How Drill Soundtracks Life for Kenyan Youth

The new generation of rappers hailing from the hoods of Nairobi are at the forefront of a new wave of African music.

Drill music has become the sound of global youth; an ominous and uncensored take on life on the streets. In Nairobi, Kenya, where nearly 60 percent of the population live in slums, voices ache to be heard like never before, unified against a society that they struggle to feel part of.  

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Alongside a highway where Masai men guide grazing cattle down the central reservation, there are mile-long lines of sofas for sale, as vertigo-inducing billboards of couples sucking on bottles of Coke bear down upon you. The destination is Buruburu, home to Buruklyn Boyz, one of the most prominent crews in their scene. “It's not bad,” the cab driver says of the neighbourhood, a housing project of concrete homes not unlike a British housing estate. “It's where government workers went to live in the 70s.” 

Formed by these blocks, Buruklyn Boyz twitch with the inherited energy of their rap predecessors. Their hood is known for championing hip-hop culture and as the birthplace of Sheng, a combination of Swahili and English slang that has become the language of the streets.

The crew, all in their late teens and early 20s, lean against a wall. Churchgoers in their Sunday best pass by; young boys approach to bump fists. At their New Year’s Eve show, a surging throng of a crowd screamed their lyrics back at them. Buruklyn Boyz felt like they had arrived: “Most young guys in Kenya have started vibing with us,” Ajay says, who fronts the group alongside Mr Right and their friends.

Buruklyn Boyz.

Their sound is one of deeply slick production and confident flow. There’s already a simmering, business-like energy to them. “We encourage the yout' to hustle,” Mr Right says. East London's afro-bashment kings NSG have lined them up for future collaboration after hearing the addictive bump and shudder of their anthem “Nairobi”, which has been watched over 1.8 million times on YouTube. “Getting bigger is always the main objective, to keep it rolling for the next generation,” Ajay says. “It's important to have someone to look up to.”

Left to right: Mr Right and Ajay.

Kibera in the west is on the opposite side of town and is the largest slum in Africa. The cab driver will go only as far as a mosque next to a muscle gym. “The Grace of God is Sufficient” is spelled out on a makeshift, corrugated iron church, where major chords of devotion are accompanied by the throttle of motorcycle engines. Witch doctors and local politicians battle it out for poster space on walls and pylons. On the kerb, cabbages are carefully set out in pyramids next to ripening mangoes, stacked up next to roughly and carelessly arranged coffins.

“Life is cheap in the hood, my G,” Big Yasa says. He is Kibera's golden boy, a 21-year-old with a look in his eyes that shifts from child-like to harrowed in a blink. “A lot comes with living here. Daily, young kids my age and younger die. Kids beaten to death by a mob – you feel me?” It is impossible to not feel Big Yasa, his cold, almost mournful flow a message from the heart of a ghetto that feels safe enough by day, but at night, “gets quiet, and then the thugs come out,” he says. “It's their time to go to work.”

Sat in the back of his manager’s convenience store, a steady flow of children come in and out buying sweets and soda. “I'm a yout' in this country,” he says, “affected by politics and the decisions that other people make for me. We use this drill ting to express what happens here. This is my life – my hustle. If your actions ain't real we can smell it.”

Big Yasa.

Big Yasa’s rhymes about day to day life in the ghetto: The violence and alienation of growing up in the slums - the ruthlessness it takes to survive. In person, he recounted stories of rape, children burning down their school dorms to protest abuse, machete attacks and free circumcision to stem the spread of HIV, but radiated gentle self-composure nonetheless. Like many drill artists in Nairobi, he’s both here and somewhere else, in a future of his own design. 

Biggs, as his friends call him, suggests that we should meet fellow artist Davaji over in Kaloleni, on the east side of town. It is a jarringly surreal slum that sits beside Kenya’s first parliament. It delivered joyous scenes of independence from colonial rule in 1963, 11 years after the Queen came for tea in the adjacent hall, which now forms the backdrop to Davaji’s “Crazy Shit” video. Now dilapidated and covered in graffiti, it looks desolate as the sun begins its descent. 

