The DJ, rapper and producer is putting modern Kenyan music on the global map
It’s probably fair to say that Africa’s music ecosystem is often overlooked in the UK as a landscape of popular music stardom. The reasons for this oversight are unclear and certainly unjustfied, as it is evidently not for lack of quality. In Kenya, and Nairobi specifically, there is a scene bubbling which teems with talent and ambition. It’s a city in which many of the great traditions of music in Africa are coalescing with modern-day rap, soul, RnB and electronic music. Nairobi has form here. It’s in the Green City in the Sun that the pluralistic tradition of Benga music, which combines sounds from Cuba to the Congo, was first born.
Blinky Bill is a frontrunner in this burgeoning scene, helping to reinvigorate a spirit of both global vision and ancestral reverence to create a synergistic musical and cultural identity. “At this point, we need to be able to give the rest of the world a version of what is authentically ours,” he says. “We’re picking from our heritage, but also messing with other sounds from around the world.”
His recent debut solo LP Everyone’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales spans hip hop, funk, rap and traditional tribal dance rhythms. “What I make is an interpretation of what I like and how I see it,” he says, and it seems to be popular, with lead track Showdown already reaching number one on iTunes Africa.
“I love a lot of the traditional sounds because I’m in that generation that is kind of the halfway point between some of the sounds getting lost completely and them being passed onto the next generation,” he says. “If I don’t do something about it, then it might get lost entirely.”
It’s this dichotomous push and pull between the sounds of Bill’s past and the global sounds of now which defines the record. It homogenises those two disparate worlds into something lucid, vibrant and idiosyncratic of the artist that created it. “One of the things I really wanted to do with this project,” he continues, “was make sure that the ideas and the juice of the whole thing was preserved as much as possible, so that I’m not losing any information.”
Although the overarching personality of the record is contemporary, it is underpinned by the traditional sounds of Kenya as a means of independent, authentic preservation. “When you think about a lot of African stories, many of them are being told by people who are not African,” Bill says. “Up until Africans are in charge of telling their stories, we are losing a lot of wealth of information.” The album is a resounding answer to the question: “Tell me where you’re coming from.”
This urge to mould something new and bold, but culturally familiar, is something that has seeped through to many of the emerging artists in Nairobi. With years of colonisation and subsequent autocracy, there was an artistic “erasure of our own essence” which is now being enthusiastically redressed and has bred a furtive spirit of collaboration. “We are now at this point where we know of each other’s potential,” Bill says.
However, for all the collaboration happening within the scene, Bill insists that expressing himself always takes precedence. “I want to be able to say what I want to say and make the sounds that I want to make without carrying a flag with me everywhere saying: ‘I am representing Kenya’”, he says, “It’s not a cross that I want to bear. The intersection where my interests lie and where the sense of nationality comes in; when they align, then I’m fine with it. If they don’t align, then at the end of the day I’m representing myself and my ideas.”