Rapping a revolution in Nairobi’s slums

23-year-old Kenyan hip-hop artist Octopizzo in Kibera. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon) Nairobi’s hip-hop sensation Octopizzo, during a tour of Kibera

Octopizzo, a hip-hop artist rising from Kibera, talks to Mike Pflanz about his contempt for US gangsta rap, representing the city’s poorest, and why music must be a business for artists to survive

GATWEKERA, April 14, 2011 (Daily Dispatches)

DD – US rap music is wildly popular in Nairobi, yet you appear keen to keep your distance from it. Why?

O – I don’t believe you can be a gangster and a rapper at the same time, you can only be one. You start singing, ‘I’m a gangster, I’m gonna kill your family’, singing that doesn’t make you a gangster. You haven’t killed anybody, they have.

I see things happen in my slum, Kibera, dead people, violence, this is real, man. Killing people is not fun, it’s not a movie, these are problems, problems we should be addressing. But that’s what many people here grow up listening to, wanting to copy this, ‘gangstas’ singing about their cars, their girls. Guys here don’t know these singers hired those cars for the videos. They hired this bling.

I don’t blame the kids because this is what they see on TV. They think this is real life. Now you get a kid from Kibera rapping how he has a Lamborghini. I’m like, you don’t even have a house, man, you live with your mom, do you even know what a Lamborghini looks like?

DD – Your mission seems to be to change the way people see Kibera. Why is that needed?

O – Everybody wants to know Kibera, but everyone fears it, they only think of violence, drugs. That’s there, but it is not the full picture. What I’m trying to show is the positives, man, people here have a life, they are alive, they have talent, they are working hard.

Everyone’s saying you have to empty the slums, but you don’t need to come and force people into a nice house. Give them a job, that’s all, they’ll go live in that house with their own money. These charities, these aid agencies, they are businesses, all they show is kids playing in shit to get money. Do you see any kids playing in shit here? Who wants to play in shit?

Then there are the politicians, they need us to be poor, to be dying, so they can take advantage of us. The world will help these crying people, they think, I will get grants, get money. I’m sure people send money, a lot, but it does not get here. Foreigners come here, they don’t believe people can live in the city in mud houses, surrounded by shit, they think the pictures they saw before were Photoshopped.

"My tour is not about living in a slum, it's about the people, it's about them being alive, they have a life, they are not sick. We have talent, we have people working hard," said Kenyan hip-hop artist Octopizzo  on one of his "Chocolate City" tours of Kibera. (brendan bannon)

Kibera, Nairobi

DD – But isn’t there violence here, severe hardship? Doesn’t that need to be changed?

O – Yeah, there are guns, there are knives, there are machetes. I took some hip-hop guys from New York, the Bronx, around here. Man, they freaked out. I was telling them, this is the real ‘hood, you know, here you don’t even need to threaten somebody that you have a gun, that you’ll kill them.

Here thugs just come to your house, there’re no gates, there’s no security, they come and just pour water in your house and it falls down. It’s mad, our houses are not made from concrete, they are mud. You threaten somebody, he just comes with water. That’s the best weapon we have: “You, I’ll come in your house with water, and you won’t like it.” He just pours for like three minutes, everything is down.

But this is symptom of poverty, and that comes from the way we are treated, from no access to jobs. People from the slums work the hardest in school. Then there are no jobs, they see a guy with a pharmacy degree from Nairobi University, he’s making doughnuts in the slums. You see that, you give up, man. They say if this is the life, forget it, let’s start stealing or dealing drugs. It’s fast money. Music, that can be a way to give people pride, to make them think there’s another way. It’s powerful.

DD – But you struggle to get airplay on mainstream radio stations. How have you managed to build your fanbase?

O – These media, they fear if I talk about the Prime Minister, he’s our parliamentarian, he’s doing nothing. As an artist, you can’t ignore that shit. Me, I just worked to get known in the street. I studied the game for a whole year, every weekend I went to concerts, sat in the crowd, saw the way people performed, listened to the way fans talked. “This guy should have done this like this. That guy’s cool because he’s done it like that. This other guy, he’s not real”.

Then I gathered my thesis and went home, sat down, worked it out, so I know if I make music like this or that, I’ll beat all these guys, I’ll get all their fans, because this is what their fans want but those guys are not giving it to them.

DD – Where do you get your drive and energy from?

O – My mum and dad died in the span of a year, in 2002 and 2003. I was the oldest child of four, I had to take everything on myself, I was the parent, but I was still this young guy from the slums. I think the fact my parents passed when I was young, it sharpened me, I couldn’t just cry there in the ghetto, thinking I’ll never make it.

23-year-old hip-hop artist Octopizzo keeps his eye on the street in Kibera. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

“People are alive here, they have lives, they have talent, they are working hard” – Octopizzo

DD – Do you make a good living?

O – It’s been tough, but times are getting good now. I studied guys like 50-Cent. I can’t listen to his music, but I listen to the business side of him, I can learn from that. I am an artist, but I am a businessman too. If you want to keep it real and not be a sell-out, singing commercial crap, there’s not much money just from the music.

So I have some side-hustles. I sell t-shirts, I take visitors on tours of Kibera. It means I can do hip-hop and still make a living, bring milk home at the end of the day for my daughter. When I had my first paying concerts, I couldn’t believe that I can just rap for 15 minutes and somebody pays me.

You know, I don’t like showing that I’m broke. It should be a challenge to me to do something about my brokeness, I should find something to do change that situation. Instead of crying that you’re in the ghetto, you don’t have a job, utilize what’s there, man, create a job for yourself. Anywhere you are, even if you are in the desert, find something that people need there in the desert. You want to see an oasis? I’ll show you. Give me $15. Let’s go.


Related: Brendan’s full-size images from Octopizzo’s Kibera tour and Octopizzo’s website

© DAILY DISPATCHES: Nairobi 2011

6 Responses to “Rapping a revolution in Nairobi’s slums”

  1. OCTOPIZZO says:


    • Robert says:

      Word!its tough to grow up in hardships but being an optimist and a realistic opportunist is all thats needed to turn things to one’s favour

  2. Goddie says:

    Man, uve spoken 4 the ghetto….all iz true…all in all we need to change the status!

  3. Trevor L says:

    Loved reading this, often the media tries to give us a poor image of a place that may not 100% exist. I’m glad to see there are younger music artists that are aware of this fact and trying to make a difference.

  4. Raymond _P says:

    I can definitly appreciate what Octopizzo is trying to do. Sending the world a positive message about where he is from. Teaching kids that you don’t have to be a gangster or a thug to be successful. And although he’s from a rough place he still tries to rap and speak about the positives and look on the bright side of things. With hopes of getting rid of the false images that the media portrays. Octopizzo is trying to make a and that is what counts.