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10 Urban Music Genres Unique to East Africa

10 Urban Music Genres Unique to East Africa

Ten Urban Music Genres Unique to East Africa | Afrocritik

East African urban music is forged by artistes from different countries or geographical zones…

By Frank Njugi

East African urban music comprises soundscapes and genres making a wave across the region. This is due to the close cultural and linguistic relationships of the various countries in the region; Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya. Superfluously, however, the question of the East African musical identity is one that still lingers. This is fueled by the success of the West African Afrobeats and South Africa’s Amapiano which appears to have gained an upper hand internationally. 

While writing on East African music for Native, Kenyan journalist, Tela Wangechi, said of how “East Africa is a hidden gem waiting for discovery as its urban music landscape takes form through its diversity.” East African urban music is forged by artistes from different countries or geographical zones, taking the authenticity of popular traditional and folk music, combining it with Western influences, and eventually conceptualising transcendental contemporary music whose soundscapes are exemplary enough to dominate the airwaves in the region.

In this article, I compile a list of ten genres of East African urban music unique to the region.

Shrap

Shrap is the Swahili iteration of Trap music, which Kenyan artistes, Boutross, Musau Mumo, and Jovie Jov are credited for conceptualising. Shrap is characterised by the normal Trap music anchors — synth beats and the use of 808 drum kits with rolling bass and hi-hat — combined with Swahili and Sheng lyrical delivery.  Songs such as 2021’s “Shrap Over the Rest”,  2020’s “Shrappin Jinja”, and  2018’s  Khali Cartel 2.1 “AD Family Presents Shrap Gang Mafia Cypher”,  solidified the genre as a component of popular Kenyan music.  In recent times, Shrap has evolved to become more of a culture. The younger generations of Nairobians now identify it as a way of living, dressing, talking, and self-expression alongside it being a musical sound. 

KinyaTrap

KinyaTrap is a genre of Rwandan Hip-Hop that combines elements of Chicago Trap, UK’s Grime Rap, and Brooklyn Drill with Afro-Pop rhythms. The delivery of the lyrics in KinyaTrap songs is usually multilingual as the artistes alternate between  Kinyarwanda, Swahili, French and English — creating some form of juxtaposition. It has been popularised by the most renowned Rwandan emcee, Ish Kevin, whose two KinyaTrap songs, “No Cap” and “Amakosi”, both released in 2021, are usually ranked among the best East African Hip-Hop songs released in recent times. Other artistes whose music has made the genre a staple in East African mainstream music include Bushali — who is considered the founder of the genre — B-Threy, and Kenny K-Shot. 

Kapuka

Also referred to as Boomba music, Kapuka is a form of Kenyan hip music that became popular within East Africa in the early 2000s, due to songs released by artistes such as the late E-Sir, Nameless, Mr Lenny, Amani, Mr Googz, and Vinnie Banton amongst others. A form of Pop Rap,  Kapuka is characterised by a rhythm-based lyricism similar to Hip-Hop, combined with Pop music’s preference for melodious vocals and catchy tunes.  The Boomba music aesthetic has been kept alive by its pioneering artistes such as Nameless, who have remained part of the music scene for years, constantly releasing tracks that have readily been accepted by mainstream fans.

Taarab

Taarab music is a genre popular in Tanzania and Kenya, and is influenced by the musical traditions of the African Great Lakes, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. It was initially introduced in Zanzibar in the late 1800s by Sultan Seyyid Barghash bin Said and conceptualised as a form of Swahili cultural expression — first known as Swahili wedding music — before later spreading all over the African Great Lakes region. 

In modern times, contemporary mainstream artistes such as Diamond Platinumz and Zuchu have tapped into the Taarab soundscape, which mainly incorporates instruments such as violins, zithers, tablah drums, double bass, and the cello. Both artistes have released hit songs such as 2015’s “Nasema Nawe” and 2020’s “Mauzauza” which both featured veteran Taarab singer, Khadija Kopa.

Benga

Benga is a genre of East African music that first developed in the region along the shores of Lake Victoria in eastern Kenya in the 1950s. Later on, the genre was introduced to other parts of the country through intra-communal interactions in the 60s. Kikuyu artistes borrowed this Luo musical style – which was characterised by a rapid plucking of single notes by guitar pickers – and fine-tuned it after the invention of the electric guitar with new sounds influenced by Country and Western music. With that, the genre spread and became one of Kenya’s oldest forms of popular music.

