R.I.Z.E on discovering his African roots and new sound

We meet at a middle-class restaurant in Nairobi. It’s on the top floor with one of the most gorgeous views of the city, from the black and white Nation Centre to an unidentified forest in the distance.

It’s easy to spot him once I climb the stairs to the restaurant. He’s all alone on a high table except for a plate of barely touched masala fries. Fries that I end up eating on his behalf. Call it taking one for the team.

His family calls him P.K, the Kenyan government Peter Kariuki Thande, but his fans know him as R.I.Z.E. Yup, his stage name is an acronym like TRABOLEE, another Kenyan hip hop artist I admire.

His stands for Reaching “Impassable” Zenith Elevations. He believes there really is no limit to what he can do. His aim is to always keep growing in terms of his goals, impact and creativity.

Interestingly, Kariuki also means the risen one or the one who raises others. 

The fast-rising Kenyan musician is here to tell me what he’s learnt in the past two years of self-discovery and digging up his African roots. A topic I always enjoy.

And R.I.Z.E wastes no time. 

He’s a completely open book. He tells me everything about his life without me asking. And all I do is flip the pages and let out exclamation sounds at what I discover. 

Because of this, I can’t write this article down question and answer style like the interview with Jackson Biko. A chance to do things differently. Something else that was different: he’s the one who asked for this ‘interview’. 

I like it when a guy knows what he wants and says it.

The Beginning of RIZE

His story begins right here in Nairobi, Kenya. At 5 years old, his quiet childhood was interrupted when his family moved to the States – running away from the brutal Moi era. He quips that these times are a replica of then.

His extended family lived in one big house in Atlanta, Georgia – I’m talking parents, siblings, aunties and cousins. They adjusted to this new life together. Just a bunch of African kids being bullied, being Americanized.

It was in America that he started writing bars, which he admits were quite whack back then. At only 7 years old, he would record them on his mum’s answering machine. And would always end them by shouting ‘J Records!’, inspired by his first hip hop hero Jah Rule who ruled the early 2000s. He says it made him feel like a real rapper.

Even though he was bullied in school for being the African kid, they could never bully him during the bathroom break rap battles. 

He moved back and forth between America and Kenya four times, changing schools and classes. At 14, he recorded his first song at a neighbour’s bedroom studio. It was a big a deal for the young teen. Soon after his family finally settled home in 2011.

And that is when Camp Mullah was just blowing up. 

To him, this urban hip-hop group was not just inspiration, but competition. They motivated him to write more and improve his bars.

He admits he was recklessly competitive when he started. He also won a couple underground Nairobi rap battles but there’s no proof. Why? The recordings were never released thanks to the pride of his fellow feisty up and comers. 

Studio Time

In 2012, he started recording at Tam Tam Sounds in Nairobi. He was part of a collective called Vibe City with Amos Wataku aka Yung Amazz, producer Barnabos Yuka aka Yoda and Muthoni Claire (now known as HURU). They recorded a mixtape and even shot a documentary but never released them because the music was not mastered.

Rather than a wet blanket, it was merely a stepping stone for them.

This learning period introduced him to one of his greatest influences and friends. He still remembers the day he met Jason Kalinga – 10th June 2012. The young king was rapping on top of a J Cole beat at the same studio and R.I.Z.E was highly impressed.

Since that first encounter, they began texting back and forth – saying how they should do a track together. 

They did that for a whole year. 

As R.I.Z.E recounts this new relationship, a smiley woman, most likely the restaurant proprietor comes to check up on us. Everything’s good thanks, we respond before I take a healthy bite into my fresh vegetable salad. At least one of us has to eat.

Music break and comeback

After the short commercial break, he continues his-tory. In 2013, the group broke up for reasons groups and couples break up. R.I.Z.E also stopped recording because of school – he was doing his A-Levels exams. 

