Reflections from the desk of Mwalimu Gregg Tendwa[i]
Somewhere in 2016, a term emerged in Nairobi. #NuNairobi was coined and it is not clear what it exactly means. Some say it represents the rebellious break out from the old guard to a new guard especially within the contemporary cultural and creative ecosystem. Beyond that, it also stands to represent Nairobi underground, a multimedia blog that curates creativity from below the surface of the mainstream. However, a simple google search yields the images below, which show a cross section of images captured in Nairobi in 2016, largely EA Wave and friends.
From the time the term emerged, there has been no consensus on what #NuNairobi means, and thus proponents of the term have been laboring to defend it as an idea, an awakening, a global concept, and labouring to explain what it could mean or not mean. There have been several heated debates and possible exchanges online, some bordering on perceived exclusivity of the concept implied by the term.
Historically, the contemporary cultural and creative scene in Nairobi runs on waves, many which do not last to maturity and posterity. Its like Nairobi keeps giving birth to a new baby that dies at teenage hood. And since Kenya in general lacks a reference point in terms of identity, every new cultural or creative collective is set on a trajectory that seeks to install itself as pioneer, while in real sense it looks like they are constantly sweating to reinvent the wheel amidst infighting that leads to break offs and the death of ideas at teenage-hood.
I will take you back to the radical hip-hop movements of the early 2000s in Eastlands, which saw to light the likes of ukoo flani mau mau whose tentacles stretch as far as Alai K and Juliani. In the Westlands, the upper middle class was busy courting Afrofusion, a mix of African sounds with classical elements – which stretches back to folks such as Abbi Nyinza and the Kiwetu fame, as well as the return of Eric Wainaina from Berklee and his residency at Club Afrique, and the nurturing of Dan Chizi Aceda, the “crown prince of benga”.
I will conveniently mention the fruitless search for a Kenyan dress that was sponsored by Toss, the gentle detergent. The festival culture that was non-existent before the appearance of Sarakasi sponsored Sawa Sawa festival that once set the Kasarani stadium ablaze with smoke and reggae and profiled Harry Kimani of the haiya hit fame. Fast-forward to the emergence of the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) movement that could trace its roots to somewhere in the late 2000s but became more visible at about 2011 when a sound that had closer affinity to the people than drugs emerged somewhere at Tree House Nairobi, led by the Elecrtafrique.
The foregoing narrative suggests that there has been a constant pursuit for a new cultural and creative Nairobi, one that seeks to find the ever-elusive identity and create a reference point for newness, discovery and breaking off from a past that they might not want to identify with. But no matter how ridiculous your parents are, you still carry with you their genetic make up. It is not possible to fully detach yourself from your roots. This actually seems to be the problem that eats up efforts to innovate the cultural and creative scene, because each new discovery seems to suggest the past was bad and should be buried with its bath water and that the earliest one wake up, that should be considered morning for everyone.
The convenient amnesia and apathy to seeking wisdom and knowledge beyond the excitement of a reinvention leads to self crowned kings and queens, and “movements” that do not tap into the experience set before them, learn from mistakes made before and enhance milestones attained previously. So in 2017, #nuNairobi notion suffers the same lethargy, inconsistency and rejection from a wider section of the (upwardly mobile and connected) creative fraternity that doesn’t naturally identify with it.
In my view, proponents of the current #nuNairobi wave don’t describe, represent or propagate anything new about an everlasting cultural and creative renaissance, but are often caught up in emotional outbursts similar to those experienced by teenagers when they discover they have a been sitting on a piece of phallus for over a decade, and that the phallus has more use than just peeing. Just like David Livingstone, the boy thinks that they are the only one with such a glorified apparatus, and so it quickly escalates to become the nucleus of gratification, power, influence, even conquest.
But the worst that seems to be happening is a passive-aggressive-gatekeeping-attitude and arrogance that is cropping, suggestive of a conquering-club-of-pioneers, and anyone who doesn’t have a certain length of apparatus is invisible or and perharps, unrecognizable. This length is partly the privilege experienced across the belt between Karen, Kilimani, Kilelehswa, Westlands, Runda and Muthaiga, or the ability to access and adorn fashion accessories like nose rings, fast food and an endless supply of smokable stuff. Collaboration, as observed from a birds eye view, is a product of privilege as opposed to necessity to live true to a movement.
