Story by Benjamin Lebrave
Kenya keeps surprising me. The first shock came two and a half years ago when I discovered Just A Band. More recently I linked up with Anto, who in turn pointed me towards a young female rapper going by the name of YOme. And that’s where it all links together: YOme’s dad! is a multi-faceted producer I’ve had the pleasure of working with in the past: Robert Wawesh Wawero, one of the founders of fantastic non-profit label Penya Africa, home to incredible artists such as Sauti Sol, Muthoni the Drummer Queen, and… Just A Band.
It had been a while since I last spoke to Wawesh, who is no longer involved with Penya. As it turns out he relocated to Mombasa, the second largest city in Kenya, a place with a much more laid back vibe than Nairobi, and enough white sand beaches for days. The coastal area of Kenya (like the coastal area of Tanzania) is at the heart of Swahili culture and language. I’ve heard great stuff coming from Zanzibar and Dar-es-Salaam. I’m a fiend for Bi Kidude or Offside Trick. But coastal Kenya? I draw a blank.
True to himself, Wawesh is not only schooling me, but also pioneering a new sound there, and is already involved with a number of promising young artists. In particular, his daughter YOme and Swahili rap duo Wazushi. One of the first results yielding from these collaborations is the song featured here, “Via,” which means swag or being fly. I love the sample Wawesh used. I imagine a muezzin chanting early morning over hot, sleepy Mombasa. Except this is the bass heavy, street-ready version.
Download: Wazushi and YOme, “Via”
I picked “Via” out of a handful of tracks Wawesh made with YOme and Wazushi. It’s dark, layered, and gets my head bobbing uncontrollably. But the other songs, some of which you can check out here, are pretty amazing too. What I thought was nuts is that YOme, born in 1997, is into hip hop that came out before she was even born. Once I got past the realization that I’m getting old, and that the hip hop I listen to is now usually referred to as “golden era hip hop” or worse, “old school hip hop,” I could not help but wonder: How can YOme be so deep into Biggie or Tupac?
I suppose it helps to have a producer dad. It also helps to have a dancer mom. Although Wawesh is Kenyan, YOme’s mom is Salvadorian, and YOme grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden. Pretty far from Brooklyn or Oakland, but that didn’t keep YOme from learning the lyrics to entire songs and developing her own flow. Wawesh could not believe his ears the first time he heard her spit “Big Poppa” in its entirety. Luckily he has the tools to turn her talent into top notch songs, and I’m very curious to hear what comes out of this family affair. As for Wazushi, Tyga and Rapiz are two of many in this old school Mombasa posse. From hip hop to lifestyle clothing, Wazushi runs Mombasa’s underground. Now armed with Wawesh’s tight beats, they might actually prosper beyond Mombasa’s streets.
Wawesh’s ambition is not just to hand pick groups and develop them. His real plan launch what he calls resource centers for the urban poor—places where people can learn how to create quality beats, which software to use and how to take a project beyond the studio and into the real world. As he puts it, “In Kenya there are small islands of people re-inventing the wheel, there is no central point of knowledge.” What he means is that when you acquire skills informally, you may have an advantage over the people around you, but once you look at a broader picture, you may be doing what many have already perfected. Wawesh wants to see information flowing so people can take arts and culture further.
In a place like Sweden, where Wawesh spent many years, you can keep learning, experimenting and find access to loads of information. In the end, you can sharpen your skills and perfect your art. So once you get past the quality of Wawesh’s beats, this is the real piece he is bringing to Mombasa—building cultural capacity. I commend him on this mission, and hope I can someday prolong it in a place like Ghana, where I live, and where I see the exact same problems. Bahati nzuri!