Kenyan female artistes breaking the glass ceiling

Thursday November 26 2009

From left:  Rat-a-tat, Nazizi and STL are among the Kenyan female artistes who are taking the hip-hop culture to the next level. Photos/COURTESY

From left: Rat-a-tat, Nazizi and STL are among the Kenyan female artistes who are taking the hip-hop culture to the next level. Photos/COURTESY  

By MUKI GARANG

It hasn’t been an easy ride for Kenyan women hip hop artistes, but their perseverance is bearing fruits both locally and on the international scene. And even male artistes such as Pilipili acknowledge the role women have played to take Kenyan hip hop culture to the next level.

Dubbed the “First Lady of hip-hop”, Nazizi Hirji is our version of the American pioneer female hip-hop artiste Lolita Shante Gooden (Roxanne Shante). Nazizi (or Naz to her fans) emerged into the Kenyan hip hop scene on a different footing.

Nazizi’s 1998 debut single Ni Sawa Tu (It’s Just OK) caused an instant ripple upon its release. Until then, never in Kenya’s entertainment past did a prominent female presence command such attention. In an interview with Lifestyle, Nazizi reveals surprise at her runaway success. “I never thought I’d get to write my own music. Eleven years later, young girls walk up to me and tell me I am their inspiration,” says Nazizi.

In global hip-hop, the influence of credible role models is strongly sought after. Lolita Shante Gooden, a single mother at 15, and one whose record producer Warner Music Company had failed to pay, picked up a clause from her contract that stated; Warner Music would pay for her education for the rest of her life. Getting the 217,000 dollars was not easy but like the many rap battles she had prevailed in, she emerged victor and now holds a PhD in psychology.

Lolita opened the door for other female MCs in America namely, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Salt & Pepa amongst others. Nazizi is doing similar work in nurturing young artistes and is trying to market Kenyan hip hop in other parts of Africa and the world. At the turn of the new millennium, Kenya’s entertainment industry shot up instantly from its infancy.

The speed of its flight now struggles to keep pace with international standards of making profit in music production. Lydia Akwabi (aka Lness) voices deep concerns in music videos and rap records’ portrayal of women. Her bone of contention arises from the use of such mediums to depict femininity as blossoming on nudity.

“The glorification of indecency by the media dictates how ladies appear in videos; tomboy doesn’t go but sexy sells,” says Lness. Women are most likely to be influenced by other women. Such is the case in Kenya where a limited number of female rap artistes are able to pronounce their relevance in an industry dominated by men.

Born Shawntae Harris, the American artiste Da Brat, is the first female rapper to have a platinum selling album. Da Brat serves as the main source of inspiration for the Kenyan Calif records’ genge artiste Susan Akinyi (aka Rat-a-tat). “Even though it’s tough, we are destined to dominate... no one can stop the reign,” said Rat-a-tat in an interview.

Rat-a-tat’s statement defines an innovative period when women in hip hop are determined to cast a shadow on gender stereotypes. The gender aspect in Africa favours men, though in terms of skills in hip hop, women exceed or counter their male peers. Women doing hip hop in Kenya observe that male rappers accord them respect based on skill and not their sex.

Stella Mwangi (aka STL) confirms this when she says “being a female rapper regardless where in the world you are, requires that you, as a female, prove that you are as good if not better than the male rappers. So it’s not about how ‘they’ treat you, but how you treat yourself.”

The Kenyan artiste Lness, together with Rha (aka The Goddess), received accolades for their contribution to Kalamashaka’s project Kilio cha Haki (Cry of Justice). In the same project, Lness, who featured highly in a song by Black Duo called Msanii says “I do music that intends to change women’s place in society.”

She continues to raise her concerns as a female hip hop MC. “We can’t all talk about clubbing, someone has got to voice out the real issues,” she adds. Lness juggles between being a mother and a career in nutrition but her love for hip hop music enables her to persist.

STL, the recent MTV MAMA nominee, is based in Norway. She holds dear her dream of collaborating with former US rap duo Salt and Pepa. Initially inspired by Tina Turner and Michael Jackson, STL discovered her passion for rap. “All the swag and confidence from these rappers had inspired me to look at myself in the mirror differently,” she said in an interview.

Rat-a-tat is currently working on a new style where she flows (raps) on any kind of beat. She calls it Mchanganyiko (Kiswahili for mixing). She has a rich background in music. In high school, she was the school DJ. Djaying is one of the cornerstone elements of the hip hop culture.

In hip hop’s early days, there is little or no mention of a female DJ. Rat-a-tat makes an effort to change this trend in Kenya by taking lessons in music production, a field many female artistes rarely go for. Kenyan female rappers also expand their creativity in merging different genres, to reach out to larger audiences. Nazizi’s style blends reggae dance hall and rap. In her new joint “Can I?” Rat-a-tat empowers the average Kenyan girl. The video is soon to be released.

Pilipili of Chilli Inc Productions has worked with many female artistes both as an artiste and a producer. He recognises the sacrifices women artistes have to make. “Men embrace music as a career more than women. For them, the career needs a lot of sacrifice, patience and struggle. Culture and traditions of some communities in Kenya affect this matter, Kenyans are very conservative,” says Pilipili.

In acknowledging recent developments of the music industry over the years, Pilipili adds: “Things are changing. Society is accepting women artistes and what they are doing.” Most producers working with women are men. Even the American Roxanne Shante’s singles Have a nice day and “Go on girl were produced by Marley Marl.

Big Daddy Kane penned her lyrics. Some of her songs, such as Independent Woman and Feeling Kinda Horny were written by a man. Though low key, Kenya’s MC Sharon is projected by Lness to be the next big female producer. MC Sharon will feature in Lness’ upcoming project to be released early next year. This project, according to Lness, is set to empower young women in Kenya.

Riding on the Gal-Power theme, it will contain songs such as The Champions (featuring Nazizi), Superstar (featuring Candy of the Mau Mau camp), and Napenda (featuring Nakaaya from Arusha).  While their western counterparts have done well financially, Kenyan female hip-hop artistes admit there is difficulty in breaking even financially. 

This is unlike Wahu or Amani whose longevity in other respective genres has seen them soar into financial success. But they are pushing the limits. According to STL, success for female rappers comes only in taking it a notch higher.

Muki Garang is a hip hop artiste ([email protected])