Revellers at a past event. [Felix Kavii]

On Friday afternoon, Kenyans waited with bated breath as President Uhuru Kenyatta gave his second Covid address of 2021. Since morning, when State House had indicated that there would be an address, the air was pregnant with suspense, many expecting some form of lockdown, or much worse. 

When he finally spoke, the president declared that with the country’s Covid-19 positivity rate jumping from 2 per cent to 22 per cent between January and March, and Nairobi accounting for nearly 60 per cent of the cases, it was time to take action. Thus, Nairobi, Kajiado, Machakos, Kiambu, and Nakuru were declared a disease-infected area, and that ‘all gatherings and in-person meetings are suspended’ and curfew hours revised from 4am to 8pm. 

He continued, ‘that the operations of bars is suspended in the counties of Nairobi, Kajiado, Machakos, Kiambu, and Nakuru,’ and ‘similarly, the sale of alcohol in restaurants and eateries is prohibited.’

It was this that marked the end of rhumba for club owners, staff, singers, bands, and patrons who thronged these places for music and networking over food and drinks.

“With no shows and performances, deejays and live musicians would now have to look elsewhere for their daily bread,” said Jemedari, rapper, event host, and social commentator. “With the latest directive, Kenyan ruling class have shown zero regards for the entertainment industry, especially the performers who were at this time preparing for the first high season since the pandemic started.”

According to Jemedari, the directive has cut off a huge chunk of revenue and affected entertainers’ lifestyles directly. Singer, songwriter and performer Viola Karuri echoes Jemedari’s sentiments, saying the directive was causing sleepless nights for artistes, especially for those like herself who do live gigs.  

“In the loss of gig income, many artistes are going through severe financial hardships. You ask yourself, do you go to the studio or do you buy food,” she said.

The I like It singer adds that the repercussions are more than at face value. “A lot of artiste-producer partnerships aren’t going to work either, because no one can eat kindness. And since the next payday doesn’t seem to be in the foreseeable future, the uncertainty is the worst part of it all.”

These are artistes who do live gigs week in, week out in restaurants and beer gardens, with a band in tow and patrons on their feet. These gigs feed families and pay for studio time and practice halls. Performing artiste Mell Baron said there will be no source of entertainment for an indefinite period.

“So many live performance artistes will be affected and that’s what brings them a source of income,” said the Love and Chali singer, pensively. “Add deejays and event organisers to that list and we are staring at a bleak future.”

Coast-based promoter Dickson ‘Ring Ring’ Waweru, of Ring Ring Entertainment, explained, “The entertainment industry is struggling because like here in Mombasa, we survive through the hospitality industry. We depend on hotels for events, weddings, conferences, and right now we cannot.”

The club owner, event organiser and sound equipment merchant added that he knows of several entertainment companies that have closed shop.  In a WhatsApp group comprising Kenyan entertainers that this writer is in, conversations in regards to the directive went on all weekend. Members tried to find a way to express their displeasure, with celebrated singer and performer Makadem summing the directive as “a life and death scenario for some of us who rely on live music”.

According to the Nya Nairobi singer, entertainers should come together and raise relevant issues with the State, issues that touch on incomes and livelihoods. 

“It is possible to work while following the given Covid-19 WHO/MoH guidelines than being locked in rental houses with no income because locking us only leads to hunger, ill health, more bills, and eventually, no house and depression,” he said, adding, “We can work under strict Covid-19 guidelines and survive the pandemic, but we can’t survive hunger in unpaid houses. Hunger breeds ill-health, making one vulnerable and unable to fight a coronavirus attack, which needs strong body immunity.”

A very articulate man with experience to boot, the widely-travelled entertainer was adamant that the government was getting it wrong.

“The State needs to know entertainment is not the super spreader, but if Wanjiku in her hood doesn’t follow any guidelines, in the markets, in the mats and anywhere away from the authorities, this is the issue that the government needs to address by making sure guidelines are followed because curfew and lockdowns do not enforce these guidelines as thought,” he said. 

“Nightlife has fewer people than day life. Why do they cripple a moment that has fewer participants while letting the one with more participants who don’t adhere to guidelines thrive,” asked Makadem, who in February did a tour in Tanzania.

He explained that there are other platforms where players in the hospitality industry have joined hands to speak as one voice. 

And on Wednesday morning, a cross-section of stakeholders in the entertainment and hospitality industry did a peaceful demonstration to Harambee House, to express their displeasure with the directive. The new directives affecting the five counties came at a time when the entertainment sector was bracing for the busy Easter period when all bars and almost all restaurants and hotels are fully booked for shows as Kenyans and foreign tourists celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Minutes after the president spoke on Friday, posters with ‘cancelled’ or ‘postponed’ were being shared on social media pages, disappointment shared by both entertainers and the patrons, people who walk into bars and restaurants for music and live shows, that soothing Rhumba as they sip their favourite drink. 

“We have been rendered jobless,” said Deejay Works, Rhumba deejay and resident at Radio Maisha. “And consider that whatever amount I earn trickles down to my family, support staff, and other people I interact with, like house helps and mechanics.”

Deejay Works, who had gigs lined up for April besides the three that he does every week in various spots across the capital, explained that there was no need to close down bars and restaurants if the government could ensure strict adherence to existing protocols.

“By ensuring strict adherence to protocols, there won’t be loss of income for all of us in the hospitality industry.”

Exactly a year ago, a similar directive to close bars and restaurants across the country was announced, with the rise of virtual shows the only positive from that period. Will we go back to that, and what other lessons can entertainers in the five counties under lockdown incorporate?

“Some artistes resorted to producing online content in terms of concerts, though it hasn’t been sustainable, unless you have financial backing due to production and talent costs,” explains Viola, a Berkeley College graduate.

“Virtual shows have the potential, but we are yet to break through to consumers,” said Jemedari, adding that one of the biggest lessons for entertainers to incorporate would be to invest in ventures away from music. 

For Viola, the lessons are there, though painful. “It’s time we turned our industry around into a business in order to start monetising on various music distribution and streaming platforms, so that we don’t just rely on gigs. It’s been a very painful learning period for most of us.”

Others, like Dickson, have taken advantage of the pandemic, and registered Ring Ring Fumigating Company. He started the venture by fumigating police stations in the Coast region.

“Right now I fumigate companies like Signon Group, Nairobi Women Hospital (Mombasa), Kencont Logistics, Toyota Kenya and others, so that I can survive,” said Dickson, saying he does not subscribe to the belief that one needs to wait for the pandemic to go away to resume their hustle. 

The ladies captured the moment. [Felix Kavii]