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SHASH NA LIPGLOSS: PERSPECTIVES FROM KENYAN WOMEN IN RAP

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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 Henessy bottles and 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.

Tela Wangeci Interview

  1. How has your journey been in hip-hop thus far?

It has been an interesting learning experience. There are days when you think you know everything while on some days you feel like everything is new. The support from the industry has also been immense! I love the collaborations we are getting to experience each day.

 

  1. What was your first exposure to Kenyan Drill?

It has to be Morio Anzeza by Wakadinali back then I didn’t even know it was a drill beat. I was honestly surprised. I, later on, heard Rong by Natty then Nairobi by Buruklyn Boyz but I actually became a drill fan after listening to “Ulalaa” by Big Yasa and Davaji

 

  1. What do you think is special about Kenyan drill that makes it so exportable?

We have managed to use Kenyan slang hence creating a Kenyan image for drill. Also the fandom is quite dedicated. The authenticity of the genre enables the youth to get raw with their emotions and thoughts in their delivery.

 

  1. What do you feel/think about when you listen to Shash na lipgloss by MAANDY?

The dark 808 beat’s always get me! I can never get enough of it. MAANDY is kabaya and she made the word come alive with the lyricism of the song. It screams female empowerment and freedom. It constantly encourages me to break the gender norms set by the African community.

 

  1. Kenya has an unprecedented number of women in hip-hop both from past and present (Nazizi, MDQ, Fena, Steph the Rapper, Ssaru, Vallerie Muthoni Femi One, etc.) Do you feel like this makes it easier to navigate and find support in the industry?

Not really. As much as we try to evade the gender conversation, it takes a minute before women are treated equally in the game. There is always unnecessary competition from both men and women in the industry. I always believe your principles and ethics will get you where you need to be. Luckily the upcoming generation of women is turning out to be more supportive. We have women such as Camille Storm, and Ruby V mentoring upcoming females in the industry. We have more collaborations between the women in the industry from various genres. Valerie Muthoni and  MAANDY are great examples.

 

  1. ​​Can you speak to the role that Hip-Hop has played in resisting the harmful patriarchal values that govern much of Kenyan society? Would you say drill music is continuing with this work?

Hip-Hop has provided a space for women since time immemorial. From Nazizi who made it okay to have a tomboyish look to Lady S who was sultry yet witty in crafting her lines. At the moment the scene is offering much more. We are having female cyphers (Shout out to King Kaka for Round 3 cypher) we are also having stylists such as Luca emerging. This brings a harmonious relationship to the ecosystem. More women are indulging in the business side of music assisting artists and documenting the steps as they grow. It has shifted from only having male-centred conversations in Hip Hop to the current state where we are having HipHop heads such as Ruby V head ciphers, something seen as more inclined to men.

 

  1. What would you like to see more of in Kenya’s hip-hop industry?

Interest in learning what the whole craft contains. Hip Hop is not an easy genre to sell especially to the  Kenyan community. The hip-hop industry needs to step up to not only make money but also to build a tenacious catalogue to assist the upcoming acts. We need more people in the business side of music, not only in the studios.

 

  1. How do you go about building community in your creative endeavours?

I believe my mission is to spread the Kenyan sound to the world. With that in mind, I do my best to put Kenyan artists on a pedestal. This includes featuring them in regional and international online publications. This enables them to reach a wider audience. Apart from that, I curate music for a weekly show on Radio 254 which aims to spread Kenyan music to the international community.

 

  1. What excites you most about the state of Kenyan hip-hop?

I love the fact that we can accommodate new sounds! When Shrap came up everyone was sceptical stating it wouldn’t last. Well, look at Boutross 14 years later. The adaptation of drill and crafting it to fit the Kenyan palate is genre-bending and the fandom can bear testimony to that. I am also loving the ad-libs, oh my gosh these things are everything and wholesome. We have more collaborations between artists and corporations. I love to see it.

 

  1. What is your vision for the future? What part do you hope to play in it?

My vision for the future is a space where we can discuss the role Kenyan music has played in the acceptance of African sounds. I hope to play a part by being the bridge that connects the media and the Kenyan creatives. This is through curation of music, learning the business aspect, and writing timeless pieces that bring the restless creative artist into a spotlight.

