I’ve been watching Boiler Room since I was a teenager. Through the wormhole of Youtube, I would be transported to the glistening dancefloors of Paris, London, New York, and Berlin, among other far flung locales. Vicariously sampling their underground music scenes.
Boiler Room is an online music broadcast which hosts dance music events, with a focus on underground music scenes, all across the globe. The first Boiler Room was broadcast in 2010, using a webcam taped to the wall of a disused Boiler Room in East London. Today, Boiler Room is a global sensation reaching millions of people in their homes worldwide.
The word ‘scene’ was first used by journalists in the 1940s during the nascence of the Jazz era to bring attention to the fringe bohemian lifestyle of those associated with the Jazz and Bebop era. The concept of ‘the music scene’ has since widened to refer to the clusters of musicians, industry-actors, and fans who collectively share a common musical taste. Thus in doing so, differentiating themselves from other ‘scenes’.
The first Boiler Room I witnessed was probably Kaytranada’s lore-filled Montreal DJ set circa 2014. Kaytranada had been on my playlists all of a Kenyan summer and watching his Boiler Room Montreal set teleported me from a bedroom in Mombasa to a private residence off Mont-Royal where revelers mobbed around Kaytranada’s equipment, dancing next to the penultimate Boiler Room girl, Shay Lia. I fantasized about the day when I would become a Boiler Room girl myself. Five years later, the day finally came.
BOILER ROOM 2019
One innocuous day in 2019, I received an email. I’d been subscribed to the Boiler Room mailing list for years (mostly to lust after merchandise I can’t afford like this £135 jacket). It was a newsletter call to RSVP for Boiler Room’s first Kenyan edition, sponsored by Ballantines. It felt exclusive, secretive, one of those ‘if-you-know-you-know’ things. The line-up featured Coco Em, Suraj, EA Wave, Muthoni The Drummer Queen and TAIO, formerly known as Taio Tripper of Camp Mulla stardom.
The Alchemist on that particular Boiler Room night was rife with human beings waiting to be transformed by music, with just the perfect body to dancefloor ratio.
The theme, given the genres the DJs on the bill perfected, was somewhere along the lines of African electronic. Suraj and Coco Em’s DJ sets were remarkable journeys through the traditional and electronic rhythms of Afro-house with a lot of the tracks from Suraj’s set being his own original productions. TAIO played an eclectic hip-hop blend, EA Wave experimented with an innovative electronic DJ set which incorporated live elements and Muthoni Drummer Queen, still high off the release of her 2018 album, ‘She’, was the live performance of the night.
This night was a snapshot of the alternative scene taking root in Nairobi around 2018. As internet access became more of a societal cornerstone, Kenyans gained access to sounds and resources previously believed near impossible to obtain ‘less one had a good chunk of capital or industry connections. Because of the internet and a longing for something other than the top 40 hits cycled on FM radio, a diversification in sound was born.
Just A Band were one the pioneers of this diversification in the early 2010s with their D-I-Y model and electronically-infused sounds, a first of its kind in Kenya at the time. So when Boiler Room rolled into town in 2018, alternative scenes had carved their own spaces in Kenyan music and events. Electronic dance music was cutting its teeth in Kenya with the 6AM and Kilifi New Year events, as illustrated in the 2018 Boiler Room Edition with DJ’s Suraj and Coco Em’s sets. While in other places, a more mellow and experimental R&B / Hip-Hop fusion was making its rounds, as seen through the performances of TAIO, EA Wave and Muthoni The Drummer Queen.
BOILER ROOM 2020
In 2020, Gengetone had taken over the airwaves, with many believing that a Gengetone reckoning would finally override the chokehold that West African Afrobeats has on Kenyan radio stations and music events.
Boiler Room 2020 came right before the COVID-19 pandemic dawned on the world and suspended all dancefloor activities of the social gathering nature. I was not in Nairobi hence I did not attend. However, I watched the livestream on YouTube.
Representing the nation for this edition of Boiler Room was rapper Femi-one, and Gengetone trailblazing collectives: Ochungulo Family, Boondocks Gang and Rico Gang. On the decks were DJ Lyta, DJ Kalonje and DJ Tryce. DJs Lyta and Kalonje’s mixes are ubiquitous to matatu culture and have kept me, as well as every other Matatu-riding Kenyan, entertained on almost every public transport commute. The DJ sets and live performances were a candid representation of the emergence of Gengetone in the country, and how it permeated day-to-day Kenyan living.
BOILER ROOM 2022
Two years later, drill music was growing global roots with each country having their own iteration on the Hip-Hop sub-genre. Buruklyn Boyz had firmly embedded themselves as the official Kenyanizers of Drill Music. You couldn’t pass two shops without hearing ‘Dream Ya Kutoka Kwa Block’.
It was expected that the 2022 edition of Boiler Room was a journey through Kenyan drill and other hip-hop variants. I hardly recognized any of the other names on the bill as evangelists of Kenya’s drill scene, save for the live performers and DJ Tryce, a long-time propagator of Kenyan music in the ranks of the previous year’s DJs – Lyta and Kalonje.
