I always have a dream—for all artists irrespective of their calibre, status or nationality – to be treated equally, and to be granted same opportunities to enhance collaboration and dialogue. In September, I birthed an idea – to produce an Artist Talk Back Event featuring South African rapper K.O and Kenya’s very own Octopizzo, on the topic: music’s role in shaping the African narrative.
K.O has come to East Africa for his first media and tour showcase and being the manager of his Kenyan phase I take it upon myself to make this happen.
On a chill Friday, we make our way to the lush Nairobi Arboretum grounds – home of 2015 Storymoja Festival. The good people here are hosting the Artist Talk Back event powered by WhatsGoodLive. I choose Octopizzo because just like K.O he comes from a small background, for the kind of personalities they’ve both become. The two are inspiring pillars in African hip hop and have both remained true to their wit, swag, attitude, local slang and originality. I wanted them to share their story with a youthful audience and inspire them with their stories of starting empires of sorts; from nothing to something.
From Grass to Grace
By the time K.O arrives at Arboretum, he’s already heard a lot about Octopizzo. My hommie on the other hand didn’t wait a second to confirm that he’d do the session with K.O when I asked him. At the talk he confesses,” I feel K.O’s music even though he might think I don’t. People like him doing it big in their native language are the people who make me proud to rap in Sheng’.”
A table elevated by a platform, two seats, two mics, a moderator (me) and a crowd of about fifty guests – the setting for two rappers in an intimate setting. They are like two peas in a pod. The way they first greet each other before entering the dome feels like they are friends reuniting.
When I remember the shit hole where Octo came from in relation to his success, it puts me back to an extent that words can’t describe my pride for the hommie. Back in the day, he took me to his shanty, right by bursting sewers and broken pipes, deep in the heart of Kibera slum, where he was born and raised, “a place where I still go to write real shit, that’s where I can be inspired,” Octo says.
K.O recently made history with his music video: Caracara becoming South Africa’s first hip hop video to reach a Million Youtube Views. The official celebration of the video’s 2 Million Views was held in Kenya at Mseto’s Afrobeat Wednesdays at K1. He says, “It hasn’t been easy coming from a South African small town miles away from Johannesburg. If you were to see my environment, my hometown, you won’t even believe that I am this guy sitting here with all this swag. It’s all about self-belief, putting God first and chasing your dreams.” K.O recalls how he started out, “I moved out to the big city and made a few friends. We were all interested in music so after we graduated we decided to do music professionally despite not having enough money to start our career. To cut the long story short that’s how Teargas was started.”
Both rappers, like most of us, experience challenges, criticism or negativity. K.O says, “A lot of people meet hurdles and change their minds and want to give up. When I had challenges they were not deterring enough for me to decide on a different career path – the dream was always there. Even when Teargas wasn’t happening and sometimes I found myself with no income, zero in my account—it made me work harder and smarter. That’s why I am here and pray that God will bless me with the brains to do better and be smarter to reach my fullest potential. If you have a vision, despite your line of career, believe in yourself and want to change the world. Follow your path.”
Octo says, “If you’re an artist know that this is a marathon, you can start today and have a hit song but what will be next?” adding, ”I’ve been a lucky guy. I started back in 2008 and kept going despite people loving me then hating me. I was told change that ghetto stuff. People will always talk about you. It’s a circle. But I never changed. I stay focused.”
Nairobi to Jozi: Building Empires
K.O is also a record producer. He was the first artist to be signed to Cashtime Life, which he also co-owns. His debut album Skhanda Republic has surpassed gold sales and counting into platinum. Among other awards and accolades the album has won three awards: Record Of The Year – Best Rap Album and Best Collaboration at the South Africa Music Awards (SAMAs XXI). He says, “I was blessed with a vision of setting up my own company and being able to give back to the industry and create opportunities for other people – how the idea of the label Cashtime Life (co-owned with my manager Thabiso) – came about.”
Octo is currently in Europe for a tour. Most of his songs are produced by producers from other countries, “to avoid the monotony of Kenyan beats and stay fresh”, he says, advising all artists, “You have to be business minded”. Around 2009, Octo started his company Chocolate City with a group of friends who acted as bouncers and security for tourists who wanted to tour Kibera. “We were idle and I saw an opportunity for us to make money while showing local and international tourists all sides of Kibera. It’s not just about drugs and theft or bad things but there is talent and I am show for it,” says Octo. His company now specialises in making merchandise, well-organised Kibera tours and funding youth projects in the slum.
Music’s role in shaping the African Narrative
“As of last year Teargas members decided to explore our solo careers and that’s how you guys got to know of Caracara. I was lucky enough to see what Caracara did beyond South Africa. My music is in Zulu. It’s not a coincidence that you know Caracara—music is a universal language that’s why people jam to it,” says K.O.
The song Caracara is K.O’s ode to the legendary vehicle and how it featured in the South African township lifestyle of the 90s.
K.O’s successful hit single Caracara has changed the landscape of South African urban youth music, ushering a new era. It become the first song to ever top all 5 EMA charts – SA Local Music Top 40 Playlist, SA Local Music Top 40 RAMS, SA Television Top 40 Playlist, SA Top 100 Playlist and SA Top 100 RAMS at the same time. He says, “I am glad that I am still relevant enough to come here and interact with you guys and have real relations with fellow artists and get my name popping. Africans need to remain content and proud of our culture as the world wants to see fresh and new culture.”
Octo’s music style has remained true to Sheng’ and his hood, to an extent his a.k.a is his hood’s route number 8. He says, “My Africa is Sheng’ as there is no Sheng’ elsewhere. The Kanyes are now putting Swahili in their rap because it’s cool. If they knew where they came from they’d be rapping to it, even Luo. We have an advantage because we know our roots but we don’t embrace it. We try to be western nowadays – we have to stand out as Africans. When I first rapped in English in Berlin, the crowd didn’t get me till I started rapping in Sheng’. I respect that about K.O he kept it Zulu – that’s gangsta. K.O’s response, “Take your sheng’ to the world for they understand the mentality and attitude and they wanna buy into that.”
Octo is celebrated for his debut breakout hit: On Top. In the song Octo cleverly strings the connotation of buying fly shoes when you get stash with the theory of faking it till you make it. Octo is the success story of a hustler using street cred to camouflage his way into getting full status in the entertainment world. He says that following up the hit song was a nightmare. “When I did Hivo Hivo people didn’t think I’d have another hit song out.”
K.O has been to TZ too during his first East Africa tour. He says, “We decided on this trip as a business decision so next up is the West. That’s our main strategy. If you have music inspirations, make sure that you have a broad enough world view for you to do the things you want to do in the country,” concluding, “As Anyiko said – it is very important for African artists to not necessarily get into the music with an [alienated approach]. Don’t focus on serving your country only, as Africa is a big continent. [As artists] we need to make sure that we engage beyond our own nationalities; we need to export our talent, culture and heritage.”
BONUS: Thank you Alan Mola for the photography and 2015 Storymoja Festival for hosting us. Thank you WhatsGoodLive for co-producing and powering the K.O x Octo Artist Talk Back Event. Thanks Nairobi Rapsody for being partners. Thanks Thabiso, Tsholo, K.O and Octo for being the trillest :-)