Kenya’s young slum dwellers find solace in music
Seeds of hope and inspiration
Published: Aug 09, 2021 05:03 PM
Kenyan ballet dancer Joel Kioko, 16, practices at the courtyard of a school where he teaches young dancers in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Photo: IC

Kenyan ballet dancer Joel Kioko, 16, practices at the courtyard of a school where he teaches young dancers in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Photo: IC

 When Moses Kimani and his two childhood acquaintances formed the Cyplez music band in 2013, little did they imagine it would later become a sensation in the Mathare slums, located on the eastern fringes of Kenya's capital, Nairobi.

"Hold on, don't give up. Keep your head up." The lyrics have always been a motto for Mathare slum dwellers. Through music, the band is encouraging a growing number of young slum dwellers to stay on their feet.

Determined to grow

Music has become a source of solace for Kimani. The 26-year-old vocalist was born and raised in the expansive slum at a time when dreams of so many young people died prematurely amid harsh living conditions defined by poverty, crime and drug abuse.

Nevertheless, Kimani and his singing trio found inspiration in music and when their paths crossed during adolescence, their bonds grew even stronger leading to the formation of a band that is causing waves in one of Nairobi's oldest informal settlements.

Seated at a makeshift bench on the banks of the Nairobi River that snakes through Mathare slums on a balmy afternoon, Kimani and his bandmates were in their element as they belted out a signature tune called "Haly."

The tune according to Kimani, was composed after lengthy soul searching by the trio whose enduring bond is informed by a desire to use music and sow seeds of hope and inspiration.

"Our music is so unique since it seeks to unite, give hope and inspire people of all ages within the Mathare slums in the midst of difficult living conditions," Kimani said during an interview on Tuesday.

Adjacent to the Nairobi River that is choked with waste from household and industrial premises is Sanaa Center, an open space where Kimani and his bandmates have been refining their vocal, dancing and songwriting skills.

He said crowds usually congregate at Sanaa Center whenever the Cyplez group stage a performance, adding that graffiti on nearby stone walls has also inspired upcoming artists. 

"When we put a concert here, it floods," said Kimani, who also earns a living through photography.

So far, the Cyplez music group has released four visual and eight audio music works but it is working on an extended play (EP) that has seven songs and is slated for launch toward the end of 2021.

Mike Njoroge, the 30-year-old manager of the band, said the musical journey has been thrilling for the last eight years save for occasional bumps linked to financial constraints and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, inadequate capital has derailed plans by the band to record quality songs or stage mega concerts.

"Other challenges we are facing include connecting with established artists for collaboration that can raise our visibility. We are unable to stage live performances because of restrictions aimed at containing the pandemic," said Njoroge.

Despite the current setbacks, the band is determined to grow and produce quality songs that can resonate with international audiences. According to Njoroge, the band is not pulling in enough income so members have been engaged in side jobs to earn enough to get by.

Positive narrative

As hope, inspiration and collective good remain the group's founding creed, its youthful founders like Zawadi Joshua, a 24-year-old singer who was also born and raised in the Mathare slums, have retained sunny optimism despite operating in a difficult environment.

Zawadi was instrumental in founding the band amid the conviction that it would help him realize his dream of becoming an accomplished vocalist and inspire Mathare youth to rise above their circumstances and prove their worth.

"At the early stages of our band's formation, we composed a song called 'Emergency' that was well-received in Mathare because it was inspirational as opposed to spreading gloom," said Zawadi.

Despite its proximity to a polluted water body, the Sanaa Center, whose graffiti-filled iron sheet walls provide an ideal background to shoot music videos, has been a prized destination for upcoming artists in Mathare slums.

It is this makeshift stage that Moses Ambani, a member of Cyplez, has found sojourn amid the quest to improve his ability to belt out inspirational lyrics.

The 24-year-old native of Mathare, whose parents eke out a living through casual jobs, said he started singing at a tender age and that the nudging from his mother prompted him to pursue the vocation for the long haul. 

"We have been addressing issues pertinent to Mathare slums like crime, pollution, unemployment and poverty through our songs," said Ambani.

"Our goal is to promote a positive narrative as we inspire the next generation to be agents of positive change in this locality despite the hardships they might be facing," he added.

George Nakami, a 24-year-old construction management major who was also born and raised in the Mathare slums, confessed his love for lyrics composed by Cyplez. 

"Through the band's songs, I have come to look at life through a positive lense," said Nakami.

In slums, music brings more than just notes and melodies. It is the moonlight in the gloomy night of life. 

"There are so many children growing up looking at us. When we give up, we kill their dreams. So we keep pushing," explained Kimani.