Turn on your radio any time of the day and listen for 25 minutes non-stop.
I guarantee that you won’t miss at least five West African or South African songs. This is not to say it is wrong. But is Kenyan music that bad or does the country simply have a messed up entertainment industry?
Local audiences may be the reason Kenyan music doesn’t cross the boarders a lot. For an industry that once “exported” Kalamashaka, the situation is sad and may inform the reality that the rest of Africa does not listen much to Kenyan music.
So what happened? How did the Kenyan industry devolve from its glorious past to what is now — probably its least innovative phase? Kenya has had its own sounds, including Kapuka, Genge and Bounce.
But somehow many artistes are aping Nigerian and South African musicians. Is this a result of pressure for airplay? Let me try and crack this issue.
Straight off the bat, it is important to admit, Kenyan radio is responsible for bringing to the limelight many artistes from other African countries. When One FM first came to the market, for example, they rode on the “strictly African music” tag. Many thought the answer had finally been found, and local music would get out to the listeners.
NO ROOM FOR ROOKIE
That wasn’t the case though, as it turned into a “some Kenyan music and a lot of West African music” radio station. It’s like their playlist was full of only West and South African music. Again, not to say playing African music is a sin, but that’s the kind of joke the local industry has been turned into.
Turn away our own and embrace others, and yes it is true Africa might be one but why don’t they play Kenyan music in their countries? This is nothing new, it goes way back; back when there was Mr Nice, an artiste from Tanzania, leading the Kenyan front. You can’t deny the fact that he was East Africa’s “it” guy, but the heavy rotation Kenyan media gave him was unnecessary.
Kenya imports more music than it exports. Local music has taken the backseat and foreign artistes are driving the industry. Simply stated, the media doesn’t support Kenyan music probably because it doesn’t generate interest across the continent. Since Kenyan radio is no longer trying to break any new artiste, audiences are stuck with the same playlists, artistes and sounds.
The original Kenyan industry was built on a platform of artistes that inspired each other. The culture thrived on producing superstars. Whenever a Kenyan artiste sees other African artistes get more shine, they think, “I don’t have to work hard on sounding Kenyan, I can copy a foreign sound and radio will play me”.
What this has done is kill the Kenyan sound, and thus no-one takes local music seriously anymore, as Kenya no longer has its own sound. Artistes copy what others do elsewhere and expect to get a modicum of respect.
The local music industry has experienced a slight growth, but it’s been under the wings of the same old artistes most people grew up listening to. It is saturated with artistes who’ve been around for long and it’s as if the newcomers are afraid to step out of the shadow of older artistes.
It feels like taking two steps forward and two backwards. The industry is becoming a “joke”. The media couldn’t stop it from growing in the “Bongo era” and now, the artistes can’t stop it from declining. This “battle” may seem trivial to some who weren’t involved, but the impact Bongo music had on the industry changed the Kenyan music industry forever.
A few years ago, Kenyan music was bubbling, full of hope and expectation with Kalamashaka on their global rap campaign, and South C had its finest star E-Sir ready for a continental takeover.
It was original. The Eric Wainaina “Kenyan sound” could, for example, define the country back then. Fast forward to the present, and very few artistes are on the right track while majority are stuck in mediocrity. The media is not entirely to blame for this. The artistes have a hand in it too. Where is the subject matter, the creativity?
It feels like the beat makes the song rather than the lyrics, and that’s why even gospel artists are going the Kwaito and Oga direction. The more creative the beat gets, the less creative the words are. Artistes can’t create a buzz through their music anymore. The other problem is getting people to stop getting away with murder, musically speaking.
The scene has many artistes getting away with terrible music because they are friends with radio DJs, promoters and media. It’s the “lucky crop” of terrible artistes that make the industry look bad. They make below par music and their friends in the media force it down the listeners’ eardrum.
Everyone is afraid of the truth, and would rather lie to their friends that their craft is good rather than tell them the truth and help them do better. Artistes have been allowed to mask themselves as “music business people” and in the end audiences get a sub-standard product.
SIGNS OF PROMISE
The industry sells “business” instead of talent, the rest of Africa buys talent — that which isn’t an important contributing factor to the development of the local industry.
Though there are those trying to put the Kenyan art scene on the map, it is a slow process. Let’s take a case study of Just A Band. When they took their viral track Makmende to radio stations they were turned down, but the whole world embraced the song online. This may be just how much of a problem there is — talent is turned down to create a vacuum that only mediocre artistes with influential friends occupy.
There are, however, some promising signs. Despite the music industry being where it is, some have tried to embrace a more diverse sound, regionally speaking.
One can argue that having Octopizzo or Sauti Sol on top of one’s playlist is no great victory, but at least a few industry people are making a step in the right direction.
Is embracing a new sound the answer though? Many artistes are currently trying to switch their styles to appeal to wider a demographic audience, but will that last? Leaning on popular music has one disadvantage; it doesn’t last. It is a passing wave.
This isn’t to say making oga music in 2014 automatically makes you better, but Kenya needs to go back to its original sound, Kenyan music needs an identity. Nigeria needs to talk about Kenyan artistes too. South Africa should dance to Elani just like Mafikizolo has been embraced here.
Artistes also need to stop confusing criticism for hating. It’s only then that Africa will listen to Kenya. The industry is on a slow and unsure growth, and a few things must change. And then maybe Africa will listen to Kenyans just like Kenyans listen to them.