From Kapuka to Gengetone: The Evolution of Kenyan music

Rear view of a producer in studio. [iStockphoto]

In mid-April, artistes, deejays, sound engineers, TikTokers and other content creators filled up Nairobi Street Kitchen for the official launch of Arbantone. 

An ordinary evening where the rains threatened to dampen the party, this was arguably the first time in the history of the country’s contemporary music that a genre was being officially launched.

Arbantone is revolutionary, a genre that repurposes earlier hits to make hits, and as one of its adherents sing-raps, ‘Genge na beat ya TBT inafanya Kenya ichizi, doba ni 254, na tuliwawon!’ 

At the launch, there were heavyweights, with Nameless, Pinye, Frasha, Breeder LW, Mejja, Motif, and Zerro Sufuri in attendance, alongside the tens of Gengetone and Arbantone artistes. The event was sponsored by Safaricom, Smirnoff, Wozi, and True Tribe. 

‘Arbantone inabamba, Arbantone to the world’ said Mejja, an old-school storyteller whose ability to weave into any pop genre is a story on its own. 

Besides the launch of the genre, the highly charged event also saw the launch of a look and a logo. It had scarves, and other merchandise in what’s reminiscent of the Ogopa Deejays, iconography when everyone wanted the conspicuously bald man on their chest. 

And just last weekend, Motif Di Don, the sound engineer and artiste who has taken the genre and owned its form and style, was at Quiver Thika Road, launching the official Arbantone club tour.

Dancefloors is a befitting destination for a genre that has gotten the clubs by storm, stormed deejay mixes and bulldozed into streaming numbers, with songs like the aptly named Tiktoker, by Soundkraft, Tipsy Gee, Gody Tennor and Kappy raking in 10 million views.

“Despite people assuming Arbantone is just a wave, it has withstood the backlash and we see bangers being dropped every day,” said Deejay Benn on Point.

But before Arbantone, a genre that is very Gen Z in boldness and creativity, became the talk of the town. Kenya's contemporary scene, which is less than three decades old, has seen a fight define its sounds.

Kapuka this, kapuka that! Though the name started as a diss from Rap group K South, who were bored and critical of the predictable Kapuka groove, Ogopa Deejays took it in stride and ran away with it.

At the time, Ogopa was playing a major role in shaping the industry, crafting hits and establishing young Pulsers as major celebrities, a strong list that included the late E-Sir, Nameless, Deux Vultures, Amani and Longombas.

Nameless [Instagram]

DNA, an award-winning artiste and entertainment mogul with interests beyond music, said that Kapuka was what he aspired to rap in.

“As an artiste, the sound that inspired me was Kapuka. I was a hip hop artiste when I started, and by the time I got to Jomino Entertainment, Ogopa and Calif were big, and kapuka ilinibamba sana,” said Mr Banjuka, a song that will go down as one of the biggest hits Kenya has ever had.

“Nameless and E-Sir were who I was looking up to and tried to copy. I also tried to ape what Jua Cali was doing,” he added, which explains why his style has always been described as Genge.  

While kapuka was revving, Ogopa artistes tried to define their sound as Boomba, which is neither here nor there, even though Nameless and E-Sir’s 2003 hit was aptly named Boomba Train.

And Ogopa’s dominance will always be tied to the hip with Calif’s, an alternative sound that started in the other side of town, Eastlands. 

“Genge as a genre has hip hop elements when we rap, but we localised and made our beats unique to our culture,” Jua Cali said.

Made to connect with the youth through a narrative style that made heavy use of Sheng, the sound catapulted Nonini, Jua Cali, Jimwat, and Mejja to the national consciousness, and has arguably remained relevant long after Ogopa ‘died’.

Deejay Benn On Point said Kapuka and Genge are the true north for any genre that has come after. 

“The best sound was the Kapuka and Genge era since most of the songs cut across all generations even today.... ata GenZ can easily sing along,” he said. “We easily identify with that era of Kenyan music.”

