The only win for Kenya at recent 2014 MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMA), held in Durban, South Africa, was non-musical.
It was delivered by Kenya’s golden girl Lupita Nyong’o, the celebrated actress best known for her Oscar-winning role in the British-American film, 12 Years a Slave.
Lupita was nominated in the newly created Lifestyle Award category alongside writer Chimamanda Adichie (Nigeria), Omotola Jalade Ekeinde (Nigeria), comedian Trevor Noah (South Africa) and footballer Yaya Toure (Côte d’Ivoire).
Music from East Africa flopped at the awards. Not even one musical act from the region won an award at the ceremony, which returned this year after a three-year break.
What does this say about music from this region? Could that outcome be blamed on the taste, consumption and perceptions of music fans from Kenya and the wider East Africa region?
Music acts from Kenya comprised Sauti Sol, nominated in Best Group category, and Amani featuring Uganda’s Radio and Weasel for Best Collaboration with the song Kiboko Changu. Popular crooner and East Africa’s new king of swag, Diamond Platnumz of Tanzania, was also nominated in Best Male and Best Collaboration for Number One Remix featuring Nigeria’s Davido.
In the award’s 13 categories, including Best Male and Artist of the Year, East Africans only managed to feature in three spots.
However, the few nominations from the East Africa contrast the actual situation on the ground. Over the past few years, there has emerged a new East Africa sound, enriched by countless acts and artists who were not nominated at the awards, but nonetheless should have.
The music business in East Africa is not as advanced as that of South Africa and West African countries. There aren’t many international music labels, like Sony and Universal, with the power of massive mainstream music distribution and promotion, here.
So what will it take to see more East Africans win at continental awards? Does it matter? Renowned South African artist/DJ and producer Tshepang Rambo says: “I think it’s political. Kenyans need to support their own music first before the rest of Africa does.”
Interestingly, before the awards, the social media was laden with high anticipation and praise for the nominated acts. But in a heated Twitter debate after the ceremony, varied yet passionate sentiments on why East African music flopped stirred a storm.
It started with a simple tweet I put out asking if the reason no East Africans won an award was that we failed to vote, or the MTV Awards are flawed. @KoomeGitobu tweeted: “I don’t think the awards are flawed. Stanley Enow (Best New Act) won and he’s from Cameroon. I think Kenyans talk but don’t act.” Radio presenter @MissMandii added: “Cameroon won an award meaning their people voted like crazy.” @QuincyWandera said: “Yes we are that bad at voting. We will hype guys on Twitter but never really vote.” @JICHOdaDOG asked: “Look at the acts in the categories alongside East African artists, look at their industries. You expect East Africa to win? What is being served by East Africa can’t compete with the rest of Africa. There is really good Kenyan music out here, they just don’t make the cut.” @rasmengesha23 declared: “It’s not the voting, it’s our music (that’s) not good enough to stand against those who won. I want to ask which Kenyan group is truly better than Mafikizolo (Winners Best Group Africa and Song of the Year with “Khona” – South Africa), but I’d rather not.”
That quite a number of Kenyans doubt if Kenyan acts can stand up against giants of the South and West says a lot about our perceptions. Music promoter @ItsBuddhaBlaze tweeted: “East Africa just needs to plug into the global music business. This character of hating your own is childish. Just because Sauti Sol didn’t win does not make them any less good. Fans need to demand more from the artists.”
This is a call to local media (print, radio and TV) to support local acts. Sounds cliché but to make it big, you have to make it big at home. @KoomeGitobu poses, “Why should that (MAMA) award go to someone else when there’s a Kenyan in that category and I have the capacity to help them grab it? Kenyans need a strong wake-up call. We complain our artists make crap music, when they get nominated we don’t vote. Then when they lose we point and laugh.”
There are countless acts from East Africa that would give South and West Africans musicians a run for their money. It has everything to do with media setting the agenda and DJs playing more local content.
First staged in 2008, MAMA has recognised the talent of musicians from across sub-Saharan Africa, rewarding iconic artists such as Nameless, Wahu.