Words by:
Photography: Daniil Zozulya

If you know anything about African metal in 2024, it’s likely that Lord Spikeheart has something to do with it. One half of the industrial grindcore act Duma, who rocketed out of Uganda in 2020 with a seismic debut album powered by Richter-qualifying riffs, Spikeheart (a.k.a. vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and producer Martin Kanja) is a core member of a network of underground metalheads in the continent finally getting international recognition. 

“These bands have existed for many years, but they never really had a platform, or a way for the outside world to know about them,” says Kanja from his current base of Kampala. “It’s been a great inspiration to see people doing this music in an environment where it’s not really supported. Now there are U.S. labels releasing African bands like Arka’n Asrafokor from Togo, and writers covering the scene. I’d say Duma inspired a lot of the bands that already existed here, and showed that there is actually an international demand for this kind of music. It’s been a long time coming.”

When Kanja dials in, he asks if we can turn our cameras off due to connection issues. Given the soul-rending brutality of his debut solo record as Lord Spikeheart, The Adept, it’s hard not to imagine an occult warrior, surrounded by obsidian-plated guitars and decrepit synths, alchemising doom metal in a dank basement. Surprisingly – and delightfully – the man that comes across during our conversation is the exact opposite: Kanja is disarmingly affable, laughs at almost everything and speaks about the genre with the wonder of a newly minted teenage fan. He chats at breakneck speed about everything from classic Norwegian death metal to literary romanticism, passionately recounting all his influences. It’s clear that Kanja lives and breathes heavy music.


Kanja’s journey into the black night of metal began like any other metal fan’s: as a kid at school, in his hometown of Nakaru, Kenya, looking for ways to pass the time. “When I graduated high school, I moved into the city [of Nairobi]. Soon I discovered a show on XFM radio called Metal to Midnight,” he remembers. “There were already bands in Kenya that had been playing for a couple of years, and it really captivated me that they even existed. I always knew I wanted to do music, but I wasn’t really sure what genre. When I found metal, it was so natural; it was how I felt on the inside. So I started a band.”

That band was Lust of a Dying Breed – Kanja’s first real shot at professional music-making. Inspired in part by Opeth and Bloodbath’s Mikael Åkerfeldt, he began to focus on his vocals, practising screaming and growling every day. “I was so broke, I couldn’t afford instruments,” he admits. “Becoming a vocalist was just the easiest way of getting started. I used to really mess up my vocals because I wasn’t doing it properly. I was really pushing it, in the wrong way. At the first few Lust of a Dying Breed shows, I’d lose my voice for the next two days. At some point, I realised that it was just like normal singing, with an extreme falsetto.” Kanja developed the ability to stretch his voice to an impressive range, oscillating effortlessly from high-pitched screeching to deafening, cavernous bass notes. This dramatic vocal gear-shifting remains his calling card,  setting him apart from other metal musicians of his generation.

In the midst of all his bellowing, Lust of a Dying Breed began to gain a foothold in Nairobi’s burgeoning metal scene; one in which Kanja had begun to pour his blood, sweat and tears. “Back in the day, everything was very DIY,” he says, with a wistful chuckle. “We were recording in our friends’ studios or in our bedrooms. We’d put on gigs that were mostly other metal kids, and then corporate people – guys who wanted to chill in a different setting because they had been working all week. It was a very tight community because it was rare to find somebody who actually liked the kind of music you listened to. When you met someone like that, you became best friends immediately.”




