Martin Kanja, AKA Lord Spikeheart, Is Leading A New Wave Of African Rock In Kenya

Martin Kanja, AKA Lord Spikeheart, is a metalhead from Kenya who is leading a new wave of African rock, with music that combines traditional African culture and metal. 

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“What drew me to the music was how it was so ‘physical’ – very present, very now – there was no space for negative thoughts or feelings,” said Martin Kanja, a metal artist from Kenya who is also known as Lord Spikeheart. Kanja told The Guardian that the genre gave him an outlet for all of his angst growing up. 

Today, Kanja is a veteran in the genre of African metal. In 2010 he moved from Nakuru to the capital of Kenya Nairobi, where he figured he would have more exposure and opportunities within the metal/rock scene. 

Now, 14 years later, he’s celebrating the release of his debut solo album, The Adept, which was released in April through his new label Haekalu, which is the first label in Africa that exclusively works with heavier music genres. The Adept is a tribute to Kanja’s great-grandmother, Muthoni wa Kirima, who was the only woman field marshal in the Mau Mau anti-colonial uprising. She unfortunately passed away last year.

“[I wanted] to honor her legacy and what she did for the country, and to appreciate all the struggles [the Mau Mau] went through in the fight for independence, so that their names can never be forgotten.”

According to Caroline Kimei, the East Africa global development correspondent for the Guardian who is also based in Nairobi, Kanja’s debut album is filled with “political themes run through the album. Using heavily distorted lyrics and sounds, from muffled screams to high-pitched squealing, Kanja expresses anger over the everyday oppression he sees across the continent, such as land inequalities originating from the British colonial era, China’s debt-trap diplomacy, and exploitative resource extraction,” Kimei wrote

African metal dates back to the 1970s, however, it’s still not as prominent in many countries in Africa due to its perceived connections to drugs, anger, and satanism. 

“Metal has always been a minority in the world – people just hear the growls or the screams and they are scared of them, but for me the lyrics and sounds are like poetry or literature, addressing real issues you can relate to,” said Kanja. 

Kanja initially performed in a band called Duma, which translates to “darkness” in Kanja’s native language of Kikuyu. He formed the band with Sam Karagu, a guitarist and producer, in 2019. Together they completed US and European tours, and gained a lot of traction internationally. 

Kanja’s new album also utilized collaboration to bend the genre of metal and infuse it with trap, hip-hop, and other experimental artists/genres in general. 

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“These are the sounds I grew up with. Since Africa has not been well represented on the global metal scene, it’s time to offer something different, fresh and captivating.”

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“People think [metal] is just for emo or gothic kids, but it’s the opposite,” says Kanja. He decided to fully pursue music in 2017. He grew out his locs and his friends nicknamed him Spikeheart from the styling of them. Kanja has performed at the Venice Biennale, the Roskilde music festival in Denmark, and the Roadburn festival in the Netherlands. 

Making inroads into the global metal scene is not easy, says Kanja. He explained that African artists have increased barriers to cross when it comes to creating, producing, and marketing in Africa. Some of these barriers include a lack of access to instruments and record companies to make deals. There is also a lack of audiences, venues, and promoters for the metal genre specifically. 

“I’ve seen artists being taken advantage of because they don’t have the information or resources, so they just go for these really bad deals that don’t help them in the long run,” said Kanja.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. Many artists in my scene don’t have the resources or tools to navigate the music business side of things, and it’s easy to get stuck. So having a homegrown label that can help artists push their music further than they thought it could go is very important for the [regional metal] scene.”