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KENYAN MUSIC AND POLITICS

I have never been one to talk too much about politics. Neither do I particularly concern myself with what happens within the political sphere, especially in Kenya. However, I am not completely out of the loop, or at least that’s what I think. If anything, someone once said, despite how much you may try to distance yourself from politics it will always be a part of your life. Why? Because every decision made in the political sphere has a ripple effect on the country’s economic situation. That means as long as you are a part of the people making a living in this country, politics will always be a part of you. Notice the focus is solely on Kenya, I can not speak about other countries since, well, geography. 

Most recently, Khligraph Jones along with a select group of fellow entertainers in the country got a chance to meet up with the Deputy president to speak on matters Covid, its impact on their craft and what way the music industry can be improved. While the effort itself deserves some recognition, that was not how it sat with other musicians as well as members of the public. Especially after Khaligraph in a prior communication, promised to campaign for the Deputy in the upcoming election period. To those in opposition to the move, it seemed that Khaligraph was simply trying to get his foot in the political game. Whether it is for leadership, personal or professional reasons, we will never know for sure. 

This meeting raised the ever repeated question, do artist opinions matter in politics? Should artists have a political leaning? And, what is the artist’s responsibility when it comes to politics? Let’s have a look at each of these questions. Note that the opinions expressed here are not set in stone. They are simply a personal idea based on already available information and you are free to contradict, accept or completely do away with what you read. However, I do ask you to come up with your own well-informed opinion prior to making any judgement. 

The artist’s responsibility

Deputy President William Ruto addressing artist’s who met with him recently

Long before we had Covid 19. Before Khaligraph was as big (literally and figuratively) as he is to capture the Deputy presidents attention and even before the current political class was in existence. Kenyan art was not the way it is. At the time, any form of protest be it in writing, performance or speech would have landed you in the not so concerned, long arm of the government. During this time, if you had anything against the government you either die with that opinion or simply do your best to forget about it. However, in modern times, the ‘freedom of speech that prevails allows any and everyone to speak their truth with little to no action taken against them. 

For artists, they have always been speaking their truth. Through the creation of the art shared with the public, they share their view of the world and in all honesty, they do not need to explain why. The reason, like any good joke once you explain it loses its edge, You need to let the people perceive it as they please. 

For musicians, it’s about crafting a song with as much poetical prowess as possible with symbolism and euphemisms to create the idea. From here the audience is allowed to deconstruct the song as take away what you as an artist have to deliver. Rappers like Ukoo Flani, Julian, Kitu Sewer King Kaka, Kaa La Moto and others are some examples on how to do this without directly mentioning names. They find a pain point, work around it and come up with songs either to make the public aware of their responsibilities or bring to light what is being ignored. They act as the mirror to society showing what is actually going on and raising important issues. 

However, just like any mirror, if the audience sees what the problem is and doesn’t correct it. There is only so much they can do. That’s why they don’t force it down our throats, neither do they keep talking about it. Once the issue is aired they move on to the next issue. If anything history or future events will prove them right. 

Political leanings 

When it comes to artists taking sides in politics it’s my opinion there is nothing wrong with it. They are after all human being with personal opinions that should be respected and that they should share. However, it’s never the case when it comes to public opinion. For some reason, we see it best when musicians stand on neutral ground in politics. Maybe it’s because of the power they have on the minds of their audience or it could be the variation of audiences they have who may not agree with them. 

For this it is often best for them to address it not as artists but as a citizen of the country. Making it clear that the opinion being expressed comes from personal decisions and not from an artistic standpoint. The reason being that as a musician forcing your personal opinion on your fans often rubs them the wrong way which is harmful to their career and may bite them back in future when things go wrong. 

You will however, notice that most musicians just like members of the public prefer to not involve themselves in political discussions. This could be because they understand they have a responsibility to be a role model for those listening and what better way to be a role model than to simply focus your energy on being the best in your field. They also understand that in music you can never be too rigid with anything. What is accepted today as the best can change in a matter of weeks and they have to be ready to embrace this. 

