Go East: The future of British rap is happening in East Africa

From genge to lugaflow, Tanzania to Uganda, East Africa is a hotbed of new styles and sounds of rap music. Bex Shorunke takes a deep dive into a musical landscape that's been ignored in the UK for far too long.

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Having surpassed mere genre, afrobeats has become the zeitgeist of a generation hell-bent on connecting London with West Africa. What began as an experimental fusion of afropop, ragga, R&B and bashment; catchy hooks atop honeyed melodies, has erupted into the cultural embodiment of some black British youth. A hybridization of British and West African identity, afrobeats continues to affirm a young, black presence within the mainstream musical landscape, having gone from London to the rest of the UK to the world in the space of just a few years.

But where does that leave East Africa?

Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have been cultivating their own distinct breed of hip hop that’s steadily burgeoning onto Western conscious. A global and cultural phenomenon rooted in diaspora, these nations have localized hip hop, modified it and seasoned it with homegrown flavour. The end product? A rich and variegated palette that’s birthed subgenres such as bongo flava (Tanzania), lugaflow (Uganda) and genge music (Kenya). Traditional Western beats are fused with regional rhythms and idioms, bridging the gap between East Africa, the U.K and the U.S with a vigour akin to afrobeats.

Born out of the liberalization that swept through eighties Dar es Salaam, bongo flava boomed to become the principle sound of Tanzania. Its name ‘bongo flava’ is a slang derivative of ‘bongo’ meaning ‘brains’ and ‘eva’ meaning ‘always’, an allusion to the street smarts needed to survive Tanzania’s ghettos. Against a blended backdrop of pan-African melodies; Congolese soukous, Bantu ngoma and Tanzanian taraab music, bongo flava rappers flit between Swahili and English in their delivery. On the flipside, lugaflow’s language is exclusively Lugandan, as is native to the Ugandan people. It embodies the dynamism of early grime; a marginalised youths’ reaction to narrow opportunity, bred in a post-conflict climate. Underground and politically conscious, this is the hip hop of the  Bronx in the seventies. It lives organically in Uganda’s hotbed of open mic nights, low-key studios and more recently, internationally, with the success of groups like Bataka Squad and rapper Abramz.

Denoted for its witty wordplay, genge music emerged out of Nairobi’s backstreets in the 1990s. The genre has evolved to develop its own brand of communication namely ‘sheng’ a fusion of Swahili slang, English and Kenyan dialects. Genge usually comes in ne of two categories; the more commercialised gangsta-rap, R&B and trap-esq side and kapuka, which incorporates ragga and house and leans heavily on synths. Still in its relative infancy, genge, which is sheng for ‘mass of people’, has showcased an ability to peel back Kenya’s social and economic layers to reveal a loyal (albeit trendy) following.

All three genres have been gaining an increasingly warm reception in U.K lately. Earlier this year Kenya’s dramatic landscapes became the epicentre for British rapper Mist’s video ‘Game Changer’. Last September Dazed did a feature on 5 East African music artists to watch, and throughout 2016 and 2017 the British Council launched their East African Arts Programme to connect East Africa and the U.K.

However more need to be done to acknowledge East Africa’s capacity for innovation. It’s myriad of sounds should not be eclipsed by the notoriety of afrobeats and West African music. West Africans greatly outnumber East Africans in the U.K, which makes music from Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda a niche interest in Britain to start with. Additionally, the evolution of afrobeats into afroswing and the push of its’ pioneers such as Kojo Funds, Naira Marley and J Hus to keep it in the spotlight, suggests that afrobeats in the U.K is here to stay, meaning that East African artists can struggle to get a look in. Even still, there have been some crossovers between East African urban artists and afrobeats. The most famous of these is Tanzanian and Nigerian heavyweights Diamond Platnumz and Davido’s remix of ‘Number One’, closely followed by Kenyan Sauti Sol (pictured, featured image) featuring Burna Boy on ‘Afrikan Star’. No doubt tastemakers like Mr Eazi, Maleek Berry and Wizkid will soon channel their zest for original collabs into features with East African talent.

Similarly, the Ubunifu Space is another example of this endeavour to put East African music on the map. A group of British millennials, Ubunifu are using YouTube as a springboard to promote and react to, the latest Kenyan, Tanzania and Ugandan rap acts. With an eye to challenging the British tendency to pigeonhole all contemporary African records as afrobeats. The 86,000 subscribers and over a million views across their seemingly niche channel hint at the possibility of East African rap’s popularity.

