Kenya: Hip Hop For Peace
With Kenya still riven by ethnic violence, the country’s rappers are using music to try to end the bloodshed. By Ann McFerran
Wednesday March 5, 2008
Nickson Mberam has carried a machete and been ready to kill. “In this situation,” says the dreadlocked Kenyan hip-hop artist, “you turn into somebody you’re not.” Rapper Richy Rich agrees. “We’ve been through chaos,” he says. “We’ve felt anger and guilt. I’ve looted, I’ve stolen food – because I had nothing to eat.”
At least 1,000 people have been killed in Kenya and 300,000 left homeless in the violence that erupted after the disputed election victory of Mwai Kibaki in December. A fragile power-sharing deal between he and opposition leader Raila Odinga may have been brokered last week by Kofi Annan, but Mberam and Rich have witnessed, and continue to witness, horrific violence in the Nairobi slum that is their home. Now they’re taking action.
Along with other hip-hop artists – including 23-year-old Tim Mwaura, who mops floors by day in a fast-food restaurant, and performs fast-flowing poetry by night in the Kenyan capital’s ghetto clubs – they have formed the Hip Hop Parliament, a collective determined to denounce, through rap, the violence engulfing their communities.
At the centre of this is what they call “conscious hip-hop”. Roje Otieno, Hip Hop Parliament member and presenter on Nairobi’s Ghetto Radio, defines the term: “We don’t play traditional drums like our fathers, nor do we depend on western culture. We don’t care what your tribe is: our hip-hop is about love.” When Annan arrived in Kenya, the Hip Hop Parliament presented him with a written declaration of peace. “We’re not MPs,” explains rapper Judge Franklin Milan, “but MCs, members of the community.”
The violence has been depicted as tribal in origin. Kibaki depends on the support of the Kikuyu, the country’s largest ethnic group, while Odinga is of the Luo tribe. But these rappers insist they grew up unaware of the differences between them. “I didn’t know he was Kikuyu,” says Otieno, a Luo, gesturing towards Mwaura. “We’re paying the price for what happened at independence.” The Republic of Kenya was formed in 1964 with Jomo Kenyatta as president; a Kikuyu, he redistributed land that belonged to other tribes. “Our parents lived in different parts of Kenya but came to Nairobi, where we grew up,” adds Otieno. “It was only later, when our parents told us to marry according to our tribe, that we realised it mattered to them. Today, we are the victims of the situation.”
Mwaura feels that young people are being provoked – when their families are attacked, they are the ones who feel the need to respond with violence. The statistics bear this out: aid agencies estimate around 80% of the dead are men aged 15 to 30. “As a hip-hop artist,” Mwaura says, “I have a duty to my country and young people like me.” Otieno agrees. “We don’t want to be part of the problem; we want to be part of the solution,” he says.
We are talking just before the Hip Hop Parliament’s first official gig at the Laikipia nature reserve on the edge of the Rift Valley, under a vast African sky. This is the setting for the 2008 Earth Festival, a sort of African Womad, attended largely by well-heeled white Kenyans. Initially, the Hip Hop Parliament weren’t scheduled. When performers and punters began cancelling after the violence broke out, the producers, Sveva Gallmann and her mother Kuki, were advised to cancel the event, but they were undeterred. “I had to mark what was happening,” Sveva says. With musician Oneko Arika, she trawled Nairobi’s ghetto clubs looking for the Hip Hop Parliament; when she found them, she offered them two weeks in Laikipia to create a show. “Sveva paid for us to be creative,” says Judge Franklin, “and we’ve bonded in a miraculous way.”
Performed in “sheng”, a mix of Swahili, English and tribal languages, the Hip Hop Parliament’s show is edgy and mesmerising. Purring into the microphone, Mwaura is an original voice. “I used to complain too much about the ghetto,” he raps, “I had dreams of moving out, get a wife and settle/ The thought of another Rwandan genocide/ Leaves us petrified/ Listen to the politicians talking about revolution/ They don’t know we’ve gone through evolution.” The show climaxes with the group chanting: “Upendo kote; amani” (“Love everywhere and peace”). British hip-hop artist Dieter Straub, who shares the stage with them at one point, hopes to bring them to the UK. “These guys had so much soul,” he says. “British hip-hop is all about dissing fellow men; these guys had nothing, yet they come together for peace. In hip-hop, we say ‘keep it real’; well, these guys really kept it real”.