What about the campaign period having musicians perform at the rallies? That too has an effect. Then again for the artist, it could be another gig that pays well and they do not particularly endorse the candidate. Rarely is it seen this way since any action taken in favour of one party over another is seen as an endorsement. That’s why even the best artist in the country would think twice before performing for opposing sides at the same time if they had to. 

What needs to be said is that musicians and artists are their own person. They have personal opinions that should be respected. Them being in the limelight simply means their actions are always open to scrutiny by public and media members. We will always look at the actions they take as a way to sway the public in their favour and whether or not we support them is the main issue. However, it will always be their responsibility to take on music as a way to either entertain or inform the public. They can also chastise the public for their actions. That’s why conscious music will either be a protest against certain actions and poke the bear or cause reflection on what we as the audience have allowed happening. In the end, we learn to respect these opinions and take it as it is.

Additional reading;

DEVIL’S ADVOCATE

the void shall be filled

Maybe it’s me but the beginning of the year is the trickiest time to predict what artists have lined up. From January to late February, especially in the Kenyan music industry, things are quite quiet and unsettled. With the occasional hit from the popular names and almost nothing from the budding acts, it’s easy to say that the music is dying. However, it doesn’t. From the inside looking out, you might feel like the artists have lost their footing and are banking on the past year’s success. However, from the outside looking in, you find fans are still hungry and, this hunger has pushed or pulled them towards a certain artist. 

In the past week, social media has been filled with comments on how good, bad or confusing Amapiano is, to some extent, it seems like this genre is the new trend that everyone is on. Of course, that could be credited to the events occurring in recent times where events have been all about these artists. However, this is like reading the comments after posting your content. You only box yourself in. The funniest bit is artists have also hopped on this trend, saying how we are not appreciative of our own but very quick to celebrate outside artists.

This time, I disagree. This time I will play devil’s advocate.

If there is a void, it shall be filled. 

Over the years, Kenyans have proved that one artist can not take over their music tastes. If anything, that artist needs to either collaborate with others in their genre or crossover to keep their attention. This can also be said about music genres. From Kwaito to Reggaeton to House to Amapiano, as Kenyans, we have enjoyed and praised every single one of these genres. And, as the audience danced along, artists stood at the sidelines and lamented on how they have been ignored. But how can we ignore them when it is they who we come back to each time. 

The thing is, artists in Kenyan acts are always looking for a formula. A way out of the boxes they have put themselves in. It’s not only our musicians but every single creative look for that way out. However, when you are stuck looking for hits you may lose yourself and keep hopping from one trend to another never paying mind to what makes you unique and how you could blend that with what is already there. Another thing is, adaptive growth in the music scene is not a common occurrence. If you think about it, most musicians will stick to what has made them popular until the fans tire of it then they can move on to other ventures, convert to gospel music or start their brands. 

Why this happens is hard to tell. In my observation the one artist who’s been able to adapt over the years is Mejja. Coming from Genge to Gengetone while keeping his comedic storytelling alive has made him quite a memorable act in today’s industry. I’m not saying there aren’t others who have the same growth but he’s the first that comes to mind. Wakadinli is also in here with their recent move to incorporate drill in their latest releases.

If I were to attribute this situation to anything, I’d have to quote Tetu Shani’s tweet where he described our music industry conditioning a lot of Kenyans to view music as entertainment rather than a way to express themselves. That’s why a lot of artists are seasonal. They come in, place a mark all over the scene then slowly fizz away only to re-emerge with troubles or scandals. 

The struggling artist

Another sad occurrence in our industry is how we seem to have romanticised the idea of struggling. This does not apply to musicians and creatives only but in every industry. It makes me wonder, shouldn’t the idea of creating opportunities for future generations lead to ease of entry and less bureaucracy in the systems. Instead, what we get is those who led the way holding on to what they had because what they are putting out isn’t getting as much attention. All this time newer acts do not know better and instead repeat the errs of their priors. I am sure you have heard of the Wilkins – Trio Mio drama. 

