AY on 20 years of breaking barriers in Bongo Flava

Friday March 6 2020

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By Paul Owere

At the turn of the millennium, several musical genres such as Hip-Hop, Kwaito and Bongo Flava were christened as music for the new generation, despite some of these genres having existed more than a decade before.

Tanzania’s Bongo Flava, once heralded as a localised version of hip hop was pioneered by artistes such as Kwanza Unit, Hard Blasters Crew, Juma Nature, and Gangwe Mobb among others.

However, this is a narrative that would be incomplete without throwing rapper Ambwene Yessaya aka AY into the mix, for he is one of the pioneers who first broke on the scene with his debut single ‘Ni Raha Tu’ in 2001.

“’Ni Raha Tu’ was a song that I composed and I was lucky at that time to have worked with P-Funk, who produced the song that went on to become a club hit,” he says.

With a promising start into the game as a teenager, AY went on to become part of the East Coast Crew – a group that boasted of talented artistes such as Mwana FA, Pauline Zongo, Snare, OTEN, Buff G, Iman Abbas and GK.

Though they never performed together as a single unit, they were a closely-knit group that became a point of reference in Bongo Flava’s nascent industry.


Fifteen years down the road after going solo, AY has maintained his relevance with a model that many an artiste admire across the continent.

“These have been 20 years full of challenges yet through the same hardships have risen opportunities that have helped me, my peers and the industry to grow,” he says.

AY’s practical approach to the industry earned him a nickname ‘Mzee Wa Commercial’ and no wonder he is credited with having a hand in the success of many artistes in the country.

“At that time many did not see music as a commercial commodity that can be put out in the market, most artistes did music as a hobby, yet on my side, I was looking at it from a commercial point of view,” says AY.

From his humble beginnings he became the first artiste to ever win a continental award when he brought home the Channel O award and in 2009 was nominated at the second edition of MTV Africa Music Awards (Mamas) in Nairobi, which was hosted by Akon.

This, he believes was not only his moment of global breakthrough but the Bongo Flava industry’s moment of recognition as it strengthened the genre’s image on the global marketplace.

“This recognition inspired and pushed more artistes to work hard. It sent the message that it is all possible as long as the content and the storyboard has the quality that is required. In the beginning, most of us didn’t believe in our self but that is long gone,” says AY.

Though he falls short of claiming that Tanzania’s music has finally gotten where he always dreamt it should be, he believes that giant strides have been made throughout the continent to create a unified African music industry.

“I don’t really think that we are at the peak yet. It is like we are beginning, I once said that there will come a point where we shall have only one African music industry and this is what is shaping up already. This is a vision that I had almost 10 years ago,” he says.

His early attempts to break the barriers on the international frontier were sometimes met with rebuke among his peers.

“At that time Ugandan music was ruling airwaves across East Africa, so I thought of doing something and the name that came forward was that of Maurice Kirya. We did a collabo and the product was Binadamu in 2005,” he says.

Several years later this has become the route that many Tanzanian artistes have followed by collaborating with artistes from different parts of the continent.

“So far it has been mainly with artistes in Sub-Saharan Africa especially Nigeria, but in the near future I see us collaborating with the Maghreb countries,” AY foretells.

Celebrating 20 years

Over the weekend at Mlimani City in Dar es Salaam, as part of celebrating his continued stay in the industry, the rapper launched a new single dubbed ‘Dan Hela’.

“I intend to have several events to commemorate my two decades in the game and most of the proceeds will go to the community to improve lives. At the end of it all I expect to have a joint concert that will feature a number of artistes I have worked with over the years,” he says.

Even with the 20 years in the music industry, AY does not see himself retiring anytime soon for he believes that his fans are yet to see the best of him.

“My plan is to stick around much longer as long as I remain relevant to the industry and to my fans who keep me going all the time,” he says.

He adds: “Reinventing is key to this and as an artiste you have to keep investing in your artistic works because it is the only way you can survive in an increasingly competitive industry.”

But as he looks forward to another decade or so, balancing between family life and the rigours of the music business are his top priorities.