Kenya’s music scene has experienced a shift in the last few years with Gengetone growing to become the most popular sound locally and developing a healthy competition for the Nigerian and Tanzanian music that have enjoyed almost total dominance among music consumers on a commercial level in the East African country.
Being a sub-genre of Genge-rap—a genre birthed from the infusion of hip-hop and dancehall music in the early 2000s, Gengetone draws its influences from more dancehall music and less hip-hop. The Kenyan audience have widely accepted this new wave as theirs amidst controversial reactions due to the vulgarity of the lyrics and the music videos that display a lot of “twerking”…
The sound is said to have emerged as a result of the social media outrage of music listeners in Kenya in 2018 with the hashtag #PlayKeMusic, calling out Kenyan musicians for making subpar music as compared to musicians from other African countries. The music is pervaded by multilayered one-track drones accompanied by grimy, rhythmic snares and synths on pulsating electronic beats featuring commentary about the lives of the common man in the ghetto, with interesting wordplay using witty lines formed from the popular Swahili street lingua called sheng. ‘Sheng’ helps Gengetone artistes to easily connect to their listeners as it allows them to mask the true meaning of their explicit lyrics in the subtle subliminals that is understood by Swahili speaking listeners. The songs generally talk about their struggles in the hood, mostly in a story-telling format where the main singer recalls an experience, (mostly sexual, with women and drugs, or with people in higher positions) and the lessons learnt from the experience.
The male-dominated scene has since faced series of challenges and criticism for their music content ranging from censorship and bans by the Kenya Film Classification Board and several call-outs for ‘rapey’ and misogynistic lyrics that promote violence against women. ‘Lamba Lolo’, the first Gengetone song by the now popular Ethnic Entertainment collective that made its way into the waves of popularity in 2018 was banned from being played on radio and television as it was perceived as a negative influence on the youth, but unsurprisingly, millions of youths accepted and loved the music and it continued to garner millions of views on Youtube and across digital platforms without any help from traditional media. The growth of this sound among the younger demographic is attributed to the presence of accessible internet which has helped the music travel farther in the digital space and also with the help of local DJs and Matatu mixtapes. Matatus are Nairobi’s privately owned, vibrant mini buses that can be described as ‘party buses’ and a big part of Kenya’s pop culture, as they are known for their colorful artworks, slogans and graffiti, moving around the urban areas of Nairobi while playing loud DJ Gengetone mixes.
It is imperative to mention the musicians and collectives who are at the forefront of this genre that has enjoyed an upsurge, enlarging its coast across Kenya and the African continent.
The members of this group (Seska, Zilla, Rekless and Swat) are described as the founders of Gengetone. Their video ‘Lamba Lolo’ which went viral on Youtube in 2018 was a stepping stone for the Gengetone sound to take off on the streets of Kenya and across social media without the help of traditional media. They make unapologetic, provocative music and do not seek to be accepted or validated by the conservative Kenyan cultures. The collective has faced a lot of backlash and even calls for arrest by the Chief Executive of the Kenya Film Classification Board, Ezekiel Mutua, for advocating for violence against women in their songs like on ‘Tarimbo’.
This collective consists of five members (Miracle Baby, Lexi Yung, Qoqos Juma, Masilver and Shalkido) from the Ndenderu area in Central Kenya who became famous when their hit single ‘Wamblambez’ became a popular song. While Lamba Lolo was instrumental in getting Gengetone recognized nationally, Wamblambez has played an important role in taking Gengetone global, with its call and response lyrics (Wamblambez, Wamyonyez!) having become a method to liven up crowds at concerts. Their music is characterized by adlibs and risqué one-liners that have slowly become a part of everyday vocabulary with foreigners also learning to pronounce some of these slogans.
Odi wa Murang’ a, Ex-Ray and Maddox interestingly started out as a gospel music group. Although they now make Gengetone music, their music is said to not be centered around the use of drugs or debasing women or exalting party lifestyle, but rather what they see in all these exuberances. They were also recently featured on a gospel song by Bahati titled ‘Taniua’ which condemned the carefree lifestyle of party-rockers.
Despite being in a male-dominated scene, one of the women that has been making waves in Gengetone is Femi One, a quick-tongued rapper that has consistently worked to establish her roots as one of the hardest female rappers and one of the fiercest Gengetone forerunners with tracks like ‘Nyoko Nyoko’. Her music depicts a mastery of sheng, backed with witty, raw and energetic lyrics.
Although they announced in February that they are parting ways, Nelly the Goon, Dmore and Benzema remain one of the best Gengetone musicians, with their style of music taking a different approach using minimalist beats. They gained national recognition with the release of their song ‘Kaa na mamayako’, a catchy song on which they sampled the voice of a politician’s speech to create a dismissive yet smooth hook. Their kind of music is feel-good music, with each line delivered stealthily in a way that would have you swaying your hips gently.
At the moment, Gengetone remains as the widely accepted original sound of the Kenyan youths and will most likely be fully rooted as the wave that has inspired the emergence and consumption of more authentic Kenyan sounds.
We made you a playlist of some of our favorite Gengetone songs. Get familiar with the sound from the streets of Kenya…