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Kenya's Hip-Hop royalty

News
 A collage of Juliani, Nazizi and Khaligraph Jones.

NAZIZI - REVOLUTIONARY

Ladies first! And no one comes close to taking Nazizi’s crown. She started as a teen, rebellious in trying this rap thing, telling her mum ‘Mama! MamaNataka kuwa rapper’. And the mother of two keeps going.

The self-proclaimed ‘First Lady wa Rap’ is the true definition of being lonely at the top, a position she held for more than a decade.

Femi One, who cites Nazizi as one of her role models, said this in 2016 about her career trajectory, “I want to go down as a legend to fill the gap created by local rapper Nazizi since no one has ever been able to do so.”

A versatile rapper who can also sing and churn Reggae jams in a heartbeat, you have to listen to her verse on Mangirima, next to Kamah K-Shaka and after Kitu Sewer, to realise how talented, and comfortable she was in any booth.

Effortless, unpretentious, and cool, she was the Rap to Wyre’s melodies on Necessary Noize II. That’s Nazizi.

KALAMASHAKA – OPENED DOORS

The first Kenyan contemporary act to command a stadium outside our borders, Kalamashaka’s trio of Oteraw, Kama, and John were officially our first major celebrities.

They even appeared on Channel O with Fanya Mambo! On their song KKK, from a 2008 album called Jamhuri Day, Vigeti raps, “Na wale wanataka kufunzwa class ni huku,” because where else would you find teachers that have inspired peers, represented a hood, faced life’s harshness head-on, police brutality with the tongue as a weapon, and mentored a rap nation?

Talking about the impact of K-shaka’s debut album Ni Wakati, Labalaa, one-half of Wakamba Wawili and member of Ukoo Flani Mau Mau said, “The album showed me that as an inspiring artiste, hip hop could be tackled in Swahili. And it changed my perception of how I wanted to be as a Hip Hop craftsman.”

Here is a tweet layered with truth: “Then GOD said, let there be Kalamashaka and Kenyan hip hop was born.” 

KHALIGRAPH JONES – SKILLED CRAFTSMAN

Africa’s Best Hip Hop Artiste of 2020, according to AFRIMMA, and nominee for Best Male Artist at the 2018 AFRIMMA event, and Best International Act at the 2020 BET Awards.

He has earned his place on the list based on grit, consistency, bars, skill and an unwavering love for the game. To say Khali is Kenyan best rapper in the last few years is not reaching, and the events he has headlines, and prominence he has gathered are obvious to everyone.

“There is a new generation of emcees taking over. The misconceptions people had about Hip Hop are no more,” said Khali in 2012, in his first major newspaper interview.

His words have come to pass, having gotten a piece of the cake, while sharing it with many upcoming, in-the-game, and retired rappers through his Khali Cartel series.

The likes of Shekina Karen, Breeder LW, Silverstone Barz, Murasta, Elisha Elai, Katapila, and others have been shown the way.

“For one to be a versatile rapper, they need to rap in different languages and styles,” Baba Yao once said when I asked him about vernacular rap, a nod to his versatility and propensity to try out different things.

He is withering a storm after calling out Bongo Rap and its rappers, an attempt that has seen not less than 20 replies sent back his way. He matters. 

JULIANI – CONSCIOUS GOSPEL

A student of Kalamashaka, Juliani’s merit in the list is based on his ability to do a different type of Rap in a larger group that was focused on endless fights against police, hunger, and bad governance.

He took the gospel and made stories from it. Always leaving his style open to interpretation, he never agrees to be labelled as a gospel artiste, but what he did was different and had never been done.

His album Mtaa Mentality, with hits like Biceps, Hela, Ka Si SIsi, and Story Hii opened doors in churches, stages on gospel concerts, and awards in gospel shows.

How is Juliani different? His single, Jesusnosis, is the only gospel, and one-man jam in the entire 15-song Dandora Burning

E-SIR – SWAHILI RAP

The only late rapper on the list, we should all count ourselves lucky to have existed in his world.

At only 21 when he had the whole country at his Swahili feet, E-Sir flew high, a young boy who became a man of words, a supremely gifted lyricist whose mastery of urban lingo and refined Swahili helped him craft bars that are yet to be heard or replicated since he passed on in 2003.

E-Sir made Rap cool, danceable, and a chant, lyrics that have never gone out of fashion, nor faded on deejays’ sets.

