I’ve watched the underground grow worldwide.
The affect of it’s influence on my life is nearly beyond measure, but I’ll put it to you simply like this –
Before I knew the underground scene was alive and thriving, I was pretty much ready to die.
I know. This sounds like a dramatic statement. But, just like the lyrics of our newly beloved rappers and singers discovered on soundcloud (whose mix tapes speak of an overwhelming desire to die before becoming a mind-controlled robot…) I assure you it is neither an artsy exaggeration, nor a pretentious cry for attention. It’s genuinely true. Life doesn’t seem worth living, when you’re forced to live a life that feels irrelevant to you… And so, for any person who considers art a relief from daily anxiety and who also does not connect with what the “mainstream” media offers to us as “art” …It starts to feel like you’re being forced to live in a world that belongs to someone else. You see your style of art nowhere. You hear your kind of music nowhere. And then, when you decide to create your own, you are told that no one will want that either.
Like many, I’d always wanted to be an artist, but by my young adult years, I realized something devastating:
Every paid artist I observed, blessed to functionally sustain their life in the world, was absolutely terrible.
To put things in perspective, it was the 2000’s in America. And almost every song on the radio was corny synths, commercial rap, auto tuned pop vocals and lyrics about sex that didn’t even sound sexy. Not my taste of music, to say the least. All the music my friends and I listened to was made by artists who were already dead or on their way, starving and struggling to survive. I’d just dropped out of an internationally acclaimed, liberal arts Uni, because everyone else enrolled also felt that the task of becoming a genuine artist in the modern world was vaguely suicidal. So, after scouring both Los Angeles and New York City for indie artists managing to live without working three or four other jobs in misery, I surrendered to the fact that disappearing off the face of the planet due to some drug induced ‘accident’ or hiding away in some farm upcountry – was more likely my future than a thriving career in the arts.
But then something miraculous happened.
I was 21 years old, back in Los Angeles, anti-social, lonely & bored. Another musician friend of mine dragged me to the hood to show me “something real cool.” (I don’t know why I agreed to go to that ratchet neighborhood, but I guess that just shows you how carelessly perched on the edge of life & death I was then). For whatever reason, I ended up there. And thankfully so – because the place he took me is one of the reasons I’m still here, alive writing this today. It was a local event in Cali called “Low End Theory.” And at the time when I walked through its doors, into the small, dark, windowless room with psychedelic visuals and bizarre sounds blasting, the people standing with me in the audience of approximately 20 people were those whom we now know as Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Syd the Kid, The Gaslamp Killer, Tyler The Creator, Austin Peralta… All, new age legends in their own right. What I heard and saw that night (and how authentically hyped the people around me were about this so-called ‘worthless’ ‘underground’ ‘weird’ music) genuinely saved my life.
Cut to: three years later. In Nairobi, Kenya.
Jojo Abot calls me. I’m sitting with the Homies, rehearsing some tunes. We’re a bit depressed after returning from end year in Kilifi, collectively bemoaning the fact that so many of us Nairobian, indie artists are still too spread out, divided and disorganized. How will we actually create solid momentum together? Will we? We are suspended in a brief moment of doubt. And that’s when Jojo calls.
“Want to play an impromptu workshop type show at Creatives Garage in like… two days?” She asks, laughing. I look at The Homies cringing, knowing we’re unrehearsed after a couple weeks of partying. But of course, know we’ll do it anyway.
Though I’m grateful for the invitation from an artist like Jojo, whom I undoubtedly consider a symbol of “next level Africa,” I don’t think too much of it of the little Friday gig. Until that “little Friday gig” comes. And, just like the random night in the hood three years before in LA, changes my life.
TAIO cracks me up as we walk through the gate, tucked away just off Kirichwa Rd. “Oh shit. It’s literally, a garage,” he says.
In the graffiti’d entry way, we see friends of ours. Other Nairobi-indies whose fashion, music, film, poetry, journalism & graphic design games are on point. Next level Africa, for real. Instantly, I feel myself relax a bit more. As independent as I am, it’s always reassuring to see more of us in the same place at the same time, united in all our non-“mainstream” glory together.
Everyone we run into is super friendly. Chillin. Good vibes. It’s like approaching the door to a close homie’s place for a neighborhood grilling session.
