Last Saturday evening, a small boy, 3 years and 3 months, wandered onto a rooftop where the four members of Ethic (Seska, Zilla, Rekless and Swat) were seated beneath a pavilion umbrella. “Si nyinyi na wale daktari?” the boy asked – and without further ado, burst into song. “Nimekucheki zamani/ juu unatoka na ndani/ unadunga daktari/ bazu, big man, bazu,” then hollered the climatic line at the top of his little voice, “BIG BANG BANG BANG, BABOON ...” When small children can recite your songs the way they do nursery rhymes, and this Seska assured me they do (even if in remix), then your lyrics have truly entered the national lexicon. It’s hard to believe that it is just two years ago, on the last day of May, 2018, that Ethic uploaded their estate/hood-made video (complete with boys sucking lollipops and hood gals twerking on tires) Lamba Lolo onto YouTube and both changed - perhaps even, rescued - Kenyan music.
“Lamba Lolo ilikuwa tu for fun,” Boniface Mwangi, the baby-faced boy called Swat (as opposed to the baby-faced activist and ex-Pulse photographer) tells us. “In fact nilikuwa Form 3 April holidays tuki-shoot hiyo video,” he adds. So not serious were they, says Thomas MacDonald (who was then a hip-hop artiste in the estate) that he changed his name to ‘Rekless’ just for the ‘careless’ song, intending to revert to his stage name - Cray Tom - once it had flopped on YouTube, and sank into the millions of videos that lie there - unviewed, unloved, unknown ... and anonymous. (Incognitube dedicates itself to least viewed music groups like ‘BlueMoon’ whose ‘songs’ seldom get a thousand views, or a random ‘news’ channel called Koox that attacks meat-eaters with stories like ‘Goose was Murdered.’)
Instead, what started as a laugh turned into a video that had clocked a million views within months. Indeed, DJ Katta, Ghetto Radio presenter – and the official Ethic DJ – recalls how his boss, awed, came to him with the video of the song and asked how such a cheaply-made, inexpensive video was making such waves, and numbers, across the nation. (At the time of writing, Lamba Lolo is at 4,490,699 views, half a million shy of five million). The answer, Peter Njau, better known as Zilla, believes, is that their music is organic, authentic and speaks to “reality”, especially for the youth, who are of course the majority in the country. According to current statistics, there are 4,398,554 thousand males and 4,411,586 females (numbers that correspond to their YouTube video views per single) aged between 15 and 24 in Kenya, or almost 20 per cent of the total population.
“After 18,” says John Mbugua, Ethic’s ex-Starehe manager, “only a minority will access higher education, and of those who do, only a quarter will find employment before age 25.” Therein seems to be the core reason of Ethic’s phenomenal success in both viewership and listenership - an idle or under/unemployed youth across Kenya, but with access to both smartphones and YouTube, who can relate to the escapism and angst of Ethic. Especially when delivered in the stretched out lazy drawl of the glaze-eyed, dreadlocked Rekless. So where did they meet to create the chemistry that would become Ethic? “Rekless and Zilla were running a movie-and-music store in the mtaa (Umoja), and because they were both talented in music since their school days, they would just fool around with cyphers jioni. Then there was this kid, Swat aka Mtoto wa Yunis/Eunice who would drop in,” Adrian Adwera, their hype-man, explains.
Eventually, the three were joined by the dreamy-eyed, light-skinned lad with side-whiskers called Seska, who himself spat rhymes like a Ceska pistol, and they decided to try make club-bangers. It must be recalled by all that by mid-2018, secular Kenyan music had been dead, or at least comatose, for almost ten years (since after the likes of Grandpa’s ‘Fimbo Chapa’ ruled the beats, pardon the pun). In the 2010s, not only had our youthful secular music surrendered to gospel (itself currently quite dead) but had shamefully sold out to music beyond our borders, as music viewers and listeners became vigeugeu. For the first half of the decade, Nigerian musicians, hot on the heels of Nollywood, had taken over our eyes and screens with their sleek videos – until every Kenyan musician by 2015 was trying to make super-fleeked videos, oga-style.
