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Musicians tipped on how not to bungle deals over political campaign songs

Ben Githae during the Mashujaa Day celebrations at the Wanguru Stadium, Kirinyaga County.[Elvis Ogina, Standard]

When Emmanuel Musindi - the man behind the Azimio la Umoja campaign anthem - Lelo ni Lelo - wrote the song in 2008, he never thought it would sweep across the country almost a decade later and become an anthem in political campaigns.

“I wrote the song as part of an album for the burial of Shinyalu MP Charles Lugano. At the time, it was not the best performing song in the album. But it gained popularity during campaigns in 2017 and exploded after the Azimio event in Kasarani,” says Musindi. Many songs from the album dubbed Lelo ni Lelo, which means today is todayhave been used in campaigns from 2013 to date.

Unfortunately, Musindi, like many artistes whose music are played at political events, has little to show for it. Despite the popularity of the musicians’ works, their fortunes have not changed.

“It is only recently that the Azimio team reached out and gave me something small. But no contract has been signed on how they can use my music going forward,” says Musindi.

As a full-time musician, his earnings depend on live shows in clubs, weddings and funerals.

Proof that music is a powerful force during political campaigns can be traced back to 2002 when Kibaki rode to power with the song Who Can Bwogo Me. The song’s release was perfect timing and the opposition- the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc)- used it to demonstrate that nothing could stop them from dislodging Kanu from power.

During the 2017 General Election, the Luhya song Vindu vichenjanga (things are changing) was a sensation that pulled in different politicians, including Deputy President William Ruto and ODM leader Raila Odinga who used the phrase during campaigns.

Even though the song was recorded in 2013, it was in the run-up to the 2017 elections that it became popular after being used by NASA.

Amos Barasa, the man behind the hit song, recalls how it brought him problems. After performing at a rally in Bukhungu Stadium during the 2017 election campaigns, Barasa claims he was swindled out of cash.

“The person in charge of entertainment didn’t pay me so I sought audience with President Uhuru Kenyatta and after we agreed I did a remix of the song for them and I was paid,” says Barasa.

He recalls how he fled to Tanzania for a month after receiving information that thugs were planning to attack him following reports that he bagged millions of shillings from his songs. “I didn’t have the kind of money they thought I had,” says Barasa.

However, Musindi and Barasa are not the only artistes who have been unlucky when it comes to music and politics. Traditional music performers like Ruhia Cultural Group have also found it difficult dealing with politicians and their campaign teams, especially when it comes to planning events and payments.

The group’s leader, Peterson Waweru, recounted how he would be summoned out of the blues in the middle of the night, ordered to look for a car and travel to a different county to perform without assurance of payment.

“Normally there is no formal agreement. They call, book you and conclude things over the phone. I have decided never to do anything if they haven’t paid me up front,” says Waweru.

For his group of 15 dancers, he is paid between Sh200,000 and 250,000 for performances at political events. Sometimes the pay includes transport.

In November last year, Kenya Copyright Board (Kecobo) advised artistes to negotiate their terms of service preferably with the help of lawyers and to sign written contracts with politicians.

“From previous experience, at the end of the campaign, many musicians are frustrated due to unpaid dues. Some musicians lose completely as they cannot sue since there is no evidence of contractual relationship with their principals,” said Kecobo.

Music in political campaigns plays the crucial role of energising, motivating and inspiring potential voters. In other parts of the world like the US, paying royalties for playing music is an irreducible minimum.

Currently, the mandate to collect royalties from different channels falls on Collective Management Organisations (CMOs) such as Kenya Association of Music Producers (KAMP), Performers Rights Society of Kenya (PRISK) and the Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK).

In August last year, Kecobo deregistered the three CMOs after they failed to meet the stringent conditions stipulated in the provisional licences from the board. An audit of the CMOs between 2017 and 2019 found diversion of royalties, poor record-keeping, suspected fraudulent transactions and the existence of ghost or duplicate members.

For the Lelo ni Lelo artiste, challenges with CMOs are a nightmare. Even though he has albums in his name, he explains that records in MCSK have his music under someone else’s name.

“When we started seeing other people posting our songs on YouTube in early 2010, we went to MCSK and found that someone had taken the rights of our music and MCSK did nothing to help us,” says Musindi.

On top of the collapsed systems within the CMOs, it is evident through the Copyright Act that there is no policy on payment of royalties for music played during political rallies. The only thing that comes close to that is the payment of royalties to roadshows which is paid depending on the number of tracks used.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for artistes whose music rocks the political scene.

Onyi Jalamo, the artiste who produced the famous ‘NASA’ song in the 2017 elections, got a place at the ODM entertainment department where he works with other artistes on how to make political songs.

Jalamo composed the BBI Kenya Moja song to market the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) drive.

Currently, his team is working on projects aimed at celebrating Kenya’s diversity under Azimio la Umoja and another project to fight handouts culture during campaigns.

“It’s about Kenya so we have identified certain artistes we will work with from different parts of the country. We have plans to work with Anastacia Mukabwa, Ben Githae and Emmanuel Musindi,” says Jalamo.

As campaigns heat up, artistes are also working hard to create the next big hit. Although many artistes do not set out to create political songs, they put their best foot forward hoping their compositions will make an impact.

“The industry is competitive and artistes need to push themselves if they want their work to stand out,” says Tano Tena star, Ben Githae.