It’s the year 2003.
We spend all our free time in [Redacted] Boys High School huddled up listening to Kiss 100. Ogopa Deejays have taken over the airwaves. Through the illegally smuggled Palito auto scan radio sets, we listen to E-sir and Nameless’s Boomba Train, Nameless and Amani’s Ninanoki, Wahu’s Liar, Kleptomaniax’s Haree, Mr. Googz and Vinnie Banton’s Tumetoka Githurai; all produced at the South B based studio run by brothers Francis and Lucas Bikedo, and manager Banda. The music is good, but there is something that doesn’t sit right within me, something that carries through all these songs, something that registers as a yearning, a desire for more.
Other studios are doing their best to create an alternative sound. Clemo’s Calif Records have their Genge sound with the likes of Nonini and Jua Cali, Mandugu Digital go for a more traditional hip hop sound with songs by Washukiwa and Black Duo, as well as Samawati Records with artists like K-South (Bamboo and Abbas). At Blu Zebra, Tedd Josiah feels it is necessary to make a comeback, to loosen the grip Ogopa has on the music industry. “We realised that we had left too much room for Ogopa to mess around.” Tedd Josiah says in a CTA interview. “We sat down and said we have to make a counter-attack so bad that people will shut up.” The counter-attack is Necessary Noize II: Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy, an album that would mark its place firmly in Kenyan music history.
The existence of other studios with disparate styles helps me understand the unsettling feeling I’ve been having towards Ogopa Deejays’ music. The airwaves are saturated with the same sound: a kick plays steady half notes as a snare fills in syncopated beats. The sound is monotonous, and this monotony is aptly given the onomatopoeic name Kapuka. So ubiquitous is Kapuka, that Samawati Records’ K-South release Kapuka This criticising it.
“Kila wakati Kapu-kapuka
Mpaka saa ngapi Kapu-kapuka
Mpaka tenje imechomeka amp
I can’t stand hizo ma-chant zimekwisha fashion kama nywele za perm.”
Tedd Josiah and Necessary Noize know that whatever they are working on has to be as good as, or better than, Kapuka.
The second album starts like the first. A disembodied voice speaks as in the beginning of Clang Clang. There are slight, but noticeable, differences. For one, the voice speaks Sheng instead of English. This shift in delivery is not insignificant. Sheng is the people’s language and early on, the album promises to be for the people. A few minutes in, it is clear that unlike the first album where waters were being tested and a sound was being introduced, the group is confident in their abilities, and to whom their music belongs. The album commits to give: “Noise, more noise. Round hii ni six thousand degrees of mayhem. Skiza tu.”
Hawawezi Understand, the first track on the album, offers reprieve from the cloying Kapuka sound with which we have been inundated. The album is a call back to the previous one with Tedd Josiah and Necessary Noize using the “if it ain’t broke” approach. The song starts with an assortment of percussion sounds laid on a soft bhangra beat. Nazizi comes in with the hook. Her voice is familiar like home, like nostalgia, like ah yes, It’s nice to be back.
While in the first album the lyrics were mostly about their experiences as new artists and young people trying to thrive in and survive Nairobi, Nazizi and Wyre are a bit more self aware in this new album, more sure of what they have done and can do with their music. In the first verse Wyre sings: “Muda tuliwapa, lakini hakuna / Aliyechukua tuliyo waachia / Nikama funzo bado twawapa”. Nazizi’s verse is similar in intent. She apologises for their two year absence where we haven’t “witnessed the illness”. Her whole verse is an acknowledgment of her growth, and an affirmation that she is better (than most).
It’s not easy for a second album to be bigger than the first. Necessary Noize II: Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy is.
By this time, Mike Rabar and David Muriithi who worked with Tedd Joisah at Audio Vault have parted ways to work on individual projects, and Wyre, who is now a full time producer, works with Tedd to set up Blu Zebra. As the group is working on their second album, Bamzigi, who is under pressure to go back to school, announces his desire to leave. The previous album had experienced some delays because of Nazizi and Bamzigi’s school schedules and this time Bamzigi does not want to be the cause of any delay. Bamzigi leaves the group, contrary to popular belief, amicably. For this reason, The African Superman features on one song in the album: Nishamtabua featuring Didge and Atemi.
