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musicians’ union quest to streamline industry

Enough with showbiz politics; Emmanuel Mwendwa puts the spotlight on musicians’ union quest to streamline industry

A few years ago, more than two dozen veterans and emergent talents converged at a Nairobi hotel for an informal local musicians’ workshop. Irrespective of their age and diversity in individual creative genres, these artistes shared a common agenda – the establishment of a fully fledged and functional musicians’ union.

A recent, similar convergence, bringing together notable music makers, some who were in attendance at the inaugural forum, such as veteran pianist Juma Toto, was co-ordinated by the yet-to-be registered Kenya Musicians Union, Kemu.

The founder members fronted by the interim chairman Juma Toto, and secretary general, John Katana, have been patiently awaiting for the government’s overdue recognition.

Industry players

But in the meantime, this setback has hardly derailed KEMU’s pursuit of consistent engagement with various affiliated international partners, such as the International Federation of Musicians (FIM), which plays the role of the global organisation for musicians’ unions and professional associations.

Its membership is drawn from 60 countries around the world. Perhaps curiously, FIM co-ordinated a conference in Kenya, whose core focus hinged on capacity-building for unions representing musicians across Africa. An estimated 16 African countries sent reps to the conference graced by International Federation of Musicians President, John Smith, alongside delegates from Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

The federation’s assistant general secretary Thomas Dayan visited the country and expressed regret that Kenya, is yet to grant official registration for the union, which would consequently enable Kemu to specifically address the welfare of local musicians.

“It is unfortunate that artistes in the country have for years now been losing out on significant benefits and opportunities on the global music landscape owing to the non-existence of a duly recognised trade union for music makers,” he asserted.

Indeed, concerns have arisen locally as well, over the reported seemingly reluctance by numerous government agencies to fast-track the requisite recognition status for the union.


Significant strides were deemed to be achieved upon issuance of a certificate, which was meant to pave the way for the musicians to “undertake legal activities to establish a trade union.”

As a follow-up, a local gazette notice sought to inform all trade unions and employers organisations on the proposed Kenya Musicians Union’s pending application.

Dayan was in attendance at the training workshop programme which brought together music organisations official reps from Kemu and the Tanzania Urban Music Association [TUMA].

The British Music Union [BMU]’s official Bill Kerr and Emre Sorkuu from Swedish Musicians Union [Musikerforbundet], facilitated the four-day capacity-building forum held under auspices of the union-to-union programme.

A myriad of thorny aspects which hamper the local music’s growth were addressed, with special focus on setting up strategies to enhance inclusivity of gender equitability in the sector.

Nitty gritty

Also brought to the fore was the often unspoken dilemma of rampant hurdles posed by the sexualisation and harassment of female artistes seeking to advance individual careers.

“There is a pressing need for priority policies, which effectively tackle gender issues in relation to discrimination, injustices and societal stigmas against female musicians,” remarked Katana, kemu’s secretary general.

The issue of potential conflicts hinged around an array of odds posed by lack of formal live performance contracts in most concert venues, similarly also triggered off heated deliberations. Some of the suggestions raised sought to vouch for players in the sector to embrace the concept of collective bargaining agreements, more so to address the plight of especially budding musicians.

The participants at the forum, were also updated on the achievements gained so far, besides the commonplace challenges experienced by the members of musicians associations in both countries.

“Despite the emergence of more avenues to make money in the industry today, most musicians still face the dilemma of earning income for their creative abilities on full-time basis,” observed Juma.

It could thus be plausible, if local artistes rallied their efforts together, pushing for an effective musicians union can in the long run, shift and turn the stakes around in their favour.

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