Monday, August 30, 2004

Kenyan hip-hop culture too American

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Kenyan hip-hop culture too American
Mr Kariuki
08/30/2004

As you read this, a hip hop artiste in Nairobi is probably writing his next "dis 'n' dat" lyrics to bash a rival or chastise women, as hate-mongering seems to be rapidly becoming staple fare for local hip hop music.

And not to be outdone by their American counterparts who thrive on gangsterism, some of our artistes have also concocted a thug culture that has resulted in the emergence of gangs that routinely engage in imaginary turf wars – imaginary because the Kenyan music scene does not have real money to fight over.

The clothes are obviously American-inspired and most people from that generation have no qualms expressing their admiration for American youth culture. It shocks many, not least some Americans themselves, who admit to suffering some culture shock whenever they walk on Nairobi streets. US filmmaker Geary Mcleod who came here last month for a film workshop, was lost for words. "The dress style is straight out of US pop music videos, the talk learnt from US sitcoms, and I wonder what's up with Kenyan youth," he said.

Ordinarily, urban youth are the bookmarkers of aspiration for their generation at any given time. They do it through artistic expression, their language, the kind of movies they watch, and the music they listen to. If this be the case, then one wonders whether Generation X has read the rest of us right, or whether they have chosen to become a complete aberration, far removed from the reality that is Kenya today.

But you have to hand it to them; there is considerably ingenuity in the way they continue to improvise on the English and Kiswahili languages to effectively create verbal cocktails that vary from region to region. The problem with this language (sheng) is that it has affected the quality of conventional language, as the outcome of language examinations clearly attest.
Street language is part of urban youth culture globally, but the borders are clear to users, and it should not affect their mastery of conventional languages.

In fact, the compliments they may get for developing sheng is lost in other aspects of their endeavours. It is most pronounced in music where the outright copying of American hip-hop has diverted attention from what ought to be their real inspiration. This was best portrayed during the Kisima Awards which has become the vehicle for this non-culture. Amazingly, it had the blessing of then Culture Minister Najib Balala who appeared unable to see the anti-Kenyanness that Kisima represents in its selection of nominees and even categorisation.

Certainly, the likes of Nameless, Necessary Noize and others have star quality, but for people who wish to take their music career seriously, the road has been greatly narrowed by this Americanness. Of course some will argue that local rappers are using more Kiswahili, but language has little impact unless applied in nuances that are Kenyan-specific.
Currently, local hip hop is greatly influenced by US rapper 50 Cents, complete with his hedonistic dance-hall chants that are criticised as meaningless even by African-Americans.

On this score, Tanzanians have fared better in that their Kiswahili rap is free of the American English-style intonation so prevalent in Kenya's hip hop scene. One can say the same for southern Africa's Kwaito. Even Europe has had its examples where street music has been made country-specific, using music and symbolisms unique to the specific countries.
But rather than learn from what has become a global formula Kenya's youth who have been submerged by bad American influence, tend to become defensive, claiming that there is no such thing as Kenyan culture, and that what they have embraced is the global culture.

But not to be too harsh on the youth, they are probably the victims of media hype than perpetrators of a pervasive culture. The blame is really on those charged with policy on cultural matters. A good example was noted in South Africa just before Nelson Mandela took over the presidency. During one forum, a group of South African blacks representing various age classifications were put on an Oprah Winfrey style show. The age ranged from 13-17 years, and those over 25. As expected, the youngest cited heroes from America – Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Tupac Shakur, while the 17-year-olds preferred Brenda Fassi, while those over 25 cited Miriam Makeba as their music icon and Mandela himself as their social hero.

At the end of the quiz, the host drew several observations – that young urban South Africans had no time for their country's music and more so that they spoke in distinctively African-American accents. By contrast, the over 25s enjoyed a bit of the two worlds, but remarkably laced their English with accents from their different mother tongues. The host then went on to outline cultural challenges facing the nation, saying that it had to reverse the trend in favour of South African cultural expression by listening to their own music and had no problem speaking English with tribal influences.

The cultural awareness has largely helped to create a boom in South Africa's art scene, and even the young realise that there is something of value in South African culture. But Kenya is going the opposite direction and appears to be sinking deeper into the quagmire that is American culture. Youth culture no longer defines who they are but rather the negative influences.
For a while, they drew attention by pretending to be rich, wearing fake jewellery and talking big, but now they are finally conceding that they do not make all that much money from their music.

Gradually, the pretension is ending, and one hopes that they will eventually come down to earth and realise that being a pale copy of the quintessential American is no big deal, and that being a real Kenyan will eventually pay.

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