I am not saying there is nothing good that comes out of the struggle. It teaches resilience, shows you what works, it grinds you up to test how bad you want this and after you go through all this, you pop up with a clear direction as to where you are heading. What I am saying is, we need to find better ways to inform and educate musicians on what to do once they join the music scene. Which deals to sign and what to look out for. Maybe then we can stop saying that the music scene only works when you are well to do, financially. 

Let’s hop into some news. 

  1. PUT2SLEEP RELEASE ROAD TO RICHES

On the 15th of January, Tanzanian producer duo Put2Sleep released their 2nd project Road to Riches. The duo term the mixtape as a deep dive into East Africa`s on-the-rise hip-hop scene.

Much like last year’s Bonge La Speech, this project features artists from both Kenya and Tanzania giving you a smooth blend of Swahili rap and Kenyan Shrap along with HipHop. Featured artists on this project include Brian Simba, Kanno, Jovie Jovv, Sensei and Fredrick Mulla. This tape also comes with a distribution deal with Bob Marley founded Tuff Gong studios. According to the duo, they felt that this was the only label that accurately understands African music therefore would do them right when it comes to spreading the reach of their music. You can listen to the whole project here

  1. MUSIC CHARTS 254

For a long time now, tracking plays of Kenyan music on radio and streaming sites has been an unsolved issue. This has led to many believing that even awards are as biased as those in charge of music at the various stations. However, Music Charts 254 have created a system that enables them to rank songs based on radio plays and numbers from streaming sites. These include Deezer, Apple Music, Boomplay, YouTube and Audiomack. A well-received effort based on social media response. So if you are interested in knowing who is trending in the music industry, check out their page for lists released every Friday. 

  1. OTB PODCAST SURVEY
check out our social media pages and help improve the podcast

As you read this, there has only been a single episode of the podcast released this year. The reason is some changes are being made and also a consolidation of a few personal matters. However, your opinion matters a lot to the show. That is why I ask you to take this 2-minute survey and help improve on the show. Your response lets the producers know what you would like to hear more of and what additions you want to happen. Click here to take the survey, it takes less than 2 minutes.

AWARD SEASON

Hello,

It is so good to have you back here again. There’s so much to say about the industry and even before you get to read about that, thank you. Thank you for listening, supporting, and sharing Out The Booth Podcast with all your friends and followers. Your feedback means a lot to the show. For that, I appreciate you so much more.

Have you had the chance to vote for your favorite artists nominated in the #UnKutHipHopAwards20. If not check out this link and get to it – https://bit.ly/39R6Kfe

Normally, I do not participate in voting. National or otherwise. I am more of an opinion person where I get to take in and, share well thought out critiques of ongoing in our society. However this time around, I gave it a chance. I’m taking chances with every aspect of my life. It’s kind of a new leaf that I’m turning over. However, as I was looking into the voting, I couldn’t help feel ill-informed. 

For starters, the selected nominees in certain categories were not who you’d consider as the best picks. So it had me thinking, what are the considerations used to select them. 

To most, it would seem that purists spoil the whole party. They seem stuck upon only those they deem worthy to give a chance over those who are trying. But then again, that’s why you have the up and coming category. If anything only the work that foots the bill should be on the list. How an album/musician/artist that recently unveiled their latest project gets nominated in the same breath as one who’s work has been making rounds doesn’t make sense at all. 

At the same time, you have to understand that this is not a problem in our Kenyan scene only. It’s part of the adoption culture we have taken up. Due to our tendency to look up to international media as well as trends. We have failed to notice their flaws and instead adapted them too. For example, the Grammys failed to acknowledge The Weeknd’s hit song in favor of recently released and less successful work due to something as simple as industry preferences. In our industry, we see albums released weeks before nominations get thrown into the mix along with albums released months prior. At the same time, we have artists who have released more than one consideration in each category get looked over.

One other thing to take into consideration is that nominations were not as a result of a panel of key industry players and contributors. Rather it was left to audience preference. An issue that @Afrikan_Kodo expressed quite clearly on this episode of the podcast.

