New names taking over the Kenyan showbiz

By Alfayo Onyango | 1 month ago
Suraj Mandavia of Gondwana Kenya.

The narrative in music, sports and entertainment today is that five years is a long time. In a technologically forward, innovation-friendly, and trend-hugging era in the current arts and entertainment world, event organisers and promoters in Kenya are conscious of this and acknowledge that if they fail to cater for these demands, they may well have to drift into other careers or produce for a niche crowd.

Countries like Ghana have the industry by the crux, with international festivals such as Afro Nation. South Africa has always been a green travel destination, tempting the biggest names in entertainment, and Nigeria’s 2019 was unparalleled. Egypt has become the new Mecca of African entertainment. So what is Kenya’s Achilles heel?

Events curator and brainchild Sandra Bartonjo cites lack of investment, costly production and tariffs among other reasons that could be holding back 254’s events sector from a notable international bloom.

“Venues and booking of talent are costly. Also, the cost of licenses to be paid to the respective authorities is quite high. That is why it is easier to work with a venue, but then you are limited because they will run their own food and bar and then you are left with only the ticket sales as a means for profit or at least to break even with,” she says.

So while Kenya continues to wrestle cartels, uncanny business practices, and playing softball with its money to attract the big boys in entertainment, other countries play by different metrics and see their tourism, foreign exchange and clout improve drastically.

Rwanda, for instance, is taking great leaps to market itself globally as a pertinent name in African tourism, with their risqué measures such as paying up to Sh3 billion to place their brand on jerseys of football teams that have worldwide notoriety.

They are also looking to capitalise fully with that practice by inviting the who is who for entertainment purposes.

Nigeria saw names such as Cardi B, Future, J Cole, Migos and Megan Thee Stallion visit in the span of a year in 2019. Kenya could only afford to welcome Rick Ross in his twilight years of music relevance.

We have seen Kenya dig deep into its pockets, however, to promote itself. For instance, Chris Brown’s Mombasa concert tour was a statement in the arts and entertainment world of certain industry players’ intent.

The concert costs are reportedly in the billions, but the logistics could have been way better than the idea itself.  

Even so, the pandemic’s impact has yielded a new class of event promoters into fruition versus the past five years’ class. The Capital FM’s Blanket’s and Wine, Hakuna Matata, Homeboyz, 6:AM, EABL’s and more prominent names seem to have somewhat taken a back seat to play “wait and see”.

Newer entrants like Masshouse Group, Tukutane Ent, Thrift Social, Vibes Only, Sirocco Ent, and Gondwana, despite their critics, have not let the pandemic run them dry and defunct.

New names of Kenyan showbiz

According to Sirocco Ent’s 25-year-old co-founder Shema Rabala, whose company recently flew in South African pop star and platinum-selling artiste Rowlene for a show, they were desperate for unique experiences, leading them to start the company.

“We are trying to cater for the niche market, which is our age group, and young guys are different and more energetic. It is up to us to be updated with the ever-changing scene and offer entertainment,” says the DJ and former Atlanta native.

Others in this category are Pukka’s Nick Wandere, Tukutane Ent’s Malcom Okubo and Sichangi and Nairobi R&B’s Faiza Hersi - who are all executing events in the city and beyond.

During the recently concluded WRC Rally weekend in June, Masshouse Group was responsible for a three-day festival dubbed ‘Sunset Village’ in Naivasha.

Other audacious events they have conducted include January’s Piano Chella featuring SA’s Amapiano, poster boys Major League DJs and the ‘Sol Saturday’ concert tapping Sauti Sol as headliners, that was cancelled on the D-day.

The young artistes are humble, tipping off their hats as they pay homage to their apparent predecessors.

“Of course we give respect to the OGs, because they paved the way for us. They showed us what the scene is about, so we do respect them, and always will. Based on experience, it is always good to get their opinion in some situations where you do not have experience,” says Shema.

He salutes the likes of EDM giants 6:AM and Kenya Nights, who have been pioneers in the EDM domain for lengthy periods.

Vibes Only CEO Frankie Theuri echoes Shema’s sentiment.

“I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the best in the industry. Each situation helped me grow and made me into the person I have become. I am indebted to John Rabar, G Money, Code Red Stylez, Big Ted, Shaffie Weru, Hype of course, Mwanaume Ni Effort, Roya Entertainment and Alternative Agency.”

What the new generation and critics want

In today’s scene, there are influencers as marketers, fully digitised ticket sales, immersive live performances such as wireless headphones and compelling audio-visual production. Consumers want thoughtful entertaining concepts, thorough security and safe spaces for every community.

In an internet age, where consumers are informed of how other markets perform, social media offers a platform to voice their concerns and consumers want value for their money.

“We faced loads of similar situations, where the music was not at the forefront of what was being done, so that had to be the most apparent gap that we tackled. The others worth noting would have to be the lack of actual experience in an event; industry-standard productions like sound, lights and engineers,” says Suraj Mandavia of Gondwana.

He adds: “It is also worth noting that there have been a few recently launched organisations that are pushing the envelope, and we hope to see much more in the future of our industry.” 

Suraj has been a critical player in the events scene, more so when he completely up-sided the industry with his daring three-day beach festival in Lamu, where performers entertained attendees on moving boats and different islands. He remains optimistic and upbeat about the possibilities of Kenya’s events.

“The opportunities are endless; with the correct infrastructure, including tax-friendly tariffs on musical equipment, frequent training and mentorship projects in collaboration with leading production houses, can help put Kenya as a dream destination for events and festivals,” he says.

“Kenya takes huge strides in event production and inventory in East Africa. There are a number of well-established companies that export and hire their gear and services to neighbouring markets. So, yes, we definitely have what it takes to compete on a global scale.” 

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