Why local music is struggling in Kenya

The last time I visited Egesa Bar in Umoja was seven years ago when tickets to a show by Luo crooner Prince Indah cost Kes300. Today, the price has only increased by a hundred, as the emerging benga musician maintains his solid fanbase by keeping entertainment costs affordable for the Eastlands crowds.

Cheki, my cousin and one of his diehard fans, tells me that we have to be there by six o’clock to secure a seat. A Prince Indah concert draws fans by the hundreds, and when we arrive, as is our usual habit, by eight o’clock, most tables are already taken. Even though the seats are unoccupied because the star has not yet arrived, the revelers have staked their claim with 750-milliliter bottles of Johnnie Walker whiskey and Gilbey’s gin purchased in advance to reserve seats.

As night descends over the Eastlands crowds, concerned about the rising cost of living, people gradually converge at Egesa Villa. Positioned between Umoja market, county offices, a clinic, and the Catholic church, the absence of city planning becomes apparent, evident in the lack of parking space as cars line stretches along the unmarked roads.

“We were here in 2016,” Cheki reminds me, noting that Prince was still an upcoming artist at that time. Although he attracted a decent crowd then, today, I am about to witness an unparalleled experience. When he finally takes the stage at 10 pm, the true extent of his fan base becomes evident.

Prince Indah sings like sirens, his voice seducing from the depths of his soul in short bursts of consuming desire to sing along. The sounds of the gong, shake, thump, and sax from his live band punctuate the air. Like lemmings, the crowds are drawn towards this pied piper, crawling over each other just to get a little closer to the goosebump-raising voice. It’s no wonder he calls himself Janabi, a reference to Luo traditional religious prophets, considering the almost cultic following he has attained.

Benga show

I have never been much of a dancer. I lost every Lingala competition my aunts came up with at family functions for us kids, where they made us cousins out-dance each other for a five-shilling trophy. It is Manyala, my son, who has taken to teaching me how to move, as he does not let a beat drop. But even my left feet compelled me to wobble like I’m on stilts, and although I knew none of the lyrics, I enjoyed Prince Indah’s delivery song after song until I converted to his followers, raising my hands in unison with the crowds at his command.

“Musicians are some of the few people who can tell crowds what to do. They are the only others, apart from politicians, who can make people raise their hands, and crowds willingly obey,” observes my brother.

NyarSindo, who has never been to a benga show is amazed they use a rubber stamp to identify revelers who have paid the Kes400 as opposed to the wrist tags used in most concert. She is equally surprised the security lets the revelers climb onstage dancing briefly next to the Prince adorning him with praise, sometimes a bit of cash but mostly for a selfie right at the centre of the hypnotising music.

Waves and waves of the adoring fans well up to Prince Indah, who does not disappoint. Unlike many artists who give a brief performance backed by recorded audio, Indah gives a solid all night long performance punctuated briefly by MC Ogina Koko’s dry jokes peppered by comical Luo delivery that makes you feel guilty having paid so little for so much fun.

Drunk revelers

It is impossible to estimate the size of the crowd, but the waves of drunk revelers pushing and thrusting through the tables when Prince Indah takes a break, eager to rise to the surface for a breath after the intoxicating performance could number a thousand. This means the Prince makes close to half a million a night, a feat that would be the envy of any local musician.

While Prince Indah is very popular, arguably the most successful Luo musician currently and only rivaled at the local scene by Mugithi sensation Samido, most Kenyan local artists are struggling to earn a living from singing.

Personally, I have never been good at rhyming even though I have had a lot of friends who have fancied they know a thing or two about being rappers. I tend to be on the set more as the background crew throwing their arms up and down as unnecessary to the whole creative process as brand banners.

But by proximity I have learned the story of most aspiring musicians in this country. One was a young man from Busia who believed he had what it takes to rise from our shared pot of Busaa at Shenga’s into a Kenyan and global stardom by serenading the local beauty who had stole his gaze.

As his entourage, my role included accompanying him to shows and flailing threateningly at bored revelers to keep their boos bottled up and swallowed down with their beer. My other role was accompanying him around Kakamega to local radio stations distributing his CD trying to get him get played.

Live shows

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That was the business of music in this country, go into a studio, buy a beat, record a song and the producer gives you the music on a drive which you then try to sell to live shows, radio and today the internet while hoping and praying it will be a hit. A model that has made Kenyan music struggle to compete on the continent and across the globe.

Over the weekend at a friends house, we turned to the television and what has become typical household entertainment switched on to Youtube for some music. Growing up, the only West African music that was very popular here was Alpha Blondy’s roots whose lyrics we corrupted with abandon.

