Late one July night in 2020, I clicked on a link that someone had shared on Twitter. I do not remember the contents of the tweet, but I remember that it was during the pandemic and I had been staying up late because we were on summer break and I was anxious about how the pandemic was being handled back home. To keep from losing my mind, I spent a lot of time on social media and YouTube. The link took me to a video that I first thought was some sort of parody.
The first thing I see is the awkwardness in the subject’s face. It is a familiar awkwardness. The subject, a teenage boy of about 16, licks his lips too much, moves his hands in a way that says, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with these hands”, and stares into the camera in that “act natural” way that never looks natural. He is dressed in a red and black polo shirt, a pair of jeans, and Nike sneakers. Next to where he sits is a laundry basket (why is there a laundry basket in the shot?) I don’t even realise it yet, but I am smiling hard. I am smiling hard because this video is a time machine. As I sit there in the dark watching this young rapper, I am taken to a time lost somewhere in the labyrinth of my mind, a time in the past: the era of 4T1.
It’s 2003. I am wearing a pair of grey Connate trousers cut one inch at the hem to create a bell bottom effect, a grey sweater with the [Redacted] Boys High School logo and motto (Discipline, Determination, Dedication, and Diligence) screen printed on the left breast, a crisp blue shirt underneath the sweater, and a pair of black suede Hansons. For those who know, the Hansons already tell you that this is a special day. This is the day that I have my first real “gig”.
I say gig, but what it really is is a six minute slot in the entertainment section of a Journalism Club rally. I’m not in the Journalism Club but somehow I have managed to convince someone to put my name on the list in exchange for a performance. It’s not hard to do so because at school I am kind of a big deal and have made a name for myself as a rapper. Memory eludes me. I do not remember what people do/did in Journalism Club rallies but soon we are all in the hall.
I can’t remember how many schools are invited but the hall is a bouquet of colour: green, red, brown, grey ties, and skirts, and trousers, and sweaters. There is music playing from the large speakers placed on either end of the stage and some boys are having a dance competition to see who can shake their belt buckles the hardest. My waist has never been able to move like that no matter how big the buckle. The boys move their waists, and everyone else screams and cheers them on like some strange adolescent ritual. I watch them from a distance because I am there but not there.
After a short while of dancing and screaming and cheering, the MC walks on stage and begs for silence. A murmur remains as she reads the day’s programme and then she ends by saying, “moving on to the first performer of the day. This rapper is in Form 2 at [Redacted] Boys High School…” I do not hear anything else she says in her introduction because my heart is racing and my brain is telling me that this is a bad idea. She calls my name (my government name) and I do that weird jog on stage that rappers do in concert videos. I take the microphone and I’m surprised at how cold and heavy it is. There is a light murmur as I stand there and take everything in. All I remember of this moment is that I am afraid, and when I lift the microphone to my mouth I am not.
Six minutes later, after two back to back acapella songs, I catch my breath, and say, “thank you very much, Journalism Club. I hope to see you next time. My name is 4T1.”
There are many details about the day that have been erased over time, but as I watch the music video many years later, the memories come flooding in the form of recognition. I recognise the awkwardness as fear, as a young person probably afraid in, and of, this world, but also I recognise the moments where there is no fear. And you can tell that he is unafraid when he raps. There is this confidence in his delivery, this assurance of skill. He knows he has something to say and he is saying it. The song is fantastic, but it is the bridge that arrests me.
By this time, in the video, he is at a party. Here, more comfortable, in his element, surrounded by people, he smiles like he knows that what he is about to say will blow your mind and then the words come:
“Peleka na mtrrr… peleka na mtaratara
Usilete hapa machrrr… manguna vitu chwarachwara
Mi huteka maprrr… mamdogo huwa maprincess
Magyala ni wapeng wanafaa kupostiwa kwa pinterest.”
And then he changes the flow with a word that serves as a punctuation, a break, a moment the psalmist would refer to as selah:
An invitation to stop and listen.
I listen to that part over and over, marvelling. He is young, but his skill is mature, he knows language and he is comfortable with it. His body might betray uncertainty, but his words do not. He reminds me of the many artists I loved when I was his age, when I was 4T1, artists, who like me, and him, were in high school: El Tezzy, Mr. Blue, Kleptomaniax, C’zars. After countless plays I look for more music from him. There isn’t much, but there is Big Ting (Intro) which starts with an announcement: “Trio troublemaker mi ni big ting / only 16 doing big tings”, and ends with another: “Technique iko fiti imekita mizizi / napity marapper wanakam after mimi / nasafisha jiji utoto ni mingi …
When I think of Trio Mio, I try not to situate my thoughts on his academic performance the way the media has throughout his career. A cursory search will reveal our obsession with Trio Mio’s exam results. In an interview with media personality and Lang’ata MP Phelix Odiwuor alias Jalang’o, Trio evades every question asked about his exam results. When the interviewer pushes, he says, “I got what I got.” In the interview, Trio says that one of the comments that offended him the most was one that asked why his exam results are trending more than his music. But of course this was in no way Trio Mio’s doing. Kenyans have a sadistic fascination with exams and failure. Even the video where Jalango eventually postures himself as anything but an antagonist to Trio Mio titles his video: Trio Mio KCSE Exam! He knows that many Kenyans will click on the link to affirm their suspicions that Trio Mio failed and will therefore not amount to anything in life. It is a strange contradiction: to be the ones who talk about talent and gifts and skills, and that we shouldn’t pin our worth on exam results, and still, the country which almost grinds to a halt over exam results. These contradictions, Wandia Njoya says, “point to a country that is deeply conflicted about itself. We Kenyans are inauthentic and sadistic. We care less for who we actually are and prefer to stick to a make-believe narrative about ourselves, a narrative that is based on fake websites and international (read Anglo-American) recognition.”
