Kenya's Hip Hop Parliament: Where the MCs challenge MPs

From the rooftop of Ghetto Radio high above the streets of downtown Nairobi the view is deceptively peaceful. The pitch battles that rang out among these same neighbourhoods a year ago after a disputed election have calmed but the deeper tensions they exposed remain.

The Kenyan capital's starkly urban mix of tower blocks and corrugated iron slums, masks what rapper Muki Garang calls a "deep ethnicity" that isn't going away quietly.

The young MC is one of the founders of the Hip Hop Parliament, an extraordinary experiment born in the underground ghetto music scene just as the violence in the city beyond that saw nearly 1,000 people killed was reaching its peak.

One of the most thoughtful and eloquent legacies of that turmoil, the "parliament" is a fast-talking rebuttal to those who lazily dismiss hip hop as a malign force. It began a year ago as "a collective of hip hop artists to symbolise unity regardless of ethnicity." At a time where a political power struggle was inflaming tribal and ethnic divisions some of the finest voices in Nairobi's ghettos decided to see whether MCs could do a better job for their communities than MPs and the parliament was born.

Although he hasn't given himself the title, Muki Garang – not his real name but a tribute to the South Sudanese liberation leader John Garang – has been the "speaker".

How can you tell whether a rapper is from Hip Hop parliament? Well, they "won't get on the mic and start rapping about shaking your booty, they'll get on the mic and start provoking your thoughts," he says.

His song Justice, written after last year's clashes is an example: "Ask yourself what is fair and what is not/You were born as a life not an afterthought/It's often thought there's someone else to blame/If you ask me I feel that is lame..."

The lyrics flow from what the parliament calls "conscious hip hop".

After the word went out last January, 60 MCs turned up for the first "session" of the parliament. The sessions developed into a forum for the artists to perform and to recount what they had witnessed.

The MC describes it as a message to the country's discredited political class: "There is a voice that you assume is suppressed. But we are coming up and we are the ones speaking to you."

Kenya's vote at the turn of the year 2007/2008 saw what was initially fierce anger at election rigging escalate into tribal clashes that some politicians are accused of inciting for their own ends. The compromise national unity government that emerged has made little progress in healing those wounds a year on and has instead stalled over the creation of a special tribunal to hear evidence against several unnamed MPs suspected of stirring up ethnic divisions.

That's a considerably slower response than the Hip Hop Parliament. It drafted and agreed on a declaration which was handed over to the United Nations during post-election talks brokered by former UN head Kofi Annan. The statement was a youthful and charged blend of street and diplomatic language: "We, the Hip Hop Parliament MPs/MCs, will use our dope MCing skills to influence our peers in order to reduce the negative effects of tribalism... We can only be cool if there is peace in our country."

Kenya's "deep ethnicity" comes from its rural past, Garang explains, and the force that neutralizes ethnicity is urbanization. Eighty percent of the Kenyans who have flocked into Nairobi are teenagers or younger, making its notorious slums, like the million-strong Kibera, the engines of the country's burgeoning youth culture. Hip hop burst into this new world in the mid-90s and immediately found a youth following, who identified strongly with it. These urban subcultures have been a "neutral space", he says, in which tribal tensions were muted, making them an obvious starting point for an effort to come together. This post-ethnic culture even has its own language – Sheng. A mix of broken Swahili, English and tribal languages, it has scared some traditionalists but inspired many others and given Nairobi hip hop its own distinctive classless flavour.

"When you speak in English I can tell where you come from, what education you have. The same in Swahili," says Angel an MC on Ghetto Radio, which has Sheng as its main language. "In Sheng there's no way to tell if you're from the slum, or where you are from."

She complains that Swahili with its lingering introductions is too formal for the youth. Sheng in contrast is a fast-moving language more suited to freestyling and breaking down barriers. And as such ideal for a forum like Hip Hop Parliament.

"The parliament has been a uniting factor," says Mwafrika, another DJ on ghetto radio and one of the collective's founding members. "We are brought together by love of hip hop and music."

Mwafrika, a performing name that means African person in Swahili, knows about ghettos. Born in the slum, his mother was a street hawker who made what living she could selling the soft chewable stones – odowa -- that pregnant women in Kenya sometimes crave. "The only thing that gave me hope was hip hop," he remembers.

He now has an evening show called "Nai-Raw" three times a week on Ghetto Radio, which pays the bills and performs as an MC on the side.

"Most 'conscious' artists have to have a second job," he explains. One of the MCs Die Hard is a reporter for the news agency Reuters, Muki is a telecoms engineer, others like Mwaura sweep floors in a downtown cafe.

The parliament's declaration quickly brought international attention and some rappers from the collective made their well received debut at the Earth festival, an international event in the Laikipia nature reserve, high on the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley.

Soon to be back in session after a break the founders believe the MCs need to "keep it real" and remember their responsibility to their communities not just their careers. "When you are hungry you can't get in the mood and rap," Muki points out.

"For some it could be the inspiration to open a small business, like a barber's shop," he says.

For others it will be a starting point to get noticed as a promising MC. Muki is adamant that while individual artists keep on putting out music – his own album 'Content, Flow and Swagger' will be self-released later this year – the parliament must "evolve into something bigger".

Hip hop like all urban culture has given birth to its own cliches and none is more hackneyed than "keeping it real." That said, the parliament's MCs have kept it a lot more real than most.

(Since being interviewed MC Angel has sadly died. She was among the 30 people who perished in a Nairobi supermarket fire last month.)