock and stared out at the expanse of weeds choking Lake Victoria. “The problem with Kenyan music,” he told Ozzy and I, “is that there is no creativity, and there is no creativity because people aren’t sure of who they are.”
“The young guys listen to American rap and Jamaican reggae and don’t want to hear the old music, and the old guys don’t understand the new music and wonder why no one wants to listen to the traditional stuff.”
“The difference between young and old is too big, and no one is creating anything new because they’re too busy trying to mimic something they’re not.”
I sipped sweet tea and cursed the bright Kisumu sunlight for backlighting DJ Ned in a way that would make it impossible to get good footage of this important moment. The palm trees and swamp grass waved indifferently as DJ Ned, from the vantage point afforded by his self-imposed exile at the run-down but beautiful Kisumu Beach Resort, succinctly captured a lot of the frustration and uncertainty we see in the music scene around us. Is it possible to be “authentic” while making a music as distinctly American as rap? Is it possible to be creative and move forward when your main purpose is to preserve the songs of the past in a rapidly changing country? Is this the same problem in different forms, or just one more sign of the massive generation gap that in many ways defines Kenya?
My recent Raw Music post about kapooka rap brought up these issues of authenticity and identity in one of the most modern forms possible--the rap beef. Many of the people we speak with read the blog, and one recent post, in which underground rappers dissed the kapooka genre for being superficial and fake, pissed off the kapooka set. Kapooka in itself isn’t a derogatory term; it’s just the name of a genre. But the sight of kapooka trashed online for the world (well, more like 2 of my friends and my mom’s luncheon group) to see was too much to bear. I started hearing from all sides that words had been exchanged between kapooka diehards and the underground guys. So far no glocks have been pulled, and angry text messages are the prominent beef medium, but this shit gotta start somewhere. RMI, serving up lukewarm rap beef worldwide since 2010.
It was with some hesitation that I asked June Rapsha, the self-proclaimed “King of Kisumu Hip-Hop” and a prominent kapooka artist, about the kapooka controversy. We were at Sports Ground, a large park in the center of Kisumu, hitched up to the lavelier mics and shooting an interview in front of an intense game of street basketball. Rapsha is one of the hardest hustlers I’ve met, constantly traveling the country, putting on shows and promoting his music. He’s proud of the kapooka elements that come through his music.
“To me, the underground is underdeveloped in Kenya,” he said. Kapooka, on the other hand, is an authentic musical expression-- “It blends bongo, hip hop, genge, traditional; kapooka IS Kenya’s music, it’s the only form of rap that is completely ours, the rhythm, the words, everything.”
Words like “authenticity” and “identity” are usually used to describe humans and their actions by people who haven’t left the library long enough to get to know any real humans (or get any real action), but for some reason they seem useful here. Only a few hours after interviewing Rapsha, I found myself poking my head into a painfully authentic busa club looking for Dishon Olima.
It was about 10 am and Olima was breakfasting on a huge can of busa. I was with Vic, a rap producer at Urban Music (where LaFam, Sergeant Black, and Brio record). We were there to guide Olima back to the recording studio, where Vic had offered a free recording session after I had brought him to Olima’s house to make some field recordings the week before.
Soon, I was following the blind blues legend through a cloud of green and devestating bass to the studio’s back room. Shirtless rappers, interrupted mid-session, stared as the crumpled old man floated into their sanctuary. I couldn’t help smiling to myself. The musical youth finally meet the ancestors, and it’s hard to tell who is higher.
Olima was in great form. His voice was strong, his guitar buzzed like an Indian drone instrument, and I can’t wait to hear the record. He played about 7 songs, averaging around 10 minutes apiece in the sweltering room, only taking breaks to gleefully listen to Vic play back the tunes for review. It was his first recording session in decades.
LaFam and a few others listened intently. Traditional Luo songs, whether played on a guitar or older instruments like the nyatiti, are often long stories singing cheeky praise of a friend, a famous person, or a benefactor. The lyrics are often funny and clever, but don’t always translate to English. LaFam and the crowd cracked up as Olima described a guy who cooks a chicken with its feathers still on, while all I could think about was buying frozen chicken parts in plastic wrap at Walmart.
Even without a full understanding of the lyrical content, it was amazing to hear the songs. Olima plays variations on intricate picking patterns and stops suddenly to spit out what sound like entire paragraphs, mimicking the guitar melody with his voice before the instrument comes back in. As LaFam observed, it often sounds a lot like modern rap in a foreign language, minus a beat and some teeth.
