Gangsta music has been in the offing since the mid-80s, with the earliest pioneers said to be Schoolly D, Ice-T and N.W.A.
In the early 90s, the sub-genre became mainstream with the likes of Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg keeping it alive.
This was a time when the notorious rivalry between rappers from the US East Coast led to the death of 2-PAC and Notorious B.I.G.
“Gangsta rap is a form of artistic expression when done by artistes who are surrounded by such realities and enables the listeners to better understand such environments.
When done as a stylistic device by an artiste who is far removed from that lifestyle, it becomes a case of glorified violence for mere entertainment purposes,” says Musiq Jared, a Kenyan Hip Hop enthusiast.
Although the meaning of gangster rap has changed over time from NWA's Western equivalent to artistes like Snoop Dogg, N.O.R.E., Fat Joe, 50 Cent, and Chief Keef, the evolution has advanced to the point that Africa, more especially Kenya, has its version of the same.
In Kenya, new-age ‘gangsta rappers’ (although there is a thin line between such sub-genres locally) Wakadinali, TNT, Iduzeer, Mbogi Genje, West Boyz Crew, Nigga Shawn are among those spearheading the genre that is slowly becoming a staple of many.
“Kenyan rappers are difficult to understand. Some live that lifestyle, some do not. Those who do not live the gangsta lifestyle portray their gangsta side on their lyrics, mostly targeting youngsters who think being rowdy is cool,” says Jared.
When Wakadinali released Geri Inengi, perhaps the last thing they expected would happen was for the song to initiate a nationwide discussion about gangsterism and violence.
The trio recently found themselves in a social media debate over their song, which was accused of having lyrics that promote violence. As a result, the video gained more than three million views on YouTube.
“Umbwa!” SewerSydaa shouts in the song, and with this single word, he won fans.
And yet, that is the lesser controversial part of the song. The title of the song (sang in Sheng) means “another gang” and is about an invasion of a hood by a foreign gang who come with kiturrdutu and kibuguduguboom, both of which are coded terms for rifles. SewerSydaa’s verse continues further:
/Na ukisnitch juu ya clique unasundwa/
(If you snitch on the clique, you get hit)
/Shokde Lee tunakam kuchunguza/
(We’ve come to investigate)
/Cock the ting ka umekam kutunyuria/
(If you’re here to kill us, then cock the gun)
/Usicome ukiwa steam ka hautaki kupanguzwa/
(Don’t come high if you don’t want to be killed)
The answer to whether or not a song can be classified as Gangsta depends not only on it having lyrics that are interpreted to encourage violence but also on its lyrics having direct co-relation with an act of violence.
Although in Kenya, there is no proven relationship between these songs and any particular act of violence.
“We might see this as a form of expression, but my biggest concern is the influence it has on the young generation because art is supposed to shape civilisation,” says Ojiji, a Hip Hop artiste.
Though mostly cocky, Gengetone's songs, are far more subtle and gentle in lyrics and influence compared to Gangsta Rap, which is supposed to be the equivalent in the US and even in Europe.
In the UK for example, certain Rap groups have been accused and even tried for suspected criminal activities ranging from bodily harm to murder. Several UK drill rappers have also been linked to knife violence.
The most notable case was of the two UK Drillers Siyad Mohamud and Tariq Monteiro, known as Suspect and Swavey respectively, who were arrested in Kenya earlier this year.
The two were the main suspects in the stabbing and death of a 16-year-old high schooler in Munster Square, on August 12, 2019, before fleeing using a stolen car and relocating to Nairobi.
In their songs, they constantly dissed the London Police Department for failing to arrest them and making away with murder. Until their arrests, the two had continued releasing songs and recording videos while in Kenya.
Last month, there was news that Atlanta-based rappers from the Young Slime Life (YSL) label were arrested and charged with running and being part of a violent gang suspected to be responsible for among many other things, around 50 murders across years.
As part of the evidence, the prosecution has highlighted some of his lyrics such as I killed his man in front of his momma, and ready for war like I am Russia.
“In this aspect, I think rappers can do better in controlling what they say. One can simply paint a picture of their violent hood and nature but it is another thing trying to say that shooting people is cool. It simply ain’t. Gangsta rap was at some point a form of protest but in this day and age we need to have a measure of responsibility,” says Ojiji.
Because of the nature of its lyrics, Gangsta Rap is controversial. Some people claim that there is direct causation between Gangsta Rap and violence on the streets.
According to a study by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, violent song lyrics increase negative emotions and thoughts that can lead to aggression.
Mary Elizabeth ‘Tipper’ Gore is famously known to have started a campaign against gangster Rap, which she described as "angry, disillusioned, unloved children unite behind heavy metal and rap music and the music says it is okay to beat people’ in 1986 after fights broke out during Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell” tour.
On the other hand, those who support it say Gangsta Rap is merely a reflection of what is already happening in society and not the other way round. They say that the lyrics highlight the living conditions, more so of those living in slum areas and so is a social depiction of the society.
Furthermore, they argue that poverty and having no sources of income are more likely to drive one into street violence than listening to music.
For Cedric, 26, who loves Old School Hip Hop and Rap and has listened to those rappers for most of his adult life, Gangsta Rap is just like any other genre of music.
“It is just like any other song… it is like how someone can do a wedding song and even have a fake wedding on the music video but they are not married or intend to be married. It is just music.”
Like Cedric, this group of people raises the argument that most Gangsta rappers often exaggerate their purported criminal reputations to earn - no pun intended - gangster points with their fans or other rappers.
To them, these songs are simply artistic depictions and are not in any way meant to endorse any criminal activities. Ice Cube satirically addresses these accusations in Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It.
In response to Young Thug’s lyrics being used by the prosecutor in court as part of the evidence against him to support their claim that the rapper is part of a violent gang, his lawyers said, “It is intensely problematic that the State relies on song lyrics as part of its allegations.
These lyrics are an artiste’s creative expression and not a literal recounting of facts and circumstances.’’
Of course, this is also a moral issue of whether or not our societies are okay with depictions of guns or drugs in the art or music that we consume, but without any violence directly attached, it will remain just that - a moral dilemma.
“Some say life imitates art but I think art imitates life. Gangsta rap is just a reflection of the societal dark side and an artistic picture of how things are,” says Shahidi Xcalibur, a renowned Hip Hop battler.