Kanja and his community would request burned CDs from pirate Facebook groups so they could get their fix and expand their knowledge. The list of influences is seemingly bottomless, but ten years on, some of those early obsessions are still front and centre in Kanja’s music (“we really loved Slipknot, Bullet for My Valentine, Sepultura and Black Sabbath, of course”). Eventually, the Kenyan scene began to connect with other bustling metal communities across Africa, from Botswana to South Africa and Egypt. With the help of an organisation called Hardcore Help Foundation, international bands like All for Nothing and Stick to Your Guns were able to play shows in east Africa for the first time ever. Local festivals like This Is Africa started attracting western acts and, suddenly, Kanja’s opportunities began to expand beyond the scene he helped grow. “The energy was insane, people moshed like crazy,” he says of those concerts. “Things started to change: bands became more serious, regularly organising shows and also recording a lot. There were a couple of studios that actually recorded this kind of music and released compilations, like Andromeda Studios in Kenya. But there was a need for infrastructure and a proper way to get the music out from band practice rooms and into quality recording studios, and then to consumers. It became much more professional.”

Kanja relocated to the Ugandan capital of Kampala in 2019 and founded Duma with guitarist and producer Sam Karugu. They soon became the east African musical export on everyone’s lips. Although he had been quietly releasing music under the Lord Spikeheart moniker on SoundCloud since 2017, it was Duma’s unholy marriage of death metal and driving, experimental electronic sounds that pulled the global metal community into Kanja’s orbit. This huge international success undoubtedly changed the course of African metal forever, but Spikeheart found himself pining for the creative freedom of being solo. So last year, after one final show, Duma split up and Kanja jumped headfirst into making The Adept.

“With Duma, we expressed what we had to express,” he explains. “I have a clear vision of what I want to achieve with Lord Spikeheart. Making this record, I felt completely unbound. I like what I like, and I’m not afraid of exploring different genres. As a solo act, you build a system around yourself to push your own art.”


“When I found metal, it was so natural; it was how I felt on the inside”


Kanja’s relationship to the genre is something he brings up a lot in conversation. One of the things that makes metal, as a subculture, so prone to fanaticism is that true appreciators are able to excavate layers of meaning through what, to the untrained ear, sounds like an onslaught of noise. The Adept takes this skill to extremes, using metal as a base to slather on shades of techno, trap, hip-hop, even trance. There is a grimly foreboding mountain’s worth of ideas compressed into the album’s 13 tracks, yet it never feels overstuffed. Rather, each listen unveils something new; a fresh hybrid or experiment that pushes the limits of song structure. One such track is Nobody, a collaboration with DJ Scotch Rolex, which begins with a bone-chilling downward spiral of a synth line before a syncopated metal riff and trap beat explodes like a rifle shot. 

“It can be metal, it can be electronic, it can be ambient, it can be dark, it can be happy, it can be nostalgic,” Kanja says of his sonic approach. “It can be all these energies together. It’s a journey, it’s an experience. I want to merge with the consciousness of people watching my show, like when you’re in nature and you’re looking at the waves in the ocean – it’s something happening right now, in the present.”





The Adept is dedicated to Kanja’s great grandmother, who was the only woman to attain the rank of field marshal in the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion of the 50s and 60s, which started the fight for independence from British colonial rule. “I love heavy music because it’s my response to this resistance, to this trauma and pain. I feel like it’s a good outlet for that,” Kanja says, highlighting the urgency of his artistic practice. “Today, I see a lot of cultural colonialism in Africa. Africa has so many talented artists who are exploited every day because most of them live in very poor conditions. They are scared to speak up because they think that what they have will be taken away, which is already very little. It creates this roundabout; a symbiotic system where the victim is keeping quiet and supporting the oppressor, an accomplice to the system.”

Part anti-colonialist manifesto, part spiritual homecoming, part metalhead’s encyclopaedia, The Adept is a resolute artistic statement. Heavy music may be rife with aestheticism that evokes death and darkness, but at its core, Kanja’s message is one of love, hope and, most importantly, defiance. And what could be more metal than that? “My music is a reaction. It’s a hard reaction, but a positive one,” he says as our conversation draws to a close. “With all the rage and bloodshed of the past, we can’t continue with hate. Maybe we didn’t have the chance to speak about it back in the day, when these things were happening. But now we can – and we can move on, and heal.”

The Adept is out on 19 April via Haekalu Records