The last time I was at Egesa bar in Umoja seven years ago, the tickets to a show by Luo crooner Prince Indah cost Kes300. Today, it costs just a hundred more as the rising benga musicians retains his solid fanbase by keeping the cost of entertainment affordable for the Eastlands crowds.
Cheki, my cousin and one of his diehard fans tells me we have to make it there by six O’Clock to get a seat. A Prince Indah concert attracts fans by the hundreds and when we make it there late as usual by eight O’Clock most tables are taken. Although the seats are empty because the star has not yet arrived, the revelers have marked their territory with 750 milliliter bottles of Johnnie Walker whiskeys and Gilbeys gin bought ahead of time to book seats.
As the night crawls over the Eastlands crowds worried about the cost of living with inflation edging back to 8 percent in May, people slowly pull into Egesa Villa that sits between Umoja market, county offices, a clinic and the Catholic church. The lack of city planning is telling with the absence of parking space as cars line up stretches along the unmarked roads.
“We were here in 2016,” Cheki reminds me, adding that Prince was still an upcoming artist at the time and although he pulled in a decent crowd, today what I’m about to experience unparalleled taste. When he finally makes it for the stage at 10pm, the real size of his fans reveals itself.
Prince Indah sings like the sirens, his voice seducing from depths of his soul in short spams of consuming desire to sing along, punctuated with the gong, shake, thump and sax of his live band. And like lemmings, the crowds are drawn towards this pied piper crawling over each other just to get a little closer to the goose bump raising voice. That he has ascended to almost cultic following is no wonder he calls himself Janabi, which am told is a reference to Luo traditional religious prophets.
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 am 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 on his command.
“Musicians are some of the few people who can tell crowds what to do, they are the only other people apart from politicians who can make people raise their hands and crowds willingly obey,” my brother observes.
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.
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.
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.
A lucrative market that has created intense competition for audiences between the multinationals. The popularity of videos and music content has placed Youtube at the apex as the most visited website in Kenya averaging 14 minutes per session. This also explains the surge of Spotify and the rise of TikTok angling for this streaming market, as well as the shift of social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to creating short video streaming offshoots for monetizing private moments, juvenile choices and exploiting our insecurities and narcissistic tendencies.
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 created dozens of stars on the continent mostly unrecognaizable by their sheer numbers. With the advanced in technology and experience these supply chains have managed to develop an almost template like music that can be switched between different African hits combined with American and UK artists like Chris Brown, Selina Gomes and Ed Sheeran to expand audiences.
But Kenyan music relies heavily on trendy lingo like Wamlambez, NgumiMbwegze and SubaruyaMamabaru cliches, that are uniquely local therefore difficult to sell abroad. What gets to trend in our music is also usually too unpredictable and difficult to replicate on a mass scale.
The country is replete with one hit wonders and the most viable way to make money has been to rely on shows, even when the internet has expanded the market that would otherwise allow musicians to make a good buck. Those who have been successful online are the few talents who have been around long enough to study the business like Sanaipei and Nyashinski and those who have worked with the international brands like Bien of Sauti Soul.
The rest of the industry are fighting for scraps from corporate sponsorships and haggling for shows or making ends meet with a bit of merchandising.
A friend of mine, who has tried to record his music told me as an upcoming rapper he came face to face with the business model that has frustrated great talent in the country even as the industry beat rises, exploding across the continent to 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 went to asked for Kes300,000 for a beat and that was someone I had known since childhood. He said he was willing to go fifty-fifty with me if he got half the royalties and at the time I was almost going with him when he disappeared. Turns out he had not been paying his rent,” he said.
He said he was later to learn this was exorbitant given the average cost of a locally produced beat is around Kes160,000 and one can buy an affordable beat on the internet for between Kes5,000 to Kes10,000. He adds that the industry is awash with stories of musicians who have lost a lot of time and money just producing their first record and by the time they have their song, they are out of funds and have no way of marketing the song.
“If you look at the US when Nas was coming up with his first album, he got a lot of support from producers, there was a team around him helping him come up with the album but here everyone wants to get paid right away, artists lose money to phoney producers and when they do get their songs after maybe even six months have no way of marketing them and you get just 100 views on Youtube,” my friend tells me.
I ask him how comes local artists have not figured out the algorithms to increase their audiences to make money on the internet. He says while the internet algorithms have changed how music is accessed disrupting the market in a huge way, it is difficult to push up hits authentically unless one buys views or when enough influential people listen to you and add you on their Spotify playlist. The internet may have replaced TV and radio gatekeepers with big DJs and influencers whose choice of songs in their playlist determines the songs that get automatically selected for audiences.
“The algorithms have made it difficult for most people but sweet for a few people especially those who make it to popular playlists of influencers with a very big following,” he says.
The alternative is to sign up to industry solutions such as Distrokid, an independent digital music distribution service, founded in 2013 by American entrepreneur Philip Kaplan that helps musicians to upload their music on social media platforms, tries to help them find a match to share across listeners and handling distribution at a charge.
Otherwise, he says you have to keep slaving for the industry and even those who sign up to big labels soon find out they will be milked for tours and shows where they increasingly labour only for the brands to take most of the money.