The Colony Raps Back 

A new Kenyan hip-hop doc spotlights a cultural phenomenon, and it came straight outta Walnut Creek.

What inspired hip-hop is a revolution, and it's creating phenomenal opportunities in Africa," says screenwriter Russell Kenya, speaking to a small crowd at SF's Delancey St. Theater assembled for a sneak preview of Hip Hop Colony, a documentary on African hip-hop written by Kenya and directed by Walnut Creek resident Michael Wanguhu. For those of you who missed hip-hop's rise to prominence and dominance in American culture, now you can watch it happen live on another continent.

For the next ninety minutes, viewers are transported to East Africa, specifically the Swahili-speaking land of Kenya, specifically smack dab in the middle of the ghetto in Nairobi, where the youth have turned to hip-hop as a means of social, cultural, and economic empowerment. (Sound familiar?) A narrator explains how the Mau Mau movement's guerrilla warfare campaign against British colonialists instilled a rebel mentality in the minds of young Kenyans, which persisted even after the country gained independence in 1964. The film then shows three rappers freestyling over a live acoustic guitar, rapping in several different languages -- this is Kalamashaka, a pioneering three-man crew from the slums of Kenya's capital. We get to hang out with the crew in various locations as they relate the rise of hip-hop from the ashes of colonialism. The similarities between the American and African hip-hop generations are evident, as are the cultural differences: Young Kenyans have not only adopted hip-hop as a way of life, but made it their own by lending a distinct African-ness to it.

Producer Tedd Josiah explains to the camera that Kenyan rap is called genge music, a mix of Swahili poetry, sheng (a slang lexicon), African-American influences, and Jamaican dancehall. "In Kenya, we are catching up," another rap producer says, but hip-hop has done more than just modernize Kenyan culture. It has become not only the voice of the youth, but the voice of the truth. (Sound familiar?) According to director Wanguhu, "Kalamashaka were the guys that really created the movement, revolution-style. Their messages were so deep, they talked about corruption and a lot of bad things that were happening with the government. They made a lot of very conscious music, and they fed a lot of information to the young people."

In the film, the members of Kalamashaka explain how people were once embarrassed to speak Kiswahili (the coastal dialect Kenya shares with Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, and the southern parts of Ethiopia), and how youth culture, assisted by the surging popularity of indigenous rap, reintroduced not only the native tongue, but made it cool to speak tribal tongues like Kikuyu -- once discouraged under colonial rule. "Hip-hop is international," they say. "It's the same thing in different forms. The different thing is the language." They add that genge has roots in Kenyan traditional music, and that Nairobi is a "melting pot" of different cultures. Once hip-hop filtered into Kenya, the group relates, the locals decided "the best thing we can do is Africanize it."

And so they did, over a roughly ten-year span that saw innovators like Kalamashaka and Hardstone go from freestyling in club ciphers to making their own records, along the way influencing other artists to pick up their own microphones or get in the studio and make beats. In 1996, FM radio came to Kenya, and though the airwaves opened up to new sounds (including American rap), local music wasn't being played at that time. (Sound familiar?) But as the local product became less imitative of stateside MCs and more reflective of a uniquely Kenyan identity, the club DJs began to notice that audiences were responding more positively. Currently, says baseball-cap-wearing dude DJ John, local tunes are the ticket "if you want to get the crowd buzzing."

After this introduction to genge, other aspects of the Kenyan hip-hop industry are slowly filled in, interspersed with live performance clips. Rapper-turned-clothing designer Fundi Frank says he was influenced by P. Diddy to enter the fashion world. (Sound fa ... well, wait, that doesn't sound familiar at all.) DJ John explains that his radio show, Beats Per Minute, proved so popular it's now syndicated throughout the Swahili-speaking region, and has spawned a companion magazine called Bytes Per Minute. And a member of a group called the Mau Mau Camp notes that the "Mau Mau are freedom fighters, and in the hood, you can't say that you are free. So we express ourselves through music."

But it's not all good in the hip-hop colony. According to the film, 70 percent of Kenya's population are "young people," and only 20 percent of them have jobs, even though many are college-educated. Radio stations are now playing local hip-hop in steady rotation, yet routinely cheat artists out of royalties by underreporting spins; artists are further exploited both by shady promoters and greedy labels. And the music has started to become more commercialized, more party-oriented, and less political as its audience has grown. (Sound familiar?) Still, the joy of rapping for the sake of rap is evident in the artists' faces, and the recognition from their peers doesn't hurt, either. "We're loving it," Kalamashaka member Bamboo says. "We made something out of nothing."

So did Wanguhu, who shot the film during a trip home in 2003 on a bare-bones budget with a skeleton crew. The results speak for themselves: Like the classic early-'80s American films Wild Style and Style Wars, Hip Hop Colony is a historical document, capturing a fast-developing culture at a seminal moment in time.

Ten years ago, Wanguhu notes, "Hip-hop wasn't something people were proud of" in Kenya. But things have changed: The country's current president, Mwai Kibaki, adopted a rap song as his personal political anthem, and is shown in the film waving his hands in the air joyously as the song is performed at his inauguration. "The whole campaign time, they used this song," Wanguhu says. "It was a big thing."

As Hip Hop Colony makes plain, the genre is definitely on the rise in East Africa; Wanguhu notes that Kenya has been influenced by bongo flava (Kenyan rap's Tanzanian cousin), and that MTV's new African channel has already opened up an office in Nairobi. Wanguhu's film is blowing up as well: After the SF Black Film Festival premiere Saturday, he is scheduled to screen at festivals all over the country, including one in Zanzibar. Even with the language and cultural barriers between Africa and the West, he says, "The message is coming across. People outside are beginning to understand." And just like that, the world becomes a smaller, more familiar place.


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