Three years ago, the Kenyan music industry was rocked by complaints that Kenyan radio stations were not playing Kenyan music. In the wake of this Play Kenyan Music campaign, there was a revolution of sorts, and it wasn’t televised, it played out on the internet first. 

I’m talking about the rise of Gengetone. I remember at the time telling some friends that Wamlambez was something like a call to national unity — they called out wamlambez and we shouted back wamnyonyez. It didn’t matter if we understood what the words meant. The moment was ripe and shimmering, the music electric. It was the time of Gengetone, a genre that had started in the hood, with poor quality videos and hood girls vixening unskillfully. And the tool of dissemination: YouTube. These kids were made famous by views on You Tube. If it had been left to Kenyan radio, they might never have risen. But for some reason, the music appealed to the masses and the rest of the entertainment industry just had to play ball. 2019 was the year of Gengetone. Then Covid happened and halted the rise of the genre.

And that’s when something else slipped through the cracks. They wore masks that covered their faces and called themselves drillers. Their genre was Drill, a gritty, fast-paced rap sound that had been perfected in the UK after being invented in the US. In the UK, Drill has been linked to knife violence. A large number of Drill rappers are in gangs and their lyrics are very often true accounts of their violent exploits (or so I gleaned from my short and scary research). 

Drill took off in Kenya in 2020, the year of Covid. It helped that masks are popular among Drill rappers, the perfect music for the paranoid Covid era. Drill is like a violent version of Trap, to put it simplistically. The difference being that, Drill is characterized by dark, gritty lyricism. Octopizzo’s song Che Che, which was one of my favourite songs of 2020, though it uses Drill beats, doesn’t quite measure up. Octo’s fun but unmeaningful rhymes are not gritty, they do not document the grim realities of life in the hood. Of course genres are expandable, but at this point, especially owing to the impact of the violent UK Drill scene, a Drill song has to be gritty and REAL. 

The common themes in Kenyan Drill include police brutality, criminality in the hood, marijuana, and hustling. In this way, thematically, it has a lot in common with Gengetone, the genre that had taken the country by storm in the pre-Covid era. The difference being while Gengetone was bacchanalian, Drill does not indulge in escapism. Drill rappers nail down the brutal realities in naked simplicity, no sugar-coating. Another similarity between the two genres is the use of “deep” Sheng. Finally, just as with Gengetone, there is a tendency for Drill rappers to exist in collectives. Gengetone has Ochungulo Family, Ethic, Boondocks Gang, Sailors Gang, and the Gengetone-adjacent hip hop group Mbogi Genje. And Drill has GTA, Buruklyn Boyz, Geri Soweto, Olezz Family, and the focus of this article: Wakadinali.

Wakadinali is a collective comprising three rappers: Scar, Domani Munga, and Sewersydaa. However, they have, working with them, a larger collective known as Rong Rende which includes the lyrically lethal female rapper Dyana Cods.

The group Wakadinali has been around for a long time. It started with Domani Munga and Scar who were friends since childhood in Umoja. Domani says he started rapping and writing in primary school. His friend Scar was also into hip hop and had memorized a ton of lines from his favourite songs. That was childhood. Apparently, they chose the name Wakadinali, cardinals, because they believed they would be the saints who would save hip hop.

Most hip hop lovers, however, only got the first glimpse of Wakadinali in one of Khaligraph Jones’s cypher productions. Khaligraph is undisputedly the biggest rapper in the country right now and possibly the Kenyan rapper that has gone furthest in terms of fame and international acclaim. His clout is continental. Last year he got a BET nomination. Jones has a cypher series called the Khali Cartel, of which he has given us three editions. In these cyphers, he features artists he believes should get more attention. For instance, some of us didn’t know about Bey T until she was featured in 2019’s Khali Cartel 3. The first Khali Cartel was released in 2017, a very simple but powerful video of Jones and the other rappers huddled together in a Mafioso-like boardroom. But before Khali Cartel, there was a cypher I would call the proto-Khali-Cartel, or the Khali Cartel before Khali Cartel. And that is the cypher simply titled Khaligraph Jones Presents. This was in 2016. On it you will see Domani Mkadinali and Scar Mkadinali.