Its founder Bryan Obonyo created the platform with an aim to shed light on the sounds radiating out of East Africa. Afrobeats has grown to cover a nebulous range of tempos, often operating within a high energy, hook-oriented framework. East African music, however, is vastly divergent, too much to be generalised by an umbrella term. Bryan explains that beyond the worlds of bongo flava, lugaflow and genge music, soulsters like Phy, Suzziah and Steph Kapela are “showcasing smooth complex lyrical content and chilled vibes” on tracks like ‘Taabu’, ‘Piga’ and ‘Got the Sauce’.

Then there’s “rappers bringing the trap element” such as Barack Jazuzzi, Tunji and TNT, while the “futuristic electronic beats” are provided by producers like Sichangi and Suraj. Within Africa “the sounds of different regions are becoming more refined”, according to fellow Ubunifu member, Monique Touko. “I can now tell whether a track is from West, South or East Africa, each should be recognised in its own right’”

Take a moment to consider the visuals these artists are generating and the importance of East African rap soon becomes clear. Between the cliche shots of money, cars and girls, big timers like Khaligraph Jones and Octopizzo are exhibiting an East Africa that is “forward thinking, contemporary and fast-moving”. A direct rebuttal of the primtive way Western media often depicts the continent. Yet tradition is still being upheld, “there’s a strong visual presence of East African culture” states fellow Ubunifu team member Tonye Ogeh. Specifically, in ‘Mat Za Ronga’ by Kenyan MC Tunji, which highlights the importance of Matatus, a practice in which “Kenyan bus drivers-cum-tastemakers play music to commuters. They are the plug, and artists fight to have their songs played and promoted”. Through music videos, we are essentially peeping an insight into local tradition.

 

For a rising Tanzanian rapper the U.K represents a wealth of promise. The U.K has housed icons like Ms Dynamite, Stefflon Don, Shola Ama and Lady Leshurr, ultimately presenting a hub of feminine prosperity. “I’m inspired by the records of female U.K artists, they help to diversify my flavour,” says Rosa Ree, a Tanzanian MC whose style incorporates many of East Africa’s emerging genres. Though the link between East Africa and the U.K may seem tenuous, for Rosa this is merely a foundation to build upon. “I see East African music bringing a completely different flavour to the U.K. One that is soulful, authentic and original, each representing our Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian culture, which I believe hasn’t fully yet made its mark in the UK”.

Sexy, volatile, androgynous and everything in between, female rappers have carved out a niche for themselves in hip hop. However, the industry’s gender gap is omnipresent as men (for now) continue to dominate from the inside out, and East Africa is no exception. Like her UK icons, Ree’s ascent has been archetypal of the struggle that faces female MCs. “People still don’t believe hip hop is meant for women, they say it’s’ too hardcore, and female MCs are not taken seriously”.

“My ultimate goal is for women to see the power they have. To embrace their God-given talent and be confident enough to apply it to the world around them”. Ree’s music is a rollicking mix of melodious beats and boisterous flows, creating a sonic palette that hovers between Nicki Minaj and Little Simz. Characteristic of much genge music she employs sheng, swiftly darting between Swahili and English to appeal to her multicultural audience. “I’m a free spirit. I don’t like to limit myself musically and use whichever language I feel I can best express myself through at the time”.

So how do we begin to measure the scope of influence that East African hip hop might have in the U.K? Arguably the U.K is in a state of flux socially and sonically; it’s shifting and evolving, in the process making space for music from different regions of Africa to surface. Ubunifu member and Reprezent DJ, Sade Akinfe quips “we didn’t think afrobeats (and afroswing) would get to where it is now in 2018 but it has, who’s to say East African hip hop couldn’t join it?” No doubt there’s a standby of UK artists readily available to jump on a collaboration. “Sauti Sol have quickly become one of my favourite East African bands, they have great melodies, who’s to say they couldn’t jump on a track with Yxng Bane?” Akinfe continues. Moreover, cult favourite Diamond Platnumz has already illustrated his crossover potential working with the likes of Omarion and Rick Ross. “Essentially the possibilities are endless – Platnumz and Khaligraph could easily bring their touch of East African flavour to the UK, and we are ready,” Akinfe concludes. “It’s only a matter of time”.

Follow Bex Shorunke on Twitter

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