We all know that music has been a helpful way to overcome emotional stress, depression and the likes and most people love music. And Nairobians are not exceptions to this fact as they choose buses they use to get about because of their music. Nairobi’s minibus taxis, called matatus, are popular for their graffiti-style artwork – but they also play a major role in the city’s music scene. And guess what? More than three million people who reside in Nairobi use matatus. The good thing about these buses is that they may seem as buses but they are more than just buses, in fact they are a cultural phenomenon. Their over-bright decorations and blasting music celebrate anything that is hip and recent. The buses are usually adorned with whoever is popular for instance Obama, Jesus, P Diddy, and recently the Kenyan band Sauti Sol. So, if anyone’s face is painted on a matatu, the person has made it in the world of fame.
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Matatus do have routes, but have no specific timetables and both government and individuals owe the matatus. The privately owned minibuses struggle for the same destinations as the government-owned minibuses and only leave when they are full. And to the privately owned minibuses, it’s not worth the trip if they are not well filled up. Even, some unprincipled private owners go as far as tricking customers into hopping on board, by bribing people to occupy seats and they then get off as it gets filled up to go and occupy the seats of an another empty one. This is done because most people don’t like entering an empty bus that would waste all the time before it finally gets filled up. Of course because people like entering an already filled up buses to save their own time, they trick them into believing the buses are ready to leave anytime soon.
But the buses that fill up the fastest with great ease are the ones with the loudest artwork, the most lovable drivers, the most-handsome conductors and of course the best tunes. This is so because people dance in their seats if there is a really good mix in the matatu and also because the music attracts more passengers, they fill up and get to their destination sooner.
In the words ofhimself,
“If you’re an aspiring DJ these buses are the best way of showcasing your talent. I started out selling mixtapes to matatus in the 1990s – my mother looked after the four of us on her own, so I helped out by earning a bit extra. As well as making money, the mixtapes helped to get my name known – it was broadcast all the way into town and back.
“When I returned to Nairobi recently, I met an aspiring DJ who is doing exactly the same. DJ Brownskin (real name Michael Macharia) started selling his music mixes to matatus when he was still at school. “My father was giving me 50 shillings (£0.35; $0.55) to go to school, but that was not enough for me – I had to make some extra money,” he says.
According toBrownskin, got a job as a matatu conductor before and after school. Putting on his conductor jacket over his school uniform, he would wake up at 05:00 and join in three trips before going to school at 07:00.
When the school dismisses, he would do just one more stint as a conductor and then get to do his other business including selling CDs of his mixes.
In his words,
“I was making a lot of cash – I’d come home in the evening and have 700 shillings (£4.90; $7.60),” .
While in school, his music became popular, as he was offered gigs in nightclubs.
“It was challenging because sometimes I slept at the club, and then you have to concentrate in school,” he says.
You could widely tell that the trade-offs have paid off perfectly as Brownskin now has a regular club night at Nairobi’s Scratch Bar & Grill and he believes it was matatu who made him.
“The matatu made me who I am now,” he says.
However, some things have greatly changed. The mixtapes themselves make no longer make such big money – I used to charge 500 shillings (£3.50; $5.50) for cassettes, Brownskin charged 100 shillings (£0.70; $1.10) for CDs – and now it’s 50 shillings (£0.35; $0.55) per download,.
And the competition is fierce, even compared to when Brownskin started out, five years ago. At that time there were about 15 DJs selling mixes to matatus, and they sold like hot cakes. “Now you have 100 DJs in the matatu industry. Everyone wants to be a DJ – we even have DJ schools,” says Brownskin.
When I started off 20 years ago it wasn’t really thought of as an acceptable career. That’s different now, says Brownskin, as club culture has really taken off in Kenya. “These days you have more potential of getting to be a rich man or a rich lady because in Kenya they really party – you can party from Monday to Monday in Kenya. Every night somewhere is rocking,” he says.
What has also changed is that young people no longer expect to get a nine-to-five job. Instead, they “hustle” on the side – many are self-employed and work flexibly, any time, any day of the week. “My family used to tell me – if you are going to make money out of something else, as long as it’s not stealing, that’s good to me,” says Brownskin. “That’s why I love my dad.
Now even the Kenyan government seems to recognise the economic potential of matatu culture. Ten years ago, colourful graffiti and loud music were officially banned from matatus for safety reasons, although the practice carried on. But in November President Uhuru Kenyatta made it clear that he supports the artwork, since it creates employment. “We should surely support our youth to do business with their talents,” he said.
In Nairobi bus park, music makes the wheels move round and musicians pay back the love. Yes, and which why the rapper Octopizzo chose his name partly because of the number eight bus that goes to Kibera, the slum where he grew up.