A cultural exchange programme between Berlin and Nairobi explores new musical possibilities and fosters the kind of international collaboration envisioned by early hip-hop idealists.
Germans and Kenyans bond over hip-hop, forging new musical ties
It's a truth universally acknowledged, now that it's part of the cultural canon, that over 30 years, hip-hop has grown from a local dialect to become a world language; from New York City's urban ghettos, to the four corners of the globe. Interest may have come quickly after its explosion in 1979, but it took much longer for rap to become a normalised style that anyone, anywhere could adopt and adapt to their own musical environment and tongue. Its global takeover was never inevitable - either as a benign federation of local styles, or as a kind of imperial Anglophonic export imposed from the US.
For Sujatha Fernandes, author of the forthcoming book Close to The Edge: In search of the global hip-hop generation, even if an international rap utopia does not exist in the way early idealists such as Afrika Bambaata envisioned it, there are still reasons to be upbeat. "The Hip Hop Nation as a transnational space of mutual learning and exchange may not have been a concrete reality," she writes, but the abstract idea is still a powerful and positive influence. Fernandes extols the virtues of "the transient alliances that hip-hoppers imagined across boundaries of class, race and nation. Global hip-hop was always marked by a tension between the desire for transcendence and the need to speak directly to local realities." Transcendence was certainly not found to begin with, and rappers outside the US often responded to the energy of early hip-hop by copying US rap directly, in a karaoke style, or at most writing new lyrics in English, rather than a native language.
Over time the confidence and technical skill needed to create a global patchwork of local rap styles and economies has emerged. In the 2006 film Hip Hop Colony, about Kenyan hip-hop, the producer Tedd Josiah explains the idea of rap as a means of post-colonial liberation, at once an empowering affirmation of national or regional identity, and a part of something universal. "It's undescribable; it's given the youth of the world a voice of their own. It's like rock music in the Sixties. Now everyone's hipping and hopping in their own language. It's also killed the big international record companies, which is a really good thing, because now they've got to think 'let's go regional - yes, let's go regional and try and sell records of local artists in that region'. Finally, we're becoming a global village with something to offer."
While it is not known for its strength in this area, even Germany responded to rap's emergence almost immediately, with 1980's Rapper's Deutsch, a version of the pivotal Sugarhill Gang song Rapper's Delight. It's unfair to call this song the birth of German hip-hop, since it's an embarrassing novelty record made by three radio talk-show hosts, and a lot has changed since then. Fast-forward three decades and three very well-regarded German electronic music production teams were flying from Berlin to Nairobi to work with Kenya's most famous rappers.
The unusual trip was organised by one of these groups, the Teichmann Brothers (the others were Modeselektor and Jahcoozi), in association with the Nairobi outpost of the Goethe Institute, Germany's state-funded cultural envoy. What followed was a kind of cultural exchange programme, a twin-town project set to music, with the Kenyan rappers visiting Berlin in the freezing, snowy winter, and the German electronic producers abandoning their underground studios - and comfort zones - to explore new musical possibilities with vocalists from a completely different music culture.
Berlin seems ripe for a collaborative project like this. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall between East and West, it has changed in its fabric, its atmosphere and its population, and more than ever is reknowned for a thriving cultural life. The influx of East Berliners to the West, in addition to some areas being abandoned because they were in no man's land or Communist state-owned industrial zones, led to substantial depopulation, rents falling through the floor, and a huge incentive for cash-poor musicians and artists to move in and take advantage. In the last two decades the city has become synonymous with the best electronic dance music in Europe, a rival to Detroit and Chicago on the other side of the Atlantic.
"BLNRB" (BLN = Berlin, NRB = Nairobi) unites the clear-voiced confidence of a Nairobi rap scene shorn of post-colonial self-doubt, and Berlin's status as a clubbing city revered for its ability to push the right buttons, literally and figuratively; the 18-track album Welcome to the Madhouse is the result of those sessions. Two studios were established in a townhouse in Nairobi, where everyone in the project worked, performed and lived together. It attained notoriety locally, and the building became known as the Madhouse, named after a local club, but also for the frenetic buzz of creativity generated by throwing all these artists into one place, all day and all night. Reading between the lines of the testimonies of all involved, this was very much "method collaborating".
With fast internet broadband connections, many trumpeted musical partnerships now happen without the participants ever meeting each other - a vocalist sends some a capellas to a producer, who finds a good match for the sound, it's mixed down, agreed, and published. They work with ears open wide, and perhaps this blind, music-first focus has its advantages. In some ways the quintessential modern collaborative album is the cult 2003 indie-dance album Give Up by The Postal Service, in which singer Ben Gibbard and producer Jimmy Tamborello celebrated their physical distance by naming their "band" after the fact they would post recordings to each other in the mail, but never meet. Is it a coincidence that the album felt emotionally dislocated? Its key line, from its biggest hit Such Great Heights, is also its own harshest criticism: "I tried to leave this all on your machine/but the persistent beat, it sounded thin upon listening".
There must be something lost in these cases; artists who never meet are blind not only to the contexts their partner's art emerges from, but the basic humanity of the other. Now that a "jam session" has become such a hackneyed phrase, suggesting self-indulgent 1970s prog rockers, we risk ignoring its potential as an artistic method - one where collaboration takes place but the end goal, if there even is one, remains undetermined until the end is actually reached.
Appropriately the very physical locus of BLNRB's spirit is celebrated on its first full track, Madhouse, as the spot where this meeting of worlds took place. It's a collaboration between Berlin-based Jahcoozi and legendary Nairobi rappers Nazizi and Mister Abbas that surely would thrill dancers in either city. Jahcoozi themselves, as "the German half" of this track, are a strong indicator of the thriving Bohemian atmosphere of post-Cold War Berlin: a trio who trace their recent roots to Israel, Sri Lanka and the UK, as well as Germany.
"Bound to be a single entity / sitting in the NRB / smitten with the NRB" raps Sasha Perera of Jahcoozi; "Music taking over my soul, music breaking borders" responds Nazizi. In this formulation the Madhouse becomes more than just a celebrated physical space, but an encapsulation of the spirit of collaboration.
The accompanying album sleeve illuminates some of the specific attributes of the collaborative project. One track, Msoto Millions, addresses poverty and hardship on a global scale; over a reverberating Jahcoozi beat that itself sounds world-weary, Alai K's vocals are designed to capture this same sense of wide-eyed despair: and delivered with deliberate care, as Perera explains: "Alai K transformed my line, he changed the timing a little, much slower and deeper in his approach ... when I was singing the word 'millions', he came to me and said: 'You have to sound like you are dying when you get to the end of the sentence.' I looked at him with wide eyes and tried it out. It's a very African thing apparently, dropping out of energy at the end of the sentence."
The more zesty, up-tempo rhythms and deliveries fall into shadow on the wonderful Whateverman Dub, Kenyan rappers Ukoo Flani delivering the kind of deep-voiced, ominous portents of doom that the Teichmann Brothers' sparse, irregular beats and dub-style swoosh noises demand; it's a perfect match. There's a faint sound of birds tweeting in the background, but this is far too sinister to be some kind of pastoral idyll.
The best of many stand-out tracks is Take It Higher, featuring two amateur rappers of "about 12 years old", Little King and Robo, who the "official" BLNRB musicians met while doing a free party in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, and second largest in Africa after Soweto. Jahcoozi's controlled fusion of dubstep-like, boom-thwack beats and futuristic laser noises is a great bed for their talents, but it's the kids themselves who steal the show, rapping in a quick, dextrous mixture of English, Swahili and the local Nairobi patois, Sheng. Afrika Bambaata would be justifiably proud.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.