It had been twenty years since I had been to this part of Nairobi. The once smooth road was full of craters that we had to drive right through because one just couldn’t avoid them. Lining the road were countless footpaths that led to five – ten storey residential buildings. In front of us were those ever-present matatus with loud music and louder drivers. Even if you are Lewis Hamilton the Formula One Champion, chances are that they will overtake you.
‘Turn left,’ Frank, leader of the hip-hop group Dandora Music told me. We were headed to the iconic base of hip-hop music in Dandora, a sprawling residential neighbourhood in Nairobi’s Eastlands area.
Gunshots are not uncommon in Dandora. The guns are sometimes wielded by young men in their teens. In another life, they could have been serving customers in a bank instead of robbing it or writing this article instead of being its unsavoury subject. That other life can still be in this life. After all, young men like Frank, who grew up in Dandora have refused to be defined by crime and have instead risen above it through melody.
After taking the left turn, my mind leaps into the nineties. I remember Roba, who was one-third of the legendary Kalamashaka hip-hop group. He had been my school mate back in High School and none of us could have guessed back then that in just a few years, he would be a household name in Kenya as part of a group that pioneered hip-hop in Kenya and the wider East African region.
‘Tafsiri hii, maisha kule ghetto ni magumu sana...’ Translate this, life in the ghetto is very difficult. This was part of the chorus of Tafsiri hii, Kalamashaka’s biggest hit. I remember listening to that song over and over and telling everyone who cared to listen that I had schooled with members of the famous group.
About a year or so after Kalamashaka shot to fame, a hip-hop collective known as Ukoo Fulani Mau Mau was formed in Dandora. The parents of an upcoming hip-hop musician donated the small plot of land next to their house to the collective. It became the literal birthplace of most of Kenya’s hip-hop musicians like MC-Kah, Wenyeji and many more. Many of their music videos featured the hip-hop base whose revolutionary graffiti and paintings of people like Malcom-X turned it into hallowed hip-hop ground.
When we finally arrive at the hip-hop base, I park hurriedly and jump out of the car. I am about to see a venue that I have seen countless times in music videos. This tiny plot of land in Dandora is to Kenyan hip-hop what the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama is to the African-American civil rights movement. Just as Selma was the physical womb that birthed or triggered the civil rights movement back in 1965, the Dandora hip-hop base unleashed unprecedented lyrical talent into East Africa’s musical scene.
‘Karibu Bwak,’ welcome Bwak, Frank says as he ushers me into the base. Directly in front of me, Malcom X’s graffiti is staring sternly at me. Notorious BIG, Tupac Shakur and Emperor Haile Selassie are also welcoming me to the Base. I am in great company.
Without warning, the younger members of Dandora Music hip-hop group begin rapping a song about inspiration. I feel inspired to be in Dandora’s musical footsteps and can only pray that this Base will become a living memorial that will be a part of the Kenya’s official physical heritage monuments. Indeed, Dandora is much more than crime. It is the birthplace of hip-hop in this part of the world.