But today Nigerian songs squeezed themselves into the algorithm even though we had searched for Kendrick Lamar. They only gave Kendrick five captivating performances before similar looking and similar sounding Nigerians went on beat one after another indistinguishable and simply outsinging everyone else on the Tube.

The rise of Nigerian music is not coincidental. Africa’s young population has provided a massive market for multinational consumer goods company’s eager to sell branded alcohol, designer sunglasses, makeup and nail extensions, and the latest fashion to the young impressionable minds spending more time online than anywhere else.

Exposed to the internet from childhood, the youth have become sitting targets for advertisers combining internet profiling that decides advertisement depending on location and song choices but also subliminally turning popular musicians into influencer marketers.

Most visited website

A lucrative market has emerged, sparking intense competition among multinationals for audiences. The popularity of videos and music content has positioned YouTube as the most frequently visited website in Kenya, with an average session duration of 14 minutes. This surge has also led to the rise of Spotify and TikTok, both vying for a share in the streaming market. Additionally, social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook are creating short video streaming offshoots, capitalizing on the monetization of private moments, juvenile choices, and the exploitation of insecurities and individuals with narcissistic personality disorders.

As competition for audiences have kicked up, the need to generate an endless stream of new content has gotten supply chains working round the clock, milking to feed the internet. Over the last few years African Musicians have entered licensing deals with both local and foreign players, such as Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group, Boomplay, Mdundo, Spotify and Apple Music, to stream their catalogs in the continent.

The new supply chains have given rise to numerous stars on the continent, mostly unrecognizable due to their sheer numbers. With advancements in technology and experience, these supply chains have developed a music template that can seamlessly transition between different African hits, often combined with American and UK artists like Chris Brown, Selena Gomez, and Ed Sheeran to broaden audiences.

However, Kenyan music heavily relies on trendy lingo such as “Wamlambez,” “NgumiMbwegze,” and “SubaruyaMamabaru” – uniquely local clichés that prove challenging to sell abroad. Additionally, what trends in our music is often unpredictable and difficult to replicate on a mass scale.

Corporate sponsorships

The country abounds with one-hit wonders, and the most practical way to earn money has been through live shows, despite the internet expanding the market, providing musicians with an opportunity to make a substantial income. Those who have achieved success online are usually talented individuals with enough experience to navigate the business, such as Sanaipei and Nyashinski, or those who have collaborated with international brands like Bien of Sauti Soul.

The rest of the industry is grappling for morsels from corporate sponsorships, negotiating for shows, or making ends meet through limited merchandising.

A friend of mine, who attempted to record his music, shared with me the challenges faced as an emerging rapper when confronted with the business model that has hindered great talent in the country. This frustration persists even as the industry beats surge, expanding across the continent with Amapiano in the South, AfroBeats in the West, Grime in the UK, and relatively successful Bongo just across the border in Tanzania.

“A producer I approached demanded Kes300,000 for a beat, and this was someone I had known since childhood. He proposed a fifty-fifty split, with him taking half the royalties. Initially, I was considering the deal when he suddenly vanished. It turned out he had not been paying his rent,” he recounted.

He later discovered that this was an exorbitant fee, considering the average cost of a locally produced beat is around Kes160,000. Additionally, one can purchase an affordable beat online for between Kes5,000 to Kes10,000. He emphasized that the industry is rife with stories of musicians who invest significant time and money in producing their first record, only to find themselves depleted of funds by the time the song is completed. This leaves them with no resources for effective marketing.

Digital music

“In the US, when Nas was launching his first album, he received substantial support from producers, with a team aiding him in creating the album. However, here, everyone wants immediate payment. Artists lose money to unscrupulous producers, and even after waiting perhaps six months for their songs, they find themselves without the means to market them, resulting in just 100 views on YouTube,” my friend explained.

I inquire about why local artists haven’t deciphered the algorithms to expand their audiences and generate income on the internet. He explains that while internet algorithms have significantly altered how music is accessed, causing a substantial market disruption, it remains challenging to organically boost hits unless one resorts to buying views or gains recognition from influential figures who include the artist on their Spotify playlists. The internet has replaced traditional gatekeepers like TV and radio, shifting the power to big DJs and influencers whose playlist choices automatically influence what songs reach audiences.

“The algorithms have created challenges for most, but opportunities for a select few, especially those fortunate enough to land on popular playlists curated by influencers with extensive followings,” he comments.

An alternative approach involves enrolling in industry solutions such as DistroKid, an independent digital music distribution service founded in 2013 by American entrepreneur Philip Kaplan. DistroKid assists musicians in uploading their music to social media platforms, helps them connect with potential listeners, and manages distribution for a fee.

Alternatively, he suggests that artists may find themselves continually laboring for the industry, even those who sign up with major labels eventually realizing that they will be exploited during tours and shows, with the majority of the earnings going to the brands.

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