• The Taita star has risen to become the iconic face of women in Gengetone
Shifting from Genge to Gengetone, Kenyan youth audiences in millions are celebrating music produced by fellow youths.
Anti-corona government restrictions included freedom of movement. This pinned down young people in their neighbourhoods, such as Kayole and the greater Eastlands. With schools closed, social media easily available and young people in their millions in restricted physical spaces, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook soared to a new level as virtual sites of interaction.
This is how Gengetone and its artistes gained prominence as a new genre of Kenyan music. The genre is cantankerous, digital and action-oriented. Here is music meant to be decoded then danced to. Pacey are the beats fusing Afro-tunes with diasporic rhythms of reggae, rap and dancehall. The subject matter ranges from juvenile delinquency to innuendos of immorality and celebration of the age of youth.
The Gengetone generation currently ruling the Kenyan urban music among the youth is not an exception to this view. The music builds on the mass ideology of Genge before it. It hearkens to the nature of African music as a source of mass entertainment. However, it betrays this logic by the spirit it bears clearly of social rebellion and juvenile mischief.
In terms of production, Gengetone is a patriarchal space. Male artistes call the shots. Like hip hop and rap genres, this young genre predominantly features teams that male are. Ethic Entertainment, Boondocks Gang and Sailors Gang are all male.
In the midst of this oddity, two very young women have carved a niche for themselves in the past 24 months. The first one is an underground artiste who goes by the stage name of Silverstone. The other is Sylvia Saru, who sings as 'Ssaru'. With hit after hit, the Taita star has risen to become the iconic face of women in Gengetone.
Dubbed the “Queen of Gengetone”, Ssaru has become famous with her freestyle rap format and lyricality without parallel among peers. At just 21 years of age, she has more than 21 singles to her name. Her YouTube account reveals thousands of fans follow her art and that millions listen to the songs she sings. Her songs are available with lyrics, showcasing her poetic genius, at www.africalyrics.com.
Born in Kayole to the east of Nairobi, Ssaru has made her unique mark as a singer, songwriter and the most sought-after female rapper in Kenya today. All the major Gengetone boys’ teams have produced a song or two featuring this multi-talented young woman.
They say each election in Kenya since the defeat of Kanu has its soundtrack. Unbwoggable [Indomitable] by Gidi Maji Maji two decades ago started the trend. Twenty years after, it was the time for Sipangwingwi [Independent] by the great Gengetone artiste Extray Taniua [Tony Kinyanjui]. Extray is the lead member of the popular team Boondocks Gang, named after a cartoon series by the same name. The other members of the gang are the equally talented Odi wa Muranga (Francis Macharia) and Maddox Mkuruweng (Edward Irungu).
The hit song Sipangwingwi features Gengetone guru Tri Mio, 19, and Ssaru. It became the expression of an entire political ideology that swept across the land last year as the power of youths as a voting bloc became evident to the world. YouTube reveals millions of viewership of the song and underlined the trio as the undisputed faces of Gengetone.
The songs of Gengetone are not all about rebellion, chicanery and the celebration of villains or vice. Some are beautiful pieces of art that call for peaceful co-existence between the Gengetone teams and the youth. One such song is Kalale that features the youth icon Willis Raburu of Citizen TV and Ssaru, among other artistes. It has garnered 8 million views in two years.
Ssaru is a maestro of this genre. She is the spirit of the millions of young Kenyan women, who are claiming a slice of existence from the national cake. A millionaire already at her age, she demonstrates the energy and focus needed for one to make it in a society with cut-throat competition dominated by men supported by patriarchal ideologies.
In her single number Zitoke, Ssaru celebrates the dance culture and free spirit of the dancing youths of Nairobi. She recognises the power of audiences to any artiste worth the salt. Dhudha is another one that celebrates the female body and its contours of meaning. Comments beneath her YouTube video provide evidence that the massive fan base she has is active in recognising her artistic prowess.
“Am the baddest kwa game, nipee respect” she concludes in Dea Moda, a club-banger of note. The persona, who is a self-reflexive image of the artiste herself, announces her conflicted personality; she can be both good and bad, depending on how the world approaches.
Her actions are reactive to her surroundings. Ssaru is a tortoise whose shell is spontaneity expressed as overflowing rhymes. Ssaru is a spirit at a crossroads. Her femme fatale personas from song after song confront the worlds of masculinity with a deconstructive mentality.
In Nimerudi Tena, she asserts the valorisation of women, rebellion and resistance as beacons of independence of the self. “Makali inashinda ya wembe/Ju mi nalima hata kuliko jembe [I am sharper than a razor; In fact, more effective than a digging hoe]”, she says as she moves on to claim the ability to outrun Castor Semenya, the great South African female sprinter controversially known as a superwoman.
Indeed, each market has its acrobats, and the one called Gengetone has its fair share of such gymnasts. Most are agile and male, whose tongues twist with rhyme and rhythm in extraordinary displays of verbal arts. To demonstrate that the spirit of art is not male but manifests itself in both genders is Ssaru wa Manyaru, the finest line-owner conquering the crest of a new wave of Kenyan music, genre, street art and sub-culture.
Once can follow her on Insta here. https://www.instagram.com/sylvia_saru/
Her newest song that came out last week is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7bXaL-NLsU