2014 was another slow year. His music producer moved to Satellite near Kawangware, which I learn is called “Seti”. He was now into kapuka sound and didn’t know how to handle the Kenyan rapper’s style. Simply put, they were incompatible.

But in 2015, a miracle happened. A guy called Brian Haines called him up. He knew Brian and his brother Andrew from high school and just like the Kenyan R&B singer Dai(sy), they grew up within walking distance in Karen. 

The two brothers had just opened a studio in the neighbourhood. R.I.Z.E was so eager to get back to the booth that he visited them that weekend. “I actually downloaded beats before I went, wrote to them, and as soon as I got there I was ready.”

There he recorded his first released single Thanks I Get using an internet beat produced by legendary American producer 9th Wonder. It immediately earned him enough street cred in school; now they were calling him a rapper.

“Up to now when I perform, guys always ask me to perform it. It’s a classic.”

Most of his early songs were conscious as that’s where his mindset was. “Even as a kid, I used to read the newspaper like an old guy. It’s something I got from dad. He made me aware of what’s going on around. You can’t live in a bubble.”

The Return of Kali

R.I.Z.E has been recording at Blackhole Studio since 2015, and it feels different whenever he records elsewhere. He confesses his chemistry with Andrew who records him – they work so in sync you’d think they share one creative brain. Brian is the one who mixes and masters his music.

And it is at Blackhole that he reunited with Jason Kalinga. “We picked up music around the same time.” Their story was just beginning.

One day Jason left him a track to do: Stay True. Together, they enlisted a lot of people on the hook just like in All Of The Lights by Kanye West. It had Jason, R.I.Z.E, Dai, Brian Haines, the secretly talented Solo and even Xenia Manasseh. Apparently, that was her first time ever recording. 

“That song went platinum, on Soundcloud!” 

I laugh in agreement.

This platinum record got their brotherly bond going. In late 2015, Jason pioneered silent discos in Kenya through his events company Wireless Events. R.I.Z.E would voluntarily join him to do the technical stuff like setting up the wireless headphones and signing users up. 

After seeing a business opportunity, he briefly went into catering. He would buy meat at ‘Ndonyo’ abattoir, have it cooked at his family restaurant, and sell snacks at the wireless events. 

“He’s the first person who showed me how to make money for myself. I’ll never forget.”

He still cannot count the number of times he helped Jason at wireless events in Nairobi. They would be at Kiza Club on Thursday and Saturday, leaving at 6am with red eyes and faded voices after working the whole night. Because of this overnight venture, he got to attend Flavour and Fuse ODG’s concert at Ngong Racecourse. 

“That was my first time seeing West African artists live, for free!” he reminisces.

Age of Kali

Jason died on 6th August 2018, 10 days before his 23rd birthday and launch of his first album “Age of Kali”. Even though he was one year older, Kali taught him so many things. “He was really wise and really pure”, R.I.Z.E recalls. 

There’s a tinge of sadness in his voice now.

I never met him but according to RIZE, Jason inspired other young Kenyan artists who are coming up now. Before they started releasing music, they went to him for wise words – the same way people consulted Moi, or Jesus. 

“Nowadays when artists come to me, I’ll never turn anyone away. There’s a difference between being accessible to everyone and being loving, cherishing people.” Jason Kalinga was the second. And he left a legacy with his long repertoire of conscious music on Soundcloud.

Other than the painfully heartfelt tribute Seen and Heard featuring Kahvinya and Dai, RIZE continues with his late brother’s other legacy. He still does Wireless Events, which he shares on On The Rize series on Instagram. This cool mini-series shows the life of the man behind the music: gym, joints, and making joints with Bahati Bookings.

As for Wireless Events, they’ve set up silent discos at concerts, corporate activations, weddings as well as silent movie and soccer nights. They’ve also being part of music listening parties including Muthoni Drummer Queen’s SHE album.

Thinking about it now, those wireless headphones might fit right in at Sound of Nairobi listening exhibitions around the country.