But the panic is by design. In a society where education is seen as a pathway to success, it is no wonder that we are obsessed with exams. We see exams as the gateway to “a good life”, and where there is a gate there will often be a guard to ensure that only the chosen few pass through. In the last national examinations, only about 19% of all candidates got a grade that allows them to study at the university. If you consider other factors that affect university enrollment, that statistic reduces drastically. Education, consequently, becomes a reserve of the few: those who can afford it, and those who are lucky. Thus the need for voices that call to the government and Kenyans to rethink our ideas on education. Although, in a country such as ours, rethinking education is itself almost an impossible task. Damion Searls, in his essay Back To School With the Übermensch, reminds me of what many Kenyans have said in regards to rethinking education: “To those who believe such things, “any education that makes a person go his own way, or that suggests goals above and beyond earning money, or that takes a lot of time,” is anathema. They hate, in other words, any true education.”
What is this true education?
When I started working as a teacher, I made it a point to read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed with my students. At the beginning of each semester, we’d set aside one class where we would discuss Chapter 2 where Paulo Freire talks about the banking concept of education as an instrument for oppression. This was important for two reasons: First, I knew that most of my students came from high schools where the teacher was the “narrating subject” and the students were merely the “patient, listening objects.” This kind of relationship, as Freire describes, “leads the student to mechanically memorise the narrated content” turning them into “containers, receptacles to be filled by the teacher.” And second, it was important because I needed them to think of this banking concept as a mirror of the oppressive systems in the world and lead us into a space where we could imagine education as a liberatory practice. How could the sessions we had together imagine or even lead us closer to freedom? One of the people we thought with as a way of answering that question was Nina Simone. When asked what freedom means to her, she says, “It means no fear.” In that session, my students would think of ways in which education can be oppressive, and together we would think of an education where there was no fear, where “the teacher is not merely the one who teaches, but one who is [themself] taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach.”
In [Redacted] Boys High School, I don’t remember a class where the teacher facilitated a session where I thought of myself in relation to the world. This is not entirely true. Some of my teachers told me things about myself in relation to the world. Some said I would never amount to anything with the grades I had. Others said I never took anything seriously and would therefore never be taken seriously, while others just didn’t say anything which is just the same as saying something to a teenager under your guidance. Even our imagining of the world, the ways we existed in and with the world, was based on the realities and narratives given to us by the teachers, and any attempt to speak of one’s own reality would be met with accusations of being a mjuaji. In all my four years at [Redacted] Boys High School I was never involved in dialogue with my teachers, and this, I hoped, was not going to be repeated in my classes.
A liberatory education, one whose goal is freedom, and one that Paulo Freire calls a “problem-posing education” grounds itself “on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action towards reality.”
I often wonder what direction my life would have taken had I had this kind of education earlier in life. This is an unfair question also because I am lucky to have found teachers who believed in liberation later on in my life. But it is also an important question because it invites me to think of possibility, and there is a huge possibility that I would have been as fearless as the teen I watched on YouTube that cold July night in 2020.
I am being careful not to project too much of my life and expectations on Trio Mio, but Trio Mio is the sort of student I would have been honoured to teach. I would have loved to have conversations where I would listen to his thoughts on the world and his place in it. I would have enjoyed talking about music, the things that interested him and why. And I would have been delighted to write with him, to think together with other writers, and to play with language in one of our writing workshops.
In January, Kiss 100 presenters Chito Ndhlovu and Cyd Wambui had a conversation on air speculating on the rapper’s exam results. I will not repeat what they said here because it is the usual sadistic nonsense we do with exams. In response Trio Mio recorded a song that encapsulates a part of what Paulo Freire says about problem-posing education, that “it also enables people to overcome their false perception of reality” or as Wandia Njoya would put it, allows us the capacity to form our own narratives and to believe that our stories are enough.
In S’kosi Usingizi, Trio Mio reminds us of who he is, and that he is enough.
Education must go beyond exams and into a more humane experience where human beings are much more than numbers and letters on a piece of paper, and where we do not need to create categories like the “talent/academics” binary. A good teacher knows that rap music should not be thought of as separate from Trio Mio’s education, and if you sit down and listen to his music, you will see an education.