- After a decade in which he has risen from a young, angry rapper confronting the status quo, Henry Ohanga, famously known as Octopizzo, has in recent years made a shift in his music embracing cultural influences from across Kenya to give the music a stronger identity.
- This transformation has peaked with the release of his fifth album “Jungle Fever” which combines hip hop with rumba and benga, electronic sounds with African percussions.
After a decade in which he has risen from a young, angry rapper confronting the status quo, Henry Ohanga, famously known as Octopizzo, has in recent years made a shift in his music embracing cultural influences from across Kenya to give the music a stronger identity.
This transformation has peaked with the release of his fifth album “Jungle Fever” which combines hip hop with rumba and benga, electronic sounds with African percussions. The lyrical edge remains uncompromising, addressing subjects like the hypocrisy in the music business and the West’s warped view of African as a jungle.
The turning point came in 2015 when Octopizzo sampled “You Can Do It” a funk classic from the 1970s originally by Kenyan soul singer Slim Ali & the Hodi Boys for a song called “Something Special.”
“At that time, I was testing the sound because I didn’t know if the audience was ready for this kind of sound,” he says. A year later, he was performing in Nyeri and the crowd was singing along to the chorus of the hit song “Bank Otuch” and that reaction was an indication that a cultural rhythm packaged in contemporary style, will always resonate with the audience, no matter the language.
“People don’t just respond to beats, but they want a connection to the music and there is no better way to do this than reaching out to your roots and giving it a modern vibe,” he says.
For his new album, “Jungle Fever” Octopizzo connected with some of Kenya’s most accomplished singers, notably Suzanna Owiyo and Idd Aziz, newcomer Maga and rapper Blinky Bill.
“Owiyo, is a legend; I was in primary school when I heard her breakthrough song “Kisumu 100” and working with her is a dream come true,” says Octopizzo. She is a guest vocalist on “Lela” whose chorus is based on Kanda Bongoman’s 1980s soukous hit “Lela Lela.”
“It is ironic that many of my younger fans are telling me that their parents are singing along to this song and they are wondering how the older folk know these lyrics.”
Octopizzo grew up in a household where his father played everything from the benga of D.O Misiani to Western pop music of Michael Jackson.
In school, he would play drums along to the some of the songs in his father’s vinyl collection. After school he did various jobs, as an electrician, and later, a salesman before he started writing rhymes as a 19-year-old. His first big break was performing as a rapper at the Words and Pictures (WAPI) a monthly showcase organised by the British Council in Nairobi.
“I didn’t understand the music much, but I knew I wanted to put that vintage style into rap,” he says.
Much of his first decade in music has been spent producing commercial music because in his words he had to do what was popular to establish a brand.
“Jungle Fever” finds him at a point in his career when he doesn’t have to prove to himself anymore, and that leaves him the freedom to express himself. His objective is to make music that creates an impact, without worrying about the number of views on YouTube.
“When I was among only three artists invited to meet former US President Barack Obama during his visit in 2018, then I realised it’s not just about having hit songs, but representing values of leadership particularly for the marginalized groups like refugees whom I work with through my foundation,” he says.
“As artistes, we are vessels of change, so we have to push boundaries, experiment and be adventurous and not be comfortable in our space.”
Idd Aziz, a percussionist and singer, who has played with the likes of Sauti Sol, appears on three songs on the album including the stand out single “Good Morning Africa.”
“He was in Sweden when he sent me the vocals, and when I heard that voice, I just started writing my lines to a beat that I had had for almost three years,” he says.
Inspired by his travels around the world, the video juxtaposes the stereotype of Africans living in the wild along with scenes of the countryside, and typical urban setting.
“This album is very personal because it reveals my cultural awakening while retaining the hip hop edge. I enjoyed recording this album, unlike previous albums when I was rushing to beat a deadline. This time I worked with my own good time.
He pitched the album to Apple Music which has distribution rights for two years. “If it is not a livelihood then what is the point of making music. Musicians must be more entrepreneurial with their art,” he says.