Atemi has already been in the music industry having worked on different projects, and with different artists, at Audio Vault, as well as on her own songs as half of the duo In Tu. Didge, who had come to the studio with his manager looking to be signed as a rapper, has been advised to drop rapping and take up singing after Ted listens to his audition and is struck by how well he sings. Didge would go on to work on RnB classics like Saa Zingine and Kita Ngoma. Having spent a lot of time together in the studio, Atemi and Didge’s chemistry is undeniable.
In his On Music reflection in the Paris Review, David S. Wallace writes, “I think the best love songs are simple. They’re simple because love isn’t, simple because we need to dream a little.” Nishamtambua is a love song made beautiful by its simplicity, and its ability to build on existing histories. Similar to Msenangu which features Idd Aziz and samples music from the coast (Hinde by African Vibration), Nishamtambua samples Asha Abdow aka Bi Malika’s taarab classic Vidonge.
The song answers the question: What do you get when you put two of Kenya’s best vocalists in one song? Bamzigi’s only verse on this album is mellow, slow, and tidy. Uncharacteristically, he raps in sheng. His verse sets the stage for Atemi and Didge who sing the chorus, to use internet parlance, as if the rent was due. Didge’s harmonies in Nazizi’s and Wyre’s verses are glorious, but the cherry on this melodious sundae is the bridge where Didge and Atemi’s voices flow into and over each other, seemingly trying and outdo the other but failing, succeeding only in edifying the other.
Nishamtambua makes me want to fall in love again.
- Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy
Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy is the first single recorded and released for the second album. It is a song meant to hit back at Ogopa Deejays and offer an alternative to Kapuka. And in the timeline of Kenyan music, it is a moment. The song starts with a dedication:
“Hii track, inaenda kwa wadhii wote wa mathree: dere wa mathree, konda wa mathree, pia kama unapanda mathree…”
And since it is 2003 and matatus are the embodiment of urban Kenya life, Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy captures the spirit of a people and a time. In his CTA interview, Tedd Josiah says, “Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy [was] about that urban vibe that we have in Nairobi that we have nowhere else.”
One of the strong dichotomies in [Redacted] Boys High School was between people born in Nairobi, those who were not. So important was this categorisation that some closing days saw fights between the two groups. Within these two categories, were sub-categories. In the Nairobi group, for example, there were Wanati (mostly from Easlands) and Mababi (from the estates west of Eastlands). Another one was whether you were from Nairobi province (the estates) or, like me, from the peri-urban neighbourhoods. I grew up in Rongai, which means that I was considered a “Nai” person in school, but an outsider in the “Nai” group. But there were two things we had in common: we suffered the same fate in the Nairobi vs Rest of Kenya wars, and we all took Matatus to and from Nairobi. Matatus were the only thing that marked our difference as “born taos” and so when my favourite musicians sang a song about Nairobi matatus, the “born taos” were one point up in the culture wars.
At the end of the song, Nazizi lists all the (in)famous Nairobi matatu routes: 23 Westlands, 44/45 Githurai. 58 Buruburu/Outering, 11 South C/South B, 8 Kibera, 9 Eastleigh/California, and 15 Lang’ata. The first time I heard this song, I thought that was it. I thought she would only mention the truly Nairobi routes. But then she continues, “pia 125, 126”. Ongata Rongai and Kiserian. One of my favourite quotes from writer Akwaeke Emezi is this: “Understand this if you understand nothing: it is a powerful thing to be seen.”
So high was my pride that when we did the KCSE Mock exams to determine our exam index numbers, my world was shattered when I found out that my KCSE index number was 124 and not 125, or at the very least 126.
When the song was released on The Beat, it was clear that they were back, and for some of us, we could finally enjoy something more than Ogopa’s Ka-kapuka. The sound was different, fresh, relevant, and real. It was what we had been waiting for, and it was a beautiful way to see each other, and to be seen. Necessary Noize had, once more, given us something that was truly ours.
Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy is so successful that it overshadows other equally great songs. One such song is Tension.
