Nairobi Metal Festival: Inside Kenya's flourishing metal scene

(Image credit: Edward Branchs)

Day one of the Nairobi Metal Festival comes to a close in proper metal fashion: with a stage soaked in blood. 

Thanks to a gushing wound on the finger of Last Year’s Tragedy vocalist Ted Ngure, caused by a scrape with a nearby lighting rig, the singer pauses to have the gash quickly stanched with a bandana from a fan, before the hometown metalcore heroes resume their raucous set. Following pummelling turns from Kenyan deathcore crew Aphasia, and Ugandan doom-metallers Vale of Amonition, it surges with energy, along with the crowd.

The festival, now in its second year, is the effort of Dutch philanthropist Rico Raw, whose Hardcore Help Foundation is at the centre of his efforts in Kenya. Rico is no stranger to booking shows, having worked as a part-time promoter back home in Germany, where he is well known in the hardcore/metal scene. 

After being introduced to the Nairobi metal scene in 2015, Rico had the idea to set up a show to give local metal acts an opportunity to showcase their talents. “In Germany I choose bands I like who are professional. Here, you don’t have [that] choice, because there are not many bands around. I wanted to give all of the bands an opportunity,” he says, adding that he requires only that bands fit the bill musically, rather than having any professional experience in performing.

Daniel Mwangi of Aphasia

Daniel Mwangi of Aphasia (Image credit: Edward Banchs)

Rico discovered early on that booking a festival like this in Kenya’s capital city came with unique challenges he hadn't encountered in Europe. They included being able to locate good equipment – a difficulty, Rico says, in many African nations – and being forced to keep door prices low in the hopes of attracting a crowd. The chances of sponsorship were also nonexistent. 

Rico also struggled to find the right venue, with the festival being relocated various times following trepidation from venue owners over hosting a metal show. But this year’s festival found a welcoming home at the Crooked Q pool hall in Nairobi’s Westlands neighbourhood – an area that straddles the city’s post-colonial image and its rapidly modernising trajectory. Situated on the building's third floor, the space has a huge hole in the back wall, exposing the room to a cool breeze, and not one functioning toilet. Still, it's a venue Rico hopes NFM can make its permanent home.

“It was the first venue where the staff and management were open to this kind of music," says Rico. "This club was very grungy, not many rules. They were very open and very free. That’s very positive. This is more of live club. Nairobi needs more live clubs."

As night two comes to a close, once again everyone inside the Crooked Q is standing stunned. Even an hour after the final notes rang from Germany’s I Am Revenge – which featured a cover of Sepultura’s Roots accompanied by guest drummer Christian Bass of German metalcore heavyweights Heaven Shall Burn – fans could not stop reliving what they had just heard, sharing their reactions with each other as well as with the members of the visiting band. 

After kicking the evening off with a set from nihilistic, post-punk-influenced locals Petrika, followed by an energetic set from up-and-comers Straight Line Connection, I Am Revenge amplified the room’s excitement tenfold just by strumming their first notes. 

Making their African debut, the Hamburg-based metalcore act arrived in Nairobi unsure of what to expect. Those feelings changed after the first night: “The first night had local favorites headlining, and people just went completely nuts. That was awesome and inspiring to see at so many levels. That sort of put this electricity in the air,” says drummer Bertrand Rothen. He adds that this show was one he and his band members would describe as “kind of back to the roots of the 'real show' atmosphere.”

Last Year's Tragedy playing live

Last Year's Tragedy playing live (Image credit: Edward Banchs)

Fans – who travelled in for the show from as far as the United Kingdom, Germany, Ethiopia and Uganda – were the real stars of the festival, including Arnold Omondi, who was attending the event for the first time. Traveling from the country’s western city of Eldoret, Omondi felt he couldn't pass up attending an event like this, saying the festival provided him the perfect opportunity to meet like-minded people. For Christabel of Nairobi, who attended the festival with her friend Maryann for the second time, the fact an event like this had managed to flourish still surprised her. Growing up here, she said she never thought she would see an event like this in her hometown, adding it was the “energy” of the event that brought the two back.

As with many smaller metal scenes, the atmosphere and camaraderie between attendees was electric. Moshers who fell were quickly picked up. Anyone who looked like they took a brutal hit was quickly asked if they were OK. The crowd looked after each other. Fans were so immersed in the weekend’s energy that mosh pits even broke out during the DJ sets between performances. These expressions of joy were largely thanks to the safe space the event created for fans of this music to be themselves without judgement – a true escape from the negative views that often accompany fans of this type of music in Nairobi.

There have been moments in the past that have frustrated Rico, most stemming from his experience and expectations as a Westerner – most notably the difference in resources compared to more-developed scenes. Due to a lack of available spaces and equipment, local acts are seldom able to rehearse, and aren't always experienced in performing with professional setups. Booking acts can be difficult, and two bands booked this year did not show. Setting up shows in Nairobi is costly: Rico notes it costs him more than double to set up show in Nairobi than it would in Germany. 

Victor Rosewrath of Vale of Amoniton

Victor Rosewrath of Vale of Amoniton (Image credit: Edward Banchs)

Despite these frustrations and the relatively small metal fanbase here, the Nairobi Metal Festival may be just what this small, tight-knit scene needs. While discussing some of the frustrations he heard from Western attendees, Aphasia vocalist Daniel Mwangi adds that the good that comes from international bands playing the event is that “we learn a few things from them. They bring quality to the table.” 

Ultimately, how Westerners view their scene is irrelevant: attendees of the Nairobi Metal Festival possess a remarkable and insatiable love of heavy music. Whether the fans are based in Nairobi, in Kenya or in neighbouring East African states, the festival means everything to these fans, and for many of them, this is the only lifeline they will have to this music and each other. 

As Gun, vocalist of Straight Line Connection, told the crowd just before his band walked off the stage amid overwhelming pleas of an encore: “You guys are the rock scene right here.”

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