Arbantone songs are mainly characterised by beats sampled from Kenyan Old School hits … and easy to lip-sync lyrics which are aimed at making the tracks ubiquitous within the ‘Challenges’ of the popular short-form video hosting service, TikTok.
By Frank Njugi
British linguist, David Crystal, is known for conceptualising language as a kaleidoscope of styles, genres and dialects. With music, language becomes inherently tied to the growth and evolution of a genre. An optimal example of this with Kenyan music is in the rise of Genge, 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. For around three decades now, Genge has been viewed as the framework for Kenyan musical improvisation, with its conversational rhythmic format. That is, the songs sound like casual Sheng conversations, and this has been taken as the blueprint for Kenyan urban music.
Recently, a new crop of Nairobi-based artistes, inspired by the dexterity of the pioneering Genge artistes such as Jua Cali, Nonini and Jimw@t, have spawned a new genre that mirrors Genge’s use of Sheng lyrics as a device to further peer at the Kenyan identity and way of life. The name given to the new type of music is Arbantone, and the artistes who adopt this style have become synonymous with delivering Sheng lyrics. These artistes also pay homage to the Genge pioneers by using a mélange of beats sampled from some of their most renowned songs, especially those considered Kenyan classics.
Most of these musicians are in their early twenties, part of the first Kenyan social generation who grew up with unlimited access to the internet (dubbed the Kenyan Digital Natives). They are taking into account their knowledge of internet marketing ploys, and using it as an effective tool for self-promotion.
Arbantone songs are mainly characterised by beats sampled from Kenyan Old School hits — which are syncopated with new Gengetone-like beats to make them dance-ready — and easy to lip-sync lyrics which are aimed at making the tracks ubiquitous within the ‘Challenges’ of the popular short-form video hosting service, TikTok. Interestingly, the most successful Arbantone song so far is one that is dedicated to the activity of making content for TikTok, a daily lifestyle engagement that many youthful Kenyans have become familiar with. Titled “Tiktoker”, the song’s beat is sampled from the famous Genge song “Bidii Yangu” by Jua Cali and has so far accrued over 5.6 million views on YouTube.
“Tiktoker” is the handiwork of the music producer Soundkraft, who alongside another Kenyan producer Motif Di Don, is credited as the trailblazer of this new soundscape. The two have gone to great guns, sorting out the services of emerging artistes, Tipsy Gee and Gody Tenor, who are subversive enough to co-opt this rebellious yet authentic new genre.
Tipsy Gee and Gody Tenor have also become mainstay artistes in Kenyan TV and Radio playlists due to “Tiktoker” and other Arbantone songs that have resulted from their association with Soundkraft and Motif Di Don. Their songs, such as “Kuja Ivo”, “Wawawa” and “ Mapeng(TikTok divas)”, are characterised by a sped-up Genge beat which is sampled in almost its entirety — rather than the normal reuse of just a portion of the sound recording — with their knack for lyrics that describe the lifestyle of young Kenyans.
Other artistes who have also attained success with Arbantone include YBW Smith, a musician from Buruburu, Nairobi, with an awe-inspiring terse and distinctive voice, who released commercially successful Arbantone singles such as “Lele”, “PIC”, and “Nakudai” featuring Sean MMG in 2023. Spoiler is another artiste who has mastered Arbantone. After releasing the hit song, “No Hook”, featuring one half of the Buruklyn Boyz duo, Mr Right, on July 2023, went on and dropped “Party Alone” two months later in September – a track that became an Arbantone club staple.
Armed with a deep-seated musical candour and eagerness that seems unencumbered by youth, these artistes — the likes of Gody Tenor, Tipsy Gee and Spoiler, alongside other Arbantone acts such as Ranzscooby and Ebola Mkuu — are sporadically releasing tracks that are gradually imprinting the genre as a viable component of Kenyan mainstream music. By presenting intricate Sheng lyrics, which are majorly descriptive of the inclinations of young Kenyans, using a simplified rhyme style over familiar beats, these artistes might just have cracked the code to captivating mainstream Kenyan music fans.
In a 2012 interview with the popular American online music publication, Pitchfork, the vocalist in the popular Metalcore band, Converge, Jacob Bannon, is known to have dismissed music genres as irrelevant. He said that nearly every form of music is a ‘melting pot of things of things.’ But with regards to Kenya, a country whose music falls behind in rank when compared to the buzz of West African Afrobeats and the enchanting vibe and conviviality of Amapiano and its dances, perhaps new uniquely Kenyan genres might be needed for the country to find its voice in the wider Afro-Pop conversations. And with their growing popularity, Arbantone artistes might be making a case for the genre taking a front row among African 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, Sinema Focus, Wakilisha Africa, The Moveee, Africa in Dialogue, Afrocritik and many others. He tweets as @franknjugi