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Brightening a dark place

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Brightening a dark place

Kenya’s award-winning rap artist, Octopizzo grew up in the poverty and squalor of Nairobi’s largest slum. But having made good, he has not turned his back on his birthplace, returning to give hope and encouragement to others. Naomi Larsson tells the inspiring story.

Henry Ohanga stands on the disused railway track overlooking the vast Kibera slum in west Nairobi. Tinny music blares out from makeshift shacks selling food and electronics as children in ragged school uniforms stare at him in awe, whispering ‘Octopizzo’ to one another.

The 30-year-old Kenyan rapper and activist can’t move for 10 minutes without being stopped for a handshake or photograph. Ohanga, better known for his stage name Octopizzo, is one of the biggest hip hop artists in Kenya. Since he released his first mixtape over a decade ago, his success has boomed.

Octopizzo’s second album LDPC, released in 2015, was the first Kenyan record to reach the top of the iTunes album charts. A single released in August last year was downloaded a million times in a day. Over the years he’s collaborated with international artists such as US duo Dead Prez and British rapper Black Twang, and has worked as a youth ambassador for UNHCR and the British Council.

But he is more than a celebrity in this part of Nairobi. Ohanga was born and raised in Kibera, the country’s largest slum. He spent over 20 years of his life here, and still comes back each week to see friends and family. Kibera is in everything he does – his music, his social work.  

“Kibera made me who I am today. I’ve travelled but there’s nowhere I’ve ever felt [a] community embrace and genuine love, more than here,” Ohanga says. “There’s nowhere else that’s really important for me.”

Dressed in a sharp tracksuit, polo shirt and with gold hoops in his ears, Octopizzo certainly looks the part of the award-winning artist he has become. But Kibera remains a part of his identity, influencing his songwriting and his work in the community. Ohanga founded a creative youth group in Kibera, YGB (Young, Gifted and Black), and throughout his career he’s worked to give a voice to disadvantaged young people from Kibera.

He squints through his blue-tinted glasses as we stand together overlooking the expansive slum. Covering around 250 hectares, at least 200,000 people live here – although some estimates suggest the figure could be up to 800,000. Poverty is widespread and many people survive on less than one dollar a day.

Ohanga is open and honest about his past, though it was turbulent at times. He lost both his parents as a teenager, and with few opportunities for young people in Kibera, he joined a gang – he could earn more money through such activities than working in a garage, where he earned just Ksh200 ($2) a day.

“I had friends who were in certain gangs. You have to look for alternatives, and sometimes the alternative is to join a gang because it’s easier – just go somewhere and scare people and get a few hundred shillings.”

Emotional trauma

Ohanga says growing up in poverty was “an emotional trauma”. “You grow up hating yourself. It goes deeper than just not having money.”

This emotion brought him towards music. The loss of one of his friends when they were in gangs changed his perspective on life, he says.

In 2006, when Ohanga was in his late teens, a British Council-run project called Words and Pictures (Wapi) opened its doors to young people once a month in Nairobi, to skate, rap and make music. “We didn’t know we could rap, we just wanted somewhere to hide – a safe zone where you don’t feel somebody is going to judge you,” he says.

“During that time I realised we should do something. There were so many young people going through the same stuff I was going through – we just needed a creative space.”

Ohanga launched his philanthropic project, the Octopizzo Foundation, in 2015, to run various programmes for marginalised communities in Kibera and refugee camps across Kenya, including mentorship and training in the creative arts or sport. The projects work with between 50 to 100 young people each time, providing them with a safe space to go and express themselves, with the hope of bringing them out of the cycle of poverty.

“At the end of the day you can’t just sit,” he says. “I’m trying to take advantage of my platform. When people care, you should bring other people up.”

On World Refugee Day in 2015, the UNHCR invited him to play gigs in camps across the country. As part of the Artists for Refugees project run by the UN refugee agency, Octopizzo was a mentor for many of the artists living in the camps. Refugees from South Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Burundi and Kenya collaborated together on an album, Refugeenius, which was launched in 2016.

“The programmes we do in the camps are more like therapy to these kids. They can say what they’re feeling, cry and let everything out. It’s also just a way of feeling free for yourself,” he says.

Changing the narrative

This work was about changing the narrative. “They’re just normal human beings like us, and they just need to tell their stories.”

While his work and music can be seen as political, he believes he is more of an advocate for social change. Mostly, he wants to show another side to Kibera, away from the damaging ideas of life in the slum. “We’re not a statistic, we’re real people. We have to do something, we can’t change the whole place. But I believe we can change one person at a time.”

Ohanga points to a patch of empty land in the distance. “That’s where they [the government] took down all the houses, they just cut across,” he says. In August 2018, bulldozers entered Kibera and demolished the homes of 2,000 families to make way for a new highway. Since the 1990s, the government began a programme of ‘slum upgrading’, but Ohanga is critical of the projects here.

“Nothing has changed. We have some street lights – it didn’t make it safer. The housing system hasn’t changed, the schools haven’t changed,” he says.

“When I come here over time I see the definition of a failed system. It’s getting worse because when I was here this was not like this,” he says, looking at the huge pile of rubbish and plastic waste beside us.

“That’s why I started rapping – I felt they weren’t telling the stories of this place. They weren’t telling about the women who work hard, the youth that are so fashionable, the kids that play football. They’re not telling the positive story, period.

“I’m trying to shed more light on the things that matter.” NA

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