Feature Stories

PS the Rebels Bring Social Awareness to Hip-Hop, All the Way From War-Torn Kenya

PS the Rebels call their sound Afro Hop. As the name suggests, it's a fusion of Afrocentric music with a blend of hip-hop. Think Fela Kuti meets classic hip-hop. But it's more than a name: Pihon and SamUiLL, the two letters in "PS," are brothers who migrated from Kenya in 1996. “There was so much war,” Pihon remembers. “It was turning into a life or death situation. We had to leave. We were refugees.”

That worldliness, and the sense of conflict, comes across in PS the Rebels' music. They pepper it with field recordings of world music from indigenous countries and villages. Their lyrics take on heavy subject matter, sometimes in a futuristic way. For example, their video for “The Chant,” a single from their first album, The Great Migration, imagines the world decades from now. The law enforcement of the future, known as“World Police,” follow a man from an indigenous tribe into what turns out to be an ambush.

Swahili is their native tongue, but they learned British English living in colonized Kenya. “Coming to America it’s a whole different type of English,” says Pihon. “They spell words different here, pronounce words different.” The transition brought culture shock. But bringing that experience to America and blending it with the black experience here is something that has informed the duo, giving them a different outlook.

They showed up to the States obsessed with American hip-hop like Tupac, Biggie and Eminem. But eventually they realized that maintaining a sense of their African heritage was important. “You have to know your history to know the potential of your future,” says Pihon. After learning that most of their contemporaries in Kenya were eschewing their own music for artists like Lil Wayne, they started refocusing. It helped that their mom was constantly playing great African music, like Lingala dance music and Fela Kuti.

Dallas is an auspicious place for PS the Rebels. There is a budding local hip-hop scene, but also a large African population with a diverse mixture of nations and cultures. PS the Rebels also lived in the Congo and Uganda. “We use our diverse perspective to connect with people and highlight our similarities rather than our differences,” says Pihon.

PS the Rebels really shine with live performances. They have a level of interaction that makes the audience experience a cultural movement. They tell their stories and talk about the social issues their songs address. “We give them a walkthrough,” says SamUiLL. “Sometimes we teach people Swahili during our shows,” Pihon adds. Dressed in African attire, the duo also has a unique visual presence. They have shared bills with the likes of Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar and Killer Mike.  Equally committed to activism, they use their music to spread awareness. They are part of organizations like Friends of the Congo and the Huey P. Newton Gun Club and work with many other organizations at the grassroots level. Just recently, they played a benefit for Mothers Against Police Brutality. “We focus on anything from bringing awareness to homelessness, sickness and bringing knowledge to the people free of political classes,” says Pihon. “We’re using hip-hop to help bridge that gap.”

They see injustice all over the world, sometimes here in the States, and wonder why people only pay attention to select examples. “A massacre is happening in the Congo right now as we speak,” says Pihon. “We’re not talking about this and it is affecting so many people.” Indeed, economic structure and the people’s understanding of social justice have collapsed. There is no free press. It has even made an impact on the ecology of the jungle.

In America, they see racism as alive, breathing and deadly. It’s systemic and has evolved into something complex. “It can be covert,” Pihon says. “It’s in symbolism and social structures. Sometimes it takes someone who really understands the dynamics of racism to really acknowledge it.” He says he had to take a class for his green card and was advised to stay away from black people. The logic was they are likely to be criminals who could put them in situations that would jeopardize their status as permanent residents. They had never stepped foot on an American street and initially believed what they were told.

PS the Rebels consider all the recent shootings we’ve had in this country and all the different ways we respond to them: White shooters will be detained unless they commit suicide, and they are probably crazy. Shooters from the Middle East are called terrorists. Black people will be shot even if they don’t have a gun. “The mouthpiece of the beast is the media,” says Pihon. “It has the power to make the victim look like the oppressor and the oppressor look like the victim.”

PS the Rebels may be outspoken about injustice, but they look at the world and see all sorts of hope and opportunity. Their music is a great unifier and a way to raise awareness of important issues. “The whole point of art is to express thought and be thought-provoking,” says Pihon. “It’s about respecting all roots and culture,” adds SamUiLL.
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Jeremy Hallock