In the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, hip hop artist and activist Hustlajay Maumau is fighting against systems: against the system of money-focused commercial rap music, against a divisive social system and against a corrupt political system rigged against the citizens.
But what would drive 30-year old Hustlajay (born James Masai Paul) to choose a life of struggle over entertainment? World Hip Hop Market had a chance to speak with him this week about his musical influences, his conscience and the country that seeks to better through his work.
Tell us about your background that brought you into hip hop.
My grandpa inspired me a lot in the sense that he was a teacher and loved discussing politics and I spent most of my time with him. My dad was a DJ too. So basically, I am from a musical family with more awareness of issues happening in our society. Until one acknowledges their roots, there can be no true understanding of who they are, for identity is a nagging issues for many African men. Who am I? Where do I belong? Many of us are disconnected from our ethnic origins and cultures of our parents and only by looking deeply into our past can we evolve new insight to help define ourselves. So I identify with hip hop to define myself.
Describe the hip hop scene in Kenya – both in Nairobi and Mombasa. How are they connected and how are they different?
Hip hop in Kenya is great but it’s influenced so much by the commercial scene and, thereby, we’ve got very few conscious hip hop artists around. Most great artists come from Mombasa in matters: creativity and fusion of traditional culture in their music. The hip hop culture in Nairobi is influenced by urban hip hop and the use of a corrupted local language which is called “Sheng” that is a fusion of English, Swahili and Kikuyu. But the music scene in Nairobi is far greater than that in Mombasa in terms of artists recording, performing and marketing platforms.
How is music in Mombasa influenced by its proximity to Tanzania?
We all in the same coast and speak same Swahili language and our cultures are more or less the same. So the traditions are influenced by Swahili culture.
What kind of themes do you deal with in your music?
My music is basically on social justice issues: poverty, justice, human rights, politics, culture, fashion and mental slavery.
What has been the reaction to your album Minyoro ya Haki?
There has been a great reception. It has provided many high platforms for me thereby ascertaining that my songs are listened to and appreciated. Like getting an invite to the supreme court of Kenya by the Chief Justice of Kenya, Dr. Willy Mutunga to perform during the admission of advocates [lawyers] to the bar. I was honored for championing social justice. I also got to work with pioneer producer Tedd Josiah, who liked my music, and other great artists as a result. I have also performed in a few peace concerts and got invitations to attend and perform in an annual Hip Hop Summit in Uganda. So, the reaction is great.
How is language important in your songs? Do you rap in more than one language?
In Swahili culture we say, “fikra sahii uja kwa lugha asili” which means “true thoughts come from indigenous language.” I use Swahili, English and my indigenous language, but most people speak and understand Swahili. It’s our national language.
How common is it in Kenya to find activists within hip hop culture?
In hip hop, we are few for it’s a real struggle which requires real pan-Africanism. Youths who can outstand their fears and give their lives to be the voices of the voiceless and address issues that happen behind the curtains.
Describe the mood in Kenya after the elections of 2007/2008. What changed?
It’s one of the sad tales of our history. A lot of people were left homeless and many lost their lives. It was the first time to publicly show how evident tribalism has taken deep roots and has created disunity amongst our people. It was a time when your Identification card defined your freedom to live. Many people left the urban centers and never to return. It was a time your neighbor could turn and be a beast to you just for your last name.
How did these events affect you and your music?
From the happenings I discovered that a lot has to be done, especially in creating unity, healing the wounds of a nation that had seen things fall apart due to tribalism. As a builder, I saw the purpose of creating conscious music aimed at championing awareness, peace, love, unity. And my role in using music as a tool for change and providing civic education and importance of our constitution.
Last year (2015) you were featured in a documentary film “Voice of Justice: When Hip Hop Meets the Judiciary” alongside Dr. Willy Mutunga, Chief Justice of Kenya. Tell us about that project and what results you will see because of it.
Yes, I featured in the documentary as it was showcasing and tackling what I really stand for: social justice. The goal was to educate the masses on their constitutional rights and to garner popularity for the judiciary amongst the common “mwananchi” (citizens). The [judiciary] has long been rightfully perceived as an arm of the government meant to benefit a few. But with the passage of the current constitution, reforms had started taking place and this included the judiciary.
The current Chief Justice, Willy Mutunga, has been an instrumental figure in helping shape the face of the judiciary both directly and indirectly by reaching out to groups, especially the civil societies. But the icing on the cake has been how he realized the role music can play to help the judiciary reach the “mwananchi”. In an African context, and indeed the whole world, music has been used as an instrument of carrying messages. I use the same and try to address the issues facing society and this includes justice.
But as an indigenous hip hop practitioner and a back to source hip hop artist, I must be part of the solution and that comes through engaging the public and the judiciary in finding possible solutions to this vice. So I wanted to bridge that gap through hip hop as a tool for change.
You have cited Ugandan hip hop pioneer Babaluku as a big influence on your work. When did you first meet him and how has he influenced your music and activism?
I met Babaluku on social media but I used to watch his works way before while [I was] in school and I had dreams of meeting and working with him some day. He invited me after watching my video, “Continental Scars”. I travelled to Uganda where I realized what I see online is just a quarter of what he actually does. He was an eye-opener. Meeting him changed my life and the perception of hip hop. I got awakened and had a self-realization of where to redirect my energy towards: society. He was doing amazing things.
Africa is Now is a community based registered organization connecting hip hop and community based projects with a chapter called Hip Hop: Beyond the Mic. My idea as a founder was to empower African youths by showing them what their talents possess towards becoming leaders and builders of their communities.
What impact do you hope to make with your music and activism?
I hope someday I will establish an art center and through my music I will impact the change I want to see in Africa of self-identified youths who can be voices of the voiceless and be builders and leaders in their communities and nations at large.
To find out more about Hustlajay Maumau and his music check him out at: