Smokillah is a graffiti artist based in Nairobi. He is a member of the group of graffiti artists knowna s Spray Uzi. Check out his video interview at Spray for Change.
You can read more about graffiti in Kenya at Kibera Walls for Peace and Kibera Hamlets. Here’s an article on Kenya’s graffiti train and a video (about the use of graffiti to comment on the 2013 election process).
1. Where are you from, What was it like growing up?
2. What kind of hustles were people involved in?
3. How did you start doing graffiti? How did you learn to do graffiti? What does graffiti mean to you? How do you see it fitting in with hip hop?
I started doing graffitism on (PSV Matatu) after high school, Graffity just came to me and started practising alot with the spray can. Graffiti is spiritual Art. It always fits because the artforms go together. Rappers have been doing graffity backgrounds since the 80’s
4. What is ‘politicking’?
Most probably talking about stuff that builds you as a person
5. What is ‘mental slavery’?
Being entrapped by your thoughts that misguide you
6. Do you have a philosophy of education?
You can learn everything so its up to you if you want to or not
7. You mention in your Spray for Change interview that you “do things that other people are scared of doing or are not interested in.” What sources do you draw inspiration from? Are there any sources that you think would surprise people?
My inspiration comes from my surrounding am a product of my environment ‘’african Nostalgia’’
8. Where do you see people having “space to express themselves”? Are there any organizations/communities that you see building these kinds of spaces?
There’s lots of space especially in the city centre these buildings have space but the Nairobi Council has put up billboards for profit. It sad don’t you think?
9. How do you feel graffiti art is different from other forms of visual art?
Style! In a major way, grafitti has class other forms of visual art are just that visual art
10. How do you think the placement of graffiti in public spaces, rather than in galleries or wherever, changes the nature and politics of graffiti?
Banksy said ‘’if you do graffiti indoors that’s interior design’’ so graffity is for walls
11. Graffiti, by nature, being in public spaces, how does you, as an artist, feel about the art being out there for the public to see, welcome or unwelcome? What makes you decide to put graffiti where you do?
I feel good about because we do the artform not just for us as writers but for the public also meaning they don’t have to go to galleries to see art. We bring the art work to them
12. Also understanding many times graffiti is also welcomed by people, please talk about what kind of agreements you have with people who willingly allow you to do graffiti where they live/work, etc.
Who supports the work you are doing?
We often agree on excecution, meaning the job has to come out well and how long the job eill and will finish within the period of time we agreed upon
Different people suprisingly cooperate.
13. Do you find yourself a target of police harassment? What would you say to people who see graffiti as “visual terrorism”?
Definitely. I even think I’m being followed around but am not sure. Its just phobia for the artform. Graffiti strikes minds and thoughts provoke
14. How do politics and your own personal values impact your work?
Politics is just a dirty game and so my work keeps values in every vice that surrounds me.
15. What is “tagging”? How is it different from graffiti art or murals?
Is part of the art form. When a writter passes an open area he’ll definitely want to leave a mark and that is his/her graffity name tagging is done quick, rural pieces may take days or weeks
The biggest role is improvement
17. Do you see graffiti art as a possible way to re-vitalize, beautify, and/or support local communities?
Definately, Grafiiti has a strong essence and where we do it we definately touch souls. Its just a way of letting communities know we can do better
18. What’s a place you would love to work on but haven’t had an opportunity to yet? (Is there any public space you would love to create graffiti for if you had the chance?)
Any or one of the billboards on the city centre
19. Could you talk about the “Unga Revolution”?
It is basically about food scarcity, and food is expensive in supermarkets so its pressing the government to regulate prices.
20. Is there a language, or languages, associated with graffiti art? Or could you talk about different styles and approaches to graffiti art you have seen?
The language used is style. I think even writer has a style to be able to communicate to fellow writers where he is at and his craft
21. Could you talk about different historical figures you see being repeated in Graffiti art, and talk a little about their significance?
Mahatma ghandi, Haille selasie they were figures who inspire free spirits and as a writer I should be free to express myself at any given time.