2016 is five years ago. But most people who don’t listen to hip hop didn’t know about Wakadinali until their 2020 album “Victims of Madness”. Before that they had done several albums, including the very popular Ndani ya Cockpit 2. But it was the bangers on the Drill album “Victims of Madness” that catapulted the group into mainstream fame. Songs like Extra Pressure, Avoid those People, and Morio Anzenza were and still are very exciting. This album was my real introduction to Rong Rende about two months ago, though I had listened to several singles here and there. 

Wakadinali started out doing boom bap like the serious rappers they are. Listen to Rong Cypher. They had solid underground respect, but it was proving difficult for them to break into the mainstream. Lil Wayne in 2006 rapped: “I’m one sell-out record from being famous”. There are those who believe that once a rapper stops doing boom bap and starts trapping or drilling, they have sold out. But while all rappers may be equal, some are more equal than others. Wakadinali used a lot of trap on Ndani ya Cockpit 2, and it’s a beloved record. Then on Victims of Madness, they took Drill and wakadinalized it. I would say Drill is fortunate for having been chosen. Their Drill songs sound authentic and unique. Their identities are not submerged in the powerful beats, they shine brighter. They have domesticated Drill and given it an authentic Nairobi feel.

When rappers create a group, sometimes some of the members lose their identity, or rather they don’t stand out. You might know the group and one or two of its biggest artists but everyone else is a blur. You know a group is strong when each of the members is identifiable. For instance, who doesn’t know Mbogi Genje comprises Militan, Smady, and Guzman? Who didn’t know that P-Unit had Bon-eye, Frasha, and Gabu? I always think of it as how in a superhero group, each hero must bring something unique to the table. When you talk about Avengers, you know each of the heroes, their personalities, and their superpowers: Black Widow, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, and so forth.

Wakadinali comprises three distinct rappers. The three understand their strengths, and how they arrange their appearances on songs is proof.

Domani sings the hook. He is the most energetic of the members. He is a rockstar, frankly. His lines are funny, witty, memorable. He and Scar are the fan favourites. Domani is, I think, the most talented and most versatile in the crew. I think he’s the one who makes them innovative.

Scar is the quintessential rapper who goes for the crown. No wonder Khaligraph believes he is the best in the game right now. Most fans agree. His song “Kovu” went viral when practically every rapper in the game, including Khaligraph Jones, jumped on the song’s beat to freestyle. In fact, Mbogi Genje’s song “Kidungi” was their Kovu challenge attempt. Scar’s rapping stands out in Ndani ya Cockpit 2. He embodies the King attitude, which I think explains why he is easily the most popular in the group: Hip Hop loves a healthy ego, He is practically Khaligraph Jones. Scar was one of the rappers Khaligraph chose to judge the Odinare challenge. Domani and Scar are the two forces that make Wakadinali a juggernaut. But in between is Sewersydaa who is easy to miss.

Sewersydaa is a quiet assassin. He’s like a ninja. A lyrical assassin. His lines sound simple at first listen, but very clever when you think about it. His style is not flashy or in your face like the other two, and he usually raps in the middle. He is criminally underrated. He is also the socially conscious in the group. Domani and Sewersydaa are two of my favourite rappers in the country for their ability to write simple, declarative sentences that are deep on second look. They are excellent storytellers. Their writing, especially Sewersydaa’s achieves Hip Hop’s goal of being “the ghetto CNN”. It’s like a guy shitposting what he is seeing or experiencing. Here are some of my favourite examples:

“Saa hii tumesota na kocha alituonyesha tutaomoka na soka.”

“Umenyonga monkey na uko lockdown mpaka umechoka.”

“Donda aligeuka donga. Ligi za mat ka tatu kwa route. Ubaya sasa amesota, naskia siku hizi ye hukuwanga mbachu mabooze.”

“Pastor alikula kondoo na mbegu haikua imegrow.”

