Presently, the focus is on how to push Kenya’s music industry to the next level. Alfayo Onyango explores what’s needful to find a new course for the giddy sector
Kenya’s music scene has always been promising. Blessed with one of the best fandom, the scene is a potential hotbed for platinum-selling artistes. The generational aspect threaded in the country’s music lineage has been crucial in defining 254’s musical identity, authentically from any other region.
The earliest memory of Kenyan musicians recording music in a systematic, functioning and profitable industry dates back in 1930s. However, with minimum musical activity due to political instability (colonialism), there was futile productivity in the music industry.
In the wake of independence, a change for the better was in motion as soon as financially stable recording houses such as Equator Sound Studios opened shop with artistes who included Daudi Kabaka and Fadhili Williams being among the first crop of signees. Following that, a major Nairobi-based vinyl pressing plant was set up.
With a spotlight on benga artistes by international music companies, the recording business experienced a boom. Pioneers of music genres such as Zilizopendwa, Twist, Afro fusion, Afro jazz, Afro soul and funky Afro were all birthed in this age. Records such as 1963’s Malaika and African Twist by Fadhili Williams became global grooves and staple sounds in Kenya’s musical landscape.
“I was listening to people like Mombasa Roots, Them Mushrooms and Safari Sounds, but even with that little excitement, I had to bring hip-hop music to Kenyans. These were the artistes with a proper music industry until the unfortunate naysayers allowed piracy to win in the 80s,” veteran music maker Ted Josiah tells Spice.
In the 70s, Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and Jamaica’s Bob Marley were some of the most popular musical figures globally, but Kenya’s benga scene was a true treasure of its own. The rhythmic genre inspired others including Congo’s Lingala, but has never really been given the plaudits it deserves.
Mushrooms’ Jambo Bwana, Ayub Ogada’s Koth Biro (En Mana Kuonyo album of 1993) and Mighty Cavaliers’ Dunia Ina Mambo are some of pillar records that gave Kenya prestige. Many of these songs are still covered and used in movies as scores.
In the new age, however, new media interference shook up the industry and Western media properly started infiltrating the Kenyan music scenes in the early 90s. This led to urban music such as hip-hop and R&B to enter the market. The most definitive music record that came out in the 90s to 2000 decade is arguably Ted Josiah’s album Kenya: The First Chapter.
The highlight of the album featured musicians who became industry legends. Necessary Noize, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, Hardstone and Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, among others, dominated airwaves at the time. Acts such as Eric Wainaina also emerged and his 2001 effort with Sawa Sawa album that featured the critical Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo hit was a pivotal moment for Kenya’s music culture.
“Sawa Sawa and Juliani’s Mtaa Mentality are two albums I respect. They had an impact on the society as they touched on issues affecting common people’s lives. They highlighted some of the most pertinent issues affecting the nation,” says singer Mr Lenny.
Acts such as K-South, Necessary Noize, Mercy Myra, E-Sir and Abbas Kubaff are some of the acts (under the stewardship of producers Gido Kibukosya, Suzanne Gachukia, Tim Rimbui and Ted Josiah) that were able to produce classic albums that the majority of urban music fans could relate to in the early 2000s.
“Sage’s album ExposeYourself and Eric Wainaina’s TwendeTwende were all impeccable. All those albums are international standards to me and they are all lyrical masterpieces. They changed people’s lives. But we also have overrated albums in Kenya, especially from pop artistes. They always go for that hit-formula and end up ignoring giving us the story,” says music writer Bilha Wanjiku.
Music albums with high replay value (good storylines, concepts and delivery) change social-cultural patterns such as lingo, mood, and attitude and push forward narratives into the real world. Modern albums from Kenya have always managed to satisfy sonically, but the passive topics and lack of groundedness, especially with urban music, always haunts the success of the Kenyan music.
Post-2005, an album such as Yahweh by Esther Wahome’s in 2009 is estimated to have sold over one million records. This is attributively to the astronomical success of her smash hit Kuna Dawa. Just A Band’s albums from 2008 to 2012 (82, Scratch to Reveal), Sauti Sol’s Live and Die in Afrika (2015), Camp Mulla’s Funky
Town (2012), MDQ’s 2018 effort She, Fena Gitu’s Fenamenon in 2014 are but some of the Kenyan modern classics that have been well rendered.
“If Kenyans want to be in the same musical conversation as their international counterparts, it’s better to be realistic. Hip-hop artistes especially, have to improve the quality (mixing and mastering) of their projects. Even if it means paying off international producers to do it,” Wanjiku adds.
Lack of investment and goodwill by the government and private sector has had negative effects on Kenya’s music industry. Music labels may have to find talent that’s marketable if they really need to make worth the investment.
“For artistes to put food on the table, it requires hard work in the studio, perfectionism and dedication,” says producer Riccobeatz, the hands behind King Kaka’s album Eastlando