“All music is political,” a friend once told me. Even the cheesy love songs that teenagers sing along to on the radio. Many philosophical schools of thought agree that expression through art is inherently a political exercise. History is littered with examples where works of art have had direct political messages, either challenging the status quo or supporting it. Music is one of the post popular and powerful forms of art in the modern age, especially hip hop, which was made by African Americans to make sense of their beleaguered status as the least prosperous demographic.
The genre has been popular in Kenya since the 90’s churning out local stars, who like their international counterparts rapped and continue to about a multitude of subjects like love, money, success, and even politics. Khaligraph Jones is underrated as a political rapper, his name rarely appears when conversations around political rap come up. Names like King Kaka, Octopizzo, and Juliani. Deservedly these acts have within their discographies some of the best known political anthems. King Kaka and Juliani are stellar lyricists and have made careers out of being conscious rappers, but it is quite alright to argue that their mainstream success can be attributed to their abilities to balance their discographies with club-friendly bangers. The same can be said of new school acts Wakadinali.
Khaligraph’s Political Songs
Khaligraph’s political songs are not as many as those of his contemporaries, and some of his most potent political messages are hidden within songs that are not expressly political. Whatever he lacks for in quantity is made up for in quality, and in a sense vibrancy. The Kayole-born rapper is a larger-than-life personality with an acquired taste for engaging in confrontation, that sees him mention names. This loads his songs with more meaning, elevating them above empty platitudes and slogans.
Khaligraph’s latest release, Minimal Pressure, is a compelling track that showcases the rapper’s lyrical prowess while addressing timely socio-political issues. The song has no apparent political theme at first, and even the chorus is tied to Khaligraph recalling the hurdles he went through to be a successful rapper. It is only in the verses, do the listeners start getting anecdotes of his views on some of the current socio-political issues. He talks about the cost of living for example, calling out the Kenya Kwanza government for failing to deliver its promises to institute what it called during campaigns a bottom-up economy, promising that it would work for the lower classes.
He gives his thoughts on the state co-opting artistry to push its agenda, making a snide remark about how the artists that disagree with the government are called to the Statehouse to be laid hands upon-the statement is an entendre that also speaks to the religiosity of the regime. Yet as he loads the song with lines about Pr.McKenzie and the Shakahola massacre, he still finds time to talk about his achievements in acting and wealth growth. This is how Khaligraph mostly addresses political issues by sandwiching them between other themes.
In the Khali Cartel 2 cypher, his verse starts off as a brag of a man that just won a continental award. However, as it goes on he finds space to talk about the structural problems that the music industry in Kenya is facing, calling out the fans, the media, and government agencies involved. The most important political work Khaligraph has done in my view, is his famous #playKE crusade- leveraging his bullish tendencies to confront media personalities whom he deemed as the weakest link in the quest to make Kenyan music popular on radio. In numerous other songs, he has called out companies, organizations and personalities by name, positioning himself as the mascot who brutally points out that the industry is naked.
2022’s Usiache Akemewe Freestyle is perhaps O.G’s most direct attempt at having a full-on political song. In the number released some weeks after the election, he urges President Ruto to reign on his supporters who he felt spoke ill of his close competitor, Raila Odinga. He says the insults are uncalled for, and are only making the healing process harder for the voters whose candidate did not clinch the presidency. Earlier in the year, he had released his sophomore album Invisible Currency, a body that showed his lyricism and had most critics like Unkut Africa CEO Ruby V calling it mature. In this body, the rapper makes a fair number of references to politics in songs like Hiroshima with Canadian rapper DAX,Tsunami with Scar Mkadinali and Bad Dreams. Bad Dreams is more elaborate in its theme, as it tells from the first person account, the story of a young man involved in crime. With his life being hard due to poverty he is convinced by a friend to enter a carjacking gang by a friend called Njoro. When the day arrives, he realizes that Njoro was just a DCI informer who set him up.
The song is littered with examples of brutality poor urban youth face and does a good job of pointing out that despite the faults faults of young men like this, their stories are not one dimensional. The brutal nature of extrajudicial killings is carried out by cops with blood thirst and little supervision. In Hiroshima, he dedicates a brief moment to discuss music politics and the state of the Kenyan industry blaming and relating the problems it faces on endemic corruption that is let to run loose by successive regimes.
The song Ni Wakati is an activist anthem that calls on society to fight poverty which he calls oppressive and undignified. The solution, he says, can be found in the common man putting aside his differences, and fighting for themselves.The hook states,”ni wakati wa sisi wote kupendana, haijalishi ukabila uwe mzee au kijana.”The verses detail how pretentious the political class is, only making time for constituents when it is time for elections. The number is part of The Take Over Mixtape that was re-released in 2020
Khaligraph has also worked with other artists to promote political consciousness. Most notably just before the 2022 election,he was part of a group of Kenyan artists that worked with Sauti Sol on the Tujiuangalie EP, a short project dedicated to achieving the aforementioned cause. In My Head explores the cognitive gaps that the electorate shows when election results show up. Khaligraph’s verse follows Bien’s verse and precedes a bridge performed by Savara. On it, he addresses the poor choices the electorate seems to make, with a nuanced take. He blames the politicians for lying, pointing out that even the new faces easily sell out. He then shifts the blame to the voters who he calls fools saying, that electing a politician with a corruption allegation is like handing money to a robber. He explains that the national psyche has been captured by love for money, that cash handouts is the only language that the voters are willing to listen to.