It would be absurd to think a music genre’s existence is validated by fans’ hype. While I would argue that puffery is necessary, it all comes down to the key players: in this case, the artists who champion the sound. Over time, music evolves from main genres and like distributaries flowing away from the river, sub-genres crop up, assembling a hybrid sound. It’s from hip-hop that we have trap, cloud rap, and crunk. In the same way, the Kenyan sound has evolved from Kapuka and Genge ruling the aughts, to the gengetone reign over the last three or four years on Kenyan airwaves.
The emergence of Drill has converted listeners not only in Kenya but all over Africa. Bumping to the monstrous hits of Black Sherif, Drill’s golden boy Yaw Tog or even the ominous synths of the Buruklyn Boyz, the colossal shift has created a conversation around gengetone’s durability. Speaking to youth around Nairobi town, it’s easy to decipher the listening culture of the city. We always move with what’s hot. The 24-hour economy makes music consumers fast, impatient and unforgiving to redundant sounds. And so, Nairobi inhabitants have developed a prevalent one-liner, “Drill killed gengetone.”
The entertainment industry thrives under codependent conditions. Fun music goes best with a mass of people consuming intoxicants under the influence of thumping music. Gengetone thrived with a single recipe, the dancehall-inspired beats and raunchy lyrics. Then, for two years while the world was languishing in the Covid-19 lockdowns, the entertainment industry experienced a huge blow. Apart from artists struggling to make ends meet, genre powerhouses like gengetone suffered deteriorating listenership due to its party-like structure.
Pioneer acts such as Ethic and Ochungulo family were in murky waters. Ethic was fast losing listenership due to controversial lyrics the public felt were championing sexual abuse. While the topic is always a debate among music consumers, I always felt the real challenge was the type of language they chose. In this case, they preferred to use Sheng (slang) over English. Slang is mostly derived and it is often a mixture of Kiswahili words which have been flipped so as to be understood by a certain group of people. Sheng (slang) which originates from slums always sounds aggressive and suggestive, but this should never be an excuse to promote sexual abuse. Alongside their controversy, their quality of music seemed to crumble after getting signed to Universal Music Group subsidiary AI records. They went from releasing wicked hits on their debut Lamba Lolo to mid-tracks like “Tarimbo” and “Quarantei”. Meanwhile, the Ochungulo family were struggling to hold it together. Rumors of their split filled up entertainment tabloids, and social media: their uncertainty made fans restless. Their constant release strategy also seemed to saturate fans with songs that all sounded familiar, rendering a drift between listeners and the group.
As much as the pioneers were struggling to retain their relevance on the throne, new, exciting and refreshing artists were on the come up. Ssaru, known as “Dea Moda” which translates to “their mother”, became a fan fervent. Her distinct voice, delivery and presence immediately sparked interest among the music-starved listener. With the mammoth hit “Nimuredi Tena” she brought a new twist to gengetone. What was once pervaded by production and sing-song style was flipped with her unorthodox punch and delivery. Her confident flow proved she had nothing to prove to anyone because she was the best. While the country was busy throwing jabs at the industry, Ssaru was paving her way as the youngest artist to join the Spotify Equal program.
Gengetone’s evolution isn’t where it was two years ago. There is more structure in the system, and artists have mastered the art of creativity. The new names in the industry are young, fresh and hungry to champion the existence of gengetone. To them, it’s more than just a sound. Instead, it’s linked to their identity as Kenyan youth and a means to express their view of society. Mbuzi Gang have risen to the status of gengetone kings. Last year, they released their smash hit “Shamra Shamra,” which was characterized by brazen bars, and creative production and eventually garnered support with a remix from Genge veteran Mejja. Groups such as Mbogi Genje incorporated the Dancehall origin of gengetone into their songs, especially with their debut “Kidungi” from a challenge by Scar Mkadinali. Their rawness as seen in “Ngumi Mbwegze,” proved they are not in the business of mimicking their predecessors. Their unfamiliar slang has always been entertaining as numerous youth adapt to them.
This has paved the way for more stars such as Unco Jing Jong, who gained a cultic following after his hit single “Wanjapi” featuring Bullet and Rapdokta. Mixing his rap know-how, his hood love and dancehall affiliation he has mastered the craft of making gengetone presentable. No longer focusing on sexual cravings, Unco Jing Jong is changing the game with fun, party-like lyrics. “Dancehalling” sees him spread his ideal vibe with his weirdly enjoyable shrill voice and low-budget video that immediately has you searching for his Instagram profile. Alongside the eminent Unco Jing Jong is Shekina Karen who is not only gengetone royalty but has ruled the Tiktok streets with her new single “Dai Dai” featuring Mbuzi Gang’s Fathermoh. The wordplay and storytelling are the most powerful aspects of the new school kids of gengetone. As Fathermoh and Shekina Karen display in “Dai Dai”, gengetone is now acting as a mouthpiece to various issues in the community such as women empowerment, African’s grip on the Madonna-whore complex and domestic violence.
More effort is currently being made to shape gengetone. Pioneer Group, Ethic Entertainment released an album Big Man Bado Ordinare that aimed to show fans the group is still strong and relevant. New school artists Mbuzi Gang also released their project “Three Wise Goats” pulling in features from Kashkeed, Ethic Entertainment and East African veterans Jose Chameleone and Navio. The crossing over of Genge artists, who are parents to the gengetone genre, has also helped catapult the artists with more in-house collaborations, especially from industry players such as Mejja and Willis Raburu, Bazuu entertainment founder. From such partnerships, the genre is morphing into a thriving culture standing the test of time.
Adamant Kenyans still insist that gengetone is our sound. As a producer and Dj, Janice Iche stated during the 2022 Boiler Room conversation on the rise of drill, that Nairobi moves much faster than any city in the country. Thus assuming gengetone is dead because few people are listening to it, is a fallacy. Producers, artists and videographers are all working to ensure the stability of the sound. Four years after its viral outburst from the hit single “Lamba Lolo”, gengetone is much alive and still burning bright.