kama ni success niko na ubao kaa mwalimu – Sir Owi
Mistari was initially supposed to be shot in daylight. Late that Friday afternoon, Sir Owi, in blue baggy jeans, loose red T-shirt branded Sir Owi and brown Timberlands grew restless waiting in his one-roomed house in Umoja 1 for his production crew that was hours late. He had asked for the day off from work to shoot the music video. He was unlikely to get another one anytime soon. Occasionally he fielded the same series of phone calls from the handful of people on his cast and crew, giving them updates that didn’t say much. No we still don’t have the equipment. Yes we are still on for today. No, nothing has changed. Location ilikua Jeri na unajua Jeri inakuanga na sifa, Sir Owi recalls. Jericho, alongside several of its neigbouring estates in Nairobi’s Eastlands, is many things to many people but often not the kindest to outsiders. Everyone was eager to finish the shoot by nightfall. Kevo*, his director, had leased out the equipment to two young men for 12 hours the day before. They were yet to be seen and their phones went unanswered. He tracked them down to where they lived without a trace and learnt they had leased out the equipment vile broker hugeuka anakua the owner. He was more than livid when he found them, and he made them understand exactly how he felt before recovering his equipment. The cast was quickly scrambled and at 7pm set for location. They were setting up on a small, dusty patch with stout yellowing grass in front of a graffiti wall mural of a fist crested with the words ‘Msoto Base’ when about seven young men walked up to Sir Owi. Tuachie ya macho. You can’t just come here and shoot your video na unatuwacha tu hivyo. His cast and crew maintained an uneasy pretend-busy silence as he negotiated with the newcomers. After hiring the equipment, paying the Uber for his cast and a small token of gratitude to the neighbour for letting them plug in their extension cord, Sir Owi was cash strapped. He handed the front man Sh1, 000. The air changed. Everyone broke out in smiles, fist bumped. Maboyz wakasema wanaenda kutafuta tei wakam. They were now his security detail. A second group walked up to him minutes later and asked for their cut. “Hao wasee walikupanga, sisi ndio hu maintain security hii area.” He recognized one of them from his location scouting earlier. Nevertheless, he parted with Sh1, 500 and was assured of security during his shoot. “Sii sasa ndio security.” After a third security fee payment to yet another group, Sir Owi finally started shooting his video some minutes past 8pm. As production wound up close to midnight, a small crowd from the neighbouring houses, including members of his three security details joined the set, dancing and jabbing the air with their palms kicking clouds of dust up the street lights, Sir Owi dropping bars.
Duncan Owinga’s major break was at a talent search at the Kenya Medical Training College, KMTC at Port Reitz, Mombasa, some ten kilometers from Kizingo where he lived. His father was a Kenya Railways employee stationed in Mombasa and his mother worked as a cateress hundreds of kilometers away in Maseno. The family moved through Kiembeni, Magongo, Kizingo, and finally Mikindani estate. At Changamwe High School, he started listening and rapping over Nas and together with his friends would trek to Port Reitz for weekend talent shows, the highlight of which was the MC challenging anyone in the crowd who believed they could throw down to come on stage. With slight goading from his friends, a wiry Owinga, few months shy of 19, stepped up and asked for Nas’ Hate me Now, rapping a few lines from a song he had been working on that would later be his first single, Eyoo Mombasa. The screaming crowd bobbing their heads to his punch lines was the confirmation he needed to know he could chart a path out for himself through hip-hop. He became Sir Owi, the stage name that would eclipse Duncan Owinga for years to come. His older brother Sokoro introduced him to producer Hassan Majid, co-founder of Tabasam Records shortly after his performance at Port Reitz, and Sir Owi’s career as a hip-hop recording artist begun. Sokoro was also dabbling with the mic at the time and had just released Sokoro his first self-titled single, under the same record label. His sharp and melodious tenor skipped playfully through the bars announcing his grand entry across the airwaves:
Naanguka, mistari ndani ya Tabasam/ watu wananiangalia juu mpaka down/ nimengaa bling bling mpaka mikono/ watu wananiita, Sokoro
He quickly followed his first single with a video shoot in Kizingo. Like much of the music coming out of Tabasam Records at the time, the video was a collage of Mombasa urban life with scenes borrowed from Boyz in the Hood and Baby Boy. In their late nineties hip-hop gear complete with faux silver-and-gold chains they walked through Kizingo, dancing and posing in front of a Sokoro graffiti they had spray-painted on one of the walls. Johnny*, the neighbourhood drug peddler who lived some floors below their apartment, appears in the video blowing reefer into the camera. Inspired by Sokoro’s success, Sir Owi released his first single Ayoh Mombasa and followed this with the video soon after.