Ozzy’s Yawa Dance Company has resumed practicing after the holiday break, so he’s busy during the days. I met up with him at Kondele headquarters around 5 to tell him about the Olima session. From what Vic, LaFam, and I were able to gather, Olima has been riding a back and forth wave of local popularity for the past several decades. Vic tells me that everyone around the studio was talking about Olima’s visit, that they’d all heard of him but had never met him, and many were surprised and excited that he was still alive. It’s amazing, because Olima spends every day playing for a half interested crowd at a day bar about 15 minutes away. His quiet long-term contentment couldn't be more at odds of the frantic attitude of many of the young rappers we interview, spending their days dreaming of international fame and a way out of their current situation.
Ozzy and I continued to talk about Olima (authenticity defined?) as we sped around the bay at Lake Victoria on the back of a hired motorcycle. No time to stop and ponder--we had to be at the Kisumu Beach Resort for our fateful meeting with DJ Ned.
Ned's uncle, "Pops," owns the resort, and Ned lives and nominally works there year round. The history of the resort, a large plot of land with a few open air tables, a camp ground, and some cabanas for overnight stays, mimics the recent history of Lake Victoria. Back in the day, the Belgian colonialists threw a weed called the water hyacinth into several rivers and lakes in neighboring Rwanda to make them more beautiful (really). In the late 80s, the weed floated to Lake Victoria. Now, the hyacinth has taken over, covering the entire bay when the landward winds come in the morning, then floating out to open waters with the evening’s outward wind, choking the tilapia fishing industry that is at the heart of both Kisumu’s economy and Luo culture.
Not a pretty description, but the scenery was beautiful as the sun set, and Ozzy, Ned and I looked out at the sea of green. The hyacinth, along with silt from pollution, a few Ugandan damming projects, and a Kenyan bridge cutting off the main inlet to the bay, have resulted in drastically lower water levels lakeside. What was once a beach (the “beach” part in Kisumu Beach Resort) is now a mosquito infested swamp stretching from the formerly water-side cabanas about 20 feet to the new water level. Add to that the hit Kenyan tourism took with the post election violence in 2008 and you can see why business at the resort has receded with the water level.
So for most of the day, Ned has the place to himself. A tall and genial dreadlocked Indian guy, DJ Ned used to rap, and he showed us videos from his heyday. But he was frustrated with the Kenyan music industry, both on a creative and a business level, and he has since retreated to the sanctuary of the resort, which his uncle owns, staring out at the lake and DJing occasional weddings and parties.
Ned knows music, and he knows Kenya. His ancestors were among the first wave of Indians brought to Kenya by the British colonial government to build the railroad to Kampala. His uncle, “Pops,” an amazing guy with an enviable moustache, joined us at the table, chained cigarettes, waved dismissively at “the fucking weeds” and spoke perfect Luo. Ned quoted everyone from Tupac to Eric Wainaina (one of Kenya’s most celebrated fusion artists), described the total lack of distribution available to Kenyan artsists, and countered LaFam and other rappers’ assertions that western rap resonates just as strongly in Kenya’s slums. “When Americans rap about being so poor that they have to have their cereal with tap water, what does that have to do with us? I didn’t even have fucking cereal!” Fair enough.
We didn't bring up Olima with DJ Ned, but Ozzy and I definitely plan to return to Kisumu Beach Resort to drink beer and watch the sunset discuss notions of authenticity and identity as represented by traditional music and its modern day reception.
The rest of the week was a blur, full of upheaval. I interviewed another female rapper, Nahna, whose family is trying to curb her career. As one rapper told me, “No one wants their baby girl in the rap game.”
Angela was coming and I had to move out of Ozzy and Emma’s home. It was a painful moment for all of us. I’d come to really enjoy their company, and our evenings eating and bullshitting at home were some of my favorite parts of the trip. Plus, I felt lonely moving into a huge empty room on the other end of town after spending an entire month with Ozzy, running water and refrigeration be damned.
But it's wonderful having Angela here. She's been adding some structure to my more "organic" working style, and we have a great video after our first shoot as a full crew, a 13 hour day in Maseno where we met a band of elderly traditional musicians and their fur costumes.
In the near future I’ll tell you all about what it’s like to roll around town with an extra white person and a serious arsenal of camera gear. It was also my first experience directing a full on crew--sound man, audio woman, and 3 assistants. Hectic, partially successful, and damn good times.