Nairobi: Congolese and Cameroonian artistes pay homage to city that moulded them

Pascal Ouandji (Hopiho) is a Canadian-based Cameroonian rapper. 

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

The song starts with a sample of Congolese rumba queen Mbilia Bel’s Nakei. Nairobi which segues into a contemporary urban groove as the distinct rumba guitar riff drives the rhythm of a French rap song.

Two artists who developed their musical skills while resident in Nairobi, have recorded a song reflecting on the influences of the city on their lives, featuring a sample of Bel’s classic hit originally recorded in the early 1980s.

After collaborating on a host of singles over a decade, Hopiho (Pascal Ouandji) and Tonnio (Antonio Longangi) who met in Nairobi in 2013, are finally releasing a joint album in 2024 led by the first single, Nairobi.

Hopiho, who currently resides in Canada, was born in Cameroon but lived in Nairobi in two spells, from 1993 to 1997 and 2009 to 2013. “If one day Netflix decides to make a film about my life, they better film some scenes in Nairobi,” he says. “I have been lucky enough to call Nairobi home not once, but twice.”

It is in Nairobi that he first fell in love with hip hop watching music videos on TV that introduced him to the 1990s generation of rappers like Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and the Notorious B.I.G. “Sitting in front of the screen, we admired the African American rappers and dreamed of being like them,” recalls Hopiho. It was not long after that he and a group of fellow students at the French School in Nairobi formed a rap outfit called Wanted.

In 2013 he met Tonnio who is originally from Goma, in the DR Congo, at the Homeboyz studios in Nairobi when recording the French voiceovers for the second season of the MTV series Shuga. The two shared a love for music but when Tonnio suggested a collaboration, the Cameroonian artist was hesitant because he didn’t see the point of recording with another French-speaking rapper, instead of working with an English or Swahili speaker.

That changed when he heard some of Tonnio’s raw recordings. “They weren’t well-mixed but you could tell he had a lot of talent,” recalls Hopiho. The duo recorded their first song Ready for This in 2014.

Hopiho’s friend and mentor, the US-based Kenyan clothing designer, Jeffrey Kimathi, founder of Jamhuri Wear, had first suggested using a sample of Mbilia Bel’s music. “He was convinced that sprinkling a bit of nostalgia into my music would appeal to the Kenyan audience,” says Hopiho.

Fast forward more than a decade later, and that idea popped back into his head while he was working with Tonnio on the new project. So, he contacted the producer Jackson Maina Kamau (Jack Jack on The Beat) to create the music.

“After conveying my ideas to him, he created a beat that totally blew me away,” says Hopiho. “When I sent it to Tonnio, he wrote his verse and chorus in no time. His enthusiasm motivated me, and together we completed the song in record time.”

Tonnio says when writing verses for Nairobi, he was reflecting on his personal experiences in the city and reflecting on the generation of artists from the former Zaire who moved to Nairobi from the 1960s to the '90s.

“Most of them only had music and a dream, and that had a huge impact on the music scene in Kenya. I thought of their struggle to integrate into the Kenyan society, and similarities we could find in their experience and mine.”

Tonnio immediately connected the music with the stories of families like the Longombas that had successfully integrated into Kenyan society. “Everything else went from there for a song about experiencing a city that was never mine in the beginning, but shaped me in unimaginable ways,” he says.

He adds, “I believe that Nairobi made me as an adult. I really grew up here in the 12 years I resided in Nairobi. I feel more at home here than anywhere else. It has not been easy but gold has to be tested through the fire.”

The city offered him refuge from war in his native DR Congo and he raps about the economic challenges, suicidal thoughts that plagued him, and the desire for success that still motivates him. Tonnio has also recently published his debut non-fiction book Amandla: Born of the First Congo War which chronicles the life of a young Congolese thrust into the First Congo War 1996-1997 during his early childhood.

Hopiho raps about witnessing tragic events in Nairobi, like the 1998 American Embassy bombing and the 2013 Westgate Mall attack and how families of the victims of these attacks still bear the painful scars of some of the darkest chapters in the history of the city.

Hopiho and Tonnio sum it up: Nairobi is not just a song; it is a journey through the heart and soul of a vibrant city, told by two passionate artists.” The single Nairobi is available to stream across all digital music platforms.

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