The inofficial hymns of Nairobi
Kenyan rapper Nazizi and her hip-hop and reggae crew Necessary Noize were making exactly that at the turn of the millennium, it seems. Both with other musicians and on her own, Nazizi has become the most prominent figure on the Kenyan hip-hop scene in the past ten years, and arguably the most important voice in all of East African pop. With its 2001 debut, Necessary Noize pulled off the feat of gaining radio play not only for the singles, but for all of the songs on the album. The follow-up album, “Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy,” sent no fewer than four tracks to the top of the charts, an unprecedented success for a native act. Now just 30, Nazizi has won nearly every prize that sub-Saharan Africa has to give out, including the Kora, the African Grammy; Chaguo la Teeniez, the Kenyan government’s award for up-and-coming talent; and the East African Kisima Awards.
Singles like “Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy” became unofficial anthems on the streets of Nairobi, where they – along with such solo tracks as “Jeshi” and “Jump and Shout” – enjoyed long runs on the matatu, the minibuses that move passengers through East African cities and, more than the charts, are the true proving ground for a song’s appeal with the masses.
As significant as her success may be for the status and self-image of Kenyan hip-hop, Nazizi’s most crucial influence lies at a deeper level. She is a powerful role model for women and girls in a patriarchal culture. At the start of the millennium she interrupted her musical career to study psychology. Last year she gave birth to a son. The allure of this seemingly happy combination of family life and career success has earned Nazizi a place on the covers of glossy Kenyan magazines.
But Nazizi is also part of the first generation of musicians to depart from both the colonial English and the official language of Swahili and write songs in the ghetto and youth slang known as Sheng. In her case, this isn’t to be taken for granted. Unlike the male pioneers of Kalamashaka, the biggest Kenyan hip-hop group of the mid-1990s, or the militant Ukoo Flani, Nazizi Hirji doesn’t hail from the notorious ghettoes of Dandora or Kibera. When she began rapping at 16, her middle-class background roused suspicion in the angry ghetto kids – reservations she quickly put to rest in 1999 with her first single, “Ni Sawa Tu,” which she recorded largely in Sheng.
That said, Nazizi’s rap clearly differs from more abrasive styles such as genge, a Kenyan version of American gangsta rap. She counters their vociferous party raps with her own assertively positive socially and politically conscious tracks, which neither get caught up in anger nor glorify the glamorous accessories of gangsta-style opulence. “Ni Sawa Tu” takes the form of a mother-daughter dialogue about self-determination, education and hopes for the future. This carries echoes of Tupac Shakur, MC Lyte and other American rappers. However, Nazizi’s veneration of Bob Marley, still the most influential artist in the pan-Africanist sphere, resonates strongly in her work with Necessary Noize – and not only in the reggae and dancehall rhythms that rattle through the hip-hop beats: Nazizi also takes up Marley’s tradition of critical solidarity.
Working in this vein, her lyrics deal with crime, AIDS and drugs, as well as national identity and African self-discovery. She joins forces with musicians from neighboring countries like Tanzania, where she lived for a time, and Uganda, home of ragga star Bebe Cool, with whom she has collaborated on productions under the name East African Bashment Crew. Most recently she can be heard on tracks that originated within the “Translating HipHop” project at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. There, the leading female voice of the African hip-hop world teamed up with female colleagues, including Berlin’s Pyranja and Malikah from Beirut, to rap to the beats of club producers such as Modeselektor and the Teichmann brothers.
Modeselektor Feat. Nazizi & Abbas. Vinyl LP. Monkeytown Records
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
(10 November 11 - 12 November 11)
20 Jahre Haus der Kulturen der Welt
(02 September 09 - 30 September 09)