We enter the main room, whose walls are painted bright red. A small stage area steps down into a small standing area, lined by a row of cushions. A mini kitchenette/countertop has been converted into a DJ/mixing board station and a house party bar. Beer, wine & other bottles are clustered together with a makeshift pricing sign. So far, I still have no idea what’s going on.
Finishing a creative workshop, Jojo tells me they’re ready to set up, soundcheck and start in a second. I nod, smiling, unsure of everything, except for the fact that I’m happy to be with real artist homies, somewhere outside of my own home for once. I stand in the backyard by the picnic tables, shouting to my friends on the upper level patio, nestled above a treacherously narrow and rusty spiral staircase.
“OK” says Jojo reappearing, an actual second later. “Let’s go.”
And then things happen very fast.The lights are dimmed, replaced by others that glow various colors in multiple directions. A projection screen rolls down on the back wall and ridiculously dope visuals begin flip booking across its surface.
I lay out a fabric of crystals, faery lights, incense and tarot cards in the middle of the stage, wondering if anyone will tell me I “can’t put that there.” But instead, everyone comes by to take pictures of it. The soundcheck is fast and the homies doing their best to help us actually listen, actually take time, actually care. People filter in from outside and upstairs, crowding together in the small standing room. Then, just to top it all off, someone steps behind the kitchenette counter and starts to DJ.
If this was a movie, it’d be the part where I have a trippy flashback so vivid that I nearly faint. Because suddenly, I feel like I’m in a virtual world, standing in two dimensions at once. One of me is in LA, at Low End Theory for the first time three years ago, and the other me is here, halfway across the world in Nairobi – now. The music playing, the faces present, the whole vibe… is like deja vu. Suddenly, I’m recalling places I’ve experienced in the past three years – across London, France & America – that echo this rich underground movement. Places whose indie scenes have become so strong that their once doomed-to-starve-in-obscurity artists are now being nominated for Grammys, scoring feature films and designing high fashion clothing lines. And in this moment, I’m absolutely sure that Nairobi’s art scene is destined for an epic fate. The underground is not awakening anymore. It is woke.
The gig goes by in a blur of radical moments and high vibrations. Everyone is huddled together. Strangers and friends, all family. Jojo Abot & Blinky Bill sit in lotus at the foot of the stage, Wild_Child & Chale Slim are dancing in their zone, Nu Fvnk, Ukweli & Jinku nod in psyche at the beat game. The following week, when return to see Yellow Light Machine, Delasi & Lake Montgomery. And the same explosive feeling fills my soul. All of these artists, whose names might sound familiar to some and unknown to others, are the names of artists whom I swear that you and the rest of the world will know very well. Very soon. I still remember the first day I left Low End Theory saying, “Shit, he was amazing! Whats his name again? Flying Lo… What?” Few would have known that within a few years he’d be making records with Erykah Badu & Kendrick Lamar.
Spaced out by the front door of the red room, lost in this moment of reflection, Buddha Blaze passes by and smiles at me. Longtime friends at this point, we’ve had many endless conversations about how unaware most Nairobians are of what magic gems we have here – and what the future can hold for those who stay on their game and keep it moving.
“This is it, huh?” He says, throwing me a pound as we’re separated in the tight crowd. “It’s happening,” I smile back at him, nodding like a fool, grateful that someone else sees what I do.
As we’re about to leave, TAIO gently takes Jojo by the shoulder.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” he says. “All of us were waiting around Nairobi, in our own rooms and studios making this stuff and wanting to take Kenya to the next level… But it took a woman from Ghana to help us do it.”
The endlessly modest Jojo just giggles and, returning the compliment, says it’s not her, it’s us.
We embrace and leave, amped for next week. As the gravel crunches underfoot en route to our car, I look back at the lingering silhouettes outside, laughing, dancing. Someone like Jojo might not yet know the greater impact of her own hard work and generous contributions in curating the Afri-Na-Ladi residency here. She might not yet understand that she’s saving the lives of more artists like me. Or maybe she does… Because maybe that same intense need is what inspired her to create her own.
Either way, one thing is certain.
It’s not just her. And it’s not just us.
It’s all of us.
Article By: Marushka T Mujic | Photography by: Amy Visuals | Luther | Nu Fvnk | Marushka
See you Tonight @CreativesGarage for the next episode in this series.