In the 21st century, contemporary artistes such as the Afropop boy band, Sauti Sol, Akoth Jumaji, and Okello Max, have made sure the genre remains relevant by constantly releasing Benga-influenced songs.

Kidandali

Ugandan Kidandali music is an amalgamation of native sounds and samples from the country with foreign ones. It is a combination of the oldest mainstream music genres in Uganda, Kadongo Kamu, Congolese Soukous dance music, and the Dem Bow riddim derived from Ragga — the genre which has had the most influence on contemporary Ugandan musical traditionReferred to as the East African iteration of Afrobeat music, this contemporary genre was popularised by the endeavours of artistes such as Papa Cidy, Chameleone, and Chris Evans.

Genge

Originating from Nairobi, Kenya in the 1990s, Genge is an iteration of Hip-Hop music with Dancehall influences that gained notoriety due to the pervasive nature of its language of lyrical delivery, Sheng — a creole spoken by most of the Nairobi inner-city dwellers. Genge usually has a conversational rhythmic format — the songs usually sound like casual Sheng conversations. In the early 2000s, as Kapuka was making headway, Genge also became a staple genre in Kenyan mainstream music due to artistes such as as Jua Cali, Nonini, and Jimw@t. 

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These artistes have for years inspired up-and-coming acts to take up the genre — which has resulted in Genge being termed as the country’s most authentic genre. In 2024, the genre remains viable in the hands of artistes such as Kushman, who has released Genge hit songs such as “Sijazoea Kuteteshwa”, “Ogopa Kanairo”, and “Nawacha Pombe” in the past year and a half.

Acholitronix

Acholitronix is a genre of upbeat electronic dance music forged in Nothern Uganda in the city of Gulu. This genre is named after the Acholi people, who live in “Acholiland”, a region spanning parts of northern Uganda and southern South Sudan. Acholitronix is derived from the traditional Larakaraka wedding music of Acholiland which is modified using computer software, synths, and electronic drum-kit beats. This hyper-frenetic version of East African electronic dance music has grown in popularity due to the endeavours of Acholi artistes such as Leo PaLayeng and Otim Alpha.

Gengetone

Gengetone, also known as Odi Pop, is a genre conceptualised in inner–city Eastlands, Nairobi which is characterised by aspects of Genge-rap blended with hints of dancehall and reggaeton and topped off with unfiltered and unrestrained lyrical expression. Artistes such as Ssaru, Trio Mio, and Fathermoh have popularised this genre in more recent years. Gengetone was conceptualised by new age Nairobi inner-city boy bands such as Ethic, Boondocks Gang, and  Ochungulo family through their songs, “Lamba Lolo” (May 2018), “Nipeleke Na Rieng” (December 2018) and “Bora Uhai” ( July 2018 ) respectively.

Bongo Flava

East Africa’s most commercially successful form of Pop music, Bongo Flava, emerged in Tanzania in the 1980s as a derivative of United States African-American music such as Hip-Hop and Rhythm & Blues, Afrobeat, and Dancehall, combined with regional forms of music styles such as Taarab and Dansi

Bongo music’s lyrical themes usually revolve around exploration of social issues and love. Recent times have seen Bongo artistes incorporate Afrobeats and Amapiano soundscapes into this Swahili music, in an attempt to gain regional and global appeal. Beyond Tanzania, other artistes in East Africa have adapted the Bongo Flava aesthetic and attained success with it –such as Kenyan artistes Otile Brown and Masauti. The biggest Bongo Flava artistes currently include Diamond Platinumz, Ali Kiba, Jay Melody and Harmonize.

Frank Njugi is a Kenyan Writer, Culture journalist and Critic who has written on the Kenyan and East African culture scene for platforms such as Debunk Media, Republic Journal, Culture Africa, Sinema Focus, Wakilisha Africa, The Moveee, Africa in Dialogue, Afrocritik and many others. He tweets as @franknjugi.

Artistes on Cover Photo: Top left to Bottom right – Ssaru, Zuchu, Jay Melody, Ish Kelvin, Boutross, Nameless, Akoth Jumaji. 

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