In his Odinare Rap Challenge entry, Naivasha based rapper, Ace Bornzilla, makes a declaration, “Toka Vasho finest hip-hop beat assassin nimesign”, a declaration one might mistake for the usual verbosity hip-hop artists throw around in an attempt to portray a bravado that they might not necessarily possess. In this case however, Bornzilla is not just talking. His words are a reminder that in such a competitive industry as this, which is undoubtedly dominated by artists from Nairobi, and where it is expected that only musicians from here are recognised by mainstream audiences, he, from a small Kenyan town, also possesses skill and lyrical dexterity.
In a time when we are seeing exponential growth in online archives which subsequently expand music’s reach, Ace Bornzilla is representative of a new wave of artists based outside of Nairobi, that are slowly emerging to reveal the storied cultures of other Kenyan towns.
Kenya’s musical culture and history has always been tied to Nairobi. While there has been significant contributions from other cities like Mombasa and Kisumu, Nairobi holds a certain monopoly on popular music, from Benga which gained ground from David Owino Misiani’s formation of Shirati Jazz within Nairobi, to Kenyan hip-hop which grew in popularity after Kalamashaka came into the scene. In other words, Kenyan music has always been a rather metropolitan affair. This historical norm where the urban setting is positioned as the only place worthy of producing artists of a certain prowess, makes the undertakings of artists from other locales an uphill task. And it is for this reason Ace Bornzilla uses his music to carve out a space for himself and other artists that share a similar story.
On why artists from smaller towns are not as recognised, Ace Bornzilla explains, “Nairobi is associated with a groovy and cultured vibe. Maybe mostly from the proficiency of the popular slang, Sheng, by Nairobians, the fashion sense within the place, or even the technology. It also happens that the most popular entertainment platforms that air music in Kenya, both radio and television, are all located in Nairobi. This makes it harder for artists from other regions to be viewed in a similar light. The result is that some try copying the Nairobi culture which never works out. Most tend to relocate to the city afterwards because of these platforms and the ‘acceptable artistic lifestyle’ that is unavailable in their hometowns.”
The focus on Nairobi as the locus of talent challenges the possibility of there being well known artists from other parts of the country. Still, musicians such as Ace Bornzilla choose to remain in their hometowns and shoulder the burden of trying to change this narrative. The task is made easier by online platforms such as YouTube, Spotify, Boomplay, and others which offer exposure and access to the musicians.
“The only challenge with these platforms comes in that you have to grow your audience through promotions which can be quite expensive for up and coming musicians from historically non-artistic towns.” Ace Bornzilla says. “But nonetheless they offer an unrivalled opportunity of revealing ourselves through our music to the unknowing. I get to sing in my streets and my home. I get to sing in Naivasha and its lake, its fishermen, and even the white men and women who flock our town in the name of tourism. My art gives my region a voice and through me my people’s culture and way of life are revealed.”
Efforts to develop a musical culture in a particular setting, while showcasing the prevailing culture of the place, result in the development of a distinct musical sound. For Ace Bornzilla, his attempts necessitate a multilingual approach in his song lyrics. In Kaa Si Form, Love You Better, and Fathella the rapper uses English, Kiswahili, and Kikuyu as these are the languages used in his hometown. This results in his songs depicting a mastery of language, at times Kikuyu transcending the reach of the other two languages, as vernacular syllables become the cornerstone of his lyrics.
This distinction is also seen in the lyrical themes expressed in his music. In some of his feature songs, such as Badda and Makashfa, Bornzilla explores the psyche of his fellow hometown youths and their wins and failings, while some like Balance It Up and Kenyan Kid present as odes to his hometown, which at times are saccharine declarations of his love for the place. In the same manner an artist from Eastlands viscerally narrates on the sociocultural aspects of neighbourhoods like Umoja or Dandora, Bornzilla equally gives a deep-rooted description of his hometown. The otherness is revealed when the environment he presents is seen as unfamiliar to what audiences are used to.
When asked if he would ever consider moving to Nairobi, Bornzilla states, “I don’t plan on relocating and moving to the city. I plan on living in my hometown permanently and being at the forefront of a thriving musical and artistic culture one day. In my own backyard. Together with my crew: Naivasha Finest.” In his insistence on staying and growing his career in Naivasha, Bornzilla points out the importance of having a community of musicians who come together to form a unit that can imagine and create the future they envision for their craft and hometowns. Such an assemblage becomes more feasible in a semi-urban setting, due to the “everyone knows almost everyone” culture, unlike in the vastness of a metropolitan city.
Bornzilla explains, “We formed a crew in 2019, a collective unit of Naivasha’s finest MC’s and artists, hence the name “Naivasha Finest”. We sing different genres but we are interlinked by the fact that we are all musicians based here at home who strive to build a culture and an art scene which, arguably, was almost non-existent before. We are a collection of eight artists and producers who try to create our art together while based at a home. We do not intend to leave. Not until we make music the habitual portrait of our people.”
African music is currently an actively growing corpus. As Kenyan music develops as well, it still falls behind in rank when compared to the buzz of West African Afrobeats, and the enchanting vibe of Amapiano and its dances. The inclusion of all possible Kenyan subcultures in our music is required in order to develop a unique and distinctly attractive sound. What the gradually burgeoning semi-urban musical scene offers is an assortment of musical styles from different places within the Kenyan setting that can serve as a beacon for developing a musical custom that is uniquely Kenyan.
It is said, you haven’t really known a place if you haven’t danced to the rhythm of its music. Artists such as Bornzilla and other musicians across the country offer opportunities to learn about Kenya’s understated cultures.