Musing on Kerby, Kizazi, and the Revolution of Afropresentism
Fair warning: this essay is gonna be jumbled and far reaching and personal and speaking about things in generalities that are beyond my in depth knowledge. Where I can I will include links to further information. Besides that I’m basing my ideas on personal observations, impressions, common knowledge, and what little expertise I have. It’s also gonna get personal, so if you don’t like that...tough noogies. It’s also been a long time coming; sorry for that.
To the untrained and ignorant, Africa can today seem like a civilization half-formed. To the first timer, one sees the strange juxtaposition of the most beautiful, perfectly smooth roads of Rwanda mixed with the utter lack of sidewalks and the thousands of pedestrians walking along highways or the general chaos that is traffic movement. Or all over east Africa, the common sight of ostentatious, modern condos and houses flanked by propped up shanties and makeshift shacks. Or, given the more news prone, the pomp and circumstance of democracy and political discourse, but the dangerous undercurrent of governmental corruption and abuse of power (even the nearly beatific Paul Kagame of Rwanda is privy to allegations of burgeoning dictatorship).
Through media we have been inundated to see only certain sides of other civilizations—namely what they “lack” according to our own ingrained biases, how they are “diffeerent” (though often this reads as “inferior”) than our own. How Africa is either the Masai tribesman (primitive and noble) or the warlord (vicious and unsympathetic) or the starving child (innocent and vulnerable). How much these archetypes are different and foreign and alien to our own conceptions of ourselves and our own archetypes. How much these cultures are supposedly foreign and alien. Not how they are the same. Not how those cultures and civilizations are independent of our own, inspiring in their own right, and in many ways...dare I say it...better. Not to mention how these preconceptions and conditioned biases force us to neglect reality. Confirmation bias--literally only "seeing" the aspects of reality that fit within our worldview.
I spent a measly six weeks in east Africa (not nearly enough time) and, on my return, one of the most common questions I got was, “how much did going there make you appreciate America more?”
Going to Africa helped me appreciate Africa (or, at least and more specifically, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zanzibar, and all-too-little of Kenya). Going to Africa helped me shift my western preconceived archetypes of Africa—from Masai tribesman to that same Masai tribesman, shepherding his flock through skyscrapers with his spear, wearing nikes, and tapping idly on is iPhone. (This was something I saw—more than once—during my two week stay in Nairobi alone btw)
Its a subtle but important change because it encompasses a fraction more of the reality and the humor and the passion and the potential of Africa. And lies at the heart of my interpretation of Afropresentism.
You might have heard, with the groundbreaking and record shattering release of black panther, some chatter regarding the films use, interpretation, and representation of something called “Afrofuturism.” Afrofuturism, according to Wikipedia, is defined as “a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science, and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African/African-American culture with technology. It combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentrism and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique the present-day dilemmas of black people and to interrogate and re-examine historical events.”. In Black Panther, this manifests in the creation of Wakanda—a central-East-African nation hidden from the outside world, rife with natural resources, and free from the history of colonialism and oppression that the vast majority of Africa was forced to deal with. It’s a glorious, stunning vision. The realization of a cultural dream that has been bubbling for ages and is of the utmost vital ness in this current instant within our own culture.
It is, in case it’s comic book origins didn’t let you off, still, by definition, a fantasy. One created in the past. One within optimistic reach in terms of aesthetic, but not in its underpinnings. Afropresentism, however, is a burgeoning cultural and aesthetic movement acknowledging Africa’s history, both ancient and colonial, its heritage, and its various cultures, through a modern, sober, objective lens. It’s about acknowledging Africa’s truth--that modern Africa is a myriad of influences, a Gordian knot of modernity and antiquity, a mixing pot of the most incredible diversity of cultures, and a nascent cultural and economic powerhouse in the making. That Africa is already becoming what it is.
Which is all to say that African culture is more than a lotus flower in metaphor—a lotus blooms in the muck, but Africa was and is rich with resources and landscapes and people and potential. it’s more than a metaphorical Phoenix as well—Africa wasn't cathartically re-birthed from the ashes left behind by European colonizers and capitalist interests. It has bloomed and blossomed and flourished and struggles and stumbled in spite of the continent’s collective general modern history.
I just don't have a good enough metaphor for that kind of triumph.
As with so much of American culture, it started over there, was brought over here, and then exported back. Hip Hop has been no different, but our exposure to African hip hop, or even African music in general, has for the most part been limited by the same cultural lens--relegated to world music circles of tribal drumming and chants, with only a few real seekers finding Afro-pop, Mali blues, sub-saharan jazz, nigerian reggae, Zanzibari Taarab...you get the idea. The only experience the average American consumer (myself included) has had with African hip hop, in particular, is either K'naan or Bangs.
Kerby and the Kizazi artistic and holistic movement have the potential to change that on this side of the pond, and on their side, they have the potential to start a cultural revolution.
