We head to one of the world’s best festivals to meet a cross-generation of African rappers and MCs, including Yugen Blakrok, MC Yallah, and more
Earlier this month, 12,000 local and international partygoers flooded into the village of Njeru in Jinja, Uganda, for the fifth annual Nyege Nyege Festival. Hundreds of artists from five continents – including a special showcase of Chinese DJs and producers – performed on the shores of the River Nile for four long days and nights, with a vibe so intensely energetic that a strong contingent kept dancing well beyond sunrise every morning.
Over the past five years, Nyege Nyege has grown exponentially in size and influence, and has – along with its associated music labels, Nyege Nyege Tapes and Hakuna Kulala – gained a reputation for platforming experimental sounds of the Ugandan and wider Sub-Saharan African underground. This has been seen at Nyege Nyege itself and its year-round parties in Uganda’s capital Kampala; through showcases internationally at festivals such as Unsound, Sónar, and Kallida; and at tours by their artists across the globe, from East Asia to North America.
It is also known for profiling an impressive number of female identifying artists: to quote Ugandan DJ extraordinaire Kampire on Twitter, “I defy you to find a higher concentration of African women DJs and producers (or even women DJs and producers) anywhere else in the world than @NyegeNyegeFest this weekend.” As well as Kampire, from Uganda alone, the festival boasted an array of exciting new femme DJs and producers. In each of the performers’ own words, Saturday’s Boiler Room saw music “for and about pxssy” from Decay AKA Cardi Monáe, a “booty-friendly” set with choreographed dancers to match from Catu Diosis, and a genre-bending, gender-bending journey from gqom to vogue from Authentically Plastic inject the Eternal Disco Stage dance floor with twerkable, bassy, feminine energy from early afternoon ’til midnight.
Also lighting up stages and dance floors were a collection of badass female MCs and rappers from Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania. Some entranced party-goers with poetic, spoken-word style rap, while others hyped crowds by MCing to super fast electronic sounds of up to 300 beats per minute. We spoke to five of them about their work, their inspirations, and how it feels to take up space on stage as a woman, shouting your own words to crowds of hundreds and thousands.
“Remember in the 1960s ladies were being forced into marriages… / But right now look at us, I can work, take myself to the salon, braid my hair, and I look good / We are no longer in that century” – MC Yallah, translated from Luganda
Veteran Ugandan-Kenyan MC Yallah has been on the Kampala hip hop scene for over 16 years, and is a proud member of the Nyege Nyege crew. “My style is hip hop electronic grime, but I also do trap, punk, old school, anything,” says Yallah, who met the festival’s founders in 2013 when she was involved in Newzbeat, a show where she rapped the news. “Nyege Nyege has really changed my style because it’s given me the opportunity to work with different producers from all over the world,” she adds. “A person gives me what they have created, and I come in with my flow.”
Yallah says that she enjoys writing lyrics about women’s issues such as domestic violence, as well as songs “praising myself – as a rapper you have to be like, man, I’m the best,” she laughs. Yallah sees this as an empowering thing for her to do as a woman, because “it shows that you have confidence in yourself and that you believe in yourself”.
Yallah also says that she enjoys surprising people with her grimy rapping. “Most people when they look at me they don’t think I rap, at times I’m soft,” she says. “Then when I’m on stage they’re like what, is that the girl who we were just talking to? She’s a beast on stage! They love it.”
“Desperate times call desperate measures, when situations dire / Tower over furnaces unburnt and demons cower / But the world spins, or it seems to / Watch the heavens, wonder if the gods and us could be equals” – Yugen Blakrok
Yugen Blakrok’s atmospheric set on Saturday was a highlight: dressed in a long black cape, rapping behind smoke machines and under the bright moonlight, it felt like she was putting a spell on the crowd with her moody, psychedelic performance. “I got into rapping through poetry, I really enjoy writing,” South African Blakrok tells Dazed, adding that she is inspired by the “spirit of survival… topics revolving around how the mind works, ancient belief systems, our evolution as a race, spirituality and basically life from my point of view”.
Blakrok, whose track “Opps” was used on the Black Panther soundtrack, says that when she performs, it makes her feel powerful, because “speaking words of power and getting the right energy out of an audience is a spiritual thing”. This year was Blakrok’s first at Nyege Nyege, and she says that connecting with other artists from around the world had been a “wonderful”, shouting out to artists including Uganda-based Houdini and MC Yallah.
ANTI VIRUS, KADILIDA, AND REHEMA TAJIRI
“Now, the sound is here / So you give me mood / You give me Maasai mood / Dance like Maasai” – Kadilida, translated from Swahili
Sitting down on some crumbling steps on the shores of the Nile, we find three female MCs from Tanzania’s Singeli scene, which is formed around frenetic 180-300 BPM electronic music which has been described as ‘African gabber’. It’s a young scene – many of its artists are teenagers producing beats on battered second hand laptops – but has made huge waves through the Nyege Nyege Tapes label, with its pioneers such as Sounds of Sisso performing internationally, including at Berghain’s Panorama Bar.
It was the first Nyege Nyege for MCs Anti Virus and Kadilida, who are both only 18 and haven’t toured internationally yet, but had no problem hyping the crowd during their Boiler Room set on Saturday afternoon.
Kadilida tells Dazed that to be a Singeli MC, “you have to be very strong, and very good at freestyling”, adding that the DJ doesn’t always tell her which song they are starting with, so she has to judge what to sing based on what is played. “In Singeli you have to change style every ten minutes,” laughs Kadilida, who used to sing R&B and Bongo Flava before she joined the Singeli scene. Kadilida explained that she MCs in Swahili about “street style, our local lifestyle”, and both “problems and happiness”.
“When I perform there are so many men and boys there. It makes me feel very strong, because a lot of them respect me,” says Kadilida, adding that “when I’m MCing I feel different. I feel like I can do so many things”.
For Anti Virus, “rapping is about swag, and big vibes”, making clear at the start of her interview that “I’m not afraid of anyone when it comes to MCing, because I’m better than all the others”. She says she enjoys making patriotic music, and has a song called “Tanzania”. “I’m happy to be an artist and an MC. And music is business, so I get profit from it,” adds Anti Virus.
At age 49, Rehema Tajiri describes herself as an “mama” to younger Singeli artists such as Kadilida and Anti Virus. After performing more mainstream music in Tanzania for decades, Tajiri moved into Singeli in 2017 because she liked the fast beats and rapid instrumental changes in the music. She tells Dazed that she had “heard that a lot of young people are doing Singeli, so I thought maybe I could try and do it too to give them my full support”, adding that making the transition from singing to MCing was challenging at first. “My lyrics are about life – sometimes environmental, sometimes political, social,” says Tajiri. “I’m inspired by female rappers from the USA like Queen Latifah. They’ve done it, so why can’t I?”