East Africa has been experiencing a wave of cultural and creative evolution. Over the last 6 years, when I can say I have been fully awake – a lot has changed – that represents a cultural and creative renaissance as opposed to a simple break away from the old guard, or defining this moment as simply #NuNairobi. I will seek to enlighten our readers by looking at this phenomenon across a variety of variables that might have not caught our attention.
The emergence of performance venues like Choices on Baricho Rd curated by Rashid Jibril was such a changing moment for the live music scene in Nairobi. It doesn’t mean that venues like Simmers (Nairobi CBD) or Garage Bar (Kibera) or Deep West (Nairobi west) were not in existence or became extinct right after, but TNL@Choices served a new demographic that grew over time. Recently they celebrated 5 years, and were named one of the best venues in Africa for live music. Later on, it moved over to J’s in Westlands and have continued to record significant success.
Behind this story is the element of sacrifice, that Rashid left his role as a percussionist playing with a leading artist to focus on curating and growing this platform. TNL by Roots International is a product that disrupted the production and consumption of contemporary live music in Nairobi, for a fact. Live at the Elephant on Kanjata Rd, emerged as yet another performance venue for live music and gave Nairobi’s Westlands fraternity an alternative venue for contemporary live music.
Amidst the challenges of noise pollution complaints from the neighborhood, the towering figure and influence of Eric Wainaina kept the venue going for some good length of time. Its success grew to a point where a mid week concert could be sold out. Tree house also borrowed a leaf or two, and curated live music Thursdays with Culture Connect. In the background venues such as Sippers in Hurlingam continued to reinvent, building on the role it played in grooming Suzanne Owiyo for her success.
But worth noting in the emergence of a new and younger crop of live music curators who sought propagate appreciation for live music. I will mention Ondi Madete and her Kiota at Creatives Garage, Ronjey and his Nairobi Underground rave series, Gregg Tendwa and his Rooftop Sundowners at PAWA 254, Zontor and his Barn Synergy at Karen Village, to name but a few. In the same vein let me mention unconventional disruptors like Raphael Kariukis’s World Loudest Library that had roots to a basement along Kijabe street.
Poetry (and spoken word) has had its significant growth and break away from the confines on national theatre and other overly curated venues. In Kampala Tontoma Poetry Jazz sessions at 32 degrees East led by little known about Rap Poet with his djembe drum. Mufasa, G-Cho Pevu and Poet Teardrops are breakaway icons that cemented their artistry on new ground, built on the collaboration of poetry and music, instrumentation, authenticity and intensity.
Electronica, and experimental music in all fairness put Kenya on the global map, stretching back to African Vibration in 1987 with their track Hinde. But even before then, one might want to learn and understand what went into recording tracks such as “Afirika yote inapenda twisti”. Early 2000s one would remember Uhuki by Hardstone and how he interfaced with a Marvin Gaye instrumental, and the emergence of Kenyan hip-hop that connects back to Ukoo Fulani Mau Mau. Then the opening up of this alternative space to a global audience by the acclaimed Just A Band, in the late 2000s.
Festivals such as Rift Valley opened doors to a culture little known to many at the time. A handful of performers and audience attended its inaugural edition, but by the time it closed it had become a gateway for creative exchange between the UK and Kenya, enabling collaborations such as Owiny Sigoma. Fishermans camp became a much coveted weekend get away spot at the foot of the rift valley. Its demise opened up space for Nyege Nyege in Jinja, which took with it the spirit and storm of alternative underground acts of global appeal.
Sauti Za Busara Busara festival was a thing in the desert of Zanzibar before 2011, and a preserve for the touring expatriate working in the East Africa region. However, by 2016 it had become a household name in the cultural and creative echelon of Nairobi and Kampala, with road trips being planned months in advance by a “native community” of hippy festivalgoers that didn’t exist before. This didn’t happen naturally, a lot of disruption had to go into breaking open the puritan festival ecosystem to accommodate wannabes, hippies and budget travellers.
