They were not just another ghetto group, they had a gritty sound, a revolutionary message of hope and were boldly addressing the harsh realities of the urban grind that youth all over the country faced

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What is in a song? Over the years, certain songs have had a major cultural and political impact on societies and served as catalysts that defined historic moments.

The Kenyan hall fame would not be complete without Fadhili Williams’ Maliaka, Daudi Kabaka’s Harambee, The Mushrooms’ Jambo Bwana, Ayub Ogada’s Koth Biro and Eric Wanaina’s Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo.

The songs were associated with patriotism, cultural identity but lyrically, they were safe even as they stretched musical borders. However 20 years ago, one song emerged that radically changed Kenya’s urban music scene forever.

In 1997, Kenya was in transformational stage from an authoritarian one party system to the democratic multi-party. President Moi had won in 1992 in the first multi-party elections with KANU and by 1997, the political tension was palpable with the threat of a country degenerating into a civil strife.

The country was in state of rage. Police brutality was common. Corruption, a way of life. AIDS was ravaging households nationwide and the future looked bleak for young people. Against this background a little known hip hop group rose from obscurity to energise the youthful musical scene.

Different sound

One music producer who had emerged from the nascent gospel scene started to experiment with a different kind of sound. Ted Josiah started feeling a stirring of possibility while working with a new Kenyan artiste, Njungiri Maina aka Hardstone.

Hardstone’s hit single Uhiki which Josiah produced was ground breaking with Kikuyu lyrics that were remixed to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” baseline.

The public had been yearning for something contemporary but grounded in the local identity. The quest for a different kind of artiste led him to the Florida 2000 discotheque for the Star Search where he bumped into a trio of hip hop artistes from Dandora who called themselves 3 D before they changed it to Kalamashaka.

Kama (Paul Ngige), Roba, Oteraw ( Robert Mtumbai) and Johnny Vigeti. They already had three singles in English and they had a rugged style that sounded like American hip hop group, Lost Boyz, recalls Josiah.

Ciro Githunguri who managed an offshoot of Kalamashaka known as Ukoo Fulani-Mau Mau, remembers Kalamashaka as a bunch of shy guys from Dandora, a sprawling and congested neighbourhood, in Nairobi.

“They had talent and they were not even aware of it,” says Githunguri. Kama was a charismatic old soul with an acute consciousness of his African roots. Roba was an introvert, the intellectual and at the time doing a degree at Kenyatta University. Johnny Vigeti, had a sensitive temperament and was a voracious reader and the most lyrically gifted.

 Josiah agreed to produce them at Sync Sound studios and started dragging them to shows as curtain raisers for Hardstone. They would do their three tracks in English to psyche up the crowd for Hardstone. Despite their zeal, the crowd was not connecting with their music. Josiah was frustrated.

He knew the elements that made Kalamashaka unique. They were from the inner cities, the ghettos. They had a revolutionary message of hope. But people did not understand them. It would take a concert in Kisumu in December of 1996 for Josiah to find the missing piece of the puzzle.

Eureka moment

Kalamashaka had accompanied Hardstone for a concert in Kisumu where they got booed off stage. Kama broke down.

“Kama was so passionate about hip hop but they were just attracting hostile crowds”. Here was Hardstone in Kisumu singing in Kikuyu and the Luo audience were lapping it up.

The success of Hardstone had brought home realisation that Kenyans did not want to hear hip hop or any urban music with English on it. Something had to change. “One day I was walking down the road in South B when the light bulb came on”.

Josiah grappled with the Kiswahili word for understanding and landed on “Tafsiri hii”. Translate this! It was his eureka moment.

“All we needed to do was to make people understand, Tafsiri Hii, maisha kule D”.

That evening Josiah could not sleep. The next morning, he met up with Kalamashaka in the studio and sat them down. “We are going to do something radical”. Kama and Roba were hesitant but Johnny got it instantly and that is why Johnny’s voice is so prominent in the chorus.

“Tafsiri hii, Maisha kule D, ni mazIi,  Ingawa tuko chini bado tuna tumaini” That morning a hit single was born. With Tafsiri Hii, Kenyan Hip Hop struck oil in 1997. The influence of Tafsiri Hii was far reaching. A new breed of local talent emerged in their wake with ferocity. Josiah was not going to ride this wave alone.

Bruce Odhiambo would introduce Poxi Presha with his seismic Dholuo rap, K-South, a duo that included Bamboo and Doobiez aka Abbas Kubaff and Mercy Myra. The new wave of artiste proudly represented their hoods. From Dandora, Kariobangi, Kayole, to Githurai.