There is a silent renaissance happening in East Africa among communities of artists that are creating space for alternative and experimental musical aesthetics that have historically been desperately lacking support in the region. In Kampala and Nairobi, a new scene of experimental musicians has emerged, inspired by the success of movements like alté, NuNariobi, and Kumasi drill and empowered by digital tools that allow them to create their own platforms and connections, evading the hand of gatekeepers and other institutional bottlenecks. Here is a list of eight producers from Kenya and Uganda that are helping usher in this new dawn in East African music.
Chxf Barry is part of a community of creatives that are working to bring Ugandan music into the future. In a musical landscape that at times feels stagnant and unwelcome to experimentation, Barry works untapped gems in the country to develop their styles to innovative, sonically distinct, world-class sounds. One such example, is the new life that he breathed into the remix of Ill Gee’s Arresting Food by elevating the groove, adding a spacy sample, and introducing mwami’s brooding vocals into the mix with an energized verse. It took the already locally popular tune to the farther heights. “My approach is very groove driven. I love a good groove, but also while leaving space for an artist to do their thing. Space is extremely important to me.” He works out of a studio called Villagio nestled in Kampala’s Kiwatule neighborhood where many of Uganda’s new wave scene record; Cxnrvd, Joshua Baraka, Niwe Akeine, to name a few.
For many in East Africa, SOULCHYLD (aka MAUIMØON) seemed to come out of nowhere. The previously faceless young Ugandan producer and songwriter has lived everywhere from Zambia and Eritrea to the UK and Toronto. He has amassed a large and loyal soundcloud following (16k strong) for his songs, beats, and flips that fuse influences from across the black diaspora like baile funk, soul, and afrobeat while maintaining a sensual r&b essence. Since moving back to his hometown Kampala during the pandemic, Soulchyld has dived into the scene with intention securing collaboration with rising stars like Joshua Baraka, mau from nowhere, and Cxnrvd with more on the way. Inspired by the melodics of The Neptunes and the percussion of Timbaland, SOULCHYLD aspires “to create unique grooves that others can identify as [his] sound”.
Coco Em is one of Nairobi’s most prolific DJs, having made her name for championing East African house music at some of the region’s most prominent stages in the region and beyond; Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Festival, France’s Transmusicales, Boiler Room’s True Music stage in Nairobi to name a few. In February of this year, fueled by the same desire to unite people on the dancefloor, she released her first wholly self-produced EP titled Kilumi. The 7-song EP is an experiment in self-discovery, sampling and drawing from traditional vocals and rhythms of Coco’s Kamba heritage and fusing them with entrancing electronic synths and percussion. She is joined by guest vocalist ilke Sisian, Wuod Baba, Kisiva, and Labdi who deliver dissonant chants and spitfire raps in various local languages.
Nairobi’s prodigal son of connoisseur rap. This young polymath came up in the ranks of the Xprso. family as a frequent guest rapper, most notably on 2020’s Gweztapes, an avant-garde opus of swahili-sheng rap with stoned atmospheric production from MR. LU*. Luko has since embarked on his own production journey and though only having started a year and a half-ago, his sound is distinct and respected among his community; lo-fi, atmospheric goodness that is somehow also danceable. After a year of dropping lo-fi flips of popular Kenyan hits on Soundcloud, he made his official debut on streaming in March with Maya Amolo’s infectious r&b earworm “Can’t Get Enough”, a single off her upcoming album which Luko produced most of.
mwami is an experimental dance musician from Kampala whose moody electronic sound draws from influences as divergent as Sampha, Chanel Tres, and Sam Fan Thomas. He takes producing back to its roots, before the ubiquity of digital technology conflated the art of production with beatmaking in the minds of many. While he is proficient at the various DAWs, his is a more hands-on collaborative approach that often utilizes the artists he is in community with to create a musical world that is distinctly his own. “In my experience, [production] starts when the raw idea or sketch inspires what’s missing or what is unnecessary and in turn, carves a way forward, until all the missing pieces and feelings exist in the work” he says. This “is almost always an instinctive thing and not a technical one”.
When audio-visual production team Xprso. released their EP Nairobass in March of 2020, it reinvigorated listeners and musicians alike – to hear such a masterfully executed contemporary afro-fusion project with an unmistakable Kenyan essence from its production to its references and lyrical content. Though it was their official debut, the collective, which consists of Mars Maasai, Mr. LU*, RVMP, and BBYY, has been dropping remixes, edits, and instrumentals on SoundCloud since 2016. They have also been an essential arm in the musical journeys of emcees Chevy Kev, Lukorito, and tg.blk; whom they frequently collaborate with on singles and joint albums. Their lush and playful records are based on the main pillars of hip-hop, reggae, and dancehall music, bass, dirty drums, dark vocals, and sampling.
KNVL is a champion of African dance music in all its forms. The handful of songs and flips he has released thus far, range from afro-house, to trap and baile. Though he has yet to release a full body of work, he is an extremely prolific DJ, regularly playing shows and festivals across Kenya, curating guest mixes for the likes of Soulection and Mercury Loading, and now hosting monthly radio show for Balamii and Ghana’s Oroko Radio where he features his original production alongside favorites from across the African diaspora. “My radio work is all centered around my love for African music and the belief that we as Africans need to take control of the narrative that surrounds it.”
Sharon Onyango Obbo
Sharon Onyango-Obbo is a Ugandan, Kenyan-based record producer and mix engineer. A formidable trailblazer of audio production in Nairobi, she describes her sonic palette as a blend of safari trap and r&b. Hers is a holistic approach to production, almost like project management; guiding and holding the artist accountable to the goals of a project beyond contributing musically to the track. As an engineer first and foremost, mixing is also central to her compositional process; making sure that her sounds are clean, perfect, and in correct balance with each other. She is perhaps best known for her engineering and project management work on Sol Generation hits like “Nairobi” and “Birthday Song”. Sharon’s mission is to “shape Africa’s socio-economic landscape using music production, technology and innovation as agents of development”.