Hip-hop dreams, a black velvet jacket and a matatu. Enjoy this urban portrait of a hustling, hungry artist set in Nairobi and told by Williams Magunga, a storyteller of the African city. He writes about Nairobi like no one I know. — Editor’s Note
Sunday is the day God takes the roll call.
On this day of the week, when all creations show off themselves to the Almighty, the sun becomes a sadist. It smiles its blistering heat upon the world as if looking to pick a fight with earthlings.
Man brings out his best garments, bulls dust their hides with their tails, hyenas polish their table manners- they say please and thank you when asking slugs to pass the table salt. Pigs brush their teeth, and flowers open up their petals like a drunk virgin opens her legs on her eighteenth birthday.
This Sunday, Philip walks across Nairobi CBD in a black velvet jacket. This is the jacket he wears once in a while when he wants to make a statement. It has a double slit at the back, two silver buttons, and patches at the elbow. It exudes class and accomplishment.
His girlfriend, Wangeci had told him to take it off. That it is foolish to put on a jacket when the sun baked the universe like that. If she squinted her eyes just right, she could see heat waves floating around the air. She said he was trying too hard to impress.
“But that is the point, Tanya,” he had said. He always called her by her first name every time they were in an argument. In most cases, when they disagreed about anything, they would compromise. This always translated to following Wangeci’s lead. But this time it was different. He wanted to look pristine.
“It is an interview, I have to look good.” He had persisted.
“It is a radio show interview for Chrissakes, Phil. Nobody’s going to see you.”
“Look, this is my big break. Finally a radio station wants to have me on studio to talk about my music.”
“It is Mambo FM!” Wangeci shrieks.
“It is in Machakos! Nobody listens to it. You did not even know it existed until two days ago.”
Philip knows she has a point. He is going to a radio show for a station whose frequency he did not know, located in Machakos- a place between the borders of civilization and Stone Age. Yet he insists on putting on that black velvet jacket, under this unforgiving Sunday heat. It’s ridiculous. But he won’t have any of it.
“The jacket stays on,” he’d bellowed on his way out.
He is a hungry artist desperate for audience. He is at the end of his tether in search for appreciation. For over a year now, he has been waiting for someone of note to listen to his music and tell him that he makes sense.
And now this lady calls from Mambo FM asking for a one-on-one. It was a milestone he wishes Wangeci would appreciate. He can not afford to mess it up. He is on his way to fame, he thought, and he’d be goddamned if he lets anyone come on the way of that.
Mutale from Mambo FM is how she introduces herself every time she calls. She says she’s been a fan of his YouTube channel, she calls his music dope. Something new. His music, she had said, is not the typical regurgitated gangster lines that all hip hop artists spit. He doesn’t rap about chains, the number of times he had been in jail, expensive cars, Remy Martin or how many girls he lays with each passing day. She loves his rap because he does not wear his belt on his knees. When confronted with a rap battle, he doesn’t threaten to kill his opponent, or call their mothers. He is modest. He only takes a swing at their fake accents, reminds them that baddest is not even an English word; and that designating a portion of the streets for themselves and branding themselves kings of that area, does not make them royals or much less, rappers. It doesn’t raise their rhyme skills, if anything it lowers them to the level of presidential candidates. But then he, just like the rest, finds it overly cool to refer to Kenya as the ’254′.
Mutale’s words play in his head, even though he has his earphones on. The man to his side nudges him lightly. They are on Mombasa Road. He ignores the first time and the second time. The third one is more of a punch, he withdraws his earphones.
“Huyu dereva mimi simwamini (I don’t trust this driver). Ni kama ako hapa,” he gestures a drink using his hand. His voice is coarse, like he has been smoking ballast from a concrete cigarette. The way it grinds as he speaks makes him cold. He claims that even before we took off, the driver smelled like he was sweating gin. Philip giggles. They are on the back seat of the matatu, and there is no way he could have whiffed the driver’s breathe from so far.
But a few minutes later, while speeding on the middle lane, and as if to give credence to the man’s allegations, the driver comes to a screeching stop. The sound of rubber scratching tarmac makes the faint hearted woman holding a child two seats ahead to yelp.
The matatu stops suddenly just in time to avoid a collision with a salon car, before switching lanes to the right and then speeding off again. The couple sitting in front of them embrace each other, and the dude whispers something into the terrified girl’s ear.
“Stop this matatu you drunk! The man besides him bawls. He wants to alight. “I am in no hurry to get to my wife and kids at home.” He turns to Philip. “Si nilikuambia huyu dereva ni mlevi? (Didn’t I warn you that this driver is inebriated?)”
Soon, everyone in the matatu wants the driver to stop. Phyl keeps silent. Inwardly, he doesn’t want the driver to stop. These are just a bunch of pansies wetting their panties because their bodies have been taken out of their comfort zones. A little rush of adrenalin never killed anyone, he imagines, plus he didn’t want to be late for his interview.
The man bangs the side of the matatu.
The driver looks back, and that is when Philip gets sight of him for the first time. He is dark, and he is missing a couple of his front teeth. Whatever that is left of his teeth are discoloured- like he prefers to have mud and éclairs with his four o’clock tea.
“You rickety relic, could you not see the other driver trying to cut me off?”
He is not looking, and yet the car is still in motion. A woman screams. The baby wakes up from all the commotion, and wails out whatever air it has on its bantam lungs.
“WATCH OUT!” The man shouts frantically pointing into the distance.
The driver looks back at the road in a panic. Everyone does. There is a biker a few paces ahead of him. Philip reaches for his seat belt, and fastens it just in time for the driver to try and escape hitting the biker.