For any audience without prior knowledge of the requirements for a nominee, they will go with what is hot at the moment. The issue of looking into what makes this nomination worth the time and attention it will receive does not matter to them. This is Henry Ford asking the people what they want and, of course, they want faster horses. 

What would have been done is before nominations, the organizers could have created an awareness campaign. One where they showcase what they are looking for in nominees. They would then go ahead to select a few of their considerations to give a clearer example. After which, they open up the nomination lines. Once the audience makes their choice there could be a period to vet the choices. With this was out of the way, they would announce the nominations with a detailed explanation as to what made them viable. This way, once the voting lines open the audience will have expressed and quelled their frustrations as well as got informed thus making informed choices on the winners. 

What I am saying is, as much as the awards create a stir and create a sense of worth for the work put out by artists. Transparency, clarity and order would go a long way in ensuring that quality is upheld by both artists and the audience. Instead of creating a ceremony we’d have a true award season

Don’t forget to listen to Out The Booth Podcast. 

Peace and love, 

Eugene. 

How about some music for you to listen to while you’re here:

  1. Karun – Catch a vibe

2. Kato Change, Winyo & SURAJ – Sazile E.P

3. Shootout Freestyle – Put2sleep featuring Kanno and Fredrick Mulla

NOSTALGIA AND KENYAN MUSIC

Hello,

It is so good to have you back here again. There’s so much to say about the industry and even before you get to read about that, thank you. Thank you for listening, supporting and sharing Out The Booth Podcast with all your friends and followers. Your feedback means a lot to the show. For that I appreciate you so much more.

Who still has one of these in working condition?

We cannot get away from the past when it reminds us of simpler times. Especially, not when everything in the recent times seems to pick from sights, sounds and personalities we are familiar with.

For those of you who’ve ever walked into House of Leather, you know it’s almost impossible to walk out without making a purchase. That’s what happened to me; but it’s part of conversation that a young couple was having that brought me here. While looking through the display of electrical appliances, the lady picked up a flashlight – plastic with a bit of color – and shone the light in the face of her partner. After breezing over the available options, they walked away. Unanimously agreeing they’d rather get the vintage metal one. Why anyone would need a clunky old torch in times of LED and smartphones baffled me, but then I remembered a quote from any marketing book – nostalgia sells.

In the past few years, the music scene, both locally and internationally has gone through a lot of change. Hip Hop changed from socially conscious, well-articulated rhymes to a good beat and who’s got the best adlibs for their braggadocios rhymes. In Kenya, we moved from Bongo, to Naija and finally found our way back to Wakadinali and Mbogi Genje – thank God. As for the precious RnB, the samples are getting more and more predictable and the lyrics could use some work. But one thing that is undeniable, is how much influence our artists have drawn from the 90’s and 2000’s.

The UnKut Hip Hop nominations begin on Monday November 9th 2020.

Let’s take Gengetone. A genre, made up of 16 – 22 year olds has been the target of a lot of backlash. From claims that the lyrics are too brash to the videos being too raunchy. There have even been a few instances, where the music had to be pulled down from streaming platforms. But what difference is there between Lamba Lolo and Manyake? What difference is there between the music made by Bobby Mapesa and that being put out by every Gengetone act? Other than existing in a different age, where transmission is immediate over waiting for approval at a TV/radio station. The context is the same.

The reason Gengetone became so prevalent even with all the backlash is because it appeals to a lot of our memories. For those who are already too old to keep up with the language. The context of the videos i.e. the parties, the girls, the energy of the creators and their naivety, reminds them of when they too, were young. For those who just left campus or joined the job market, it reminds us of funkies back in high school and entertainment. That’s why we party to it, make memes and share them as often as they are released. It’s these underlying memories that have made the genre not just for the kids, but for anyone who is in the loop.

If Gengetone is not your cup of tea, you get to witness the return of one or two artists from back then. Nyashinski is the prime example. An artist who rocked and ruled the airwaves is the 2000’s, left the scene to live life away from it all and returned to rock and rule. Then we have artists who have the IT factor. That charisma and pull and creativity to crossover from generation to generation without losing footing, our beloved Mejja. Starting out when Genge had stuck a landing, staying through after it as part of Kansoul and now is the avocado in every Kenyan remix. PS – this is an avocado slander free zone!