Coming into Nairobi I was nervous. I was still on my first non-western trip, first real solo journey, had no familiarity with Swahili whatsoever, and every guidebook I read put the fear of god in you about Nairobi, or, as they like to point out over and over, "Nairobbery" as its informally called. "Just accept that at some point or another, you will be robbed," read the helpful guide I had elected to bring with me. In anticipation, I had contacted the earth-shatteringly amazing photographer Khadija Farah because of a casual instagram acquaintance. She put me in touch with a friend of hers to stay with who I was already looking at as my lifeline. I'd hit Neema up from Pajé, Zanzibar--five days beforehand--begging her to meet me at the airport. Compassionate goddess of light that she is, she acquiesced.
So there I was, a bald, white-as-a-sheet, sweaty american backpacker with the biggest hat known to man (see prior; bald) in the middle of Nairobi airport looking completely lost before the crowds parted and a slight, cropped-haired Kenyan flashing a wide, open-mouthed smile that crinkled her nose was waving to me from a taxi. And we hit it off
Little did I know I had managed to ingratiate myself with one of the most connected and inspiring individuals I had yet met, and that she was soon to connect me with the entire workings of the Kizazi movement and NuNairobi youth underground. She whisked me from tourist destination to local hideout with incredible speed and knowledge acting as guide and interpreter but feeling more like a friend as the hours passed. And through her came Kerby, her partner who radiates a gentle, welcoming nature with near-constant cackle, Frankie, a quiet and magnanimous photographer who I felt an instant resonance with, and Wanyama, who's bright, caring eyes are matched only by the intelligence, generosity, and force of belief for his friends behind them, not to mention countless others.
And just like that, I was rolling up with some of Kenya's biggest up-and-coming rappers, artists, and intellectuals. When you travel, it's not unusual to forge deep connections with those you meet on the road--you have a limited amount of time and are already in an intense situation with a heightened awareness, but this really felt different. I felt an instant kinship with and acceptance from them. I am, knowingly, a bit of an odd creature. I like to think I function slightly to the side of everyone else, and I don't like to talk much, but I love to listen and learn. Groups are tough for me, new people are challenging...but in Nairobi I not only felt at ease amidst these new friends, but i felt as if there had been some kind of unspoken acknowledgment of my being.
I have had the good luck to be around some pretty exciting artists and musicians. Being around someone with a special talent can sometimes feel as if time itself is passing in a different way than it normally does--as if time vibrates in new waves around them, and you can be swept up in their wake. I had stepped into the beginnings of a musical and cultural revolution.
Kizazi (the swahili for "generation") is an offshoot of the NuNairbi cultural movement--a kind of renaissance that Nairobi has been going through for the last couple years as the younger generations look at the ways their society functions and seek to address the parts that either lag or dont seem to make sense. Hanging out with Kerby, Neema, Wanyama, and Frankie, conversations would vary widely, dancing between Swahili and English (for my benefit)--going from deep explorations and explanations of their culture, politics, tribal heritage, and society at large, to the hushed tones of a manifesto in the making, posited around the simple question,
"How do we get our message to the most people? How do we make them listen?"
Their message--one of inclusivity, holistic living, organic eating, compassion, self-care, compassion, mindfulness, and the unifying power of music--is not all that different from what you hear hippies and hipsters purport to espouse around America, while not doing anything about it. These young adults--ranging from 20 to 27--are starting movements, writing records, putting on art shows, gathering like-minded people and are actually changing things. People with the motivation, ability, and follow through to start a movement are people to be admired and reckoned with.
Mapenzi Sio Deni is perhaps the official declaration of intent and existence--a rallying cry and clarion call for Kenya and the world. The cover, designed by Tokyo-based TweliG, is a bold, powerful statement of itself; a man stands, defiant, unbowed, and gathering his resources as he stares out at his native country that both confined and elevated by old-world-style gilded frames. But He is not within that frame. He's something new. And he looks ready to charge right through that frame and keep on going through the savanna landscape. It's a bold, beautiful, and iconic image.
There's a reason that the first words you see opening the booklet is "Join the revolution."
What follows is 50 minutes of blisteringly good hip hop, cut with not only that incisive eye, but with the members' characteristic gentleness and openness (the frequent laugh breaks and conversations in the skits bring the biggest smile to my face) The instrumentation sounds gorgeous and amazing--the majority of it traditional instruments--and ranging from the "Love the Way You Lie"-esque "Tabasamu" featuring the sultry, Rihanna-like vocals of Ayoti, to the lightning-fast flow in "Ndoa," to the gloriously funky "Natamani". Its a diverse record that spans a breadth of influences.
I feel honored that these individuals took me under their wing and into their world. That i got to be present while they worked on their manifesto. "We live in a world of currency and patience is a rare thing," as Kerby says in the album's closer, "Rudi Nyumbani," and that these folks took the time and patience to entertain me, show me around, and inspire me is a gift I am going to treasure the rest of my days.
Getting dropped off at the airport was rough. I hugged desperately to these former strangers--clinging to every moment that I had been so privileged to share. I only hoped to cling hard enough to bring some of what I learned back with me. The lump in my throat was only held in check with the quiet assurance that I would go back.