Poet Wilson Oebah
Poet Wilson Oebah
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In his telling, the 27-year-old artist Wilson Oebah, who has so far lived exclusively in Nakuru, a city located 165 km north of Nairobi, defines himself as an urban word poet.

“My goal is not to change the world but to inspire the mind that will change the world,” Willie Oeba - as he is popularly referred to in the local music ecosystem - says prophetically.

Beginning in 2019, when Oebah dropped "ISM", his first album and very much an "in-my-hood"-inspired artistic work, the trajectory of his craftsmanship has grown to such an extent that he now has national recognition not only for his style but also for the nature of his lyrics.

Some of his best-known tracks are formatted as letters addressed to the country’s topmost politicians, who Oebah calls out ostensibly for abuse of their respective political bases, and Kenyans in general.

Using the local creole language of sheng, which is idolized by the region's urban youth, the two best-known tracks arguably strike a chord with a large and potent demographic that could tilt national elections scheduled for 2022. 75 percent of Kenya's population is under the age of 35.

 The letters are verifiably contagious - both for their satirical candour and for the baritone voice that Oebah uses to deliver them. He calls out politicians both on past promises and the usual election-period "handouts".

"The same students ulipromise (you promised) paid internships 2017, the same graduates unaoffer (you are now offering) wheelbarrow empowerment 2020. Zima hiyokitu (Do away with this shamming) ... (the) youth hawataki (do not want) handouts, wanataka (they want) wages," he announces in one of the tracks.

Kenya's current president, Uhuru Kenyatta is not expected to defend his seat in the election, having served the maximum of two, five-year terms allowed by the constitution. That leaves a vacuum that the current deputy president, William Ruto, and former prime minister and opposition leader Raila Odinga, are vying to fill.

Oebah also reflects on generic themes that affect youth, including what it takes to be a patriot and what women aspire to, in the track "These girls". Just listening to his art is akin to taking a journey through the existential lives of Kenyans in general but particularly the youth.

The poet's lyrics are likely to strike a chord with a younger demographic which faces a particularly homogeneous crisis thanks to common themes of unemployment, political exclusion and moral decay.

Anyone thinking Oebah was over-reaching when speaking to himself as the local "King of Poetry" would be wrong: in 2017 he was recognized as East Africa Spoken Word Battle King and Blaze Safaricom Music Champion in a contest that attracted more than 1000 contestants.

In a country where authorities routinely take a hardline stance on artists who critique social, political and economic problems blamed on corrupt and underwhelming leadership, Oebah is unusual for his brazen attitude. His mentor, Kenyan rapper Kennedy Ombima - popularly known by his stage name, King Kaka - has faced real threats to his life for releasing songs with heavy political undertones.

Oebah is an alumnus of the local Moi University where he studied media and literature. He said the latter subject had a huge impact on him and is seminal to his current project.

“There's so much to learn and harness as a creative by just being in that literature space. Be it actively or passively. With literature I have learnt oral, listening, writing and communication skills. I have learnt that what you write is as important as what you say, how you say it and when you say it. That’s what poetry is.”

He adds that literature enables him to classify himself as a "niche artist" because at the end of the day, "you can't appeal to everyone. You need a niche to tap into if at all you want to be effective.”

The strapping 27-year-old lost his father to cancer in 2013 and as the eldest child in a family of five, he had to take on much of the responsibility for his siblings and ailing mother.

“Growing up, we did not have everything we needed and that built the resolve in me to fight for what I believe in. I have been raised in a God-fearing family set up and this has influenced my art,” he said.

After completing his secondary education Oebah did odd jobs, including selling tea at the bus terminus in Nakuru and working at construction sites, to raise his university tuition fee. On arriving at university his art became not an escape but rather an important means of making more money.

“At the university, I started actively doing art so as to get paid and the monies that I received sustained me at the university. This move paid off, for it saw me been nominated while in my second year as the official university MC and I performed in all the graduation and orientation ceremonies, thus sustaining myself.”

He mentions, too, the moral burden of taking on a university education when the family was in need.

“I knew the moment I stepped out to go to the university, it was expected of me to give back to the family because at that time my dad had succumbed to cancer and mum had been struck by a stroke," he explained.

“So the idea for all the four years while at the university was to give back to society and stay away from trouble. In my 3rd year, I won the Blaze Music Champion (competition) by Safaricom and in my fourth and last year I was the most influential student in Moi University.”

Make way for the king, indeed.

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