Then the reign of Diamond from Tanzania next door began in earnest from 2016 on. Soon, bongo was taking over our brains, pardon the pun again, and our ears, and even more embarrassingly, now we had Kenyan musicians not even trying to sound Coastal in their Swahili, but like laboratory monkeys, openly copy-catting the TZ dialect in their songs, which is pathetic. The only Kenyan acts keeping it Kenyan were Sauti Sol, who many lower socially lower-level youth view as way too elite – and Khalligraph Jones who, although ironically originally from Kayole, owes much of his success to successfully aping an American accent in his songs, which many youths now do with their ‘a gotchas’ – and which was/is an anti-thesis to Gengetone.
‘Gengetone ndio direct descendant ya hio genge original ya wakina Nons na Jua Cali,’ Zilla explains, in the same way one could show a direct genealogy from stone tone-deaf Zinjanthropus man to the modern musical-and-music loving homo sapiens that we are. By the time ‘Position’ came along in the August of 2018 (it is now a little over a hundred thousand YouTube views short of five million), major local acts like the KanSol, consisting of wakina Mejja, were ready to ride the Gengetone train that Ethic had created to salvation.
Ethic, of course, has not been everyone’s cup of tea. Starting with Ezekiel Mutua, boss of KFCB, who thinks Ethic’s musical positions are not just unethical, but poison to the children and the youth of this nation. In fact, Ezekiel has personally engineered the removal of several of their videos from YouTube. ‘Yet these youths personally scrimp, save and scavenge to self-finance their own projects,’ DJ Katta laments. ‘Instead of thinking of even initiating a film that can explore the rise of Gengetone among urban youth, and understand their issues kwa ground,’ their manager Mbugua says,’ Mutua is trying to destroy youthful creativity through censorship and condemnation as a morals’ policeman.’ Pulse believes the non-musical dog-whistling and virtue signalling is all a trick of politics for Mutua.
His namesake, Dr Alfred Mutua, the Masaku Governor, has always taken the opposite stand to creativity, from financing the Machakos Film Festival annually to encouraging policy that musicians, and indeed all artists, ought to be ‘given a chance to earn their livelihood through entertaining wananchi, as music, film, art, literature and all are the cultural fabric of a country.’ The Constitution itself protects Freedom of Expression (and personal taste is not the test that warrants its claw-back through statutory clauses). Indeed, it is reckless to do so, as it kills art.
Rekless reveals their method of making the music that millions of youth have viewed and liked. ‘Tunaenda studio, tunaskia beat, tuna retreat, tuna contemplate individually, alafu tuna rudi.’ They then diss, discuss, remix and aggregate the surviving ideas and lyrics into a song, which Pulse tells them rather mirrors its pre-Covid19 meetings. The pandemic has hit the group (Ethic) that gave rise to the entire new Gengetone era – from Sailors to Mbogi Genje – quite hard as, due to social distancing, they can no longer do shows. Of course, they have a song out about it ‘Quarantine,’ – and they are still the group that guarantee any sign-up partner millions of views (Figa, featuring Kamene Goro, had gone up to over five million views before it was controversially removed, but even the newly uploaded version is up to almost a million views in a mere ten months, or over three thao views daily).
After dusk has set in, with their Voxy waiting in the basement parking lot, sad that curfew cannot allow whiskey conversation till dawn, the seven-member Ethic team prepares to depart. A sleepy voice follows them to the lift: ‘Out of Umoja Jamaica/ Prrr – bring a ba-na-na. Ninayo tuna back iana/ katangaze basi baby ...’ They all laugh, happily. And you imagine when they have gone, the building behind them, the forward-facing Voxy lights cutting a road ahead of them, to Umoja or Jamaica, with the moon shine riding on their shoulders, that the lyrics of that song, their song, will carry them home.