Gengetone Female Braggadocio: Sampling Sylvia Ssaru’s Gengetone Musical Lyricism
Karin Barber, in her book A History of African Popular Culture observes that popular culture in Africa is the product of everyday life which includes the unofficial and the un-canonical. She further asserts that new popular culture forms do not only emerge out of historical change but they are a part of history. There is a discernible growth in a new form of genge music genre in Kenya which has been christened gengetone. This form of lyrical adventurism is mostly popular among urban youth in Kenya. This genre of music depicts what Karin Barber calls the product of everyday life. The gengetone genre has evolved from the genge rap — a unique Kenyan hip hop and rap music genre that fuses sheng (slang), English, Swahili and local dialects. In popular culture, genge became synonymous with the early 2000 music artists such as Jua Kali, Nonini, and the trio music ensemble P-Unit.
In early 2019, there was a popular demand for local media to play Kenyan music. Tanzania’s Bongo Flava and Nigerian music were dominating airwaves much to the chagrin of many Kenyans who took exception through the hashtag #PlayKeMusic on Twitter. It is believed that this was what birthed the gengetone rap music. Gengetone music just like the genge genre before it is an indigenization and domestication of hip hop and rap in Kenya. Both genge and gengetone music have been agents of articulating and expressing urban youth identity in popular culture which includes music, art, language and everyday life.
The gengetone music is characterized by explicit lyrics, vulgarities laced in coded language and with obscenities and crassness in their video tracks. This notwithstanding, gengetone music has come to capture the imagination of the youth in Kenya. It blends the old genge style, reggaetone and dancehall music rhythms in a party themed musical ambiance.
The major themes in gengetone music are nudity, glorification of sex, marijuana and alcohol. These themes are laced in coded language mostly in Kenyan slang (sheng). Keen observes will notice distinct similarities in genge and the gengetone genres when it comes to textually reading the major themes. Despite these congruent themes in both genres, it is evident as Karin Barber points out in her book A History of African Popular Culture that new genres are precipitated by new historical experiences.
The #PlayKeMusic coupled with increased internet penetration has seen the rise of youthful gengetone artists such as the Boondocks Gang, Sailors, Ochungulo Family, Zzero Sufuri, Gwaash, VDJ Jones among others. However, Sylvia Ssaru stands out as one of the rising female gengetone emcee in Kenya. I will sample Sylvia Ssaru’s lyrical creativity in an industry that has been dominated by male artists.
Msia Kibona Clark in her book Hip Hop in Africa: Prophets of the City and Dustyfoot Philosophers examines gendered representation in African hip hop in one of the chapters. She argues therewith that female emcees have tended to use their voice as an opportunity to speak to gender oppression and to bring feminist voice to African hip hop. Msia Kibona Clark argues that that notwithstanding, female emcees have at times resulted to act out the hypersexual images of women. This has tended to undermine the strides made by female empowerment and feminist values (p.120).
Sylvia Ssaru, a young, sassy and beautiful lyrist is taking on the industry by storm. She describes herself as a ‘versatile artiste’. I sample her musical lyricism to demonstrate how gengetone pop-culture and female braggadocio is expressed in musical representation.
Pop-Culture and Female Braggadocio in Musical Representation
Chris Wasike in his work Verbal Fluidities and Masculine Anxieties of the Global Urban Imaginary in Kenyan Genge Rap observes that genge poetic lyricism is a melting pot of masculine fears, tensions and anxiety. He demonstrates this using the lyrics of songs by Jua Kali, Nonini among others. One of the riding themes in genge and gengetone is sexual objectification of girls and women. Virtually all gengetone songs sexually objectify women in the lyrics and their videos. This can be seen in the songs Mboko Haram, Kidole, Rieng by Boondocks Gang, Wabebe by Gwaash among others. One feature among all these gengetone videos is women nudity and explicit dancing (twerking).
Bragging about oneself as Msia Kibona Clark contends is a key element in hip hop lyricism (braggadocio). Female braggadocio has at times challenged male dominance in musical emceeing but at times the extoling of female sexuality and sexual objectification has sometimes undermined female empowerment. Sylvia Ssaru through her breakthrough freestyle rap Nyama underscores female braggadocio. She expresses female sexuality through explicit sexual content. Here is a sample of her lyrics:
“Yangu ni tight na haiku dry
Najua imesmile inangoja matime
Najua uko high venye una syke
Nataka uichape mpake ukinai
Na storo sema hii mchezo
Kable uicheze unakulanga moshi
Na mwili ni ya mtu wa mjengo
Kabla unibomoe peana notice”
In yet another song Dose, Ssaru, who has been given the name Ssaru wa Manyaru by her fans brags about her entry into the rap industry and how she intends to dominate stating that;
“Nimekuja na ingine inatisha
Na this time nimekuja kutesa
Wananingoja kwa dirisha
Ju wanajua mlango sitabisha
Wale wasanii hawajaskika
Cheki venye nababaisha industry
The song Dose also emphasizes the centrality of street identity in gengetone pop-culture. In her latest song Dhudha (Woman’s behind) Ssaru uses braggadocio in her thug-girl military dressing. She is She dismisses her critics and compares herself to American rapper Cardi B.
Nahurumia hawa ma-rapper wanatapa tapa
Ka umekosea njia bro pia unaweza nifuata
Nifollow nifollow mi ndio Cardi hapa
Mi ndio queen kwa hii game, mi ndio nyi mnataka
Queen B machine nasail kama Bata
Nyi ni mratina mi ndio wine hapa
Hii ndio routine inani-guide sasa
Mi ndio nafeel hii ni hit song bana ah
Ssaru’s explicit lyrics and coded vulgarity notwithstanding is helping her to navigate through an industry that is male dominated. Msia Kibona Clark sums this up by observing that “braggadocio is one of the way a female artist can claim her right to a position next to her male counterparts” (p.121).
Emerging female rap artists often use braggadocio to introduce themselves in the industry. Kenyan famous female emcee Nazizi, a pioneer in the Kenyan rap and hip hop also used braggadocio to mark her entry and cementing her legacy in the industry. With consistency, Sylvia Ssaru could be on her way to emulating Nazizi. Her musical exploits further exemplify the dynamism in the gengetone pop-culture.