22a. How do you see graffiti art in dialogue with public spaces? Do you see graffiti art re-imagining public spaces, or otherwise creatively engaging with them?
Definitely, as I said graffity strikes minds so where else than public places to strike public minds
22b. Is graffiti only for urban spaces? Where are some unusual places you have encountered graffiti?
Mostly because graffity is street art and upcountry folks have no idea what paint can do. Most only in nairobi streets
23. Are you part of any graffiti organizations?
Only spray uzi, I think we are legends period. We try to give graffiti a good name but we still kick street places and tags now Cooperate organizations are interested in us because of our principals and all.
24. How are graffiti artists making money from their work today?
Contract jobs, Mostly commisioned jobs from difffernt institutions cooperate companies known restaurants, churches and graffiti enthuasusts
25. Who else do you see ‘doing’ hip hop, other artists, deejays, dancers, activists, hustlas, etc.? How are you coming together with these different varieties of hip hop’s people?
Mostly we get together at hip hop gigs in and around the city where hip hop is more vibrant and where it is vital
26. What are some obstacles you have encountered during your involvement in the arts/activist scene(s)?
None, its been smooth because we are protected.
27. How have women contributed to graffiti art in East Africa? (name, if you know of any artists or supporters of graffiti, etc.)
Not so much, there are a few but I mostly they get on but fall of quick
28. Could you describe some positive things you have seen hip hop communities doing? Whether it is artists sharing resources, a place to stay, getting linked with work
Mostly links like judge hooked us up and am a graffity writer he’s a rapper. So yeah and resources too. We work together as a company
29. What hustles are you working on now? is there such a thing as hip hop jobs? ama only hustling? (Talk about any of your projects, visual arts-based or otherwise) What sort of opportunities has the graffiti world provided you with?
I don’t hustle no more, Spray uzi alredy established , we got people for that, what are hip hop jobs getting that cooperate money for sure.
30. What are some of the obstacles/problems facing young people in Kenya today (zote, Lodwar to Dando to Westi?)
Unemployement, platforms to discover their inner abilities i.e resource centres
31. How are you interacting with artists across the globe and also particularly in East Afrika?
Social media is a big contributor e.g Facebook
32. What sort of positive things do you see happening with young people in Kenya?
Creativity is the most powerful weapon youths have right now.
33. How can people learn more about your work and other projects you are involved in?
am a pro graffiti artist have been in the art for about ten years noe, My crew is spray uzi, One of the most Prolific crews in Nairobi
UPDATE – 31 March, 2013: Check out Doo Mambo’s article on African Jazz; “Roots of Jazz” on newlondonbloggers.
Where are you from, what was it like growing up?
I’m from Nairobi, Kenya. I grew up in the Eastland’s area, which is mostly a low life settlement area, for a better part of my life. I lived in Dandora, Huruma, Kariobangi South and finally Eastleigh. We moved a lot because my mum was a freelance hairdresser and was constantly looking for ways to better her career after my dad passed away.
Our family was not rich neither poor when my mother was alive. She managed to pay for our school fees and cater for all of our other needs. Although she tried her best, we had our shares of hard times where we went without food some nights and landlord’s closed our homes because of late rent payments.
After the death of my mother, I literally had to raise myself. This was when I was 12 years old. Most of the extended family didn’t want anything to do with us at first but changed their perception later on once we started to excel. Still, it’s been forward ever backward never ever since.
What kind of hustles were people involved in?
In Eastleigh area, there is the largest ‘Mitumba’ (Second-hand) market known as ‘Gikomba’ where mostly clothes, beddings and other items from the first world countries are sold at subsidized prices. Many traders, from all over Kenya, go there and buy the clothes at wholesale and then they take them to their various boutiques and sell to consumers for profit. This is mainly what I used to do ever since I started high school up to college. After dropping out of college, the trade sustained me for 3 years before I started writing and looking for ways in which music can also pay me.
Since Eastlands is well known for crime, prostitution and other social ills, some of the kids I grew up with involved themselves in such-like activities. This was not for me, nevertheless, because I always carried the values of honesty and hard-work that my mother had instilled in me when I was younger.
