Ben Lunn interviews Bangaisa Crew
Since the middle of 2022, a collection of videos of a new hip-hop group who are militants in the Communist Party of Kenya have appeared, and their songs have gained a cult following, due to their creative talents and political leanings. Many in Britain have been fascinated as it is a rare treat to hear hip-hop in Swahili.
Their music is catchy, fun, and sticks in your brain. Their radical politics is at the forefront of their music. The history of hip-hop and rap is complex because it includes a number of socially conscious rappers, as well as the stereotypical hedonism, masculinity, and the glorification of violence.
I had the pleasure to have some correspondence with Bangaisa Crew, chatting about their music, politics and the social problems they face in their native Kenya. Below are edited extracts from some of that correspondence.
BL: Habari! Firstly, thank you for taking time to answer my questions. I wanted to first ask, mostly for our anglophone readers – what does Bangaisa mean?
BC: The term Bangaisa comes from the word bangaiza, which means relax or chill.
How did you all get started making music? Personally, I was a freestyler before meeting the crew. In 2021, I was approached by some of my friends who told me that Booker Ngesa Omole of the Communist Party was vying for the Gem parliamentary seat, and he wanted some youths to compose a theme song for the campaign. We decided to give it a try and we came up with the song Booker 2022 and this was my first time hitting the studio. We joined the Party, specifically the study cell Pio Gama Pinto, and from there the rest followed.
What drives you as a group musically, and who are the biggest inspirations for your work?
What drives as musically first is the passion and dedication we have for the art, which keeps us going amidst all the challenges we face. We also have the hunger to educate the masses and open their eyes to what is going on around them through our music. We also have musicians like Khaligraph Jones – personally I have learnt a lot from him.
I’ve seen you as a group have done a lot of collaborative online work with the likes of International Magazine and other online outlets. Do you have anything in the pipeline you can tell us about?
For the International Magazine, the likes of Debojit Banjree has been a friend to the Communist Party of Kenya, and when we did the Booker 2022 song they were impressed. We decided to work together to spread Marxist-Leninist theory and ideology and after long interactions we learnt that the same problems we face in Kenya are related to those faced in India – mainly neo-colonialism and imperialism. We have done two projects together so far, The International Magazine subscription song and Africa is crying.
For many in Britain, Kenya, like many former colonies is a blind spot, so as socially conscious artists, what is the political climate in Kenya today like?
Comrade, the political climate in Kenya is at its worst state because we have an ignorant and arrogant government and a self-centred opposition. We have a US-installed puppet government which ascended to power using the bottom up and ‘hustler’ narrative.
President William Ruto promised that once he got to power, he'd bring those at the bottom up and he'd make the prices of basic commodities fall. To our surprise, he is doing the exact opposite of what he promised.
His government is now forcing the salaried guys to accept a 3% cut, which he claims will be used in building houses for the homeless. This is a big lie – we know this money will be looted and they'll benefit themselves while the so called ‘hustlers’ will continue to suffer.
His government is also increasing fuel VAT from 8% to 16%, which will make prices of every commodity shoot up. When all this started, he threatened that any member of Parliament that was going to vote against this bill was going to face him, and would risk losing their political seats.
Everybody now in Kenya is against the current regime including those who voted them into power in the last general election.
Another big problem we have is the opposition. We have a weak opposition since the opposition leader, Rails Odinga, is also self-centred and an opportunist. He has a large following and he uses this to his own personal advantage. He calls for anti-government demonstrations to pressure the government to heed to his needs. After he gets what he wants he completely forgets about the common citizens who continue to suffer.
During the recent demonstrations many of his supporters lost their lives and many properties were destroyed, without compensation. This cycle always repeats itself after every general election, and now the masses are starting to get tired of him too.
We used to believe that only he could save us until he did the opposite when he entered the handshake government with the former president Uhuru Kenyatta, where things went from worse to bad and since he was part of government, he kept quiet leaving us disappointed.
We have now learnt that we as Kenyans can only get ourselves out of this mess and that's why the CPK (Communist Party of Kenya) has started some classes which we attend every Friday. Most of us are now awake and are ready to fight for true liberation and spread what we've learnt using our music.
As a band, there are always creative desires, could you tell us any hopes/dreams you have?
Our hopes and dreams as band is to be successful in spreading Marxist-Leninist theory through our music, and this has been quite tough due to financial difficulties. We also have dreams of performing in overseas countries like Britain. Generally, we want to be successful and we dream of having a bigger fan base, more views and traffic on our music, and finally to becoming financially stable.
As a group they are young, but passionate. We know from listening to artists like Hans Eisler, Ewan MacColl, Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, or Harry Belafonte that using music to spread political awareness, or at least increase sympathy or start a conversation, is not a new thing. However, it’s sometimes claimed that politically-inspired music is not possible anymore. This makes the passion and drive of Bangaisa Crew very refreshing, and culturally significant.
Let’s hope their musical life is long, and that they can build their popularity and get to be heard by even greater audiences.
Ben Lunn is a composer, music critic, trade union activist, and helped found the Disabled Artist Network, an organisation which is bridging the gap between the professional world and disabled artists. He also has a monthly column in The Morning Star.