A running joke in Nairobi is that if you slap the word ‘executive’ in front of an item, it doubles in price. A haircut can cost Ksh 100, but the same haircut, branded as ‘executive’ will cost Ksh 200. Replicate that across apartments, furniture, transport and you have an idea of just how much weight the word carries.

I was in a ‘kinyozi’ last week, and throughout my shave, ‘Get Right With You’ by ‘The Migos’ blasted the speakers on repeat, on my request. It was a break from tradition because even though kinyozis and barbershops (executive kinyozis) are the same thing, just different languages, they are vastly different in Nairobi. A ‘kinyozi’ is ideally located in populated, loud neighbourhoods, plays rhumba or roots reggae, and a barbershop, located in pricier, quieter areas, plays soul, or new school hip-hop.   

Throughout my haircut, I thought about why I identify more with hip-hop music when my upbringing demands I should be listening to reggae. Why do we listen to the music that we do?  As the spirit made my face grimace and I fished out a hundred shilling note, I thought I’d head over to google and see what I’d come up with. Here’s what a random thought in a kinyozi birthed;


I like the American artist Meek Mill, he’s my go to hip-hop artiste. Rap purists will disagree with my choice, deservedly, as there more prolific and gifted hip-hop artistes, and I am aware of it. Regardless, I like Meek because of how raw he is, and how his beats, lyrics and interviews are to me what the Venetia mine is to the DeBeers Group. His latest offering, 2018’s ‘Championships’, released fresh off a year’s stint in prison, is his best project yet. In ‘Trauma’ he says that “watching a black woman take my freedom, almost made me hate my people” and how in a Kenyan context one bad experience makes us almost hate the whole profession/race/gender/tribe/religion/class: I think because of how personally persecuted hip-hop artistes are, they are able to speak about pain in a language that laymen understand, like what ‘Wakadinali’ do here, rapping about what young men have to do to get paid, and the pitfalls surrounding them in 21st Century Kenya.

The American recording artiste Meek Mill

The Kenyan artiste Tetu Shani says that excellent marketing gets a song to places where it ordinarily wouldn’t get access to. Am I listening to enough conscious local artistes though? Or have I rushed to a genre that speaks in a language that I like, and been conditioned to find more intellectual even when Scar Mkadinali has double and triple entendres on almost all his verses.  


Bob Marley’s image is one of, if not the most easily recognizable faces in reggae music. His thick locs, his beaming smile and his legendary quotes are emblazoned on tee shirts across the world, especially in communities that identify strongly with oppression. Reggae, Marley’s music, is rebel music that prioritized consciousness, is still played on heavy rotation forty years after his death. Reggae’s main themes; oppression, food shortage, poverty, inadequate housing and employment and crime, are hallmarks of the many informal settlements that dot Kenya’s landscape.

With Bob and reggae music, the persecuted, or those that feel persecuted, find solace. Studies have shown that when we listen to music, our brains release dopamine, which in turn makes us happy. And when you live in a place where taps are empty and garbage bins are full, where unemployment is high, and literacy is low, and the elected officials don’t care, then you need a lot of happiness to overcome the experience. That explains the exalted status that gifted and famous musicians enjoy, where their pronouncements are almost sacred, and their lives don’t belong to them but to the society.

This would explain why Bob Marley, The Wailers, Peter Tosh, Richie Spice would be played in Kawangware, Huruma, Mathare and very rarely in Nairobi’s leafy suburbs.

Interesting fact : Although music isn’t a biological necessity, it engages the same reward system as the other basic needs.


Is love a basic need? I think to an extent, it is (and the net worth of RnB singers, and strip club owners might back me up a little). Long before Otile Brown, Diamond, and Ali Kiba were driving our women wild, Gregory Isaacs was writing singing a handbook on how to sing about love. As street as his mannerisms were, his voice and lyrics were silkier than royal garments. ‘The Cool Ruler’ sang about nurses on a night shift in a way that makes you want to get admitted to a sick ward, (if you doubt me, key in ‘Night Nurse’ on your YouTube and listen for yourself).

Gregory Isaacs, and the genre of reggae he popularized, ‘Lover’s Rock’, provide a backdrop for those that love reggae to romantically express themselves. There are no Pink Cadillacs here, expensive condominiums, tiny red dresses, or the stuff that boujee artistes would sing about, but the lyrics are as relatable as the fanbase needs it to be. In songs like ‘Cool Down The Pace’, ‘Sad To Know That You’re Leaving’ and ‘My Number One’ listeners get to hear about love and the emotions that orbit around it, in typical unhurried Gregory Isaac fashion.

The Cool Ruler

As prodigiously gifted as he was, Gregory Isaacs had a recurring Achilles; drugs. By the end of his career, crack cocaine had ruined his talent, and in the song ‘Hard Drugs’ his one-melodious voice is a pale shadow of its former self,  (ironically, most reggae listening sessions, in kinyozi’s or in homes, are khat-fuelled spells held in smoky rooms). Fortunately for other artistes, cocaine and hard drugs are frowned upon in the reggae-listening world, and only marijuana, considered a holy herb, is permitted.   

A means to a spiritual connection, roots reggae music, has Fantan Moja, Anthony Bishop, Sizzla, Turbulence and Capleton as the high priests. Music is a powerful part of religion, because of the power it possesses to heighten the human senses and achieve the trance-like state most religions need for veneration and worship.  In songs like ‘Raid The Barn’ and ‘Damage’, there is a strong argument of the emphasis that reggae, and in larger context, the Rastafari movement places on honest work, civil responsibility and overall good neighborliness.



The differences in delivery, thought process, lyrics between ‘Skrrrt’, one of 21 Savage’s early songs, and ‘A Lot’, his Grammy Award-winning song are, well, a lot. 21 Savage’s, (or ‘21’ as per his popular adlibs), evolution from a gun-toting Slaughter Gang member, to a financial literacy ambassador, is behind his emergence as the poster child for new-age hip-hop.

21’s contemporaries are artistes who grew up dirt poor, surrounded by trauma, absent parents, and grinding poverty, and who have found untold wealth, fame, and influence in their adulthood. Sadly, a few have succumbed to the pitfalls that come with a rags-to-riches story; bloated egos, drugs, numerous child support demands, and bankruptcy. For 21 and his peers who have survived the heightened press attention, the allure to spend more than the promoters pay, redemption awaits.

With redemption, comes fat cheques, and influence; to give back to the community via charity, financial literacy classes and a career that is a 21st century motivational book, only that instead of the pages being brown and flipped, they are the heart and share buttons on social media.  

I think the riches on display in the videos, the fact that they have overcome poverty to attain wealth and the influence they wield in the world are what draws me, and others to hip-hop. Either that, or a love of all things foreign, which would mean I need to check myself, as self love is as important as knowing how to breathe and make money.


After this writ, I’ll definitely add more Wakadinali, Ayrosh, Xenia Manasseh, Boutross Munene, Trio Mio and Japesa into my playlist. Because like Bob Marley said

 “The lips of the righteous teach many,
But fools die for want of wisdom”.

My next kinyozi sessions will definitely be more variated, and I can’t wait to share what I come up with..lol, I might just think of an ‘executive smokie’ idea, where you add mayonnaise instead of tomato sauce and charge the client Ksh 60.



WANJIRU · January 13, 2021 at 5:23 pm

That was an amazing read!!

Karl Murage · January 14, 2021 at 9:19 am

Great read!

Linda Wairegi · January 14, 2021 at 12:51 pm

Keep it up, Karuga! It’s a good one

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