Davaji in Kaloleni.

Davaji – a chilled, handsome 19-year-old in a pink T-shirt of a kitten giving the finger – lopes through his neighbourhood, under swaying palm trees past cottages more reminiscent of postwar Essex than East Africa. Large squawking birds settle on a shack with “HOTEL” painted on it. Down a narrow iron maze, a girl flashes past in a towel; CCTV signs threaten from dilapidated doors and Nigerian afrobeat thumps through the rusty and crumpled walls.

Kaloleni feels at once temporary and permanent. Davaji considers where we are: “Most of the people out here come from a very deep struggle,” he says softly. “We keep grinding; you dream of making it out.” 

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He freestyles over new instrumental tracks and shoots videos for Instagram. On YouTube, his videos have already clocked up a quarter of a million views. “I never feel like I don't want to be here – this is home,” he smiles, the metallic caps on his upper canine teeth gleaming. “Even if I leave I will still be here for my G's, my family, people I have grown up with...my responsibility is to protect this area, to stop the government ripping it down – I have to use my voice as an artist to do that.”

Across the capital, skyscrapers block the sun from hitting the slums and a Chinese-funded expressway from Nairobi to Mombasa is being built. No one here is convinced they’ll benefit from these great and rapid changes. “If we have to, we will fight for our place here,” Davaji says later on as he weaves his way between clotheslines.

Geri Soweto in Kangemi.

Drill group Geri Soweto are from the slums of Kangemi, on the outskirts of the city. Khedi and Derroh, both 21, are the main voices – Stanley, a more junior member, is still at school. They trudge into their neighbourhood with their crew, everyone is talking over each other. Saladin, another member, sucks on a spear of sugar cane as fresh khat leaves are handed out. 

Local characters are pointed out: “This guy was a gangster – now he's old, he fixes bikes”; “these are the best chips and she has the best ass, too.” Another crew member, Manase, has been bitten by something – his hand swollen to the size of a grapefruit. There is talk of antibiotics, but he says he’ll use salt instead. Eventually, the group arrives at the scene of their “Unruly” video, a macerated take on the violence of their hood. 

“We have to go to the ‘cha-che’, the corridor, to see the real hood, man,” someone points out. “Sawa, sawa [“okay” in Swahili]!” A canal of filthy water leads to a door in a home that towers above the slum: more mud, wooden poles, and metal sheets at impossible angles. Through the darkness, female voices ring out as lights switch on, calling out the name of the group: “GERI SOWETO, GERI SOWETO!” 

Heads start appearing from behind blankets that hang from the ceiling: Derroh's mother, sisters, and their friends are here. “Karibu, karibu [“welcome” in Swahili],” they say as tables are put out and everyone is  invited to sit.

The windowless room fills up: goldfish bags of moonshine, made from rotten maize and sugar, are pulled out and decanted into plastic beakers. “Don't worry, you won't go blind, this is African food – pure steam,” someone says. The effects are close to psychedelic. Eyes get wider, voices more garbled, the laughter louder as someone screams the name of the drink: “Chaaangaaa!”

Khedi (left) and Derroh (right) from Geri Soweto.

Later on, the three drillers sit on the steps of a wooden cinema and reflect on what it’s like to grow up there. “It's a cool place in daylight, but it's not good for anyone to walk around at night – there’s dangerous gangs,” Derroh says. “It's never safe in these streets,” Khedi adds pensively. They’re both more haunted than hopeful. “If you live in a place like this, you find content by just opening your eyes,” Derroh adds. 

Staying positive enough to be creative is part of their survival: “Our experience since we were young is to struggle – there’s no running water here, sometimes no electricity – or even food,” Khedi says. “We are victims of the system, there is no protection.”

Geri Soweto are a crew with only one dream, and that’s to help their brothers. “The first who step out of here will come back to help us,” Khedi says. “So many have been lost already, last December, five of our friends were shot.” He stares out into nowhere as we sit in silence. Across the way, the DVD store booms Welcome to Jamrock so hard that the atoms all around us start wildly vibrating.

Tagged:

Noisey, Rap, drill music, drill, Kenya, Nairobi

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