Romi Swahili has been hailed as one of the fast-rising emcees and poets in the Kenyan hip-hop scene. Armed with a conscious mind, a storytelling voice and a down-to-earth personality, he has attracted a considerably huge fanbase and has performed in various gigs across the country. In an era where the Kenyan undergound scene battles with recognizable voices, Romi has stood the test of time and has proved that poetry and hiphop in Kenya is very much alive.
Born Ng’ang’a Njenga, in the midst of the Kenyan plains of Laikipia, Romi’s poetry and music is infused with the wisdom of the country-side and the wit of city-life. His father, DJ Zelmas, owned a music store where Romi spent his childhood listening to music by early musicians whom he considers as poets who came before him.
I had a word with him concerning his career, future prospects and his views on hip-hop in 254.
Romi: We’re fast approaching the a thousand copies mark which is way above the target I had set.
RKNM is a project that has continued to reveal so much to me and my team. It’s just amazing to say the least. One year ago the idea of putting the record out was not more than a “One Day and Wishes” concept. I heard stories of how the business is fickle and never really knew how the project would go. The good thing is that my team and I had prepared ourselves for whatever the outcome. We were ready to explore and learn. Having to deal with the recording, the listening, and re-listening, the packaging, moving and dealing with budget issues while attending our regular day to day lectures gave us so much insight into all of the things unseen in the background that keeps things flowing. We’re in love with the process.
I have personally acquired inspiration for my next creation and I am appreciative of everyone who helped me make arrangements for the album to be moved on tentative dates.
RKNM will remain to be my personal project to reflect on.
Wudz: Because of your captivating tone and storytelling skill, flow and conscious lyricism, many have compared you with Kitu Sewer and Nas. How prepped are you to fit in the shoes of these two legendary poet emcees?
Romi: I feel honored to be placed in such a high pedestal that holds my favorites. I have nothing but respect for the legendary lyricists. I however feel obliged to keeping up with my track record. I am plagued with the need to explore the rhyme or to at least think in a way I haven’t thought about before. I want to make something beautiful out of my career in music just this once that is my lifetime.
Wudz: Speaking of Nas, most critics think he should retire honorably instead of doing trap with DJ Khaled and ‘em. Your thoughts?
Romi: I believe music is made through the appreciation of life; what I would otherwise call the savoring of every second of an experience. Whatever the impetus, these experiences are unique to each and every artist. I choose to let Nas be.
Wudz: Are there other individuals you look up to as a poet and emcee?
Romi: I grew up listening to music by the likes of CDM, Makeba, Dube, Munishi, Kidjo and until I got to listen to hip-hop later in my teenage years. The African worldview strengthened my connection to music and in all fairness I like how accent and vernacular adds some dope edge to music.
Ukoo Flani Mau Mau were my launching point to my stand-alone career in music. I still find Kamau Ngige specially a great wordsmith whose philosophies to a great extent represent my personal thoughts and so it has always been easy for me to make a connection to his verses.
Finally music by the 1183 Hip-Hop collective has had a great impact on me at times of major changes in my life. These are the lyricists to send the crackle of electricity between the synapses of your brain flowing.
Wudz: We met a year ago when I invited you over for the One-Night Stand poetry gig back in Eldoret. How much has changed? Any projects underway?
Romi: So much has changed. I have been on tour for the better part of the year to expand my fan base and collaborate with artists across the country. I have also since completed my undergraduate degree and I am now teaching literature. I have been doing so much writing (including ghost-writing) that I have felt the need to pull back from my many journeys to focus. My new album, FUNZO LA MKUFUNZI, is in the works. Basically there’s so much going on and I am allowing the events to wash over me.
Wudz: In your assessment, how is the state of hip-hop in Kenya so far?
Romi: If I can be honest, I feel a bit sorry for the state of Kenyan hip-hop at the moment. From the excuses raised for not playing Kenyan hip-hop to rappers desecrating the art form for attention, I feel with all due respect the attention span meant for hip-hop is getting limited by the day. I think we have all failed. We have underestimated our uniqueness and downplayed our creativity. For instance what are the MCs doing while the cartels are putting up golden walls and carving out deals? Exactly, they are fighting over who is better in powder puff lyricism.
Again there’s too much commentary for my liking out here but I say I will keep writing my heart out. Good music has a way of finding its way to the people who need and appreciate it. I wouldn’t be making efforts if the “Golden Walls” were impervious. Instead of being all rambling and rants than helpful, we should understand that our audience is complex; we have listeners who appreciate “crude art” as much as they enjoy conscious lyricism. Let the music play.
Wudz: Back to your album, I listened to it over and over and I was awestruck on how it was neatly packaged; the concept, and how the subject matter was carefully spread across beside the witty interludes by Level Next. My favorite track of course is “Right Here”. Who are the producers?
I worked with various producers on the album majorly from Nakuru and Eldoret. MC Spook (MS Sounds) and Mutuka (Vitex Studios) mixed and mastered the songs “My Birth” that featured MC Spook and “Black Hole” whose instrumental was produced by Native Gitahi.
Ambreezo (Loud Drums label) contributed tracks for “Knowledge Mashairi”, “Real”, “Once Upon a Time”, the “Intro” and the “Interlude”. He also produced “Real”, “Once Upon a Time”—a track that featured Ghaiza.
Nuf Sed and Edd The Beat Smith produced “The Blaque Swahili Show” (Comma) the 9-minutes free flow that featured Genetic Disorder.
On to the major contributors on the album, we have Ace who did the instrumentals for “One Life”, “Luna”, “Street Justice”, “Right Here”, “Amen” and “Killing the Poet”.
Johazi, one of the record execs, produced “Killing the Poet”, “Street Justice”, “Barua ya Mwisho” and “Sleeping Pills”. He was working closely with Level Next with whom they produced “Hall of Fame”, the “Intro”, the “Skit” and the “Interlude.”
And finally Du’Boiz of Full Anchor Music mixed and mastered “Knowledge Mashairi”, “Right Here”, “Luna”, “Black Against the Wall” and “Amen.”
Wudz: You hinted once on releasing a joint project with Trabolee, what happened?
Romi: I have to mention the fact that Trabolee and I did a mix-tape together back in 2013. Though the tape was not officially released, we have continued to work both within 1183 and on our solo projects. I, for example, have features in his album, he has features in mine. We had plans of holding a joint launch for our albums (Romi Knowledge Na Mashairi and All Roads Lead Home) by the end of the year but we had to push the date forward. All in all we are always working and sharing concepts, who knows? One of these fine days a joint project may drop.
Wudz: Congratulations on your graduation. How do you juggle teaching, college and music? Is there somehow a connection?
Romi: It used to be a struggle but not anymore. With all these channels of communication, I can always occasionally drop updates on my music and my own progress when I am held up by work. As you can imagine, at times teaching and studies take much of my time but I am always excited about the end result. Things are good and productive and I have so much to show for my time. My passion helps me push through and scurry along just like the best of us.
Wudz: How ambitious are you—I mean, what does the future look like for Romi and the hip-hop world?
Romi: With all the risk of sounding less attractive, I think I am not here by mere coincidence. I am here to shed light if I can put it like that. I am grateful to be among the small band of artists who are given the chance to bring difference in this cosmic mismatch. My personal optimism is indestructible and I believe the universe has already invested much in making the Indie Movement possible.
I had always written paths to follow but found myself accomplishing stuff that I would never have imagined or even considered in the past… so I am letting the path unfold.