There is a quiet renaissance in East Africa among artist communities creating space for alternative and experimental musical aesthetics that have always been desperately lacking support in the region. In Kampala and Nairobi, a new scene of experimental musicians has emerged, inspired by the success of movements like alté, NuNariobi and Kumasi drill and empowered by digital tools that allow them to create their own platforms and connections, escaping the hand of gatekeepers and other institutional bottlenecks. Here is a list of eight producers from Kenya and Uganda who are helping to usher in this new dawn of East African music.
Chxf Barry is part of a community of creators working to bring Ugandan music into the future. In a musical landscape that sometimes feels stagnant and not conducive to experimentation, Barry taps into untapped gems around the country to develop their styles with innovative, sonic, world-class sounds. One such example is the new life he breathed into the remix of Ill Gee’s Arresting Food by elevating the groove, adding a spacy sample and introducing mwami’s moody vocals into the mix with an energetic verse. He took the already locally popular melody to more distant heights. “My approach is very groove-driven. I like a good groove, but also leaving room for an artist to do their thing. Space is extremely important to me.“He works in a studio called Villagio tucked away in the Kiwatule area of Kampala where many recordings from the Ugandan new wave scene; Cxnrvd, Joshua Baraka, Niwe Akeine, to name a few.
To many in East Africa, SOULCHYLD (aka MAUIMØON) seemed to come out of nowhere. The previously faceless young Ugandan producer and songwriter has lived everywhere from Zambia and Eritrea to the UK and Toronto. He has amassed a large and loyal soundcloud following (16k strong) for his songs, beats and flips which fuse influences from across the black diaspora like baile funk, soul and afrobeat while retaining a sultry essence of r&b. Since returning to his hometown of Kampala during the pandemic, Soulchyld has plunged into the scene with plans to secure a collaboration with rising stars like Joshua Baraka, Mau From Nowhere and Cxnrvd with others on the way. Inspired by the melodies of The Neptunes and the percussions of Timbaland, SOULCHYLD aspiresto create unique grooves that others may identify as [his] sound”.
Coco Em is one of Nairobi’s most prolific DJs, having made a name for herself for championing East African house music on some of the most prominent stages in the region and beyond; The Nyege Nyege Festival in Uganda, the Transmusicales in France, the True Music stage at Boiler Room in Nairobi to name a few. In February of this year, driven by the same desire to unite people on the dancefloor, she released her first entirely self-produced EP titled Kilumi. The 7-song EP is an experience of self-discovery, sampling and tapping into the traditional vocals and rhythms of Coco’s Kamba heritage and fusing them with haunting electronic synths and percussion. She is joined by guest vocalist ilke Sisian, Wuod Baba, Kisiva and Labdi who deliver dissonant chants and spitfire raps in various local languages.
Nairobi’s connoisseur rap prodigal son. This young polymath rose in the ranks of the Xprso. family as a frequent guest rapper, most notably on 2020’s Gweztapes, an avant-garde opus of Swahili-sheng rap with stoned atmospheric production from MR. READ*. Luko has since embarked on his own production journey and although he only started a year and a half ago, his sound is distinct and respected within his community; lo-fi, atmospheric goodness that’s somehow also danceable. After a year of streaming lo-fi flips of popular Kenyan hits on Soundcloud, he made his official streaming debut in March with Maya Amolo’s infectious r&b earworm “Can’t Get Enough,” a single by his next album, produced by Lukorito. himself.
mwami is an experimental dance musician from Kampala whose moody electronic sound draws on influences as divergent as Sampha, Chanel Tres and Sam Fan Thomas. It takes production back to its roots, before the ubiquity of digital technology confused the art of production with beatmaking in the minds of many. While he’s proficient with different DAWs, it’s a more hands-on, collaborative approach that often uses the artists he’s in community with to create a musical world of his own. “In my experience, [production] begins when the raw idea or sketch inspires what is missing or unnecessary and in turn charts a path forward, until all the missing pieces and feelings exist in the work” he said. This “is almost always an instinctive, non-technical thing”.
When the audiovisual production team Xprso. releases his EP Nairobibass in March 2020, it invigorated listeners and musicians alike – from hearing such a masterfully executed contemporary Afro-fusion project with an unmistakable Kenyan essence from its production to its lyrical references and content. Although this is their official debut, the collective, made up of Mars Maasai, Mr. LU*, RVMP and BBYY, have been releasing remixes, edits and instrumentals on SoundCloud since 2016. They have also been an essential arm in the musical. the trips of emcees Chevy Kev, Lukorito and tg.blk; with whom they frequently collaborate on joint singles and albums. Their lush and playful records are based on the mainstays of hip-hop, reggae and dancehall music, bass, dirty drums, dark vocals and sampling.
KNVL is a champion of African dance music in all its forms. The handful of songs and flips he has released so far range from afro-house to trap and baile. Although he has yet to release a full work, he is a hugely prolific DJ, regularly playing shows and festivals across Kenya, hosting guest mixes for the likes of Soulection and Mercury Loading, and now hosting a monthly radio show for Balamii and Ghana. Radio Oroko where he presents his original production alongside favorites from across the African diaspora. “My work in radio is entirely centered around my love for African music and the belief that we Africans need to take control of the narrative that surrounds it.”
Sharon Onyango Obbo
Sharon Onyango-Obbo is a record producer and mixing engineer based in Uganda and Kenya. A formidable pioneer of audio production in Nairobi, she describes her sonic palette as a mix of safari trap and r&b. His approach to production is holistic, almost like project management; guide and hold the artist accountable for the goals of a project beyond their musical contribution to the track. As an engineer first and foremost, mixing is also at the heart of her composition process; making sure its sounds are clean, perfect and in good balance with each other. She is perhaps best known for her engineering and project management work on Sol Generation hits like “Nairobi” and “Birthday Song”. Sharon’s mission is to “shaping the socio-economic landscape of Africa using music production, technology and innovation as agents of development”.