Knowing R.I.Z.E

He says he’s been talking a lot but I don’t mind. I am happy to sit back and listen. And devour my green salad. 

I casually mention the first time I heard his music. Brian Haines had sent me a not-too-cold email about his new single Hatin On Me in January 2018. I had a few reservations about it. 

R.I.Z.E explains that every rapper has to flex. But when he later heard Ego is the Enemy by Jason Kalinga and Kahvinya he felt as if it was made for him. 

Hatin on Me is the first single off his 5-track Vibe Rant EP. As his first solid project, it’s available for free download on his Soundcloud. My favourite song was and still is Dungarees – an ode to the melanin queens.

The second time I heard from R.I.Z.E is when he sent me an email invite to his 23rd birthday celebration and music video shoot. As much as I was honoured by this invite, I was in a conundrum: Folk Fusion by Ayrosh was on the same day. And I could not miss this urban mugithi party for anything.

Thank God R.I.Z.E later changed the date to Saturday 2nd November. Meaning I could attend both. Muratina flowed endlessly on both consecutive days.

RIZE birthday celebration event 2019.jpg

Before the D-day, I scoured his SoundCloud as any music journalist would. And I found a couple of hidden gems. The Break Up Jam, aptly named is so raw and vulnerable you wonder if it’s a true story. 

After freestyling throughout his earlier years, R.I.Z.E has finally accepted he’s a storyteller. He prefers telling real-life stories rather than coming up with witty lines off the top of his head in the studio. That’s for Lil Wayne. 

Going back to the culture

But the song that spoke to me the most was his fire remix of Wizkid’s Fever. He says the Afrobeat hit song spoke to him. So much that he recorded and released it on the same day in late 2018.

People really digged it, some might even say it’s hotter than the original. What made it stand out is the trilingual mix of Swahili, English and Gikuyu. He dared call himself the Kikuyu casanova. 

I’m amazed when he tells me he’s been speaking his mother tongue at home since he was 2. Even when he lived in America. However, this cultural background did not seep into his music before because he was afraid of what others would think. 

According to him, “My Kyuk sounds like ‘kijana wa Nairobi kyuk’ to my family but like ‘good Kyuk’ to my Nairobi folks.”

Yup, folks like me.

After the Afrobeat remix, he took a break to figure out his next move. In early 2019, he attended one of the Kelele Sessions alongside Dai. Some of the Kenyan music veterans posed a question to the young artists in the room – what makes us know you are ours?

This is the creative spark he needed to incorporate more indigenous elements in his art.

On 26th November 2019, he released the lead single off his sophomore EP. Kanyoni is a story of an African king meeting an African queen from another African scene. And it’s inspired by a popular Gikuyu folk song we used to sing as children about a beautiful bird. 

His modern version is complete with bird sounds and Kikuyu bars.

Remember the birthday celebration and music video shoot I was invited to? Well, it didn’t go as planned. It was a lesson for him to be wiser on which Kenyan videographer to work with next. But it was a win for me. I got to see how much support he gets from his family: his mum, aunt and cousins were all present. 

And his elder brother Thanderous is the one who designed the tribal cover art for his Karûgano EP.

Karugano EP artwork R.I.Z.E. Kenyan rapper

RIZE recalls fondly that his dad was his number one fan. During high school, he paid for his studio time – just as Jason’s pushed him to the studio. 

He was ‘an old-timer with the times’. It helped that he studied university in the States. His grandfather, however, was rigid and would probably not approve of his career choice if he was alive. 

His dad was like a bridge between two generations.

He also mentions his cousin Wamaitha aka Wawa the Great who’s an artist in the US. She gave him a solid piece of advice early in his career: “If you want to be an artist, you have to put in way more time and effort than you’re putting in now.” 

RIZE knows he’s always been academic and book smart. He says he would be a historian in another life. But life has shown him from an early age there’s nothing he can do better than music. So everything he’s doing now is to better his music – from digital marketing courses to a Business Administration degree at Riara University.

