Octopizzo: Rap king from Nairobi slum inspiring Kenyan kids

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Kenyan hip hop artist Henry Ohanga (aka Octopizzo), who hails from Kenya's largest slum Kibera in Nairobi, poses with a fan during a visit to Kibera on January 16, 2018. (AFP)
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Kenyan hip hop artist Henry Ohanga (aka Octopizzo), who hails from Kenya's largest slum Kibera in Nairobi, looks out from a bridge over a now sewer-polluted stream in which he used to play before it was polluted, during a visit to Kibera on January 16, 2018. (AFP)
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Kenyan hip hop artist Henry Ohanga (aka Octopizzo), who hails from Kenya's largest slum Kibera in Nairobi, stands at the spot where his family's home once stood, now a construction site for a charity-run school for disadvantaged children, during a visit to Kibera on January 16, 2018. (AFP)
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Kenyan hip hop artist Henry Ohanga (aka Octopizzo), who hails from Kenya's largest slum Kibera in Nairobi, stands at the spot where his family's home once stood, now a construction site for a charity-run school for disadvantaged children, during a visit to Kibera on January 16, 2018. (AFP)
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Kenyan hip hop artist Henry Ohanga (aka Octopizzo), who hails from Kenya's largest slum Kibera in Nairobi, speaks in a recording studio in Nairobi on January 16, 2018. Like most youngsters in Nairobi's largest slum, Henry Ohanga grew up believing he would never amount to anything. (AFP)
Updated 30 January 2018
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Octopizzo: Rap king from Nairobi slum inspiring Kenyan kids

NAIROBI, Kenya: Like most youngsters in Nairobi’s largest slum, Henry Ohanga grew up believing he would never amount to anything.
Making it big, even leaving Kibera: these weren’t things that happened to an orphan who once robbed people to buy food.
Now 29, he is Octopizzo, one of East Africa’s most recognized hip-hop stars, and is using his success to break down stigma around the slum and inspire kids in a world devoid of successful role models.
Clad in a black Adidas tracksuit, with bling in his ears, a gold-colored watch on his arm and a large dazzling pendant of Jesus around his neck, Ohanga gestures over the undulating hodge-podge of corrugated iron roofs where he grew up.
“It’s everything, everything I rap about... I feel like if I wasn’t born here I probably wouldn’t be a rapper,” he told AFP in Kibera, where most of his friends and family still live.
Kibera stretches over an area of about 2.5 square kilometers (one square mile), a poor ethnic melting pot wedged among richer areas of the Kenyan capital where its residents work, mostly as casual laborers.
The slum’s population is subject to heated debate, with the old NGO slogan of “the biggest slum in Africa” challenged in recent years by a government census and other independent studies which say between 170,000 and 250,000 people live there.
While for some a byword for misery and poverty, to Octopizzo, Kibera is the place he loves “more than anything else in the world” and it features in every one of his hits, with some of his slick, foreign-produced videos racking up more than a million views on Youtube.
In Kibera it is not the rubbish packed into dirt or debris-choked streams that strike Ohanga.
Rather he is inspired by the “uniquely beautiful vibe,” children in brightly colored uniforms making their way to school, music blaring from speakers around every corner, the whirr of sewing machines set-up in open air, the rhythm and beat of the hustle.
“I don’t blame the people. If you look at Kibera this is the definition of a failed system,” he said.
While he describes himself as more “socially conscious” than political, it has been hard to avoid tough topics in the slum, which is often the first place sparks fly when political tensions rise.
During Kenya’s 2007 post-election crisis, when he recalls having to walk everywhere with a machete for protection as the slum was torn apart by ethnic violence he blames on politicians, his anger spilled into his first recorded song: “Voices of Kibera.”
However his big commercial break only came in 2012, through an arts program at the British Council, which launched other successful artists such as afro-pop band Sauti Sol.
Ohanga has moved on to rapping about things like food and fashion from Kibera, to change the negative image of the slum that has long led those who do make it out to hide their roots.
“I feel since I started rapping we have changed the narrative, it is cool now to be from Kibera.”
But politics and Kibera remain deeply intertwined, and when post-election protests broke out last year, Ohanga came to the slum to speak to both protesters and police, and criticized police violence that left scores dead in Kenya, including residents of the slum.
“I have a voice and I have to use it, whether people like it or not,” he said.
Ohanga had never planned to become a rapper — growing up he wanted to be a horticulturalist. “I like flowers,” he said.
But the opportunity never came his way. His father died when he was 14, his mother a year later, and he ended up living with a friend and joining a gang, robbing shops and people.
“I never regret being part of that, I never killed anybody,” said Ohanga, who has an entire song dedicated to gangsters and drug dealers — the only ones to help him when he was down and out.
Through his own foundation, and work with the UN refugee agency, he wants to help youths realize their potential through the arts.
In 2016, artists from the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps who were trained and mentored by Ohanga released an album called “Refugeenius.”
“I want to be the face of possibility. When we grew up we didn’t know anyone who was successful. Kids are told by their teachers, their parents that they will never be anything, it is not our destiny,” said Ohanga.
One young man he has inspired is 22-year-old Daniel Owino, who Ohanga described as a “bad kid” in trouble with everyone in the neighborhood.
“I told him: ‘Even me I used to be there, we’ve robbed guys it’s not a big deal but we change’,” said Ohanga.
Owino, now known as Futwax, turned his life around, and is working as a motorbike taxi driver as he pursues his passion for music, with 13 songs recorded so far. He was also recently crowned Mr.Kibera.
“He is a role model to me. I used to go to his house here in the slum, Octopizzo was so hardworking. I felt that even I would make it one day,” Owino told AFP.


INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

Updated 23 May 2019
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INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

  • Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so
  • “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks

DUBAI: The success that Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” continues to find across the world is astounding — even to her. Just one year ago, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival — a jury chaired by Cate Blanchett — after a 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, with Labaki becoming the first woman from the Arab world to receive that honor. Now, perhaps most surprisingly, “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks.
“It’s crazy! I can’t believe it! I really can’t. Why there? It’s all very new, so I still don’t know what it means exactly, but we’re soon going to find out,” Labaki tells Arab News in Cannes.
With its success in China, along with the US, Middle East and across Europe, “Capernaum” has reportedly become the highest grossing Arabic-language film in history.
“There’s been rumors going on for the past two to three days, and it’s like, ‘What?’ I still can’t believe it. It’s living proof that an Arab film with no actors can actually be a box office hit — can actually return money, make money for investors. You know how much we’re struggling in the Arab world to make films, find money, find funding, find investment. Especially for a Lebanese film,” Labaki says.
Labaki was in China just one month ago to show the film at the Beijing International Film Festival, and although the film got a rousing response in the room, she didn’t feel the reaction was any stronger than anywhere else the film has shown.
“Maybe it’s because there’s more than a billion people in China, but even the distributor is saying it’s working like any big blockbuster movie,” says Labaki.
The Chinese release of the film has one major difference from other cuts. The original version of the film tells the story of a young boy named Zain El Hajj (played by Zain Al-Rafeea) struggling to survive on the streets of Lebanon with the help of a young Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil and her undocumented infant son Yonas, dreaming of escaping as a refugee to Sweden. The story is not far from Al-Rafeea’s real-life situation at the time — he is a Syrian refugee. Since the film’s release, though, Al-Rafeea and his family have been relocated to Norway, something the Chinese release includes at the end of the film as a short visual report.
“The film ends on his smile, and in a way there’s (now) a continuation of real life in that story. This is really happening, it’s not made up,” says Labaki. “That’s why we’re making a documentary around the film. Maybe it’s a way of comforting people, knowing that he’s alright, he’s good, he’s in a better place. Deep down, people know this kid is going through this in his real life, they know he’s not just an actor in this film.
“I think it’s comforting to know Zain is in a different place now. He’s travelled. He was dreaming of going to Sweden the whole time, and now he’s really in Norway. He has a new life, a new beginning, a new house. He’s going to school, all his family is with him,” she continues. “It’s a complete shift of destiny. Maybe the fact the distributor added this report after the film made people understand that this is a real story and a real struggle, and not just another film.”
Though this is a huge moment for Arab film in general, Labaki doesn’t believe that the success of “Capernaum” necessarily signals a greater appetite for Arab cinema worldwide.
“I don’t think it’s about (where the film comes from). It’s about good films. It has nothing to do with the identity of the film or the country it’s coming from, really. It doesn’t mean if this film worked in China that another Arab film will work in China,” she says. “Maybe there’s going to be more hope for Lebanese cinema in the sense that investors will be less afraid to invest in Lebanese films, but it’s about the script, the filmmaker, the craft, the know-how. This is what gives confidence to somebody.”
Speaking to Arab News at the renowned Hotel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes on one of the busiest days of the film festival, Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so. Labaki began her relationship with Cannes in 2004, writing and developing her first feature, “Caramel,” at the Cinéfoundation Residency before showcasing the film at the Director’s Fortnight in 2007. Both of Labaki’s subsequent films — “Where do We Go Now?” in 2011 and “Capernaum” in 2018 — debuted at the festival, each in increasingly competitive categories.
“I feel like I’m their baby, in a way. With a baby you start watching their first steps, see them grow, protect them, push them… They’ve accompanied me in this journey, and recognized and encouraged me. It’s great — I really love this festival. I think it’s the best festival in the world. I like the integrity they have towards cinema. You feel that watching a film in Cannes, you know that you’re not going to watch just anything — there’s something in there for you to learn from, to be surprised by, to be in awe of. There’s always something about films that are shown in Cannes,” says Labaki.
In approaching her role as head of the jury, Labaki is focusing on connecting with the films, and taking on the perspective of myriad filmmakers from across the world.
“I don’t watch films as a filmmaker. Never,” she says. “I watch the film as a human being… I don’t like the word jury. I don’t like to judge because I’ve been there — I’m there all the time. I’ve been in those very difficult situations, very fragile situations, where you’re making a film, where you’re doubting, where you don’t know, where you don’t have enough distance with what you’re doing, and you don’t have the right answers and you’re not taking the right decisions.”
Just as her own films have become increasingly focused on the problems facing Lebanese society, Labaki believes that contemporary film cannot help but be political, and must accept its role as a commentary on the world we live in — something that she feels she’s seen in the films in her category.
“Cinema is not just about making another film; it’s about saying something about the state of the world right now. Until now, every film we’ve seen is (doing that). That doesn’t mean that cinema that is just art for art’s sake is not good — there are so many different schools — but I feel we’re becoming so much more responsible for this act,” she says. “You become an activist without even knowing you’re becoming an activist, and saying something about the state of the world. It’s important.”