Nairobeez: From neighbourhood street rhymes to city street tours
(you need to hustle use muscle to make a living)
Mashanti, ‘Everyday’ 2010
Consider the particular subjectivities and performative reach of a particular kind of the now widely familiar and globalised phenomenon of digital life - the ‘selfie’. For Mathare youth, the selfie can serve as an activist mode of auto-portraiture and storytelling. It displays a counter-representation of the ‘Kenyan slums’ that have for decades been subject to Afro-pessimistic portrayals of uneven development, informality, unregulated housing markets and municipal under-investment. This section explores the temporal and spatial registers of the stylised digital auto-portraiture of three young friends, Cheddaz, Kissmart and Donga, whom I met in 2010 during the filming of a documentary called Story Yetu, in collaboration with Ghetto Films Trust, when we recorded a track titled ‘everyday’.These three youth in their late teens were from one of the poorest sub-neighbourhoods of Mathare, known as Kosovo, infamous for its illegal brewing activities along the river.
When I met Cheddaz, Kissmart and Donga, they were spending their days around the makeshift recording studio in their neighbourhood where they worked on their rap rhymes and performed for each other and anyone who cared to listen.Their lyrics and beats were raw and real, but this local street poetry coming from the marginalised voices of youth was at the time largely unheard beyond the place youth call their haze. In Nairobi’s popular neighbourhoods, the haze is the Shrug expression connoting a physical space often situated in a semi-public non-descript part of a neighbourhood where childhood friends gather. It becomes a meeting point, but as a Sheng expression, it also carries plural connotations of place-making, belonging and the making of claims. The haze can turn into kind of site-specific performative space to assert one’s turf, as well as confirm one’s presence in the mtaa. As key interlocutors have explained, it is a place to be found and to be seen, where the local news of the day is told and shared. It is a space for passing the time and marking one’s connection to everyday street culture while evoking the palimpsests of youth imaginaries.
Over the last decade, these three friends built their music, visibility and a local storytelling business thanks to the rapid expansion of ICT across the city, including Mathare. Though formally unemployed, these youth built their own hustle portfolio:They became a three-member boy band known amongst their social media circle as Nairobeez, whose access to smartphones and affordable data bundles enabled them to regularly upload video selfies onto Facebook and later Instagram. They performed stories from the streets of Mathare that did not seek to sanitise the everyday realities but rather point out the beauty at the corrugated interstices, and they also regularly posted footage from the recording experiments to share the ‘behind the scenes’ creative process — exposing the creative backstories of their ‘ghetto greenroom’. But this public performance still had limited reach or direct income opportunities, so in order to subsidise their music enterprise, they eventually connected with a wider base of potential customers through the digital platform of Airbnb. With the support of a social entrepreneur passionate about youth and popular culture, they co-produced a narrative that would appeal to Nairobi visitors interested in seeing the city beyond its familiar tourist landmarks. The three boys from Kosovo connected their local hustle with the digital economy, marketing themselves as three former street kids with in-depth local knowledge of the city centre and its difficult-to-reach peripheral spaces. So when avant-garde tourists on a budget and with a taste for grit log on to the Nairobi Airbnb page, they will come across the local “Nai Nami - Our Streets. Our Stories” private walking tours, where tickets can be booked for .£29 per person. This clever form of hustling found a bridge between local lived realities and a global audience keen to take part in off-piste city tours tailored to visitors keen to seeing the city differently, through the eyes of youth with street-oriented expertise and experience.
In Mathare, youth hustle to ‘get by’ and get things done (Thieme, 2018), continuously combining a kind of hunt for ways to stay both economically active and credible on the streets. This involves a particular performance where ‘making a living’ might appear to contribute to a common cause or be read as an expression of community activism. While many youth living in Mathare have over the past three decades engaged in the homegrown residential garbage collection economy as their stepping-stone into working life, a growing number of younger youth who have grown up digitally connected have used Genge hip-hop to be both protagonists and activists of‘ghetto life,’ exposing the shared struggles and solidarities of everyday street life in Mathare in solidarity with other global ‘ghettos’ (Rollefson, 2017).
