Losing my “innocence” — a Kenyan music story

Over the years, I have grown accustomed to explaining and entertaining tricky conversations regarding my upbringing. As I have journeyed through life and met people from across the world, one question always comes up. Where are you from? How was it like growing up in a typical African/Kenyan family.

I believe my childhood wasn’t so different from the standard Kenyan household story. We were a family made up of the extended household comprising of my loving parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and sometimes my grandparents whenever they paid us a visit. We were all under one roof, not in a huge house. But we made it work out somehow.

For the Kenyans, imagine a mix of Plot 10, Vioja Mahakamani, and Vitimbi and you get a vivid image of my childhood. For non-Kenyans, the best equivalent would be households similar to shows like Full House or Family Matters. We never had a dull moment. There was always some form of drama waiting to unfold.

Both my parent had been born and raised in the countryside. They had moved to the city to pursue higher education with the hope of making a better life for themselves. Guess you could say they were the first/second generation, post-colonial Kenyan professionals. A generation that had been charged with the task of building a new nation. A task that also involved figuring out how to blend our own culture and traditions, with what the mzungu had brought to us in the form of religion and “civilization”.

As a family, we typically always had dinner and watched TV together as a “modern-day family” would. We were raised in the city, a stark contrast from how my parents had been brought up. An experience that I only got a glimpse of via the time I spent at my Grandmas during school holidays. We would normally all gather around the evening fire in the kitchen area for storytime before dinner. Or we would all be crouched together next to the radio after dinner to listen to the local station. They always had some news programs, which would culminate with the daily death announcements. I really detested this last bit, they would spend like 30min announcing who had passed and when the funeral was. This is a story for another day.

Besides the usual growing up pains, one memory that stood out from childhood was how conservative we were raised. Things like TV, radio, and any form of print media were highly censored. I remember how channels would be changed at godspeed, whenever something “inappropriate” would air on TV. This included anything ranging from kissing, cigarettes, and alcohol which were all considered forbidden fruits. We were a very conservative family.

Back in the 90s, AIDS was a huge topic of discussion and there was a sudden rise in advertisements around HIV/AIDS and contraceptives in general. I remember seeing, listening, and reading a lot concerning HIV/AIDS. Its almost as if we went from one day to the next and everything revolved around sex and AIDS sensitization. It was everywhere you turned. You can imagine what this meant for our conservative household.

If you grew up around this time, then you must be familiar with one particular brand — Trust condoms. I was barely a teenager when a plethora of Trust advertisements flooded every commercial break. PSI had decided they will use every means necessary to make Kenyans use contraceptives. One advertisement that stood out for me was one with a guy impressing two girls.

The ad starts with this dreadlocked guy on one side of the train tracks as the train passes. He then walks over to a mfereji (water tap) to wash his dreadlocks, and cool down. There are these two girls (from music group Tatuu) sitting close to the mfereji. As the guy washes his hair and proceeds to take off his t-shirt, one of the girls can’t take the pressure and drops her water bottle…the guy walks over and picks the bottle...takes out a Trust condom from his pocket and slowly slides it over the bottle. Then as he gets up to gently walks away…wait for it, the other girl drops her bottle as well.

Credit — Population Services International

This advertisement was so extra. It had so many undertones. It would typically air during our family dinner time. I think the TV stations had done their homework well. For full and maximum reach, play the darn thing when its family TV time. As one would expect; my folks would swiftly switch channels whenever the Ad came on. I never got to watch the full advertisement, at least not in front of my folks. The little that we watched of it, was already potent enough to stuff the room with a bout of awkward silence. This was a typical childhood experience. We just didn’t talk about these things. Sex was a no go zone. A taboo that was best left untold.

Around the time this whole charade was happening. Kenya was battling as well on the music front. Historically our music had never been bold to the point of warranting a parental advisory sticker. But here we were in the heart of the late 90s, early 00s. The music was no longer shy. Artists had started to release tracks that had zero chills. The music was echoing things that we never had the courage to utter from our lips, least we got struck by lightning.

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Here are a few songs that I believe, really pushed the envelope and broke away from the “expected social norm” that is our “conservative market”.

Nampenda John — Wakimbizi

Credit — Wakimbizi

This song took me a minute to decipher, as in the entire song was about…My conservative upbringing just went out the door upon listening to this song. The song robbed me of all my innocence.

The song itself was done in a rather poetic way. The lyrics were catchy and smartly camouflaged the underlying topic. “John nampenda John, ni kipofu jamani na tena ye haoni. John nampenda John, ni bubu kiziwi anayeishi msituni”. The video was also a bit comical, using a carton caricature to depict John. This song was very bold. I remember I still feel shy and will never be able to listen nor sing along to this song in the presence of older folks.

Mtoto Mzuri — Nonini

Credit — Nonini

Mtoto Mzuri broke the internet lol. As a society, we were not ready for something like this. The title itself is an oxymoron because there is nothing “mzuri” about this mtoto :). When you simply listen to the song, it could pass off for a track praising the girl's innocence. But a deep listen to the tracks and you can understand, its more of a performance appraisal for the girl child in question.

There is a lot of patriarchy undertones in the song and it is quite one-sided as it only evaluates the girl's behavior and nothing to do with the guys' morality. Then you tune in to the video, and everything is amplified 100 times. I still don’t believe they aired the video on public TV. Guess Mutua was not in charge back then :). The song was very musical…the topic and how they packaged it was quite daring. I would never have watched this with my folks. Especially knowing this was one of the earliest entries into Kenya's explicit music scene. Our society needed to grow some shock absorbers after its release.

Nishike — Sauti Sol

Credit — Sauti Sol

Last but not least, here is a song that reminds me of the phrase, “good girl gone bad”. The “innocent” boys next door Sauti Sol, caused all sorts of controversy when they released this track. They went from being the model child in our households to the villains some in our society would warn us not to emulate.

Nishike was a great gamble. If you listen to the song without watching the video. It’s similar to most baby-making RnB music from the 90s. Reminds me of music by artists like 112, Jodeci, and Genuine. The only thing that made the song a heated topic of discussion was the video. These guys held no brakes. They let their imagination run wild. We had not seen anything like this in our scene, at least not since Mtoto Mzuri. The video was banned from airing, but this only made guys more curious about it. Leading to multiple shares in social media circles. The outcome; the song video went viral in Kenya even leading to a parody.

Over the years there have been a lot more songs that have changed the scene. Songs like Manyake, Nyundo, Naskia Utam…have all gone ahead to challenge our conservatism. I don’t have much of an opinion as to whether these songs are “decent” or not. That is a thing you as the audience can discern for yourselves. What I know is that, while we banned a lot of the local content. The Censorship Board of Kenya still allowed songs like Thong songSisqo, Peaches and cream — 112, and the like to play on TV.

Music is a creative genre that accords the artist the freedom to creatively harness and package their message to the audience. As we listen to the likes of Wamlambez by Sailors or Pandana by Ethic. We should never forget that the artist draws inspiration from their surrounding. This is certainly not limited to their “conservative” home, but it could simply be a mere reflection of our society in general.

© Untitled’s Cut

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Translation:

“John nampenda John, ni kipofu jamani na tena ye haoni. John nampenda John, ni bubu kiziwi anayeishi msituni” — (John, I love John. He is blind and he doesn’t see. John, I love John. He is mute and deaf and lives in a forest)

“Mtoto Mzuri” — (A well behaved “child”…in this case a good girl)

A curious mind. Inspired and passionate about how Africans are influencing, shaping, and creating modern arts and culture.