This resurfacing of familiar acts, only proves how important nostalgia is to the entertainment scene. We even have channels like Cleaning The Airwaves (CTA), that delves into the lives of these acts with well researched and detailed interviews on how it was maneuvering the Kenyan music industry during their time. From interviewing artists such as Nonini, Collo, DnG and Muthoni Drummer Queen; all who have shaped the scene into what it is. The reception to it online is nothing but love because, these are the stories people have wanted to hear since they saw the personality on stage.

The Lunatic Express. image from The Economist.

Whichever way you look at it, nostalgia is what runs the scene – and Nazizi’s sneaker collection. So when that couple said that they’d rather buy the vintage flashlight over the plastic LED one, I felt that. Personally, I’d rather get on the clunky lunatic express and take a slow trip to the coast. Because why rush to go on holiday only to get there feeling like taking a bus would’ve been a better even more comfortable experience. I’ll take my time, taking in the sights, and sounds getting there when I do. And when I’m old, lying in my hammock staring over the hills, I can get nostalgic over the time I took.

Cheers!

Eugene.

LANGUAGE, MUSIC AND NUMBERS

Hey there,


It is so good to have you back here again. There’s so much to say about the industry and even before you get to read about that, thank you. Thank you for listening, supporting and sharing Out The Booth Podcast with all your friends and followers. Your feedback means a lot to the show. For that I appreciate you so much more.


2020 has been a whole twist. Starting out we were all hopeful and psyched to get our feet in the waters and float. And then Corona. The music industry was hit hard as now it wasn’t about free shows, the show was no more. And just when we thought we’d seen the last of certain artists, social media slid in. In no time we are right back to it. Having braved lockdown, quarantine and suspended accounts. We are now back to actual industry matters.


On the previous newsletter, we looked at how Gengetone had risen to shake up tables in the industry. Making collaborations with gospel artists and raising questions on whether we had finally lost our reverence for religion. This has changed as to whether we should even be making prayers in sheng. Aah, the ignorance. Personally, this conversation proved how disconnected a lot of ‘surbaban’ and ‘urban’ Kenyans are. Not forgetting our pious opinion makers.


If that didn’t startle enough. In a recent radio interview, the host asked the guest artists whether they felt English had given them an edge over their peers. Not skill, not good production, management or promotion, language. To serve some context, the host is a rapper and radio host who raps in English and works for a station that promotes this music more. Everyone at the studio and, I the listener, were blown back. I’m certain no one expected this kind of a question from this particular host. It was, to be precise, ironic.
So lets look at language, music and numbers.


For Kenyan artists the debate on whether to make music in English or Sheng has never known an end. There was a time when even making music in Sheng would have your music at the bottom of the pile when it came to radio. A notion that has puzzled a lot of musicians. Since, unlike those in the media houses, they understood what moved their audience. It wasn’t until they found out that you don’t need mainstream audience to make a living out of this craft they had passionately honed. Again, thank social media and add the internet to that.

If anything, the age of streaming media has proved that good product, in our case music, sells itself. Despite how much rotation one musician might be getting on radio, there’s a number of others doing the same or more numbers online. A peek into their music reveals commercial appeal is not the objective, if anything comminity comes first.
The issue with language is making music that you are comfortable expressing yourself in first. Next is making music that is true to its form. If your music is meant to move the crowd, let it move them. If it’s meant to speak to them, let them hear every word. Is it meant to be viral? Get people to talk about it. Are you for the organic approach? You better get it on all the right platforms. Run your game and hope for the best.
The idea is that there is an audience for everyone. However, questioning whether a musician can use their own language or another to express their ideas is not the way to go. Make a point of being informed before you make a critique or share an opinion. Hey, you’re reading this after all, that’s one step to it. Now get more.

Sincerely,


Eugene, host @otbpodke