“It has been 20 years since you left us on that fateful, March 16 morning!... Bro, Thank you for helping me see what true synergy and authentic friendship feel like. Our mutual respect produced amazing results that have lasted generations,” Nameless wrote in March, adding, “You are an inspiration to many and your life and work have had a lasting impact on me and our industry ... Keep Resting well, my friend! You are forever in my heart!” 

He held Ogopa Deejays together and was, and still is, undoubtedly South C’s finest.

 The late E-Sir

CHIZN BRAIN – UNDERGROUND SOUND

For the man born in Mombasa, crafted in Nairobi, and living in Tanzania, the iconic hits that include Mau Mau Warfare, KKK, Dandora Burning, Tikakunyaku, Twenzetu and Wanabonga are just part of his extensive repertoire.

I can confidently say no other single producer has touched the soul and heartbeat of the conscious rap scene the way he did.

He had range, a distinct boom that never took the shine away from the lyricist, and most importantly, he had bars in a unique rap style. He embodied pure emcees and always made himself a contender for Verse of the Year every time he jumped into the booth. 

Alongside Ambrose and Musyoka, he was the official engineer for Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, especially on Dandora Burning, extending his friendship with K-Shaka’s Vigeti to include an output on Jamhuri Day (2008). 

CAMP MULLA – RAP’S COOLEST KIDS

They came, they rapped, and they left before we got tired of them. And 10 years later, we still cannot believe that the BET nominees are no more.

Besides Nazizi and Trio Mio, no teenagers had the country gasping for air the way Shappaman, Karun, K’cous, and Taio did. In fact, besides Kimya, it was unheard of to rap in ‘Westland’s’ English, and with swag.

Camp Mull made rap for cool kids, opening the doors for future kings like TNT, Boutrous, and Kahush, and queens like Petra, Wangechi and Bey T.

“As a group, Camp Mulla was a breath of fresh air in an industry that had practically stagnated due to lack of originality,” said an industry insider of a group that performed on Africa’s biggest stage, BBA Stargame.

“Their album had a fresh urban sound with masterful audio and video production, unlike anything that existed in the Kenyan music scene at the time.”

FEMI ONE – MISS CONSISTENCY

The only other female rapper on the list, no other femcee can touch her or even come close at the moment.

Proudly hood, lyrically good, she has found her niche, using Kaka Empire’s strong structures and inert workaholism to sharpen her pen game, craft her stories, and sexify her brand. She has confidently stood toe-to-toe with Nyashinski, Khaligraph Jones, and Katapila, and came out unscathed. 

At only 29, the Best Female Rapper in the 2022 AFRIMMA winner and Monster Energy brand ambassador has overachieved and cemented her legacy, making light work of Noti Flow and Njeri in the ring.

”Either you go hard or go home. This industry does not need humility!” she said.

 Femi One [Instagram]

MEJJA - STORYTELLING

There would be no Rabbit, if there wasn’t Mejja, mtoto wa Khadija, Kenya’s best storyteller bar none.

Okwonko is in a league of his own, narrating the everyday struggles of Kenyan youth in a way that celebrated fiction author Tom Clancy, who has been described as having an “innate storytelling ability, and his characters had this very witty dialogue”, would be proud of. 

His writing is simple, yet loaded, very hood, yet very picturesque in building stories that are fun to listen to and watch. Pick any of the last 10 songs he has done as an individual and you will find it hard to watch all through without laughing.

No other rapper on the list has had Mejja’s ability to connect with every Kenyan out here, from alcoholics to landlords, mothers to dejected exes! He has made a career out of making himself a victim. 

WAKADINALI – THE FUTURE

While many only got to know about the trio of Munga, Sewersydaa and Scar after Geri Inengi, which featured regular collaborator Sir Bwoy, the group has been churning album after mixtape since 2016.

In fact, as a group and as individuals, the output is more than 10 full-length projects that also include Scar’s and Wangechi’s Chonjo, and Sewersydaa’s and HR Messenger’s EP Nocturnals.

Add in projects by Sir Bwoy, their in-house engineer Ares 66, Skillo, and Dyana Cods, and Rong Rende is a whole ecosystem of creatives with extremely skilled emcees representing to the fullest, in the booth, and on stage.

High energy, unapologetic, and inclusive, their style of rap is club bangers, catchy melodies, and a touch of street comedy. 

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