Music, especially of the loud, danceable kind, is ubiquitous in most of Africa. Yet DJs, the artisans behind the walls of sound, often remain in the shadow. This is not how we roll: we want you to find out who is pushing the envelope throughout the continent.
This week we shed light on DJ coco-em from Kenya. I met em last year in Nairobi, when she took part in a DJ workshop I hosted with Gafacci. She was one of the most enthusiastic participants, and her commitment to DJing has kept on shining, landing her regular gigs in Nairobi and the sub-region, and even a Boiler Room set earlier this year.
Can you tell me a bit about your musical background?
I’ve always been surrounded by music. Our home was full of my mum’s lingala [Congolese rumba] and reggae music. We also listened to a lot of South African gospel music. My uncle listened to reggae music every morning and recorded countless cassette tapes from the radio.
I started listening to hip hop music in high school after interacting with a good friend Njeri. We exchanged cassette tapes and Source magazines. I was drawn to the heavy bass, the beats, the drums and snares and the witty word play of the rappers. Hip hop is all I ever listened to until I went to University and had a rock music phase. My favorite bands were System of a down and Incubus. My sister loves 808s and synths, lots of disco and dance music from the 70s.
Later on in life I met and dated a musician who exposed me to a completely different style of music which was more digital and electronic. Being exposed to so many genres is what makes me the artist I am today. I am unable to stick to just one genre because I feel the diversity of music is what makes it very special.
How did you get involved with DJing?
I used to share a lot of music from youtube on my facebook page. I had friends who said that I had good taste in music and that I should be a DJ. I did not take it seriously initially but after more prompting I decided to buy a DJ controller for fun. I purchased the Hercules RMX2 in 2012. I was a bedroom DJ until 2015 when an open call for DJs was put out by ‘Bad Mambo Productions’. I submitted a mix and was shortlisted as one of the 10 DJs to compete in the DJ battle. I had never performed in front of anyone before and on the day of the competition my stage fright took over me. I did not make it to the top 5 that day but I was encouraged to continue playing by people who felt my music selection was very good.
What’s your current DJ routine? How often and where do you have gigs, how is it evolving, what types of events, what genres, what types of crowd reactions?
(will answer on crowd reactions because at the moment my DJ career is only just picking up steam after the Boiler room performance so I do not really have a solid DJ routine)
Any time I perform, the crowd always gravitates to the dancefloor. I’ve had people tell me they don’t normally dance but my selection makes them want to move. I love this and this is why I play. Whenever I’m not playing a very dance-oriented set, I love to dig deep into the archives for selections the crowd can relate to. Mostly these would be old Funk or Reggae songs that have been sampled by various artists and so the crowd gets excited to hear them played and then mixed into the songs they are familiar with.
Can you explain to us what the scene you fit into is like? Whether you want to talk about Nairobi as a whole, or more specifically the circles in which you gravitate
The scene I fit into in Nairobi is the less mainstream music scene. This would be found predominantly in the Westlands area and select underground music events such as ‘Backyard Bass’ at the Alchemist. I also fit into the strictly hip hop circles and usually have to stop myself from singing along to every song because I used to memorize old school hip hop lyrics heh.
What have been some of your most exciting sets and times DJing?
I have two sets that stand out as my most exciting sets to date.
The first is when I played at the Kilifi New Year’s festival 2018. Performing that set felt like an out of body experience. I have no words to express the energy my set built within the crowd. I also did not miss one single beat lol.
My second most exciting set has to be the Boiler Room Nairobi set I performed about a month ago. Although I was extremely nervous and was operating on an hour’s sleep (I was working as DOP on a feature film around the same time) I absolutely loved the experience and the build up of energy with the crowd. The most important thing for me is that the people I play for feel and are moved by the music as much as I am and that happened during the Boiler Room set.
What is your goal as a DJ, and what are the next steps for you to get there?
My immediate goal is to play in as many music festivals around Africa and thereafter branch out to the world. I would like to collect as much music from the continent. There is so so much music here and I am so curious to find explore it all and find ways to blend it into amazing sets.
I would love to make music of my own and to collaborate with different artists. My personal challenge is to find a way to mix afro beats, percussions with hip hop. I have mentioned a million times how much I love the way DJ/Producer Sango mixes traditional Brazillian music with hip hop beats.
Can you tell us a bit about this mix, what it represents and means to you? Does it reflect what you sound like like.
This mix is a blend of some of my favorite tunes. When I play live I always find myself moving from afro beats to hip hop (or vice versa) and then playing some reggae or kwaito at some point. It highlights some of the things I love in music and that is traditional beats, percussions, something that gets you moving. I love to dance.
In future I would love to incorporate more music with strong messages such as the Boddhi Satva remix of Femi Kuti’s song ‘You better ask yourself’. This is also part of the reason I really like oldschool reggae dub music as well. This mix is what I would sound like playing at a small venue somewhere in Nairobi on a relaxed Saturday or Sunday evening. It does get a bit experimental towards the end but that is my usual style.