What do the words ‘kazi’, ‘vijana’ and ‘mshamba’ mean to you?
Kazi means work, occupation or career.
Vijana means the youth. The description of the term under the Kenyan constitution mainly means anyone in the age bracket of 18-35 years.
Mshamba means someone who was raised in the rural areas. The term is mostly used in the Sheng’ Slang language.
Besides rappers, who else do you see ‘doing’ hip hop, other artists, activists, hustlas, etc.?
Hip Hop is a varied culture. It has 4 main elements which are: Emceeing, Deejaying, Graffiti and B-Boying. There are countless sub-elements as well.
I largely recognize other contributors of Hip Hop apart from the rappers. They include: Deejays, dancers, emcees, fashion designers, radio presenters (of Hip Hop shows),
Name your musical influences?
Internationally: Fugees, Nas, Common, Talib Kweli, Tupac Shakur and Immortal Technique
Locally: Professor Jay, Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, K-South and Nannoma
What do you know about the Mau Mau camp like? (Is it still in operation?)
This is the Camp that started the entire Kenyan Hip Hop revolution. It started with the trio Kalamashaka who later on formed Mau Mau by incorporating other artists mainly from Dandora and other areas too.
I don’t think it’s still operational because most of the well-known artist who were bred in the camp, like Juliani and Wenyeji, do very little to assist the Kalamashaka trio and other struggling artists affiliated to the camp. It’s like everyone for himself and God for us all.
What type of community organizations, informal or formal are helping vijana in Nairobi leo?
I don’t think there are any communities helping vijana in Kenya. I am a Kenyan youth with plenty of ideas to better the society in which I live in and other areas in the country as well. I have approached several, even the government’s NYF (National Youth Fund), with proposals but I usually get turned down. The existing organizations are just there to steal money and make a few individuals fatter.
What does hip hop mean to you, what motivated you to become involved in Hip Hop?
Hip Hop to me means freedom of speech, knowledge, creativity and unity. This is what motivated me. Not the flashy lifestyle, cars or nude women. Through the art, I got a chance to speak my mind and thus freeing it so that I can create more as a result.
At the present moment, the industry has been infiltrated by whack rappers who are puppets of the ‘System’. They are being used as tools for passing their messages to the unsuspecting average citizens everywhere. This has lead to a deviation of the main purpose that the art was intended for. Sorry to say, but right now I’d much rather listen to roots, benga, jazz or any other genre that still maintains realism.
What are some of the obstacles/problems facing young people in Kenya today (zote, Dando to Westi?)
1. Lack of resources
2. Alcohol and drug abuse
6. Lack of Visions
7. Tribalism/ Nepotism/ Racism
What sort of positive things do you see happening with young people in Kenya?
Please give a brief bio of uaself.
This is a conscious artist that first started with writing and performing poetry while still in high school. He was also involved in writing short plays and also acting in them during drama festivals. He is a very gifted writer who has been in the industry for a couple of years professionally and a decade in general. As an artist, he is the mastermind behind the “DOO MAMBO” slogan and emblem. DOO MAMBO is a Swahili slang “Do Great Things” which initially originated from the Bible’s teaching, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”-Philippians 4:13. The concept involves a clothing line , a recording studio and an entertainment magazine, which are all in the making…….watch this space…With the absence of conscious artists in this region, his deep and thought provoking lyrics and unique writing style offer a breath of fresh air in the East African entertainment scenery.
[Note: Kevlexicon made typographical edits in some places]
Please give a brief bio of yourself
kitu sewer straight from the land where the sewer spilt from its channels till he met the pioneers n became the poet one of a force to reckon all thanks to God. Went mute for a while, now back again like never left the saga continues.
Where are u from, what was it like growing up?
I’m from the sprawling east lands estates namely dandora in Nairobi. Born and raised there for the better part of my life. Growin up was tough, just as u expected, hard but i have no regrets having the street education the hard way aaah!
What kind of hustles were people involved in?
Everyone was caught up in anything that could bring something on the table, though most lived hand-to-mouth. Some died while trying to live beyond their means.
What does Hip Hop mean to you, What made you get involved in Hip Hop?
