It is a hot afternoon right in the heart of Westlands when a youngin’ bemuses a bunch of suits. “This is the future. Gengetone has nothing on drill. Listen! Listen to the flow, the lyrics. Sikiza hio beat. Imeweza,” he remarked, flipping through videos of Kenyan drillers. To make his point – that drill was making a global takeover – he occasionally circled back to British and American drillers for reference, not forgetting to do a humble brag by playing his new single, that he hoped would become a hit someday. A long monologue ensued. We were getting schooled, as the streets would say.
As the young man called it a day and left the Westlands office for his home in Kayole, one thing was clear; he was part of a hungry and tenacious generation which was willing to risk it all. A representation of Gen Z’s eagerness for a voice of their own, he like many of his peers aren’t afraid of experimenting with sound, weaving it to tell their truth the best way they know how, weighed down by unemployment, crime, and corruption.
Once again, here’s the arrival of yet another genre reaffirming the fact that much as the Kenyan music scene has survived the test of time, there’s still room to improvise and innovate.
Hip hop mimicries unraveled in the form of Kapuka in the ‘90s while Genge rocked the 2000s and in-between, an Apocrypha of some kind to be forgotten when Nigeria’s Afrobeats and Bongo Flavour claimed the dance floors and matatus alike.
That was until a burgeoning genre of riotous music came to the rescue in 2017, reclaiming space for Kenyan music in the charts and satiating the ever thirsty Nairobi party scene. This is how Gengetone arrived, propelled to fame by the #PlayKeMusic wave.
Characterized by an on-your-face ratchetness characterized by obscene lyrics, raunchy music videos and eccentric beats, the new sound was a rebirth of sorts considering its mass appeal.
But then it seemed like the creative toy bug had bitten multiple groupings simultaneously.
As Kenyans wrapped their heads around the ominous music, Drill, yet another new sound was sneaking into the airwaves. Defined by its up-beat and distinctive sense of style featuring masks and balaclavas – and no, this isn’t part of the Covid-19 protocols – the genre’s practitioners are believed to have resorted to such camouflaging antics in pursuit of anonymity from law enforcement agencies, rival gangs and unapproving family.
Much like Gengetone, Drill is a cauldron of energy and socially-conscious lyrics conveyed in Sheng, often making audacious statements on the happenings in society around politics, sex and money.
The new standard template of simplistic yet raw videos and sordid lyrics give Drill the upbeat vibe that is a mix of Trap and Gengetone, such that if one lacks a keen ear for music then they are bound to confuse one for the other. The boundaries between the two sounds are becoming increasingly blurred.
Drill’s gang-culture-esque content and props traces its roots to the Crime-ridden South Side of Chicago where it originated in the early 2010s. A subgenre of hip hop characterised by dark domineering beats, violent lyrical content, deadpan delivery and often related to gangs, Drill obtained international notoriety from Chicago-born rapper Chief Keef, who went viral in 2012 with the track ‘I Don’t Like’.
However, the genesis of Drill is linked to Chicago street rapper Pac Man’s track “It’s a Drill Man.”
Pac Man was killed in 2010.
Brandishing guns and knives while overtly partaking in booze and narcotics while making murderous references and shout-outs to gangs, Drill’s global signature has become its embodiment of the uncomfortable realities of a dangerous lifestyle in the hood. With its proponents enjoying a palpable camaraderie regardless of where they are in the globe – possibly necessitated by their shared struggles – Drill has gotten a bulging following, earning a place in socio-political discussions while some of its high profile musicians have come under police radar.
Tellingly, Drill, whose slang means ‘shooting’ in hip hop speak, roots its meaning in Al Capone, the quintessential gangster who led The Outfit, a criminal syndicate which doubled in gambling, prostitution, pornography, money laundering, racketeering, loan sharking and drug and alcohol distribution in the South Side of Chicago.
True to the entirety of the culture: the dances, the mentality and language steeped in violence, Kenyan drillers have historicised the vile and tragic violence they continue to witness in their daily lives. Take Wakadinali’s track Nyara Nyara, off their album Victims of Madness which highlights crime and police brutality in the hood:
“Mr, at least try jo kubehave staki damu imwagikie my linen t-shirt Naskia mnanitafuta huh, mpaka mnatifuta kwa duka Stepper me hukanyaga kubwa/Ukikuja sana perhaps utakulwa”
It’s no different in the track Nairobi by Buruklyn Boys’, the self-proclaimed kings of Drill in Kenya known for their flow and cocksure cadence fused with the UK’s frenetic sound.
“Tuko strap na makoro in case hawa manabling wanadai smoke Nipate Juu ya shash napiga moshi huyu bro akinicross namgeuza fossil.”
Natty of G-TA (Githurai Town Anarchy) crew is equally known for his punchy and gritty lyrics that reference crime and murder. Yet what the Kenyan Drillers are doing isn’t alien.
For a long time, hip hop has been associated with blunt truth telling, and the same was true for Kenyan hip hoppers such as Ukoo Flani, the liberationist rappers who rose to fame for their hot takes on various social ills. Becoming the voice for Dandora in the late 90s, Ukoo Flani brought attention to hitherto underserved and overlooked communities.
And just like Ukoo Flani, the Drillers of today use Sheng for their poetics.
But beyond language, there are even deeper similarities.
Wakadinali, a group of politically conscious rappers founded in 2003. Made up of Scar, Domani, and SewerSydaa, the trio is famed for their 2020-released hit song Kuna Siku Youths Wataungana, calling on the youth to speak up and act against political injustice. Dominating the underground hip hop scene for over a decade now, the group has taken a recent liking to the Drill beat. Perhaps a strategy for capturing the current Zeitgeist, Wakadinali could not have picked a better time to be visible.
For many, the instinct is to call the new music all obscenities in the book. But in truth, the new generation rappers serve as a reminder of the dysfunctional society we live in because music often mirrors society. And so the objectification of women in Gengetone and the violent tropes in Drill somewhat signify the state of Kenya today, where misogyny, drugs and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancies, and violence are commonplace.
There are onion-layer levels to what bedevils the times we live in, and while Drill or Gengetone may not fix this, they will undoubtedly go down in history as either part of the triggers of change or artistic spokespeople of this moment.
Armed with phones and access to the internet, these purveyors of a revolution wrapped in lewdness are taking representation into their own hands. The mash-up of unstaged videos encompassing everything that is cool at the moment and the need to be heard has catapulted many to stardom, launching viable careers while spawning an entirely new kind of artistic narrative. Drill may or may not gain footing in Kenya’s mainstream music like Gengetone did. But there is no denying that a form of rebellion is fermenting.