Shame of a broke industry seeking a voice, identity

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By Stevens Muendo | 1 month ago
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After being treated to Eric Omondi’s theatrics following his arrest for an attempt to ‘storm’ Parliament, a debate has been raging about the sorry state of the local music industry.

Omondi, the self-appointed president of comedy, has been demanding answers, blaming the influx of foreign artistes’ concerts in the country for the neglect of local artistes.

“Are we doing this badly? Is the state of our music industry this bad? I have nothing against international artistes. My heart is profusely bleeding for our industry. Do you want to tell me that a Khaligraph Jones, Otile Brown and Nyashinski concert cannot pull crowds on the last day of the year? I have no problem with Konshens. My issue is our own messaging. We have been killing our own,” posted Omondi.

The post was to provoke a major debate on the attraction of foreign artistes, some of whom have been slotted for major shows in the country during this festive season.

Among the artistes slated for December shows include Koffi Olomide, who is said to be finalising a concert deal with a leading promoter, British group NSG, Gyal You a Party Animal singer Charly Black, Jamaica’s finest Konshens, Kranium, Bongo’s Harmonize and Mbosso.

Konshens did not hold back and responded to Omondi’s claims. “Blessings my friend. I find this very interesting. Many people are sending your worlds to me. I would love to sit down and hear what exactly your issue is. Are you upset with international artistes for loving your country? Nobody is trying to milk your country. Your country just has a crazy love for all genres of music,” said the Gal a Bubble singer.

Still, Omondi stood his ground, saying local promoters were leaning towards promoting foreign artistes as opposed to homegrown talent. 

Tip of the iceberg

Underneath, stakeholders in the Kenyan entertainment scene have been rumbling. The issue Omondi raised is the tip of the iceberg.

About five years ago, local musicians came up with Play Kenya, Build Kenya campaign. It was an uprising by artistes against a growing dominance by West African and Bongo Flava artistes, who had taken over radio and TV charts, club DJs’ playlists and major concerts in the city.

Bizarre as it might sound, about 90 per cent of the music you would find on our airwaves was foreign. And with all the good content Kenyan artistes have been producing, airplay for local music has remained low. The artistes hardly get concerts to perform in, making it hard for them to support their livelihoods.

Visit any club in Nairobi over the weekend and what the DJ will treat you to is music by foreign artistes.

Here, they play music by Nigerian artistes like it were Lagos. Their push for Amapiano and Kwaito would make you think you were in Zululand. And the fans jam to it like there is no tomorrow. It is all they are meant to consume.

“What Omondi was trying to say is true although inverted. I have travelled far and wide to perform. Nigerians do not play music by Kenyans nor watch our movies or comedy. When you go to Tanzania, they do not even care.

“When you go to South Africa, you will discover that only we know Trevor Noah, they know nothing about us. When you go to Uganda, the same thing applies. But down here, we are the champions for others to be heard and known,” says award-winning comedian Jasper Muthomi, aka Mc Jessy.

“If Wizkid is launching a new song (in Nigeria), we will be the first ones to play it in our stations in Nairobi, even before Nigerians do. Diamond will aspire to launch a new song and we will tease about it before the world knows about it. But Khaligraph will launch his new song and the only place people will support him is on his Instagram page and YouTube.” says the comedian, who is also a corporate MC.

Lack of identity

According to MC Jessy, the Kenyan entertainment industry lacks identity, and so does its players.

He says the absence of structured engagement platforms and infrastructure limitations have led to a polarised entertainment industry that lacks direction.

Mc Jessy says he doesn’t blame foreign artistes, but the lack of proper structures.

“The foreigners occupy the available space through concerts and walk away with showbiz millions in a multimillion-dollar industry, whose worth is approximated at Sh85 billion in the period 2007 to 2009, contributing up to 5.3 per cent of the GDP,” he says.

MC Jessy says it is sad fans have been indoctrinated to believe foreign artistes are better than their own.

This explains the dominance of the West African Afrobeat, Bongo music from Tanzania and now the trendy South African Amapiano sound that is being blamed for the slowdown of Gengetone. On average, it is estimated that 10 Kenyan songs are released every week and with hundreds of musicians competing for the available space, many fall by the wayside. 

“The solution is a Bill I would want to see tabled in Parliament. I am calling it the Creative Economy Bill that also proposes the creation of a Creative Economy Council. This Bill will ensure each artiste gets an identity through registration of their content.” says MC Jessy.

“It will create policies and enforcement plans that promote the Kenyan creative sector, including ensuring that over 60 per cent of the content played on our airwaves is local. This is how we will address the root problems affecting us. The answer is not with politicians promising to open Saccos for artistes to borrow money from. Unless they are empowered, how will they pay it back?”

He says many talented Kenyan artistes are languishing in poverty.

“We are our biggest enemy, and I blame that on the lack of proper legislation that would ensure the creative economy thrives. If, for example, we tune into a TV station now, they are airing Afro-cinema. You might say theirs (Nigerians’) are cheap and ours expensive, but have you tried giving that money to a Kenyan production house and seeing what they can produce with it?” poses MC Jessy.

“Have you talked to Nick Mutuma, Catherine Kamau, Sarah Hassan and Brenda Wairimu about the needs of the industry? Our artistes are the major investors in all these online platforms like YouTube and Skiza through their content, yet they have no bargaining power. All you can make them is ambassadors.” 

Musicians from the US will ask for a minimum of about $100,000 (Sh10 million) to stage a concert in Nairobi, while those from West Africa will settle for Sh7 million, and those from Tanzania Sh5 million.

Jamaican dancehall artistes are more affordable, less demanding yet big crowd pullers. On average, a Kenyan musician gets paid about Sh50,000 per concert.

Desperate and left to their fate, the majority will settle for as little as Sh10,000 to curtain raise for a foreign artiste, even with all the stage power they would exude as the crowd’s favourite during such shows.

Global trends

“Most music consumers come from a generation that is heavily influenced by global trends, and that is why Nairobi will always ape the music genre from across the globe. That is why you will find most club DJs pushing for that. Besides, there is nothing wrong with playing music from around the world. But that does not mean we ignore ours. If we do not popularise what we have, who will?” poses Pierra Makena, a DJ and events personality, who has dedicated sets on Kenyan music during her shows.

A report on the Creative Economy Business Environment Reform, Kenya, recommends the creation of a pinnacle body for the creative industry. The report says this would be crucial in generating cohesiveness and organisation necessary for industrial growth and development.

While the talk around the creative economy majorly focuses on the music industry, film and fashion, there has been a new shift focusing on online content creators such as TikTok. So far, there are no clear regulations or well-known local content policy that supports online content creators.

“We need to give our music industry an identity. We are already suffering an identity crisis since we don’t have a defined sound for our Kenyan music. We also need to think about the packaging of our content and the music industry in general,” says Robert Waweru, aka Wawesh, a music producer and talent developer.

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