The night before I left for Kenya, I was struck by a brilliant idea. During my brief stay, I would meet a local rapper, and we’d record a song and shoot a music video. My logic was flawless: I’ve made a bunch of music videos with my friends on Saturday Night Live; how hard could this be? And a creative project would help to focus my trip, allow me to make a cross-cultural connection, and force me to see parts of the country I would otherwise never experience. Twenty-five hours later I was staggering off a plane in Nairobi, jet-lagged and alone, wondering how the hell I had come up with such a mind-bogglingly stupid idea.
Nairobi is an overwhelming mixture of smog, grit, and energy, with the traffic of Los Angeles and the crowded sidewalks of New York. The first thing I ask my cab driver, Benard, is whether people in Africa actually say hakuna matata, the catchphrase from Disney’s The Lion King. “It means no worries,” I tell him, “for the rest of your days.” Shockingly, he doesn’t answer, “Screw that cartoon stuff!” Instead, he says, “Yes! Hakuna ma-ta-ta—everything is good!” From that moment on, I decide to use the phrase as much as possible, in sentences like “Jambo (hello), do you know where the nearest ATM is, hakuna matata?” and “Excuse me, hakuna matata, are there a lot of carjackings in this area?” I think the locals will dig the fact that I know Swahili.
After I check into my hotel, Benard takes me to one of the many bootleg record shops downtown, where I pick up a CD with MP3s of every Michael Bolton song ever recorded, for the equivalent of $1.80. Then he drops me off at a restaurant called the Carnivore, known for its wide selection of nyama choma (roasted meat). The place is extremely popular with wazungu, as we white people are called here, so much so that soldiers with machine guns scan every car for explosives, apparently fearful that Al Qaeda might blow the place up. Besides the threat of death, it’s charming—like a Kenyan version of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Inside, all the waiters are dressed in cheesy “African” garb—geometric leopard-like prints, zebra stripes, and big straw hats. The tourist kids next to me are listening to their iPods and ignoring their parents.
Before I have time to be embarrassed for being here, I’m bombarded by 20 different waiters doling out an endless array of meats. I eat more than my share of chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, and goat before moving on to ostrich, crocodile, camel, and ox hearts, which are all delicious, and then to the ox balls, which are not. I drink too many Tuskers (the local beer of choice), and when I finally get back to my room I’m stuffed, drunk, lonely, and not one bit closer to shooting a music video.
In the morning, I ask a young hotel clerk, Jamilah, if she knows any rappers. At this point I’m getting desperate. Amazingly, a friend of hers is a rapper, a guy called Kaka Sungura, aka Rabbit, who lives near her in Nairobi’s sprawling Eastlands district. Not only that, she says he’s great.
She tells me the name of one of his more popular songs, “Jam Na Kam.” I check out the video on YouTube and find that Jamilah is absolutely correct: Rabbit is awesome. She promises to email him for me.
I spend the rest of the day with Benard, who takes me on a mini safari in Nairobi National Park. I’m not that psyched about the idea of taking pictures of animals from a car, but telling people you went to Africa and didn’t go on safari is even more embarrassing than actually going on one. So I give in to my inner tourist. As we drive along, listening to Sufjan Stevens and other lonely-white-person music through my tiny iPhone speakers, we see Cape buffalo, ostriches, giraffes, antelope, wildebeests, warthogs, impa- las, zebras, and a few rhinos. And I realize something: A safari is incredibly boring without a bunch of wazungu shouting, “Look at that thing!”
As we leave the park, I ask Benard if Nairobians have a local term for “tourists.” He thinks for a long moment as we bounce along the dusty dirt road, then answers, “Safari. We call you safari.”
The next morning I wake up in my hotel in a panic. I only have three days left to shoot a video for a nonexistent song. I’m nearly ready to bail on the whole project. When I head downstairs, Jamilah walks up, hands me Rabbit’s number, and wishes me luck. I nervously pick up the phone and dial. Rabbit answers on the fifth ring.
“Hey, Rabbit? My name’s Jorma, and I’m from New York. You want to make a song together?” I expect an awkward silence followed by click and a dial tone, but instead, Rabbit responds, “Yeah, man, let’s do it!”
And I’m in. He tells me to meet him at Imenti House, a run-down shopping mall at the edge of downtown. I recognize the address as one of the many places Benard warned me not to go, because wazungu tend to get robbed there immediately. “Hakuna matata,” I mumble into the receiver. Rabbit spots me from two blocks away. I suppose I stand out ever so slightly. We handshake-hug, and I can tell that we’re going to be friends. He has a laid-back air about him and a wide, bright smile that puts me at ease. We walk to a bustling intersection near River Road, one of the most crime-ridden areas of the city, where we encounter what seems like hundreds of matatus—minivans used for public transit, also known as “death traps.” After wading through the matatu men screaming their destinations in Swahili, Rabbit finds one heading to South C, a middle-class neighborhood where his friend Dice has a recording studio.
On the ride, which costs about 10 times less than the cabs I’ve been taking, we talk about everything from God to relationships to the kind of music we like. Rabbit tells me he’s been struggling with his faith after a friend of his became paralyzed, and that he likes simple women, because “Simplicity turns me on, man!” When it comes to music, he loves clever rhyme style and storytelling—my favorite part of hip-hop. “I’m not a rapper, I’m a storyteller,” he says with a wry smile.
In South C, we jump out and run across the eight-lane highway, darting in and out of the unending stampede of matatus. We walk along a dirt road for a quarter mile and pass brightly colored fruit stands and kids riding their bikes. We eventually arrive at a narrow residential cul-de-sac with black metal gates guarding paint-chipped buildings. Rabbit rings the bell, Dice buzzes us in, and we make our way to a recording studio in the back of a large, run-down apartment. The booth itself is small but sound-proofed, and much more professional than the studio where I record music back home.
I’ve brought a hard drive of beats by my friend Simahlak, a Montreal DJ and producer. I play Rabbit my favorite track, and he loves it. We listen to the instrumental on repeat and scribble down our lyrics, mine in English, Rabbit’s in sheng, the local slang—a mixture of Swahili and English. I take a mental snapshot of this moment. Halfway around the world, kids are exactly like me; they make music on laptops, post their videos to YouTube, and communicate using Facebook and Twitter. In this moment I discover that regardless of where we were born or the color of our skin, we are all parts of one cosmic being with different vision parameters. I also discover that they have really good weed in Kenya. Dice tells me to stop bogarting and pass the joint.
We record the song in about an hour. I need more takes than Rabbit, because he is a real rapper and I’m definitely not. While playing around with lyrics, I ask Dice if there are any slang terms for the city of Nairobi. He says, “Yeah, we call it Nai-robbery.” I laugh and say, “It’s like on that HBO show The Wire, where they call Baltimore, Maryland, Bodymore, Murderland.” Dice responds, “I love that show!” It turns out he and Rabbit have seen every episode on bootleg DVDs.
Back in town, Rabbit talks to a cab driver and gets me a much better rate to my hotel. Apparently, I’ve been a sucker most of the time I’ve been here—not a huge surprise. As I get into the cab, I ask Rabbit if he wants to make a music video for our song. With a big smile he says, “Yeah, man. Let’s do it tomorrow!” I say, “Hakuna matata.”
“Please stop saying that,” he says. I can tell he’s impressed that I know Swahili.