From Genge, Kenrazy and Visita started shouting ‘Ghipuka’ whenever they were asked what sound they were creating from Grandpa Records, another seminal powerhouse that had DNA, Sosuun, Dufla Dilligon, Amileena, and Mr Nice, at one point.

Visita and Kenrazy. [Instagram]

According to its proponents, Ghipuka was a mishmash of Genge and Kapuka, a boom-pap sound that was also very streetlike. And from Ghipuka, we got Fimbo ya 1, 2 and 3, Tempo, Tichi and other dancefloor bangers like Biringisha and Rede.

In between the great shift from Genge to Gengetone, the industry entertained a few studios, and producers, who created unique sounds that, though they captured the imagination of the country with hits, were very concentrated on only small acts.

Musyoka’s prints in the industry are indelible, creating hits, bangers, new sounds and new acts, here and abroad, at Homeboyz and his own Decimal Records with a consistency that remains unmatched two decades later, even though he did not subscribe to any particular sound.

As A-Star on his CTA podcast described him, “Musyoka is a hitmaker and music producer. He has made his bones producing some of the popular names in music, in turn shaping the tune of the music industry.”

Pacho’s ‘Na tuko tu Pacho kwani boss iko nini?’, fronted by Naiboi, Timmy T Dat, Kansoul and was more of a signature than a distinctively mass sound, with artistes coming into the studio for hits, than an identity.  

But Benga and Afro-Fusion's influence cannot also be ignored, with some artistes, though a niche pocket, managing to bubble up and stay afloat with an alternative sound that spun through Dan Aceda, Sauti Sol and its generation, and lives through modern Rhumba through the likes of Wanavokali and Max Okello.

The Recording Academy of the US announced in mid-2023 that Genge would be recognised as a Grammy Awards category starting 2024.

Jua Cali was elated; “We started this as a dream about 24 years ago. It has taken that long to be actualised and for international recognition to include us in the Grammy Awards,” he said.

Jua Cali [Instagram]

In the entirety of urban music, Genge has had the most impact and the biggest lifeline. And the irony is that, like Genge, Gengetone has faced a lot of opposition for being lewd, grungy and not good enough.

The nod from the Recording Academy was a testament that Gengetone is the sound that has gone the furthest.

Gengetone, which started hitting in the mid-2010s, and kept the country rocking throughout the pandemic period coincided with the explosion of the internet and streaming platforms and has the most numbers.

While explaining the popularity of the genre through its popular ‘Gengetone Fire’ playlist, which was launched in 2021, Spotify attributed it to a youth movement that has instant access to the internet, making it easier to become mainstream music.

The data also showed that Gengetone spiked between 6 pm and 8 pm, hours after college classes, or as pre-party music.

So, because Genge has had the most impact, and the biggest lifeline, is it safe to say that Genge is the sound of Kenya?

According to DNA, Kenya has always had a sound, one that evolves, but always remains true to what rocked before.

“All of these sub-sounds or genres are African dance music at the end of the day. They are danceable beats whenever you hear them. 

“Right now, Arbantone ndio inatesa, which comes from Gengetone, which comes from Genge… you see the chain? In the end, every generation borrows from the previous sounds and artistes,” said DNA.

Deejay Top Donn, while hosting a panel discussion in 2021 titled So What defines the Kenyan Sound?’, said that the Kenyan sound has no definition.

“Everything is genre-based. I could like a song from Fundi Konde…or somebody else, or I could like Nadia’s new song, or I could like something from Samidoh. 

“What makes them Kenyan in this essence is that they are sung by Kenyans,” he said while using South Africa as an example of a country that in 20 years, has exported Kwaito, House Music, South African Soul music, Rap and Amapiano.

Sylvia Saru [Instagram]

Deejay Benn agrees, adding, “We technically do not have a sound due to our diversity... Plus, we sing everything from hip hop, Dancehall, it all.”  


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