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Meet Cosmic Homies O.N.E., the New Wave of Kenyan Hip-Hop

The four member music & art collective Cosmic Homies O.N.E. are the sound of #NuNairobi.

Cosmic Homies O.N.E. are the sound of #NuNairobi.


The four member music & art collective first met and formed in Kenya with the aim of challenging traditional and current stereotypes through their self-described “electro-organic” sound.

They’ve had major success in the past as two of its members—rapper/singer/DJ/producer TAIO and singer/producer Runkah—were both in Camp Mulla, a hugely popular Kenyan group that wrote the type of mainstream earworms that play on Top 40 radio.

TAIO and Runkah don’t speak too fondly of their major label days, though, citing that experience as what pushed them towards the underground and a more “organic” approach.

The two formed Cosmic Homies with Los Angeles-born singer/songwriter Marushka and rapper/poet/model Kiwango.

Alongside groups like East African Wave, Cosmic Homies O.N.E are pushing the sound of hip-hop in Nairobi towards a hazy and smoke-filled world.

The group just released their debut mixtape O.N.E. at Nairobi's The Alchemist bar during the "EA Wave & Friends" night, a show they played with Just A Band's Blinky Bill and the East African Wave collective.

We caught up with them during an earlier visit to NYC to get a handle on what the #NuNairobi movement is all about.

Who is Cosmic Homies O.N.E.?

Marushka: Cosmic Homies is a movement. It’s more than just the four of us. It’s an ethos about a new emerging and shifting paradigm. We’re a company. Label. Musicians. Creators. But, first of all, we’re a family.

Why "O.N.E."?

M: Only Now Everlasting. That happened sort of naturally, I was reading an article about graffiti writers, taggers always add “ONE” after their name.

How did you guys get together?

M: Fate, alignment and the perfect situation. We ended up meeting in TAIO’s studio after he broke away from his previous project. [TAIO] built his own independent studio at home where he hosts sessions.

We’re also journalists, actually. Our media partner is What’s Good Live, one of the leading independent platforms in East Africa. TAIO and I were working there together, writing and hosting shows about pan-African content.

When Talib Kweli came over, we talked to him for What’s Good Live. Same with Yasiin Bey.

Cosmic Homies in Brooklyn. Photo: Aaron Leaf.

How do you define #NuNairobi?

M: #NuNairobi is this sense of family and creative energy, made up of creative people, a lot of whom make music in their bedrooms. There’s so much talent in Nairobi and, thanks to platforms like Thrift Social and Creatives Garage, it’s coming together. It’s about more than art, it’s people digging deeper in life.

The thing to point out and say about Nairobi is there hasn’t been support or structures from the government, so we’re doing it ourselves. We're taking matters into our own hands.

What inspired the Cosmic Homies project?

M: People like Dan Eldon—a photojournalist who was stoned to death in Somalia—are a big inspiration. They found 17 bound journals that had all these different collage films and his family composed a book that became a huge influence on the whole of multimedia journalism. It’s called The Journey Is The Destination.

Dan was always my hero, then I found out he’s Karun's [Runkah] uncle!

There’s a new wave of sounds coming out of East Africa and Kenya, would you say you guys are challenging traditional models and sounds?

M: I’d say the trend in East Africa is once you get on the major platforms you sort of get scouted by major labels like Universal or Sony. So I would say in Nairobi, currently, I see a lot of young artists trying to form their own labels. From that you find that people aren’t falling for the same major label tricks.

People are vibing a lot more and finding that they’re in the position where they can bargain and work better and not fall for the traditional models that other artists have done.

Everyone’s thinking: we can do this on our own and take that to the world—whether they accept us or not that’s what it is.

Soundcloud has played a big part in it, actually, we were all on Soundcloud early on. It's really encouraged the community to grow.

Runkah: We actually had a big following [Runkah and TAIO as Camp Mulla] and people called us celebrities. But we wanted to start talking about things that were of our own to people. People now, in Nairobi, are less afraid to be themselves and be about themselves.

We were approached by these major labels at first, but we took a step back. Sonically, people are challenging what’s the norm and what it means to be "successful" and giving themselves the freedom of exploring different styles.

TAIO: I can admit that, before, we were following a formula, but now we're looking to completely redefine pop culture. In East Africa people don’t give a fuck. I can put this electric guitar with a flute and rap over it—it’s awesome to be a part of a scene like that.

What other acts would you name as contemporaries?

T: Ukweli, Jinku, EA Wave, they’re all homies.

We represent #NuNairobi, this new movement which we think was missing in the Kenyan industry before. We believe in the saying “the light that shines on me, shines on my neighbor.” It helps us reach more people a lot faster because we’re pooling resources with our friends.

The very first Cosmic Homies show wouldn’t have happened at all without EA Wave, Jojo Abot performed, Ukweli was there too. Just A Band are like our older brothers too. Big love from day one.

 

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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As the first Tanzanian film to be chosen for TIFF, Shiviji's film is sure to get the African country a seat at the table.