DJ IV Interview

  1. What was you first exposure to Kenyan Drill?

Listening to Steph definitely made me take a deeper interest in Kenyan Drill.

 

  1. What do you think is special about Kenyan drill that makes it so exportable?

It is quite relatable because it mirrors society in all its complexities

 

  1. What do you feel/think about when you listen to Shash na lipgloss by MAANDY?

I feel like a baddie! Like I could get anything I desire out of this life. It hypes me up!

 

  1. Kenya has an unprecedented number of women in hip-hop both from past and present (Nazizi, MDQ, Fena, Steph the Rapper, Ssaru, Vallerie Muthoni Femi One etc.) Do you feel like this makes it easier at all to navigate and find support in the industry?
    Yes because up & coming acts have people to look up to for inspiration.

 

  1. What would you like to see more of in Kenya’s hip hop industry?

More collaborations and support from community & hopefully the government

 

  1. How do you go about building community in your creative endeavours? Networking, attending seminars and conventions as well as utilising social media.

 

  1. What excites you most about the state of Kenyan hip-hop?

The quality of sound and visuals has immensely improved and that’s something to give credit for. The existing collabs between producers, artists & videographers is also something to highly appreciate. They’re changing the game.

STEPH Interview

  1. How has your journey been in hip-hop thus far?

Is there a difference between hip hop and rap? Because I think I’m a rapper as opposed to a hip hop artist. I feel that they aren’t the same thing, but I also can’t articulate why I think that is. In any case, my journey so far has been one full of discovery. It’s always interesting to learn something new.

2. What was your first exposure to Kenyan Drill?

Other than myself, I think the next thing I heard was ‘Rong’ by Natty after someone tagged me on a tweet. I thought ‘Wow. I love it. This is really dope. Finally…finally.’ It was refreshing to see another artist venture into the sound and add their own unique stamp on it.

3. What do you think is special about Kenyan drill that makes it so exportable?

I think what will make it exportable is our lingo, our unique stories, our street fashion, our dance moves, our rap flows. Drill isn’t just a genre of music, it’s a subculture. So what will draw international audiences to it is if we blend these things together in our own original way. There can only ever be one Unknown T, etc so we’re better off not duplicating his style if we want to cultivate a global appeal. Right now, I feel as though we’re on our way there. If we do all of that and then also start collaborating with the drill artists from overseas that have inspired us, then we’ll be good to go. As it stands, I only know of me who’s done the collaboration bit, and that was with Skartel, an original member of Splash Gang which is one of the first ever drill groups from the UK. We need more of that cross pollination.

4. What’s your relationship to drill? Do you plan to continue experimenting with the sound?

Drill is my love, that’s bae, that’s gang. I’ve been about it for years. And that’s purely because I know what being a part of that community & having the opportunity for pure expression & cultural exchange has meant for me as an artist and even just as a person. I’m indebted to drill. It’s more than just trending tik tok dances… a lot of real drillers will tell you that. Right now, I’m working on a few singles, features & EPs. So you’ll see.

5. What do you feel/think about when you listen to Shash na lipgloss by MAANDY?

What a banger. What a baddie. Wheel it.

6. Kenya has an unprecedented number of women in hip-hop both from past and present (Nazizi, MDQ, Fena, Steph, Ssaru, Vallerie Muthoni Femi One etc.) Do you feel like this makes it easier at all to navigate and find support in the industry?

I wouldn’t say ‘easier’ but rather ‘more bearable’. I’ve got mad love for MDQ & Maandy. They’ve supported me for sure. I’ve navigated a lot of weird situations in the industry with their counsel.

7. What would you like to see more of in Kenya’s hip hop industry?

Maturity, experimentation & better work ethic.

8. How do you go about building community in your creative endeavours?

I do that by completely being myself. Truly unruly. This has actually attracted like-minded people. So I plan to keep doing just that.

9. What excites you most about the state of Kenyan hip-hop?

We’ve finally got options now. There’s no more reason to rotate opportunities around the same old rappers. Thank God.

10. What is your vision for the future? What part do you hope to play in it?

World domination is my thing and growing an insanely supportive community of listeners is going to get me there. Great music, spectacular shows, fresh visuals, and the meanest drip is what you can continue to expect from me. Standard.

 

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True Music is here to represent & celebrate music communities, and the people that make them thrive. Giving a stage to the most exciting emerging talent.

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