This was 2006 and the brothers were at the threshold of hip-hop success. Tabasam Records was one of the first urban record labels in Mombasa, de facto home for new hip-hop musical talent in the early 2000s. Sokoro and Sir Owi shared a label with Prince Adio (Nikiwa Ndani) and Kingsting and Bed Bug (Anisa). There were also Skani Flani, Suzuki and Risasi, Cannibal and Sharama who later introduced the brothers to some of the Ukoo Flani crew who, in addition to giving him his first hip-hop ethics, introduced him to weed. On certain days, some members of Ukoo Flani would come over their house in Kizingo and they would play hip-hop, talk about politics and music while outdoing each other smoking. “Tulikuwa tunakaa tunadunga hivi na Ukoo Flani kwa keja hapo Kizingo vile tuko na nyinyi hapa.” We are in my living room with Sir Owi and my friend Jeff*. Dandora Burning is playing as a bottle of Teacher’s runs low. Sir Owi hogs the joint, his voice heavy, reaching for distant melodies from 13 years ago. “Hao majamaa kwanza walikua wanatembea na ufagio, unajua ufagio? Wee niambie unawezaje kosa kuchoma ukiwa hapo?” The kind of hangouts you left without saying goodbye, slip out like you are going to the loo, nursing a fire somewhere below your chest. As Tabasam Records signed on more artists and put out more music, Sir Owi and Sokoro found themselves part of a musical awakening that was sweeping through Mombasa. “Tulikuwa tunakuja kuchukuliwa kwa keja na ndai tunapelekwa ku perform ma shows.” They performed at high school concerts and youth events around Mombasa where the girls screamed themselves hoarse for Sokoro. The artists channeled Kriss Kross, Lost Boyz and N.W.A but with the rhythmic and lyrical familiarity of the kids next door, endearing them to fans years before social media and YouTube accelerated music distribution and consumption. If Nairobi had Ogopa DJs, Calif Records and Scratch Digital Records, Mombasa had Tabasam Records, a worthy contender in the cold war between labels that flicked on and off through much of the early to mid-2000s and Sir Owi and Sokoro were the fresh-faced soldiers ready to take on the hip hop industry. Mongolo, rapper-turned TV show presenter, came down to Mombasa and interviewed Sir Owi, Sokoro and Cannibal for a special segment of KTN’s Vipi show. This was the good life.
“For in tremendous extremities human souls are like drowning men; well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the causes of that peril; nevertheless, the sea is the sea and these drowning men do drown.” Herman Melville.
The constant vibration in the air we breathe lives in and around us, situating us in time and space, yet frees us to traverse these limits. Music is the soundtrack to the stories we tell ourselves, how we chose to remember and give meaning to our lives. The late Prof Caleb Okumu observed that what later came to be known as the Kenyan style of music originated from a borrowing and exchange of musical elements between different cultural groups and societies. It is from him I first encounter the Beni, a form of competitive dance popular in the Kenyan and Tanzanian coastal societies, notably Tanga, Dar, Pangani, Mombasa and Lamu in the late 19th century before disappearing in the late 1950s. This was at the end of the First World War and the center of Kenya was gradually moving from the coast to Nairobi fueled by completion of the Kenya-Uganda railway. Beni was imported into Nairobi by prisoners of war from Tanganyika confronted with the banality with which white people regarded fellow white bodies, much less African ones. The inhumanity of the war was, however briefly, an eye opener. African identity faced up against colonial oppression and sought out new expressions of freedom, imbuing Beni dancers with an urgent need to best each other in asserting their identity, dignity and self-respect at colourful dance festivals that often went till morning and from Nairobi’s pre-colonial estates of Pangani and Mombasa villages the dance spread into parts of Central and Eastern Kenya including Muranga and Kitui, sending shivers down the spines of colonial authorities surprised at the “natives’” level of organization. Interestingly, despite the existence of active Beni societies in the Kenyan coast, the introduction of Beni in Nairobi is credited to Tanzania, in an eerie foreshadowing of the evolution of Bongo many years later. Terrence Ranger writing in Dance and Society in Eastern Africa says that even the war could not bridge the gulf between Mombasa and Nairobi. Prof Okumu himself, a music scholar and dean of the Maseno University Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, dedicated a good part of his academic and personal life tracing the nostalgic appeals of Zilizopendwa. Every second semester he somehow found time off his busy schedule to supervise auditions for the Maseno University Band where he was lead guitarist and singer. On Wednesdays, the band held practice sessions most of which he supervised and jammed with. Students and faculty were welcome to sit in these practice sessions and Eva*, my new and first girlfriend, pulled me into the room one rainy afternoon after lectures. We awkwardly shuffled through the full room and stood at the back, listening as the smallish girl in glasses, blue jeans and pink top held the room with her rendition of Mpongo Love. Something shifted inside when she hit the chorus with the pain of Ndaya’s incomplete love that Eva and I would later seek out in phone calls time zones apart, years after Prof Okumu had died. This was also the first time I was properly introduced to Sir Owi. The second semester had come to an end and the customary