Consider the tag line ‘our street, our stories,’ particularly the possessive pronoun. It serves as an appropriation, a kind of‘taking back’ of the peripheral urbanisation (Caldeira, 2017) that has persisted since the colonial period. Under colonial rule, Nairobi could not have been their city. In the early postcolonial era, their neighbourhood was one of the ‘slums’ in need of upgrading, clean up, policing, and it was under certain affirmative lights regarded as a ‘self-help’ city (Hake, 1977). To call it ‘ours’ was an important declaration of belonging — ‘we belong’ to these streets (in the Central Business District (CBD), the main city), and ‘these streets and stories’ belong to us. In other words, they placed themselves at the centre of the story, the story of Nairobi as it is today, as it is being frequented today by fellow age-mates and other visitors wanting to learn about the real Nairobi, the real economy (MacGaffey, 1991), but also rendered highly curated and stylised in its performance.
They perform ordinary everyday life as a kind of magic realism: rendering the ordinary a cosmopolitan ghetto style, and conversely, what might have seemed unattainable becomes banal. Here there is a connection between the modes of cultural production that took place in the United Kingdom with grime music (Hancox, 2019) and that of Genge hip-hop in Nairobi (Kidula, 2012; Ntarangvvi, 2009). These genres of hip-hop emerged in concert with the advent of digital platforms and social media. Young aspiring artists did not get ‘signed’ by producers but rather hacked their way onto the virtual stage through free-to-upload platforms, such as YouTube. They didn’t need to sanitise their tracks; they could ‘spit rhymes’ that retained their subversive edge, and they didn’t speak about the ascent to fame and success but instead provided a real-time, graphic novel-style musical expression of'road life’ (Bakkali, 2019), retaining the raw and grit of everyday violence on the street and the gall of youth who have nothing to lose and a story to tell.
Nairobeez used their mtaa as their backdrop, stage and turf from which they produced video selfies.To an extent, they ‘bluffed’ (Newell, 2012) about exploits, but never about riches.They did not paint a picture of hard-core struggles against historical dispossession and segregation the way other hip-hop artists of the Black Atlantic have (Gilroy, 1993; Rollefson, 2017). Nairobeez did something different: they did not beautify the ghetto; they rendered the ghetto beautiful, just as it was. Its aesthetics were boasted as ‘ghetto style’, the creative restyling of deep Slteng generated new ways of constantly re-describing and re-affirming their attachment to place, particularly the importance of this place. It was fashioned as home, and the baze became a hyper-localised expression of global youth culture in its hybrid, spatially open, unfinished forms (Biehl and Locke, 2017; Gilroy, 1993; Massey, 1998).
The worlds on edge, and the open-endedness of people’s becoming, is the very stuff of art.
(Biehl and Locke, 2017, p. ix)
On one occasion, Donga posted a selfie with his mother, who some twenty years ago would have been a teen mother like so many young women in Mathare (Thieme, 2016). Donga’s mother looked tired and didn’t smile for the selfie with her son, but she did stare back at the phone camera, acknowledging the moment. She was between morning chores, and the corrugated metal shack they live in is featured in the back, with a line of laundry hanging, baying across the frame. This photo, posted on Instagram and Facebook, could be read as a curation of‘this is what it is’. It was not like Tracey Emin’s The Bed because nothing about that ‘ghetto’ scene was meant to appear like a mess or unkept. It exposed on the one hand the mundane hardships of life in a neighbourhood where even the prosaic cup of chai requires hours of labour and material cost, and where youth are increasingly targets of police brutality and extra-judicial violence (van Stapele,2016) and systemic under-employment.Thus these millennial self-proclaimed ‘ghetto boyz’, who have grown up in Nairobi’s popular neighbourhoods with a smartphone in their pockets, know how to reach a world beyond their streets while appearing ever-more tied to, and proud of, their baze from where they project shared struggles and solidarities with fights against (not only coronavirus), especially, the ‘hunger virus’, and since June 2020, localising their allegiance to the global movement against police brutality against young black bodies by posting selfies with makeshift masks that read,‘Kenyan Black Lives Matter’.