An examination of Gengetone and the future of Kenyan musicMusic
A new musical wave, dubbed Gengetone, has been gaining momentum and shifting the tides for Kenyan audiences. Young MCs, each with a signature flow, deliver rhymes in sheng – a mix of English, Kiswahili and other Kenyan languages – over pulsating electronic beats. The typical hit is a synthesis of Kenyan-style dancehall and rap, an amalgam born of Jamaican and American influences. The eminently danceable hits feature clever and often risqué wordplay and catchy hooks. The accompanying music videos display vigorous unabashed twerking.
Rife with controversy, the new wave has been lauded by its enthusiastic supporters as the future of Kenyan music, while others have forecast its imminent death amid copyright issues and calls for song restrictions.
New Wave and New Hits
Gengetone is perhaps the most significant development in Kenyan music in years. However, some artists refuse the label. In a July 2019 tweet, the rap quartet Ethic Entertainment, which became famous with the hit song “Lamba Lolo” in summer 2018, wrote, “Just to be clear, our style of music is not called Gengetone. We do not endorse that name.”
It is difficult to fit Ethic Entertainment's sound into a genre. “We wouldn't want to label it,” John Mbugua, the manager of Ethic Entertainment, said in a July interview. “It is a completely new sound which is nameless for now,” he added. However, in November, he explained that Gengetone was a name given by fans and the group has now decided to embrace it. “Our hesitation [to accept the Gengetone label] stemmed from the fact that this was something new, not a subgenre of Genge. We have now decided to go with the fans.”
Cashney Mathu, frontman of the group Sheddy Empire, talked about riding the Gengetone wave. “People used to complain that Kenya doesn’t have a sound, that we copy others. Gengetone is feel-good music. It has the appeal of dancehall and it talks about mambo ya mtaa – things of the ‘hood’. It is our own. That is why it has caught people's attention,” he said. Prior to Gengetone, the group made Trap music. “The market is what determines the kind of music that we make which is why we switched,” he added.
Other observers of the new wave phenomenon have referred to it as Odi Pop. Odi means ordinary in sheng, referring to the common mwananchi, or citizen. According to Mumbua Nzula Nyoka for KBC, the style originated from the Nairobi neighborhoods of Kayole, Umoja, Dagoretti, Rongai, and Dandora and was an underground genre before being brought into the mainstream with Collo's 2016 hit “Bazokizo.”
In an Ebru TV interview, the viral sensation Sailors Gang crew of “Wamlambez” fame referred to their sound as Dabonge style, which comes from the word tunabonga meaning we are talking. The call “Wamlambez!” elicits the response “Wamnyonyez!” thus turning the song into a conversation between the artists and the audience, transforming the listening experience from a passive one into an engaged interaction.
The musician and music scholar Dan Aceda proposes the collective term Odi-Pop for all the diverse sub-genres of the new wave, borrowing from the term K-Pop.
Earlier in the year, mainstream media was criticized for failing to promote local talent. Sounds from Nigeria, Tanzania, and further afield dominated the airwaves, leading to the hashtags #playkenyanmusic and #playkemusic. Kenyan artists were accused by local audiences of producing mediocre music in comparison to their counterparts from other parts of the continent. Gengetone is believed by some to have risen as a response to this criticism.
In addition, digital technology has lowered the cost of music production and distribution, allowing new acts to put out a steady stream of releases. Some of 2019’s most popular hits are Ochungulo Family’s Krimino, Ricco Gang’s “F**k boy” and Zzero Ssufuri’s “Zimenishika.”
Will the so-called Gengetone phenomenon survive and thrive, or is it just a passing fad? “It's a wave that's real and people are feeling it,” says Fredrick Kagonye, an entertainment journalist. “It has kicked the Nigerians and Tanzanians out of clubs but I don't think it's sustainable. I feel like ‘ni hype na itaisha tu’ – it is hype and it will pass.”
The phrases Lamba Lolo and Wamlambez have been catapulted into mainstream parlance. Lamba Lolo has made it into Urban Dictionary, and some American celebrities have been taught how to say Wamlambez and Wamnyonyez. However, sheng is known for its changeability, so while these expressions have grabbed attention with their novelty and shock appeal, it remains to be seen whether they will stand the test of time.
Popular singer Vivian, who was featured in one of 2019’s biggest Gengetone bangers Accelerator (Serereka), recently came to the defence of Gengetone artists saying that they were seeking livelihoods, and advised the artists to seek longevity not hype.
Controversy and Exposure
The male-dominated new wave has been criticized for its explicit content. Those opposed to it say some of the song lyrics promote violence and misogyny, and that the videos promote the sexual objectification of women.
There was public outcry over Sheddy Empire’s song “Pigwa Shoka” which led to their music being taken down from YouTube. The video was released around the same time a university student was hacked to death with an axe. The group issued an apology. According to Mathu, the sheng lyrics were misunderstood, leading to the banned song’s message being misconstrued as being about femicide.
Ethic Entertainment’s latest song, “Tarimbo” has also stirred controversy for its lyrics which have been condemned for encouraging rape. Female artists called out the group with rapper Xtatic tweeting that the song sounded “hella rapey.” In the same thread, another artist Muthoni the Drummer Queen wrote, “We didn't call [Genge group P-Unit] out as a culture but we're calling Ethic out now.”
The Kenya Film Classification Board Chief Executive Ezekiel Mutua called for Ethic Entertainment’s arrest for going beyond the prescribed delimitations on freedom of expression by advocating for violence against women. The group issued an apology via Twitter. In a November interview, Mbugua said that the artists’ intentions were pure and that sheng speakers understand that the lyrics are open to various interpretations. “Most important is that we have sparked a conversation on consensual sex,” he added.
Fans argue that “msanii ni kioo cha jamii" -- the artists’ music is simply mirroring society. The controversial songs have millions of YouTube views, and even after official videos being taken down, fans continue to make their own versions.
The Contemporary Sound Landscape
What is it about the new wave that has grabbed the nation’s attention?
Kenyans didn’t have a sound they could relate to,” said Mbugua. “Also, Kenyans love our songs because as soon as you hear an Ethic song you want to have fun and Kenyans love having fun. Ethic’s art is raw. It stems from the environment around, from what we see in society.”
According to avid hip-hop consumer and critic Richard Oduor Oduku, early Kenyan underground hip-hop from the early 1990s to early 2000s was characterized by a political consciousness. These were artists like Kalamashaka, Ukoo Flani and Walanguzi. Due to this political aspect, it was not commercially successful. Genge came along as an alternative to the hardcore: it could be played in mainstream avenues like radio and clubs where artists like Nonini, Jua Cali, and Githurai 44 addressed themes like love and lifestyle.
Since then, Kenyan artists have been experimenting to see what will capture the youth. The contemporary sound landscape runs the whole gamut, from songs that speak about debauchery to conscious lyricists rapping with conviction. Other artists straddle both worlds, producing output that has commercial appeal as well as tracks that are socially responsible.
When I spoke to Oduku, he emphasized that what matters is authenticity. “To what extent can you be differentiated from the next artist? The reason why Zzero Ssufuri and Ethic are up there is because they are fresh and authentic.” In an article on Kenyan hip hop, he writes that style is the soundscape through which the geyser of content can be channelled. If stylistic inventiveness is what wins the contest for Kenyan ears, then it appears that the future belongs to the audacious.
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