highlights that marked the close of the academic year converged on the same weekend: the Mr. and Miss Maseno University concert and the Maseno University Cuisine Night headlined by the Maseno University Band. Sir Owi was also in his second year of a journalism degree and although we shared all classes, we rarely saw each other. We also shared the pull of that knowledge gap lecture halls couldn’t fill and our private quests brought us together on stage that night. He was set to curtain-raise for Cannibal, Sharama and his brother Sokoro, the main acts for the night, while I was covering the concert, taking pictures and writing a cover story for The Oracle, the campus magazine. Sir Owi, in the first of several winding conversations we would later have, told me I should also feature him in “that magazine of yours”. I agreed, although we did not get round to doing it for another year. It had rained in the afternoon or the previous night and the sky was overcast above the crowd of students spread across the main concert area that spanned the hockey and basketball pitches, also known as the Graduation Square for obvious reasons. The air was cold and heavy with the smell of coming rain, eucalyptus and carnal ambition when, shortly after 8pm, the entourage of Mash Auto, Limos R Us and Pulse magazine rolled into Maseno, with some of the leading talent from Tabasam and Calif records behind the black windows of the cream stretch limo. Traffic came to a standstill on the Kisumu-Busia highway and the crowd went wild as the entourage rode up the graduation square with dozens of comrades hanging precariously from the roofs and hoods of the hooting vehicles and whatever was happening on stage was temporarily halted. In addition to the advertised performers, Pilipili and Circute were also in the house as surprise artists. That night, shortly before Circute was booed off, Sir Owi shared the stage with his fellow soldiers in a rare Tabasam Records reunion as the skies held back on us stomping to Kichwa Kibov into the morning.
Years later, we met again by chance. One morning in late 2016, at the Mutindwa bus stop in Buru Buru. A different stage this time and one of those blissful urban coincidences Nairobi doles out; not only did we share the same mats to work but we also lived only a few minutes apart. He had added some weight but somehow shrunk back into his black insurance agency suit. I knew from the experimental punch lines he still puts out on Facebook every other day that he had released his first album just like he knew I had gotten a job with one of the newspapers in town. Could I buy a copy of the album and hook him up with an interview? We exchanged numbers and months later he came to my house with a copy of Mziki wa Kisasa. Unajua mi najifanyia kila kitu mwenyewe, he replied when I asked how he managed the production, marketing and distribution of his music in addition to a full time job. He wrote his songs whenever he found time and once he had put together enough material for a song and money to record, he booked studio sessions and video shoots. He sold the albums at Sh500 a piece. Recently he had started working with the producer Ares 66 who prominently features on his upcoming album. I ask Sir Owi why, after so many years in hip-hop, he was yet to go mainstream and why he thought Mombasa artists found Nairobi a difficult market to crack. His speech, slowed down by the liqour and weed, comes out in staccato. Hip-hop ya Mombasa…hip-hop ya Mombasa unajua inakuanga ni ile ina ku touch. Ina ku touch, juu ma artists wa coast wanapenda kuongelea maneno ya ma feelings na watu wa Nairobi…, watu wa Nairobi unajua hawapendi kuskia hizo, ha ha ha. A resigned laughter that has more pity than sadness. He believed Nairobi cared less for the sensual and emotionally laden music from the coast and save for a few exceptions, listeners, producers, promoters, radio presenters and DJs in the city maintain a collective, if somewhat haughty indifference towards music coming out of the coast. Johnny Vigetti alisema dogi za mtaa zingine hazikojoi hapa. This also made me wonder if the rejection and at times suppression of some forms of musical expression has more to do with class politics than geography. As the capital city of Kenya, Nairobi draws in the various forms of cultural capital from across the country before extracting the juicy parts for profit, discarding the rest by the wayside like bits of spent sugar cane. Witness the constant appropriation of the various forms of sheng by Nairobi’s advertising and marketing departments to advance their capitalist agenda among the city’s low income majority. This could explain the underlying current of betrayal in the conversation between Binyavanga Wainaina and members of Kalamashaka and Mashifta in the first issue of the Kwani? literary magazine. The 2003 interview is at producer Ted Josiah’s studio in the wake of Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s Unbwogable and although the 24 year-old despotic reign of president Daniel Arap Moi has ended and the Redykyulass Generation is in full bloom, anxiety and anger weighs the discussion. There is Kama, Roba and Peter of Kalamashaka and Mashifta’s Kitu Sewer and G Wigi aka Miti who would be found dead 12 years later on Nairobi’s Thika Road, a hit and run victim. The conversation drifts to the subject of what it means to be Kenyan. Kitu Sewer and Miti reflect on the hustle and grit it calls for and Roba summarizes their collective angst. “It makes you wonder whether you should be proud to be a Kenyan or not,” he says. “Maybe even ashamed. The way we persevere but we will love our country even if it does not love us.”
