What measures a timeless? What makes a song relevant 5, 10, 30, 33 years later? What makes a song a classic?
It is 1998, a Saturday evening. I was listening to a Metro FM show that ran between 5 – 7pm as I did my laundry and the presenter says this is a new track from the already famous Kalamashaka. Being a big fan for their biggest hit, Tafsiri Hii and because I identified with the message they put across, I was going to pay attention to this one.
2008. Am in the office on a slow Saturday, and in my play list is the Ni Wakati album by the same group. Some somber piano keys, followed by drum kicks as Oteraw aka Rawbar spits the first verse amid Large Professor like scratches fused with a flute and strings announce the track ‘Niokowe’ and I stop everything else to listen to this timeless rap.
Subject: Ranges from stealing from public coffers, tribal wars, peace, unity, poverty, oppressive government, assassinations, joblessness and its harsh realities, the aftermath of unrests and heartless leadership.
The first verse, Rawbar (a KU graduate) talks of being educated and is without a job. His MP has vanished and will reappear at the onset of the next election. 1998 was just after the 97 elections. How many of our MPs play Keyser Soze on us today? Kamaa contemplates being a thug as a result of being idle and jobless. But he is afraid of the harsher realities of uncooked ugali at Indaaz Remand prison. The torture he might have to endure. Picture Kamiti Prison? He tells us of a friend who lies six feet under in Langata after being shot with a live bullet during a street protest. Those who remember the street demos of 97 & 98 led by today’s Land’s Minister Orengo will identify with Kamaa’s line of thought.
The chorus, which is also the hook is done by Vigeti aka Johnie is easy to go with and is a prayer that resonates with the listener.
“Mungu wangu niokowe,
Tabu uzitoe, roho yangu nayo ipoe,
Mungu wangu niokowe,
Rawbar comes again and this time talks of those bright students who can’t afford school fees, those who can’t have a meal because there is no peace as our leaders who have no heart trot the globe. Think of IDPs. He also mentions Mobuto Seseko who still dies after grabbing Zaire’s (Renamed DRC in 97) wealth and today; DRC still undergoing the same violence they suffered in the 90s. Johnie with probably the most skillful flow, starts with how a policeman shoots his friend and nonchalantly declares it looks like their victim has surrendered. This reminds me of the protester shot in Kisumu by an officer for doing a monkey dance infront of him during the post election violence. He then goes on amid loud gun shots,
“Kumi na tisa kwenye dinga, Ati ajali!
sisi si wajinga,Kwani chali mweusi ye-hawezi drive gari kali,
nani ataniambia mahali, okuo vice versa yuko?”
10 years later, even after a commission was formed to solve the murder of Ouko, we still don’t know those behind his killing.
Then Kamaa ruminates,
“hebu fikiria, amani bila maisha ama maisha bila amani,
amani bila maisha, nadhani haiwezekani,
na binadamu wanaweza, ishi bila kukosana,
sidhani, hata ukikazana,
cheki Njoro, Molo, hii sorrow,
watoto wamebaki bila wazazi,
Wee huoni hata Likoni, system ya wakoloni watumia,
Divide and rule imeingia”
Johnie then ponders why tribes are so separate like oil and water, as if we are not humans, like we are not Adam’s offspring; we have refused to share a piece of bread and we are shamelessly drowning in greed for grabbed riches as our children who are the future watch. The last verse ends as he challenges you the listener to stand up against the status quo and join the ‘a million man match’ for change. The song ends with the three doing the hook together in a rhythmic fashion with timely chants ‘ahh ahh’.
Listening to this song you notice how they apply a complex internal rhyming style in their verses. A style only used by experienced and clever rappers like Rakim, Nas, GZA to mention a few. Their flow is without notable flaw. At some point you think they are about to loose their breath but it is what enhances the song’s rhythm. Like Tafsiri, its sets the standards of how to flow, how to rhyme, and 10 years after, few of todays pretend rappers can match them. The production actuates the rappers fittingly. It puts some loose productions we hear today to shame considering the standards are higher now or so we think.
What is mystifying is that the message in this song still stands after all these years.
To me this is the measure of a timeless, the distinctness. The make of a classic. 10 years seem such a long time, but we might woefully be addressing same issues 2018. Hope not.