Penning hits: Song writers and artistes tell of their experience

There is money in songwriting. This is what several songwriters and artistes can say today, and hope the talented writers out there who might otherwise not be good at singing or performing, grab the opportunity and get income.

“I’ve not done it so far, but I’ll quote between Sh50,000 and Sh100,000,” says Hope Kid, multiple Groove Awards nominee and winner.

“Songwriting is lucrative, and yes, it does happen in Kenya,” gospel artiste and vocalist Lydia Ndwiga also says.

But how comes it is not a much-publicised career path for many? Is it because of lack of ignorance, misinformation or unclear rules and regulations on how to go about it?

There are two types of ways artistes earn revenue through their music; song publishing (licensing, producing, writing), and performance (recording, shows) deals.

Writers are compensated in the publishing bracket, hence the reason producers are credited as writers of songs. Artistes that perform fall under the performance category.

But Pulse can today reveal that majority of local songwriters either earn flat-rate advance one-off payments or through lifetime song royalty percentages, if not nothing.

“I have collaboratively done songwriting for various artistes because there are people who have great vocals but don’t know how to write good songs,” says La Rota, singer, songwriter and model, who collaborated with Kaa La Moto on Mama, with vocals from Bi Kidude. “I cannot quote for who due to legal matters and management, but it depends. You can write for jingles, songs, ads, and I’ve seen cheques of up to Sh1 million per song,” Elani member Brian Chweya unpacks this matter to Pulse.

He has co-written various songs alongside Bien of Sauti Sol, such as Jana Usiku, Bazokizo featuring Bruz Newton, among others.

Premium songwriters such as Xenia Manasseh and KayCyy Pluto respectively write for global artistes such as Teyana Taylor, Burna Boy, Kanye West and Lil Wayne, generating royalty percentages through placements from their music labels, and score song-writing credits that are legally contracted every time there is a pay-day.

The Covid-19 crisis has recently caused artistes to step back, reflect and strategise on ways to understand business dynamics better. Talking to Pulse, the crooning genius Steph Kapela says he has an offer of Sh15,000 advance pay-off for songwriting credits, as there are currently zero shows and limited income streams for artists.


“I wrote the hook to Camp Mulla’s Addicted, and laid a verse on Party Don’t Stop. These are some of my biggest achievements in my musical career,” Collins Majale aka Collo, one-third of Kleptomaniacs, disclosed to Richard Njau on the popular YouTube channel, Clearing The Airwaves.

Industry insider are always privy to such kind of information. But this stays in the dark, evolves into big money, the heroes go unsung, and sometimes, unpaid.

“Songwriters exist here, although many artistes don’t professionally know how to do it. As a songwriter, you should be able to benefit from the release of the songs you have written, but very few know this,” adds La Rota, a gender-based violence survivor.

“Songwriting is dependent on demand for good writing and demand for complete projects,” says Lydia, the 2019 Groove Female Breakthrough Artist of the Year. “I know artists who will go to songwriters to write a full album.”

Being a great entertainer is one thing, but having the ability to articulate inner-most thoughts and feelings through one’s penmanship is what really separates many artistes, as Simon Maina, Talent Manager at Pweza Africa, emphasises.

“In majority genres, lyrics play a huge role in a song. There are musicians who are talented vocalists and performers, but terrible songwriters. The vice versa is also true. If artistes, especially in Kenya, would understand that you can’t have it all, then I think we can churn out more quality songs, and earn handsome loot,” he states.


The concept of specialisation in one component of music composition (either song-writing or performance), or better yet striking a strategy that does not compromise the quality of the song can dictate how ground-breaking a song can be, according to Simon.

“I mean, tonnes of these A-List international artists we look up to have entire teams of songwriters. In Kenya, artistes tend to feel sort of inferior if they don’t write their own songs,” Simon unveils.

Simon has had the privilege of working with top-tier music professionals, including Skales, Mr P of P-Square, Juma Jux and Nasty C, and claims they have a handful of people writing their songs.

