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rapKenya: Digitizing and Annotating Kenyan hip-hop Lyrics & Building a Sheng Online Dictionary

Esther Milu (PhD Candidate, Writing, Rhetoric, and American Culture)

rapKenya is intended to be a one-stop online resource for people interested in accessing and learning more about Kenyan hip-hop culture, particularly rap music. There are two components of this project:

1) digitization and annotation of Kenyan hip-hop lyrics and, 2) building of an online Sheng Dictionary. Both components work towards the goal of giving people access to Kenyan hip-hop lyrics and help them discover the meaning of the lyrics. The digitization and annotation of lyrics is an idea that was inspired by rapgenius.com. I believe annotation of the lyrics is particularly important considering the lyrics are written in multiple languages and in the Kenyan urban youth code— Sheng. Thus, global audiences who are not familiar with the languages used in the lyrics will find the annotations helpful in understanding the lyrics. The writing of the annotations will however be a collaborative activity where anyone interested in doing the annotations will just need to visit the site, sign up, create an account and begin annotating. Annotatorjs, an open-source JavaScript library, will be the tool used to add the annotation functionality to the website. The annotation process will begin later this summer. 

I have completed what I would call the phase one of this project. I have built a website where this project will live using Foundation5 html framework. I have also begun digitizing the hip-hop lyrics. I launch this project with the work of three artists: Juacali, Nazizi and Abbas. The digitization of lyrics in the site so far has been made possible through http://www.ghafla.co.ke/. Ghafla! is a site that digitizes lyrics in all genres by artists from East Africa. All the lyrics so far uploaded in the rapKenya site are from Ghafla! I will continue to digitize lyrics for all Kenyan hip-hop artists with the help of the hip-hop artists themselves, fans, practitioners and scholars. I see these groups as collaborators who should participate in this collective knowledge creation and community building process. As we continue working on the project, we will include metadata like title of the songs, name of the artists, collaborators, record label, title of the album, producers, and year of release/production for each lyric.

I have also begun building the Sheng dictionary. Sheng is the language that gives Kenyan hip-hop its unique identity. And since it is the dominant code of composing, I felt the need to create a Sheng dictionary to allow users of this site to learn the meaning of Sheng words and phrases as used in the lyrics. Right now, I have only provided basic definitions/translations of the words in both Swahili and English. As I continue developing the site, I will provide example sentences in both Sheng and Swahili. I will also try to trace and include the origin of the Sheng words or demonstrate the process (es) of creating them.  Building the dictionary is also a collaborative process. As the project continues hip-hop artists, fans, practitioners and scholars will be encouraged to submit more lexicon with translations in both Swahili and English. I believe an online dictionary is the ideal genre for Sheng because it is a fluid language that keeps on growing every day. As new words come up, they will be added to the dictionary. Or, as words develop new meanings, this will be added to the dictionary to reflect the change.

Visit the rapKenya Website »