“It doesn’t matter,” I thought. I’d get to experience it for myself. The gates were scheduled to open at 7 p.m. Being a stereotypical African timer, I got there at 7.30 p.m. Welp.
The line outside The Alchemist snaked all the way up the block and took a corner, occupying nearly the entire street. More so, it was raining. I stood in the rain for an hour and a half, getting tossed around by the motions of the crowd, having elbows dug into my rib cage, protecting my bag as if it held the presidential election results, watching my white tennis shoes slowly turn a fecal-brown from the increasing mud. Finally, I made it to the gate. The bouncers refused to let me in citing that the venue was at full capacity, despite proof of an invite. Frustrated black faces watch the white couple in the line next to me receive the last of the access tags and saunter into the venue.
The female security guard either took pity on my soaking wet clothes or felt guilty for her internalized racism that she let me into the venue. Still, I found myself distanced from Boiler Room by a heavily guarded metal wall which, despite having an invite, I could not access. Turns out, I had not read the small fine print disclaimer at the bottom of the invite that reads:
“This is a capacity based event. Even though you are on the guestlist, there is no guaranteed entry. Once the venue is full we will not be able to admit any more guests – whether they are on the guestlist or not. Please arrive early to ensure quick & easy entry.”
Needless to say, I was disappointed that the sanctity of Boiler Room had been marred by improper venue management. The venue was truly over capacity. I could barely hear the music and subsequently, I did not enjoy myself. Chewing the metaphorical sour grape, I did not bother to watch the livestream of the event until many moons later. A few weeks later, the reputation of The Alchemist would be called into question by numerous counts of racism by the venue staff, and overly-aggressive bouncers, whose aggression mostly only targeted black folk.
BOILER ROOM 2023
For this Boiler Room edition, I piggy-backed on a friend’s plus 1. The venue was set at The Mall in Westlands, a welcomed reprieve from the chaos and micro-aggressions of The Alchemist. I attended the first day of panel discussions moderated by music journalist Tela Wangeci, Curator and DJ Coco Em, DJs Huilly Huille and DJ Shock of Santuri East Africa, the artist Bakhita, and Radio 254 founder Njukia Kiuri. They discussed the worrisome question of why Kenya has no sound, the tenets of East African club music, female representation in the growing scenes, and opening up creative spaces for the marginalized within society.
On dancefloor day, I got there at 4 p.m., three hours earlier than gate time. By 7 p.m., the previous year’s demons had respawned. Bodies packed like a slave ship. The lines occupied all the width and length of the levels three and four of The Mall’s parking. The rooftop of The Mall was packed with possibly every youth in Nairobi with an instagram account and an affinity for the live-streamed event.
The night started with Monateng Music, a DJ duo comprising of DJ Miss Ray and Avocado The DJ. The duo kicked off their set with a twinge of nostalgia with the 2005 Kenyan classic by Kleptomaniax, ‘Haree’, before diving into a progressive Afro-House set.
Then came Coco Em’s set, largely Afro-House with traditional elements of Rhumba, Taarab, as well as the classic Kenyan anthem from the early 2000s for that dose of nostalgia.
Brandy Maina’s live performance was up next. The songstress had her meteoric rise during the COVID-19 pandemic as her popularity, which had grown on TikTok, graduated from social media to the airwaves. After Brandy came my favorite DJ set of the night, DJ Boboss and his homemade turntables.
Boboss was one of the most unconventional and greatest Boiler Room sets I have ever witnessed. A street performer and Tik Tok sensation, DJ Boboss’ turntables are a creation of his own, made from recycled E-waste and the odd cutlery set. With the occasional spoon, he maneuvered his way through the set with steely innovation and passion. An experience reminiscent of the resident DJs in local bars at lay-over towns in Kenya’s interior. Boboss’ set was the quintessential spirit of the everyday Kenyan.
A live performance by rapper Boutross came after. As I write this, Boutross is arguably one of Kenya’s biggest hitmakers. His track ‘Angela’ currently sits at 4.2 million views on Youtube and is one of the most replayed tracks on radio. As a beloved artist, it’s safe to say his performance at Boiler Room was well-received by a crowd belting his lyrics word for word.
I’m old. My feet gave in and I willingly left the venue knowing that security did not permit re-entry. I watched the rest of the performances online. DJ-IV played an energetic amapiano mix while Budalagi and [MONRHEA] both performed bass-infused techno sets.
Reactions on Twitter the next day were mixed. While some loved it, others expressed complaints about racism at the door, poor people handling, and some believing that Boiler Room still did not do its due diligence when it comes to Kenyan music scenes, instead relying on artists with social media clout and cultural liaisons who may not necessarily be immersed in those respective scenes themselves.
Perhaps the theme of this year’s Boiler Room cutting through the various DJ sets could be interpreted as ‘East African club music is not one thing but many things’ especially when you factor in the context of the struggle to define the Kenyan sound.
For all their shortcomings, Boiler Room managed to somewhat archive the evolving scenes in Kenya through the past five years. And while that may not be worth standing in line for hours with the possibility that you still may not access the event, it’s worth something.