It’s a means of expression of the pressures of the modern time that the youth of today go through and of course it’s my life. I have been an artist since mama’s push. I just found myself in it. I can’t recall a specific start point. It came naturally.
What do the words kazi, vijana and mshamba mean to you?
—-kazi means work like –makin a livin
vijana is the youth, though it mostly sounds junior in the sense that u still struggling
mshamba means native lands –or u could say farm lands dependin on how u wan to express it, the ‘m’ is possessive
What is politicking?
What is mental slavery?
Dependency on something that u have been indoctrinated to due to systems put in place by a selfish elite. It then translates to being a staunch follower of things that u think that you must be aware of yet they really don’t make your life any better. Ni kama vile hakuna mtu anataka kuitwa mshamba ju hujui ways za west.
Can you say anything about the youth drug problems in Kenya?
–it’s funded by people from higher places involved in politics with business interests
Who/ What is promoting violence, who/ what has lessened violence?
–mental slavery n ignorance–of rights -lack of education –the list endless–of lessening i could say arts cos violence is a result of idleness and art is creative thus if u are busy, though at most times we are just preoccupied, you cant find yourself being used as a foot-soldier in the battle of thrones.
How are hiphop artists making money from their music today?
sales though its hard to get a large ready market
sponsorship from well wishers –not enuff –mixtapes are like dinosaurs maaaan!
shows, clothing lines
endorsements –sellouts –all depends on ones own perseverance n smart thinkin. It’s a jungle down here
How do politics and your own personal values impact in you work?
–I’m blind to what doesn’t concern me n concerned with what people turn a blind eye on
Besides rappers, who else do you see doing hiphop, other artists, dancers, graffiti artists, activists, hustlas etc?
you just named em all except djs, and of course the people around me all that positivity and negativity brings around purpose
Name your favourite musical artists, who you are listening to sasa?
Biggy, Nas, Bushman, Dezaree, boot camp clique –a lot of mighty culture n bushman oooooh! Bob u know who! n Dennis brown man the list is endless
What are some of the obstacles encountered during your involvement in the hiphop scene?
The fact that u can hit n still find it hard to sell, especially in Kenya. finding distributional channels is scarce
how have women contributed to hiphop in East Africa?
–or rather where would it be without them as much as there are mishaps lets not forget it’s one of the biggest business enterprises in the world so u can imagine how many salespeople, managers, customers, CEOs, directors… and the fact that women outnumber men in population statistics
What can you say about the Mau Mau kambi, are there any similar community hiphop projects helping young people today?
— Mau Mau still remains one of the best that mentored many a talent that still rock the scene.
It was a platform that inspired n still continues to do so.
There are other projects, for example, I’m right now workin with a group of youth from kitengela who happen to be talented mcs and still are multi talented in other lines of art
What type of community organisations, informal or formal are helping vijana in East Africa leo?
The music n actin industries have proved quite well as way of makin a livin
Could u describe some positive things you have seen hiphop communities do? Whether its artists sharing resources, a place to stay, getting linked with work etc.
I’ve seen hiphop societies makin an example n influencin hopeless young pple from idle minds to creativity. As u know an idle mind is a devil’s workshop and this is the biggest rehab so far cos it need no distinction
What hustlers are you working on now? Is there such a thing as hiphop jobs? ama only hustling? (talk about any of your projects, musical or otherwise)
—–I’d rather u see them, keep n touch, actions speak louder. of course got ma addresses— books, spoken word shows comin
What are some of the obstacles/problems facing in Kenya today (zote Lodwar to Dando to Westi)
Like i said most of it lack of education n self realization thus being easily led to violences by greedy selfish gain motivated politicians.
How are you interacting with artists across the globe and also particularly East Afrika?
Through the internet n I’m lookin forward to spread this sheng / swahili rap further
What sort of positive things do you see happening with young people in Kenya?
Shunning of tribalism and the homeguard mentality [Note: Homegaurd were people armed by the colonizers to fight Mau Mau during the struggle for Kenyan independence]. Youth are givin way to new ideas and joining the civilised world
How can people learn more about your work, music, performances and projects you are involved in?
