Interview
Kiff No Beat. Photo: Wilfried 'Tony' Sant'Anna

Kiff No Beat, Cote d'Ivoire's Premier Rap Group, On Being the Blueprint For the Youth

Kiff No Beat are riding a wave that shows no signs of slowing down.

I walk into a studio tucked on an unpaved road in Cocody, Abidjan, and I'm greeted by a young beatmaker, Tam Sir, the female duo, Nafasi, and the multi-platinum producer behind a number of Afro-French hits, Christophe Ghenda.

What's blasting from the speakers has me silently bobbing my head. Kiff No Beat members Didi B, Elow'n, El Jay, Black K, and Joochar aren't yet present. The artists I do see are on Africa Mindset, a label headed by Didi B, the leading member of La Kiff. A couple moments pass before Black K walks in and starts listening to another track made by Christophe Ghenda. Not too far from me sits the up and coming Congolese crooner, Cevin, waiting to leave for an interview.

Universal Music Africa has flown in Ghenda to diversify the sort of music their artists are releasing and evidently churn out bangers. It's Didi B's birthday and I am told to expect some delay. A few hours of waiting go by as artists shuffle in and out of the studio and more members of Kiff No Beat trickle in.


The group was founded in 2009 as the merging of two rival hip hop groups, JEKBOYZ and KIFF BLACK won a hip-hop competition titled, FAYA FLOW, and took their wins to producer Shado Chris to create hits for them. He catapulted their careers, and the rest is a history that is still being written.

With the albums Cadeau De Noël (2011) and Pétards D'Ados (2014), and mixtapes Cubisme (2015) and Made in bled (2018), under their belt, Kiff No Beat is slated to release a new record this year. Despite being newly signed to Universal Music Africa, they are seasoned in the game.

With over 10 years behind them, these men are riding a wave that shows no signs of slowing down. Their winning formula is an eclecticism that is a hit with the youth and adults alike—rapping and singing in nouchi (Ivorian slang) over trap and Coupé-Décalé beats. Where Black K, Elow'n, and Didi B are known for their raps, El Jay sings and Joochar sprinkles reggae and dancehall on tracks.

Kiff No Beat - Ce n'est pas bon youtu.be

Kiff No Beat has not only inspired young rappers coming up after them but moved an entire industry towards blending hip-hop and afrobeats together—and they've now got competition from coupé-décalé artists rapping. Rap and coupé-décalé are dead locked in a fight to dominate Ivorian music and spectators are eating it all up.

When all five members have assembled, they posses a chemistry that lights up a room and rare are the moments that aren't filled with laughter. They speak with ease about who they were at the start of their careers, who they now and what it means to be ambassadors of urban culture at home and abroad.

This interview was conducted in French and has been translated and edited for length and clarity.

Okayafrica: Who are your musical influences?

Elow'n: The idea of forming a group this size was brought on by French hip-hop group, Sexion d'Assaut. Seeing them made us realize it's possible. The way in which each member sings or raps depends on their influences. I'm influenced by American rap—T-Pain, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar. They'll tell you theirs.

Didi B: My influences are more so singers and not rappers—Alpha Blondy, Meiway, Michael Jackson—Everyone with a unique presence about themselves. When we started, we did a lot of choreography, as well; we thought of ourselves more so as artists than rappers. We had idols who more so inspired the way we put on concerts or shows. There are a few rappers though, Booba and Lil' Wayne.

El Jay: I listen to singers like Mario and the greats who started R&B.

Black K: Same as them but we're inspired by everything, namely African music like Lokua Kanza.

Didi B. Photo: Wilfried 'Tony' Sant'Anna

I'm going to ask you all to describe each member of the group. Let's start with El Jay.

Didi B: El Jay is more so the melody, he's the softness of the group, he's also our go-to guy for afrobeats, when we have to depart from rap or trap, we count on him to bring it home. He's also the group's pop star.

Elow'n: He's our lover. He's soft. He's our Chris Brown, our Matt Pokora, our melody. He's also a great dancer.

Up next is Didi B.

El Jay: He's the dark rapper of the group. He's our dark side. He's the group's hardcore rapper.

Elow'n: He's the brains. He typically knows what to do and when. He's our strength. He's our third eye.

Black K: He's our leader. He knows when we should release a track. He's our sorcerer.

Black K's turn.

Elow'n: He's l'homme étrange (the mysterious man). He's black, obscure, dark. He's capable of everything. He can rap, sing and even flow on Ndombolo.

Didi B: He possesses a wide breadth of knowledge of afrobeats. When we want to get traditional or incorporate the use of guitar riffs, he's our go-to. It certainly comes from his family, from the music that his sister makes. (Gnahoré Okou Camille or Black K comes from a musical background as his sister, Dobet Gnahoré, is a singer, and his father, Boni Gnahoré, was a percussionist and a singer, as well) He's responsible for songs like "Ils on dit".