Before 2011, Kampala and Nairobi shared only booze and women. Kenyans would go to enjoy Kampala beer (and women), bypassing the matoke and geanut paste. Fast forward to 2017; creative collaborations are being felt left right and center, all pursuant of new creative heights as witnessed in some of the debut productions, releases and connections from Santuri Safari. Matoke, Rolex, Katogo and Ngoja became a code of reference between the Kenyan and Ugandan creative commune.
Hatari Voltage Kampala didn’t exist before 2012, but it is now the premier electronic dance music party that borrows heavily from the house movement bred in Nairobi. Cheek O Dread, a globe rotter and respectable Dj is worth mentioning here, as a mentor and tutor of young DJS that put in shape Hatari Voltage in Kampala.
The emergence of the Rapture Warehouse party by the legendary DJ Rachael is worth noting, and her rise to a world-touring icon whose got collaborations with the likes of the Black Madonna under her sleeve. Kenya Nights still holds down Nairobi, with a fairly static local line up that blends well with an occasional international guest act. Exit Electrafrique, the movement that broke the barrier between Djs and instrumentalists, and opened up a myriad of afrocentric inspirations from Klang Kollektive to Muthurukishion to Gondwana. The spirit grows, organically.
Early 2016, enter The Alchemist, a performance venue in the Westlands part of Nairobi, the platform that out rightly affirmed the disruptive energy. This venue gave affirmation to the ability to “do-me” “be-thyself” “reach-new” and we all can attest to the fact that it provides the much-needed affirmation to the young creative in Nairobi. Art@TheBus, Enchanted Safari, Night Dancers, Jazz Attitude and a multitude of events have grown here and affirmed to emerging creatives that a new world is possible.
However, just the same way that the emergence of pubic hair affirms to the teenage boy that the eagle has landed, the young Nairobi hippy-bubble-cuddling-burgerfull creative seems to think that the creative renaissance currently being experienced begun here at The Alchemist, its all happening here, its only happening here, and its all about here and now. Just like David Livingstone who discovered Africa, they discovered a new Nairobi.
They happen to be seen squeezing the young phallus dry, rubbing it night and day for that much needed self-gratification and affirmation that #nuNairobi actually exists. They cant believe they are talking and being listened to by boiler room, native instruments and sound cloud. They need someone to pinch them and tell them its true that they are here, they are alive at this wonderful moment, they have an opinion, they are free at last, they are talking and being listened to, and above all, they discovered Africa.
And so apparent proponents of #nuNairobi (whatever that means) seem hell bent more on taking the “pioneers cup” than spreading the vibration of self-awareness, disruption and go-get-it or we-can-do it attitude. My suggestion is that they need to research themselves and the concept of their ideology further, wider and deeply, and identify that which has led to lack of everlasting ownership of any one thing in particular, or the grounding of Nairobi cultural and creative space, that which drives Ugandans and Tanzanians further ahead in their creative pursuits. That which brewed the success of Bongo flavor, Afrobeats, Afro Afrohuse, the shuka, the Kitenge and Katitu boys who outgrew themselves to become a sound than a band. That which sustains Ethiopians and Zanzibaris amidst the turbulence of capitalism and globalization.
Chills aside, until a time when the estlando, (the cultural and creative engine of that which is globally considered Nairobian; from matatu culture to music to graphics to fashion) stands out to defend and propagate #nuNairobi as a movement that they understand and own, please let us all join in gratifying premature teenage ejaculation featuring Camp Mulla 2.0.
_Peace Out _ MwalimuKeepStirring_No Love lost_
[i] The author is a creative entrepreneur and key resource person to the creative economy in East Africa. He is the co-founder of Santuri Safari, a DJ led network of artist creating a global footprint for electronic music from East African. He is the Founder and resident Creative Director at Ubunifu Hub Machakos, a peri-urban creative incubator that is nurturing the next generation disruptors and start-ups.