If its the music it’s all over the internet. Am in the final stages of working on a website whereby the general public will be able to download music, share ideas on socio-economic, environmental issues etc. u will be among the first people to get this info.
Watch the music video for Pain and Joy.
PAIN AND JOY TRANSLATION
Translation provided by the artist, Gas Fyatu. Gas is an activist, writer, entrepreneur, and hip hop artist based in Nairobi. He is a member of Ukoo Flani Mau Mau and Moshikali. You can find Gas’ music on youtube. Read his writing at Kwani.
Intro.by FRENCH ARTIST
COME WITH ME/(my honniez)COME WE SING/(my hommies)
COME WITH ME/(rastaman)COME WE SING/(babylons)
PAIN AND JOY/OF EASTLANDS
PAIN AND JOY/OF WESTLAND
VERSE ONE (English)
Pen in my hands I am in my room enjoying solitude
I don’t know who to ask?how to delivers how this lines)
it is like snooker game I don’t know which ball to hit/
in this ghetto the way the rate of single women is increasing in our hoods/ is proportional to the number of emcees releasing too many singles)
All the critics are watching this ocean too big /I got to keep my head up
Sometimes I think leaving this/but I cant hip hop my political party
Lend me your ears as I follow this art like a sinking star/my plate of fate when am hungry
No pain no gain just know/I don’t want slim bodies in my hood/got heavy weight ghetto dreams/do you get it boy?
This rain full of poetry Oo come sing with /come dance to the tunes good and bad stories of my neighbourhood
VERSE ONE (SHENG)
Kalamu kwa mkono niko kwa keja solo
Nikaa ball za pool sijui nigonge ipi
Sijui nummulize mwongolo hizi mistari zitoke vipi?(
Nikaa vile mashory wana opt ku-remain single ndio emcee wana drop too single
Ma-critics wanatazama bahari kubwa maji ya shingo nazama
Na-think kuhama lakini siwezi hip hop chama
Maskio zako sasa na borrow hii sana na I follow ka sinking star plate ya fate niki fee njaa
No pain no gain jua/sitaki kuwa kwa bodies slim nina ghetto dreams heavy weight/una gitch boy
Ni rain ya poetry oo Come sing na me come dance na me mzeiya
I hear knowadays in the street, they say get the money you get the honey/welcome to eastlands my hood and feel at home/and please come in peace/but don’t forget bring some business/we got bank slave hustlers/economic tough time but in this ghetto we live our lives/living like a soldier/one room /enjoying life pleasures/with our ghetto queens/life a gamble/but there are great moments like marriage dreams in the hood/good things like my man Otty wife got twins/so and so went where since last year?/Jaymo is flying out I heard/bro Kevo stopped smoking weed nowadays he only takes beer/Patty has stuck to khat still/Nimo saw the light and joined Jesus/brotherhood during good times and bad times/Eastland is full of dramas/reggae music blasting from sound woofers on the streets/black hooded hip hop head roaming the streets/watch you back police on your back/COME SING WITH COME DANCE WITH THE STORIES OF THIS GHETTOES
NASKIA SIKU HIZI GET THE MONEY GET THE HONEY/KARIBU EASTLAND MTAANI NA UFEEL NYUMBANI/na ukuje na amani/
Lakini usisahau kubeba pesa kuna ma-lords- bank/vijana bank/economy mbaya lakini hood tunaishi
Maisha ki-soldier room moja/pleasure za life kuoja/kando ya bed na ka gheeto queen/pata potea/dreams za kufunga ndoa/vitu poa/kaa otty amepata matwins/nani amepotelea wapi since last year?jaymo ana fly naskia/kevo aliacha gode siku hizi ni ma-beer/paty nimogoka sana nimo ameokoka/ubrother hood kukiwa kupoa ama kubaya tuko/si eastland kuna vituko/reggae na saunya/hip hop nyuma ya black hoodies/wasee mabanga wakudiss
Verse three is by a cultural officer at alliance francaise 2005/06/and current director alliance francaise Zimbabwe/and an artist/ Charles houdart a.k.a hoo