Following their successful formula of unexpected collaborations, Necessary Noize reach out to Tanzanian rapper Jaymoe. Bongo is big. Artists like AY, Professor Jay, Mangwea have taken over the airwaves. Tedd, true to himself, could have picked any of the household names, but he goes for an artist who is just as good but not as known as the rest. They work together and produce Tension.
By this time I have finished highschool. The first overnight concert I’m allowed to attend is a concert at Ngong’ Racecourse where Necessary Noize are headlining. I’m attending with my friend Kiach. Before the concert, Vicky, the third of our trio, comes to my house with an original Necessary Noize II cd. He leaves me with it and I listen to it religiously and I can’t get enough of Tension.
The song is reminiscent of the duo’s (Bamzigi is no longer part of the group) earlier songs. Nazizi, in the first verse sounds like she did in Ni Sawa. Her voice carries the same sincerity, lamenting the tensions of life. Wyre has grown into his dancehall style, and his is also a lamentation. He sings about his frustrations, from his inability to meet his love interest’s demands, to being ghosted, to being cheated on, to meeting a love interest’s strict father. There is tension everywhere.
Around this time, my interest in writing has grown and I have shifted from writing raps to writing poems, and then to short fiction and essays. I spend a lot of time reading Oyunga Pala and Kate Getao and slowly, I am starting to see myself as a writer. Throughout the song, Nazizi and Wyre have been lamenting about the usual things: brokenness, unrequited love, strict parents, issues everyone at that age can relate to. But when Jaymoe’s verse starts, his first line captures something bigger than anything I had thought of as important. He says, “naandikaje rhymes sina mistari kila mstari naundika nauona si mzuri.” The young writer in me once again feels seen. I play Jaymoe’s verse countless times. Yes to everything that gives us tension, but this one? This one’s for me.
- Siku Nikifa
As I write this, the death toll in Shakahola is at 83. Once again, and not unusually, I am thinking about death, and about something I recently read. In the podcast Keeping it 100: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion, Islamic historian Professor Ali A. Olomi says, “we either raise the dead so that we can see that we are just like them, or we lay the ghosts of our past down.” His words invite me to move beyond death as an abstract concept, and to focus my thoughts on the dead.
I am frustrated by two ways of framing this unfortunate case. The first, is the focus on Pastor Mackenzie as this monster and terrorist who single handedly orchestrated a massacre, and second, the portrayal of the victims as gullible, weak, and foolish. Both these frames ignore the humanity of these people, people, as Keguro writes, who had lives, occupations, dreams, communities and relations.
Siku Nikifa is a letter from Nazizi and Wyre to their loved ones, and their fans. Through the song, they speculate life after their deaths and what it should mean. The song reminds me of the life that comes before death, the work, the dreams, the desires, the aspirations, the frustrations, the communing and relating. The second verse, Nazizi’s starts with a demand: “Siku nikifa, Wyre, Didge na Tedd Josiah, msisahau how we used to take Nairobi higher.” When I die, remember what we did, the life we lived.
Siku Nikifa was timely. We had just lost E-sir and K-rupt and we were still mourning the loss of these two great artists. The slow, sombre song allows us to sit with the grief all around us, to mourn, and, as Professor Olomi says, “to reawaken the ghosts, or the dead that have been silenced, forgotten, to remind us to say, look, there is a real person here.”
- Bonus Track: Forever
It has been 20 years since Necessary Noize released Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy. I don’t think I have ever felt like Necessary Noize owed me more music. I have received new music over the years with gratitude, like when they worked with Bebe Cool to form East African Bashment Crew, but I have always seen it as a gift and not something owed. Necessary Noize started with a vision to create something important, something lasting. And it also started as three young musicians wanting to create something with what they had and to have fun along the way. In their own way, they gave us two of the most well done albums in Kenyan music history, including songs like Juu and Bless My Room.
I include Forever in this playlist as a way to write back to Necessary Noize, to tell them, “sijawahi noki [msanii mwingine] vile nimekunoki uko moyoni na tena hautoki, nitakupenda walahi mi sichoki Alhamdulillah, Jah nimefurahi.” To tell them thank you, for the music, and the good times, and to say, as someone who has been there since the beginning, Necessary Noize is forever.