The matatu swerves to the right. A man yelps. Jesus gets a mention or two. There is a tree, a jacaranda tree in bloom. The car rams into it with a murderous ferocity. The impact launches the passengers into the air. Philip is thrown forward, but luckily, the seat belt seems to harbour a different thought. In a split second, he hears glasses break. That is when he witnesses the inertia tossing the driver out through the windscreen.
The passengers at the front disappear next amidst the glasses. Bones break. His phone drops and his earphones unplug. Music ends. The world goes into a spin.
Philip holds on, tightens his grip on that seat as the matatu somersaults its way into the tarmac again. It is reduced to a heap of metal, leaping excitedly in the middle of the highway.
He watches as men, women, children and chicken are thrown around the matatu like ping pong balls. Seat belts snap. Arteries are ripped open. Heads bang against metal. Blood gushes out, spraying a scarlet hue to the inner remains of the vehicle, as the carnage comes to a slow grinding halt in an upside down position. And then for a moment, everything goes quiet.
Bodies lie there like a heap of black paper bags in a trash dump outside an abortion clinic on a busy afternoon. Some headless, some limbless, but all lifeless. The smell of fresh hot blood curdles his stomach, and he feels like excusing himself to go throw up. His head aches from a continuous ringing sound between his ears. It rings loudly like a failing life support machine; the soundtrack to death. His vision in blurry. He cannot make out how many people are in the car. As far as his senses are concerned, he is the only one still alive.
He thinks of the new couple, he imagines them canoodling in their spirit forms. He imagines how the passengers who are already dead are having fun, probably laughing at how much living mortals like him are scared of death.
He tries to crawl his way to the window, but he can’t move. He tries harder, and as he does, a stinging pain registers on his left thigh. He touches the spot, and feels some metallic intrusion. He has been crucified to the thigh by an iron rod. If he moves, it will tear his skin off. He lies still, as life slowly oozed out from his body through his injuries.
He wants music to forget the pain. He tries to sweep his hand around to get his phone. He would tweet his death, take a picture and post on Instagram with a link to Facebook. He would call the Mutale from Mambo FM and apologize for not being able to make it on the show due to intervening unforeseeable circumstances.
Perhaps if she would have it, they would reschedule, he would suggest. If not, he would let her know that his real name is Philip Kasonde. But since he is a hip hop artist from the 254, he needed a cooler name that wouldn’t mess up his street cred. Thus Phyl with a ‘y’.
Then he would call Wangeci.
He would ask her why she was in such a foul mood when he left—he would ask if it was the new book she has been reading, A Million Little Pieces. He would ask whether James Frey had kidnapped her from him momentarily without a promise to return, and taken her away into a world of his own design.
Wangeci always did that when writing a story, she liked having this schizophrenic hangouts with characters in her head. If she doesn’t answer, he would leave her a voice message that he was dying. She had always joked about how he would die from multiple gunshot wounds, inflicted by a rival hip hop gang.
He wonders how she will mourn him. If on some days while at work, when overwhelmed with storming recurrent thoughts of him in his black velvet jacket, she will look for a washroom, lock herself inside and cry. He wonders whether she will write his story, and how he died. On the voice message, he would tell her to write about how he got crucified on the thigh. He would tell her that Jesus had an easy way out.
He sweeps around again for his phone, but everywhere his hand landed, all he could feel are bones sticking out of flesh, a pond of blood, lifeless bodies and hopelessness. Then he a familiar stench strikes his nostrils. Petrol. He can hear it trickling from the gas tank.
From the window he can see a small curious crowd forming. The crowd maintains its distance from the wreckage. In this crowd, a woman is holding a small girl in a green and white school uniform. She covers her eyes and buries her head in her hefty thighs. In this crowd he sees some people talking frantically into their phones.
A guy with a tablet is taking pictures- possibly a Twitter bigwig tweeting Alai and Madowo about the accident. He will get a lot of Retweets and Favourites. He will be exalted for keeping the Kenyans on Twitter informed about the tragedy. Then later on tonight, he will be on set with Julie Gichuru, where he will tell exaggerated tales of his bravado. The tales of the hunt always glorify the hunter, until the lion learns to tell his own tales.
If fortunes smile upon him, he might get an Elder of Golden Heart from the president on this year’s Mashujaa Day. He too is a rising star on a road to fame.
Black smoke begins to fill the carnage. It’s coming from the front. It creeps in on him like a thief, and then begins to ink the air around him with blackness. His lungs demand irascibly for oxygen. His chest heaves in and out in search of fresh air. He chokes like a careless asthma child with a misplaced his inhaler. He notices the crowd outside stepping back. The man with the tablet doesn’t.
The air around him borrows the night’s tint. The grim reaper waltzes inside the car- somehow, with his long scythe he can fit. He hears an explosion. He closes his eyes, and in the brief imagination he has left, he sees Wangeci.
She is standing by a beach. It is sunset. The ocean wears the setting sun on the nape of its head like an incandescent halo. An impatient gentle breeze flaps her polka dots dress, and blows the tides tenderly to the shore.
She is throwing pictures of them into the ocean. The water kisses her feet and then draws back towards the retiring evening sun, taking with it memories once cherished.
Heat on his feet. It climbs on his jeans, and attempts to melt the iron on his thighs.
Pain. He opens his eyes. He looks back. The reaper’s scythe is pointing at him. Hell fire.
The velvet jacket goes first, its bristles ash into the hostile flames. It is not long before his skin shares a similar fate. Life is just about to lose one, and he Philip, would receive a king’s funeral.
“Enyewe Jesus took an easy way out,” is his dying thought.
His favourite colour was red.
Image is by Kenyan photographer, Mutua Matheka. Check out his instagram page HERE.
Magunga Williams is a student at University of Nairobi, School of Law. He writes a blog called The Real G