“Kenya needs to cultivate that culture of working together. Many people can write songs, but it takes creativity, patience, understanding a crowd, and there are rewards for your uniqueness,” Elani’s Brian Chweya states. The trend of picking up dexterous songwriters is, however, grown locally. From superstar brands such as Sauti Sol, who are at the helm of their music careers, they understand that part of what verifies them to being elite artists is the ability of their lyricism.

Forming a singer-songwriter assemble organisation - Sol Generation - Sauti Sol has inevitably secured a high standard of music composition for a few more years through the likes of the talented Nviiri The Story Teller, a backbone to hits such as Melanin featuring Patoranking, and the beautifully penned Pombe Sigara.

Paramount in maintaining longevity in the music industry, songwriting can be a nuance overlooked in the song creation process, but one that artistes can no longer afford to lack. Artistes such as Sauti Sol are investing in talent such as Xenia Manasseh, Kaskazini, Lisa Oduor, and others to curate great songs. The boy band attribute their song-making prowess to collaboration, as Bien-Aimé Baraz reveals.

“Music is a collaborative process. It helps that we are a group because in the sense that I’m at my lowest, Savara is at his highest. It does not make you a lesser artiste that you can just get a helping hand,” he says.

He adds that it is important “to build a team that can support you creatively even at your lowest.” Avoid downplaying chemistry, bondage, and the philosophy of teamwork.


Even though most song-writing contracts are very confidential, many artistes prefer to protect their integrity through Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), although the commerce involved in the song-writing industry is picking up momentously.

“Music is entertainment, just as it is business. It is professional to want to put out the best product out there, and this is why I had writers like Steph Kapela, Wangechi, Nuru, and so many others I can’t name, to write songs for the biggest stars in this country,” producer Atwal Adwok mentions.

African songs are on rotation due to the likability of their beats and musicality, but what if song-writing could make the hits bigger?

“Songwriting is such a huge part of music in the US and a lot of money is invested just to make sure the conversation is right. I feel like the lyrics is the next step to taking African music to platforms like the Grammys,” Atlanta-based Nigerian musician Wurld reveals.

Wurld is an international songwriter that has been involved in smash records such as Blow My Mind by Davido, featuring Chris Brown. He goes on to share that the impact of music is of greater degree with the right lyrics.

“We already have the rhythm, but with the right words to the music, we can have more impactful music, better structure... generally our songs would be a notch higher,” the stellar writer advises.

Albeit songs having a variety of ways, they can be great, whether through their melodies, vocal performances, beats etcetera, the underlying factor that is song-writing has to be taken into consideration to ensure this.

“I would recommend this, even if not hiring a whole department, just have industry friends whom you can bounce ideas off of when writing. This way, your work gets refined before you hit the studio. However, it is important that the artists record split sheets, to ensure everyone involved in the creation process receives their respective dues,” Simon says.


Contemporarily, Kitawi Mwakitele getting on the Ethic Entertainment engine to guide them through the process, among other music industry experts coming into the fray willing to disseminate their songwriting knowledge to the growing trade, is becoming more common and lucrative by the day.

“Early Ethic songs were worth Sh15,000, and that’s from production to video shoot costs. Producers never knew who they were. I would pay for fare and stuff like that. We would be on WhatsApp sharing ideas and voice notes, and that’s how songs like Pandana came to be. Look at them now,” Tele tells Pulse.

“From Bensoul involved in Kidum and H_Art The Band projects, Nviiri for Sauti Sol, Xenia Manasseh being signed to a UCMG label in the US as a songwriter, there is definitely a positive shift in the songwriting regard,” Simon reveals.

Despite royalties not being able to sustain many musicians, the legal framework is being designed through certain industry stakeholders that will see the commercial growth of the business is taking shape and eventually booming.   

“Songwriting for commercial purposes is something artistes have embraced with time, because the returns can be immediate,” La Rota opines.