“There are so many artists and rastas there.” He name-drops a couple of well known Kenyan artists. He wishes he moved there earlier though some of his most loyal fans came from his first uni, Daystar University. 

About his fan family, he has this to say:

“Being a musician is interesting. You have blood family that won’t believe in you till you make it. On the other hand, you have strangers who are your fans that believe in you so much that they can be family. Even further than that, you have strangers who believe in your abilities so much that they hate you.

Do you realize that for someone to be a hater they have to believe in you first?” 

On his Instagram bio, you’ll see the hashtag #PyroNairo. Before I get the chance to ask, he reads my mind. He shares that it’s his brand for publishing music and digital art. His photographer who recommended this rooftop restaurant (thanks fam) runs it. 

Why pyro? I ask. Pyro, he explains, comes from pyromania or pyrotechnic meaning fire of heat. “Pyro represents the fire nature of art in Nairobi, everyone is doing something dope.”

New music direction

What’s next for RIZE? The Kenyan artist is no longer about competing as he feels he’s already proved himself as a rapper with his previous music releases. He’s also done with limiting genre labels and tags.

“I’m not into rap anymore, I’m into making good music”. 

He wants to make music that ‘cuts across’. It has taken heart for him to follow through with this new direction his music is taking. But he’s now comfortable with the music he’s making, even his family members get it. And the response he’s gotten has been overwhelmingly positive. 

Kenyan artist RIZE perfoming in Nairobi 2019

As for his newfound confidence in his music career, it’s all about self-identity. “I’ve really found my pocket and the music I’m making now makes me happier than ever. ‘A reckoning with where you come from propels you to the future’ is what they say.” 

I don’t know who says it but they sure are right. 

R.I.Z.E has spent the past two years reconnecting with his culture, improving his mother tongue, learning cultural customs and the stages of being a Kikuyu man. For example, he taught me that the one who sits with the mtungi is the one who serves the muratina (Gikuyu traditional brew) at the party.

“My granddad and dad were the grade A traditionalists in a way so I don’t wanna let that die,” he adds laughing.

His new target audience is everyone. According to him, legends made music that was loved by everyone. And his new music is stuff that he’ll be proud to sing even at an older age. Like Ndani featuring Mush from the Bush which was his #empawa30 submission.

Here is another young Kenyan musician proud to own his culture like Ayrosh. R.I.Z.E is no longer afraid to sprinkle Kikuyu lyrics in his contemporary music. Which he delivers in his 3 and ½ track EP Karûgano (Gikuyu for short story). 

Meaning we now have more urban Kenyan songs to learn Kikuyu from.

Karugano EP tracklist R.I.Z.E

 

The Future 

Kariuki tells me his whole life story in less than 2 hours. It feels like all has been said. And my salad is over, sadly.

He asks for his well-forgotten fries to be packed. I understand why; he ate enough fatty fries and chicken wings when he was a kid in the USA. He even shows me pics of his younger and plumper self which I don’t believe at first. 

You wouldn’t either when you look at this well built African man seated across the table.

I pose one of the only questions I ask that evening. Cause everyone has their own reason for making the shift. He says his started out as a one month experiment and he has never gone back since. And that he feels so alive after going vegan. He now wakes up easily in the morning and catches a cold only once in a year.

He shares with me some of his favourite vegan meals which he cooks himself. Even though his family are avid eaters of goat meat aka nyama choma and even own a butchery, fruits are his friends. And his body currently aches for the gym.

Between us, I sense an air of maturity. R.I.Z.E knows who he is, what he’s doing and where he’s going. Especially now that he’s grounded to his African roots.

His future plans include planting trees in Kinangop with the ticket proceeds of his birthday celebration party, as promised. He wants to do this for all his future concerts and invite fans to plant with him. I am one of them. Are you?


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