El Jay: He's our resident stylist. He's responsible for the styling behind a lot of our music videos. He's an expert when it comes to putting outfits together.

Black K. Photo: Wilfried 'Tony' Sant'Anna

How about Joochar?

El Jay: He's our reggae, dancehall vibe.

Elow'n: He's a hybrid and adaptable.

Dibi B: He's also the person who is the most shy in the group. He's like the rat in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Master Splinter, who never comes out.

And Elow'n?

Johnny (Group Manager): He's a humorist. He's outspoken and charismatic.

Didi B: Elow'n is the only one who doesn't sing. He raps rapidly, it's his gift.

What themes do you cover in your music?

Dibi B: Alcohol, sex, drugs. Life, in all honesty. We aren't conscious rappers. We aren't inclined to give life advice etc. Most conscious rappers do what we do behind closed doors.

Elow'n: This isn't church music! We don't lie in our songs.

Dibi B: We do, however, convey messages. Our latest track "Yaka Dormir" is about working hard for your family.

Kiff No Beat - Yaka dormir youtu.be

You were previously signed to Da Carmen label, what has changed since your move to Universal Music Africa?

Elow'n: Soon after signing, we made a music video with Clarence Peters (Nigerian music video director), we partook in a show at Paris' L'Olympia, attended Cannes Music Festival and did huge features with Kaaris and Tiwa Savage. We've expanded. We couldn't of done any of this as independent artists. We are reaching new heights.

Didi B: Because we made things happen for ourselves at the start of our career, we've had help getting to the next level—the European and anglophone market. Because of them (Universal) we have new videos and a better understanding of where our money is coming from and going… When we started out, we were solely dependent on funds from concerts and shows at baptisms and weddings. We used to just randomly release music and nothing was monetized.

Elow'n: You can hear us in playlists on Air France flights. We have gone to Georgia to shoot a music video. Our songs are being mastered in countries like Pakistan. We can see clearly now. "C'est plus pour la mairie," (an Ivorian expression that means we are no longer out here working for free).

El Jay: There are really artists out here unknowingly making music for free!

El Jay. Photo: Wilfried 'Tony' Sant'Anna

When is the next album coming out?

Elow'n: Soon. A couple weeks. It's already ready. We have a couple finishing touches left. We just have to give a date and it's out. We promise the album before July. We promise the album in 2019.

What is the state of music in Ivory Coast?

Elow'n: Before, there was only coupé-décalé, now rap has come and imposed itself. It hasn't been easy. In 2003 or 2004, all there was was coupé-décalé; luckily, nowadays, everyone is talking about rap. There are now two styles that are definitely here to stay.

Didi B: Music has done well here. There are a variety of festivals and concerts popping up. This wasn't the case before. Before, it was one artist with a concert at Le Palais. Now, there are as many as 5 concerts, during the holidays, and 10 during the year. There are even award shows. Honestly, things are going well. Within our genre, things are going well. After us, there are artists on the come up.

Do you think this is due to you all?

Elow'n: We are definitely responsible for this.

Elow'n. Photo: Wilfried 'Tony' Sant'Anna

What advice would you give to artists coming up under you?

Didi B: My advice is to try to understand your rights. It's also to be perseverant and work hard. I want to reiterate, 'Know your rights,' and be professional. If we signed with Universal, it was because we've always been professional. We paid our friends who made our covers, we did shoots for our covers, which isn't common here. Here, artists drop a track with a cover that's an image of them in a club. Universal saw how serious we were about our craft and it motivated them to work with us.

Elow'n: There is money to be made in this industry. It is important to know what steps to take. An industry where everyone wants to be Kiff No Beat is no good; you have to have your own identity, an identity that no one else has. That's what we did, we came on the scene as something new and refreshing. To be someone who inspires someone tomorrow, you have to be different from everyone else at your start. Be your own person. Don't sell gumbo in a market where everyone else is selling gumbo.

Joochar. Photo: Wilfried 'Tony' Sant'Anna

Do you see yourselves as ambassadors for your country?

Elow'n: We are conscious of the fact that there are a lot of youth who watch us and are inspired by us.

Didi B: There's a generation of people who are coming up like us. We are rappers but Tony, for example, is a photographer. Drogba once said, "On a ça aussi chez nous," (We have that where I'm from) We see ourselves as the representatives of urban culture, of rap, of beautiful music videos.

Black K: There's swag here in Africa.

Elow'n: C'est la nouvelle Afrique. (It's a new Africa)

El Jay: There's a new generation whose entrepreneurial and is attempting to work hard and develop its businesses.

Audrey Lang is a writer and merchandiser based out of Boston. All photos by Wilfried 'Tony' Sant'Anna.

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Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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