“Naona marithe zitakuwa cheap Biden akikalia hiyo seat.”

“Eastlando kwa izo maclub madingo wasmart wanakunywa kwa chupa.”

They are like reporters telling you a news story, usually a crime story. Sometimes I imagine them poring over crime reports and saying, “Hmm, this would make a good line”. The DCI writer’s storytelling is mirrored in their lyricism. For instance, in the song Njege Masanse, Munga’s pen goes: “Njege masanse wakwende. Walinifinya kende ju ya kuseti kwangu.” A depiction of police brutality.

Or Sewerysdaa painting a picture of Kenyan politics and a riot: “Front row kwa riot walidedi hata before revolution ianze. Some days to ballot naona MCA ndio amekuja kuresume kazi. First time in public na amekuja kuwacrush kama kamikaze … Tuko na ma-afande hii pande wanangoja kureceive orders from sergeant.” It’s rioters vs the police.

That line “tuko na ma-afande hii pande” is exactly how a reporter on NTV news or CNN would report from a riot scene. Sewersydaa has made his pen a camera and with that simple line, he has put us in the scene, we are watching and waiting with him and the other rioters for the afandes to receive the orders from sergeant so mayhem can rain. Man, that is what I call perfect writing! The man knows how to tell a story economically yet effectively.

Some lines are funny. Like Domani saying, “Nilijam msanse akahepa.” Or Sewersydaa: “Kuna siku nimeuliza Alexa kama anajua Siri akasema zii.” Scar: “Uliza Munga, avocado zetu ukifinya unanunua” (perhaps a callback to another song where Munga said, “ukiguza unalipa”).

Some lines are just shitposting with no message but it still sounds good to the ear. So good you will find me randomly mumbling, “West Pokot tulienda. Lonyangapuo tulimsupply Machevra.”

Good storytelling, slices of life, snapshots of what happens in the hood. Crimes, riots, run-ins with the police, baze ya jaba tall tales, escapades with women, hustling and so forth.  

The snapshots are also charmingly mundane, like Domani saying, “Kuna matha ningemwokotea kibeti but angeniita thegi”. A simple yet vivid line which tells so much that you could unpack it in an entire PhD: on the stigma young men especially in the hood face, of being profiled as potential criminals. Remember the boys that were killed by a mob in Kitengela when they were suspected of being cattle rustlers?

In one interview I saw on You Tube, Domani explained the importance of making music that is relatable to the person in Eastlands. The group won’t rap about a lifestyle they don’t live or which their fans can’t relate to. I liked that he used Mejja as an example. Mejja has maintained relevance for a decade and a half due to his relatable music. This was the appeal of the original Genge and its bastard child, Gengetone (Genge is its mother and dancehall its father).

Victims of Madness is one of the most entertaining albums you will listen to. I have listened to it probably twenty times and I enjoy listening to it still. The combo of banger beats with great writing is irresistible. How did the boombap-loving kings of underground end up making a Drill album? In the aforementioned interview, Domani talked about Gengetone. He said that he wouldn’t necessarily use that genre himself as it would make him look silly, in the sense of jumping on a trend aimlessly. But nevertheless, he said he endeavours to stay AWARE. It is this awareness that has enabled him to introduce a more current sound to Rong Rende. The best example of this is the song Geri Inengi on his recently released album Exposed.

Thanks to this versatility, Wakadinali is not trapped in any genre. Not boom bap, not trap, not Drill. And due to their idiosyncratic strengths as individual rappers, no matter what genre they rap in, they sound like themselves.

To quote Munga: “Our first album Ndani ya Cockpit 1 was boom bap, our second body of work Ndani ya Cockpit 2 was trap, and Victims of Madness was drill. This shows we are versatile and can do it all. Fans should expect more surprises from us going forward.”

The three rappers complement each other well: Munga brings the versatility and adaptability they need to shine and remain relevant in the mainstream, Sewersydaa brings the excellent writing, and Scar brings the Kingly attitude, and a fat ego to boot. All three are indefatigable lyricists who are constantly innovating the Wakadinali soundscape.  

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