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How Kikuyu House and Electronic Dance Music is Taking Root as a Music Genre

How Kikuyu House and Electronic Dance Music is Taking Root as a Music Genre

How Kikuyu House and Electronic Dance Music Is Taking Root As A Music Genre| Afrocritik

In the hands of talented and dexterous Kenyan artistes, Kikuyu EDM has now been ingrained as a stable in the many subgenres whose catchall is House Music or Electronic Dance Music.

By Frank Njugi

According to New Yorker staff writer, Sarah Larson, the best pop music comes from taking the most interesting sounds from disparate places, modifying them, personalising them, and making them new. In Kenya, a new EDM-infused form of pop music has been conceived in recent years. This sound takes on the repetitive rhythm patterns of House Music and amalgamates them with euphoric and rhythmic melodies from Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. With no definitive name yet ascribed to this new wave of music, it is informally referred to as Kikuyu House Music or Kikuyu EDM Music.

In 2023, Brazilian DJ and producer, Zerb, released his third EP, Surrender. The third song, “Mwaki”, was a Kikuyu House track featuring  Kenyan singer, Sofiya Nzau. The track was curated as a progressive House track that utilises the G Minor key. It has a tempo of 120 beats a minute, with  Sofiya Nzau delivering her lines in Kikuyu. “Mwaki” is a layered, intricate sound that gradually increases in intensity, leading to a euphoric end. It was a TikTok-ready track that went viral on the video-sharing platform. The fervid acceptance of the track by TikTok users worldwide — as a dance world sensation (with over 100,000 videos based on the song created by fans on social media) — signified the acceptance of this new alteration of East African House and EDM as a new component of Dance music.

Sofiya Nzau is representative of Kikuyu Kenyan artistes who, in the past few years, have adopted an Electronic Dance Music aesthetic, and shown a creative agency by mashing it up with their Kikuyu identity. Before “Mwaki”,  in 2022  she had released singles such as “Kura”, and “Fafa”, featuring Chicago-based Christian Hip-Hop artiste, G4G. Her music exhibits super-slik loud vocals that are unwavering in their affiliation to Kikuyu melodies, and there is a strong emphasis on beats, rhythms, and instrumental compositions which create an immersive auditory experience. This is what she brings to “Mwaki”, too, resulting in a track that is grabby enough to override any sense that you’ve heard this kind of EDM music before.

How Kikuyu House and Electronic Dance Music Is Taking Root As A Music Genre | Afrocritik
Sofiya Nzau

Alongside Nzau, other artistes such as Kikuyu Mùgithi, and folk and fusion singer-songwriter, Ayrosh, have tapped into the House Music sound. In 2021, Ayrosh linked up with Neo-afro deejays and producers, Ally Fresh and Mura K.E, in the single “Hutia” – which displayed a Melodic House Music elegance with its emphasis on melodic, emotive sounds and rhythms. The song was inundated with Kikuyu lyricism from Ayrosh as the vocalist, and high-pitched melodies inspired by sounds derived from various traditional Kikuyu musical instruments which are combined with steady, propulsive beats to give a song with a Dance music tempo.

More recently, in March 2024, Nairobi-based DJ, Fully Focus, released an EP called  Kikuyu House. The EP has a tracklisting of five singles, which feature Sofiya Nzau as the lead vocalist in all the songs. The tracks in Kikuyu House are mostly interpolations of popular old-school Kikuyu songs, which in a showcase of ingenuity and experimentation from Fully Focus, are remixed using swinging hi-hats, floor kick drums, bouncy chord progressions, and funk-inflected bass lines to become EDM singles. 

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How Kikuyu House and Electronic Dance Music Is Taking Root As A Music Genre | Afrocritik
Fully Focus’ album cover

By becoming stealthily subversive, Kenyan Kikuyu artistes have birthed a new iteration of African Dance Music. Although the genre is still in its infancy, the massive airplay and worldwide recognition that the few Kikuyu EDM songs have received so far spell out a positive future for this new genre. “Mwaki”  has garnered over 100 million streams on Spotify since its release, and topped the Spotify Global Viral Song chart, attracting the attention of the best EDM and House music acts in the world. It has had remixes featuring Major Lazer and Tiësto who introduced buzzing basslines and sawtooth kind of synths to the track.

The “Mwaki” music video starts with a quote: “Nyĩmbo Nĩcio Thĩomĩ  Cĩa Thĩĩ Yothe”, a Kikuyu saying which translates to “music is the only universal language”. Through a genre that is primarily a fusion of electronic and organic sounds with native melodies,  the culture and language of the Kikuyu people are being revealed to the world. And in the hands of talented and dexterous Kenyan artistes, Kikuyu EDM has now been ingrained as a stable in the many subgenres whose catchall is House Music or Electronic Dance Music.

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.

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