In September 2020 as the seedlings of drill music were just beginning to sprout in Kenya, Nairobi emcee MANDY dropped her video for Shash Na Lipgloss; a bad b*tch anthem that set ablaze any notions of traditional respectability. As she fires off emboldened lyrics of debaucherous escapades across Nairobi, her gang of girls posts up around her toting Christian Dior handbags. The song helped cement her already burgeoning career and has been embraced by a generation of young Kenyans who are exhausted by constrained representations of femininity. As Kenyan drill (and Kenyan hip-hop culture generally) leaps farther into national and international spotlights, the success of artist’s like MAANDY underlines a legacy of radical work that femme rappers have been doing since the 90s of expanding the possibility of Kenyan womanhood through their musical and aesthetic messaging.
Within Africa, Kenya stands out as an industry with a rich and far-reaching legacy of women in hip-hop. Even as the musical landscape (like in most arenas) in the 254 is still disproportionately influenced by male voices, with each generation since the turn of the century, there have been prominent female voices helping shape the prevailing sounds in the nation. Affectionately called the “First Lady of Hip-Hop,” Nazizi was the first female emcee to garner widespread popularity in the early aughts with her groups Necessary Noize and East African Bashment Crew. Hits like “Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy” and “Bless My Room” were club and radio favourites throughout East Africa and cemented her as one of the premier pop acts in the region. After Nazizi came other stalwart figures like Muthoni Drummer Queen, who has been a champion of alternative music, curating two of Nairobi’s most innovative festivals and spearheading a music business incubator program called perFORM, Fena Gitu, Femi One, and Stella Mwangi, to name a few.
Hip-Hop is significant as a medium because of the spirit of defiance and radical individuality that is at its core. It is an avenue through which Kenyan women have been lauded and uplifted for speaking and acting in ways that were outside rigid traditional notions of femininity. On the hook for Shash Na Lipgloss, for example, MAANDY lists the essentials she keeps in her purse before linking with her friends; shash, lip gloss, an ATM card, and condoms. Such a loud and public expression of sexuality from a young woman stands in defiance to a prevailing culture that typically only rewards modest displays of femininity.
Now, in the internet age, the number of femme rappers working in Kenya is more than can be mentioned in this article. Even on the business side of things, there are people like Ruby V, who founded Unkut Hip-Hop Awards; the nation’s first award show honouring specifically hip-hop musicians. But even with all of these achievements, things are still far from ideal. The industry is still largely a boys club, where cis-male acts are thought of first by gatekeepers doling out opportunities and routinely paid more than their female counterparts regardless of metrics. This year, as Boiler x Ballantine’s True Music series in Nairobi celebrates and discusses the rise of Kenyan Drill, it also aims to centre the voices of women who are continuing to elevate Kenyan culture through rap while demystifying the harmful myths of a deeply patriarchal mainstream culture. In this piece, we spoke to three trailblazers of Kenyan hip-hop, music journalist Tela Wangeci, DJ IV, and rapper Steph to get their perspective on the state of the scene and what they would like to see more of from the community.