The Hip Hop Revolution in Kenya: Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, Youth Politics and Memory, 1990-2012

Article excerpt

"We are starting a revolution!" (1)

Kamau Ngigi (Kama), Hip hop Artist, Kenya

Introduction

Revolutions are not the same. They are the product of time, place, and circumstance that manifest in different forms, contours, and expressions. When narrowly defined as acts of violence, guns, and blood shed, it is easy to miss the more profound nature of a revolution, which is a spirit rooted in and based on energies that are often already known by the revolutionaries building from unfinished grievances of the past. In Kenya, hip hop music is fostering a new youth energy showing what can happen when the past catches up to the present. The moment is often driven by the Kenyan youth between 15 and 24 years of age, who are mostly clustered in the urban centers. They represent approximately 71% of the Kenyan population. (2) They are a force with energy that cannot go ignored. However, not all writers on hip hop agree that rappers have the insight to actually revolutionize or create sustainable political solutions to problems. For example, John McWhorter, in All About the Beat,, questions whether hip hop can truly revolutionize and prefers to equate hip hop as "feel-good, meticulously crafted music"; in fact, he outright holds that the music fails to move people forward despite their ambitions. However, many Kenyan youth have embraced the messages of hip hop, speaking issues of unemployment, inequality, corruption, disease, housing conditions, and living life on the edge. Hip hop quickly emerged in the 1990s joining in on a political conversation with an appeal that crossed local, national, and global boundaries. (4)

Hip hop in Kenya offers insight that can help us identify the complexity and importance of interactions between the African Diaspora, Africa, and the World. (5) This study argues that hip hop can revolutionize Kenyan youth listeners by providing messages for healing, empowerment, and unity, thus planting the seed for change. This research examines the work of artists from Nairobi and Mombasa in the group, Ukoo Flani Mau Mau as a case study. The group has made strides to use hip hop music to make a difference in the Kenyan slums. The group is creating a revolution different from their Mau Mau forefathers that fought a physical war; their war is a spiritual one designed to fight by educating, uplifting, inspiring, and calling to action listeners to embrace change.

There is a connection between hip hop in Kenya and the history of Mau Mau revolution from 1952-1960. (6) The historiography of Mau Mau reveals the nature of the topic, one that is difficult to define, often obscure, and contradictory. Marshall Clough's 1998 work Mau Mau Memoirs, History Memory & Politics examines some of the debates within Mau Mau historiographies. Mau Mau does not fit into a neat category; it is a history full of varied interpretations, truths, and untruths. This is exemplified by the question, what is Mau Mau? Was it a revolution, rebellion, tribal revolt, a nationalist movement, or something else? This question is posed in Aiteno Odhiambo and John Lonsdale's 2003 publication Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration. This question continues to linger and many in Kenya, like the youth, are vocal about their Mau Mau perceptions. From the war's commencement in October 1952 to its end in 1960, details and facts have been blurred and polarized with tales of African savagery spreading among British populations in the colony and in Britain, to narratives of heroic African fighters seizing back their land and freedom. Although the Mau Mau revolution led to the dismantling of British colonial rule and eventually Kenya's 1963 independence, the fruits were short-lived and the promises were unfulfilled. (7) The reasons for the failures and shortcoming are complex and not limited to Kenya, as many other African countries are still dealing with the disappointments of independence and post-colonial aspirations, expectations, and hopes. …