The comeback kids are here to stay, and they’re showing Nairobi how it’s really done

Camp Mulla have proved unstoppable. Karun Mungai, Shappaman (Benoît Kanema), Taio (Matthew Wakhungu) and Kus Ma (Marcus Kibukosya) first got together in their early teens and found swift success with the single, 2011’s Party Don’t Stop, and subsequent album, Funky Town. They shone brightly but briefly and then went their separate ways. But after a hiatus of four years, the Kenyan band reformed last year and are now busy cooking up new music. Nataal headed to Nairobi to talk to Karun and Shappaman about their fresh flavours.

Nataal: How did the band begin?
Shappaman: We originally formed at high school and it was a case of sheer passion. We hung out in the studio all the time and it was a good vibe. After a couple of years it blew up.
Karun: 2012 was an awesome year. I’d just finished A-levels and we were getting nominations for the MTV Europe Music Awards, BETs and the MOBOs.
S: Our sound was hip hop / R&B and very soft and sweet. Not too sweet though, it was a little rough as well. When it got hot, it was hot enough. When it was soft, it was really smooth.

N: So why break up - was there beef?
S: There was no beef! We were young and needed to do other things in order to be sure that this is what we really wanted to do. And we needed time to be appreciated as individuals and work on solo projects.
K: I went to school for music in the US. Marcus, our main producer, went to the UK to study music too. And Taio, our founding member, became a music engineer. But all the while we were getting offers for shows and eventually it was like, yeah, this is time. And now we’re back in the studio.
S: Now it feels right. The sound is changing but we don’t need to talk about it because it’s a feeling. The sound’s not so soft but it’s still sweet.
K: We’re on the same page but the page has grown. In terms of song subject matter we have our own spaces. I tend to make things more conscious.
S: And I talk about love because that’s the thing I know about, I talk about that struggle everyone has experienced in one way or another.

N: How do you feel about the New Nairobi hype?
K: New Nairobi makes me excited. When we first came out the scene wasn’t diverse. There were a lot of young people making music but it the felt like they had to go abroad to make it happen. Now everyone is more fearless.
S: That’s a great choice of word. Fearless. People used to have ideas about what a Kenyan song should sound like or represent. Matutu music! Today everyone is being an individual and branching off into genge, afro soul, kapuka or whatever. Since Just A Band, it’s different.
K: We’ve got two new songs with (former Just A Band producer) Blinky Bill too.
S: There are so many elements involved in New Nairobi – film, photography, fashion. Today I’m here wearing Bongasawa and feeling good. And because we’ve all put in the hard work, we can try to make it happen for everybody. The young guys can feel like they can do what they want because we’ve gone before.
K: People credit us for so much for what’s changed in the industry. Taio feels the pressure most because he was behind a lot of it. He started the 254Low hashtag, which I consider a genre of music. 254Low is everything Kenyan, it’s about bringing each other up and not hating on the next person. But it’s deeper than that too. As Kenyans, healing from a colonial past, we have self-hate that is so deeply rooted that people don’t even realise. 254Low is radical.
S: True that. Right now I just want life to be fun. There’s no certainty so we have to be sure we’ve got it covered and we’ve got to enjoy the ride. It’s about putting out positive energy in order to receive it.

N: What are your tips for surviving the Nairobi hustle?
S: The Nairobi hustle is simple. Respect everybody but don’t let them take that for weakness. We’re a big city in this corner so you just have to keep your eyes open. A lot of good stuff is going on and you can get left behind. Everyone is working hard, carrying their weight and being genuine.

Karun wears Katungulu Mwendwa
Shappa wears Bongosawa

Words Helen Jennings
Photography Maganga Mwagogo

Visit Camp Mulla

With thanks to the British Council’s East Africa Arts programme

Published on 02/04/2018