OPINION: E-Sir Was Not Great, Death Made Him

On Sunday, March 16, 2003, the Kenyan urban music scene was in shock. Issah Wangui Mmari was dead. He and his colleagues, among them David “Nameless” Mathenge, had been involved in a road accident at Elementaita on the Nakuru-Nairobi highway.

Fifteen years later, Issah, popularly known as E-sir, through his music, still lives. His immortalization is, however, a factor of his death, rather than his music. E-sir’s music is average, the lyrics meaningless, and its positive social impact, if any, untraceable.

I grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, during this time, the Kenyan music scene was undergoing a revolution. The Kenyan urban youth, especially in Nairobi, began experimenting with a new sound with which their fellow youth across the country could identify.

Kalamashaka had started in the low-income parts of Eastlands, Nairobi, Ukoo Flani was writing Swahili lyrics down in Old Town Mombasa and Likoni, and Ogopa DJs was recording the middle-income artists from South C and other similar neighborhoods.

The Kenyan youth needed a locally-made music, and the answer came in the three forms, although the Mombasa-based artists and Dandora’s rappers had a musically similar objective. The Dandora rappers were more conscious, wrote socially positive lyrics, and identified with the joblessness of the youth and police brutality.

On the other hand, these challenges did not affect the upmarket Nairobi youth. They had “other” problems: where to buy the white-sole, then seven-thousand-shilling Timberland boots, how to “steal” my mum’s car on the night of rave, and, generally, how to be “cool”. The gated-community youth did not and could not identify with the rhythm from Dandora.

The emergent market gap had to be filled. And to fill it, an artist had a simple task: sing about cars, write lyrics about girls and booze from Nairobi west, and find a producer to add the simple “Kapuka” beat to it. The result, the youth from South C and B, Langata, Buru Buru, and Donholm among others devised dance styles to the Ogopa and Blue Zebra beats. Slide, Sting, Mosquito, Kuku Dance, Kangaroo, Helicopter were invented to complement the beats. In essence, the positive hip-hop tracks from the poor neighborhoods were dead – they were not danceable.

E-Sir, alongside Nameless, Big Pin, Mr. Lenny, Deux Vultures, Nonini, Redsan (although different), and K-Rupt among others moved swiftly to create the “danceable” beats. Sample some lines on one of E-sir’s best songs, “Boomba Train”. The lyrics go Tumekuja ku-party, DJ hebu weka tracky, Tukule hepi halafu tufungue sakafu…” The lines capture the thinking that E-sir’s, and his contemporaries, music was about partying, hedonism, and dancing, devoid of any social impact that could have helped the youth.

Listening to 2Pac, who also died at the young age of twenty-six years, one would wonder whether it is only American (black) youth who suffered the social problems that Shakur rapped about.

Show me one E-sir’s song that identifies with the difficulties of being a 21-year-old youth in Nairobi – None. The question is now whether the media craze about him and his lyrics is justified or is he being immortalized for the simple reason that he was a pioneer “Kapuka” musician who died at 21 years.

Don’t get me wrong. E-sir’s music was good to the ear, and so was K-rupt, Poxy Presha, Lady S, and Nasty Thomas’s compositions. But to uphold him as the best musician to ever emerge from these streets is simply unwise.

Now, as the anniversary of his death continues in the coming days, it is also a time that the Kenyan media engages objectivity in evaluating whether E-sir deserves the unending coverage.

However, if he deserves it, it should be alongside the others, dead or alive, who have contributed to the growth of the local music industry since the late 1990s.

May his soul rest in peace.