I asked Sir Owi about Sokoro and whether he maintained contact with the Ukoo Flani crew. Tabasam Records had gone silent shortly after Hassan Majid left for Europe in 2005 to study for five years and the artists had scattered, some moving to Nairobi or Dar for better prospects and others slipping between the cracks. He was evasive. Sokoro yuko tu. I prodded with blog reports of Sokoro wasting away from hard drugs at the back of my mind. Sokoro unajua alikorogewa, he finally said, his gaze falling somewhere between the ashtray and the Tabasam Records videos playing on YouTube. Sir Owi holds an alarming conviction that his brother’s addiction and decline had a malevolent force behind it. Unajua watu hawapendi kukuona uki succeed so wanakukorogea. He is vague and it is difficult to deduce whether he is talking about hard drugs or sorcery but the clarity of the end result is clear to him. Sokoro became someone else. He stopped singing completely and wouldn’t listen to anyone asking him about going back to the studio. Several interventions have been made by friends and family to bring Sokoro back with no success. In 2017 Sir Owi and a friend uploaded Sokoro’s album on a new YouTube channel to try and generate some buzz for a possible comeback but this also failed to take off. The 18 videos count views in the lower hundreds, with the highest clocking 450. Sir Owi leaves after inviting me to a recording session of his latest song in a couple of days.
It is a hot Sunday afternoon in early 2019, days after the invitation when I join Sir Owi and his producer Ares 66 at the Beats Afriq studio for the making of Niko Kazi, his latest single. The studio is small, about eight meters long and two meters wide with purple and black walls and semi-professional sound insulating. Ares has produced tracks to most of the hits by rap group Wakadinali including both Ndani ya Cockpit mixtapes and has also made beats for Kaligraph Jones including for his latest album Testimony. Tall, slender with deep-set eyes and a quick smile, Ares is in a vest bent over his audio mixer and computer keyboard at the center of a large brown table. A bag of weed, some rolling paper, ash tray and a silver lamp share the table at the end of which sits a young boy in a grey hoodie who doesn’t say a word after “hi” the whole afternoon. Sir Owi wants to try a trap vibe for the first time with Niko Kazi. Hiyo ndio watu wanataka siku hizi, he says when I ask him why he is changing his sound with a hint of disappointment in my voice because I feel he is most in his element in Swahili. If you want to appeal to the young listeners today you can’t avoid trap, he says. Ares is accommodating and asks him for the first few lines he has written and Sir Owi clears his throat.
Nipe microphone ni wakilishe fani pwani…
Ah ah. Hiyo ni haraka sana for trap. Ares is not amused at his pace. He starts again, counting out each beat loudly as he sounds them on the keyboard to the pace of Sir Owi’s syllables. Sir Owi is rapping past 100 beats per minute. Ares needs him at around 70.
Hii haiwezi. Wee unajua umefanya hip-hop sana mpaka umeiandika tu kama hip-hop.
Sir Owi regards his producer and lowers his notebook. The prospect of compromise does not excite him but he has been through this several times to know when to defer to the expertise of his producer.
Sa wee una prefer tuipige aje?
Ares considers the request for a few seconds.
Ebu nipatie chorus.
Sir Owi picks up from the chorus only to be interrupted again. This goes on for several long minutes before he can go into the vocal booth to start recording. Watching Niko Kazi slowly come together I imagine the choices musicians have to make each day to create music that can change us and what this effort demands and how it rewards. What does it mean to make the kind of music that turns bouncers into dancers? That brings back the dead, collapses pain into an E flat and draws us out of oblivion and onto the stage time after time, daring the DJ to drop the beat.