THIS IS WHY KENYANS DON’T LIKE KENYAN MUSIC
I had just started wondering why my sweat smelled of testosterone when I first ran into a conversation about Kenya’s musical identity. It’s a discussion always sparked by disgruntled musicians complaining about why foreign musicians enjoy all the love and affection at the expense of the local artists. It’s a hot discussion that encompasses all creative sectors and to some extent, the business sector as well (why import what we already have locally?) but let’s talk about music.
In his response to #PlayKEMusic demonstrations that saw Kenyan musicians take to the streets like civil servants to demand more airplay, veteran Kenyan contemporary musician Eric Wainaina traced the fact that Kenyans are always more predisposed to like foreign content to 1982 when after the attempted coup, the then president Moi became super nasty to the creative types – even forcing some to early retirement or exile like literary Prof. Ngugu Wa Dhingz. No wonder many Kenyans know Marvin Gaye and Fela Kuti but have no idea who Sal Davis or Slim Ali is.
But that’s long time ago – prolly just after Jerusalem. Moi has since been replaced by two presidents and I don’t see any reason why we should be singing the same narrative as our parents’ friends when they were our age.
So Question: why don’t Kenyans like Kenyan music?
And Answer: Because Kenyan musicians and producers don’t know music or Kenyan narratives.
Playing in Germany with a rockband I used to work with, a curious audience filled a hall to capacity and a New York Times reporter asked us why she would incur expenses to get us to play in Europe when her kids next door can play what we were trying to play (rock) better? What she meant was that our music only sounded like a disgusting version of Metallica (one of the bands favorite bands at that time).
So for those who’ve been asking me why I left PLG and how come they never toured again? It’s because besides only knowing how to play the most necessary power chords and almost always rehearsed solos, they were too lazy to even make a demo that was being requested directly by a record executive who felt that we only lacked a musical identity and wanted to work with us SO BAD. He even followed us back to Nairobi a few months later. All we showcased for him was a drunken shitty performance at Club Changes.
What sells any piece of art, be it music, painting or even a play is first and foremost its identity which is then followed by its quality and aesthetics.
Most musicians in Nairobi when asked about this subject will become agitated and say that their music is Kenyan simply because they are Kenyans or because they sing in Swahili. Bullshit. Even Michael Jackson, NAS and Rick Ross have had Swahili lyrics before; does that make their music Kenyan? Sauti Sol always has Lingala lyrics; I wonder if that’s why they’re so successful – because they’re Congolese. Refer to the paragraph above.
I’m baffled by how similar most young bands are in Nairobi today; Swahili names, common themes and very vague understanding of the whole concept of what they’re trying to do. A simple look will reveal that they’re all trying to be successful and how else do you get there without a blind step-by-step follow of Sauti Sol’s blueprint? They sound and try to do everything like Sauti Sol or Elani but they don’t know that you can only have one Sauti Sol or Elani. God needs to tell them that success is when you take everything you like about Sauti Sol or any other artist you admire for that matter and remolding it into your own new creation (because there’s nothing entirely new under the sun). Then you’re a creative. Otherwise you have no business here.
If you take that as hate speech, then ponder why all Afro-Fusion musicians fizzled into thin air with Mwanzo Mpya (Sauti Sol’s first album). They had all tried to be Eric Wainaina and when tides changed, only a few that had learnt to ride the new wave are still trying to survive. That’s where you give it up for Muthoni for turning into The drummer Queen and Makadem for quitting Mr. Lololova just before Sauti Sol changed the game. Therefore, I reckon it would be safe to say that Nameless, Jua Cali and Sauti Sol will continue to be urban legends because they all championed their own musical paths. Unfortunately, creative paths are never to be followed for long because they fade fast as soon as their finders get lost in fame and glory (for the lucky ones whose paths lead there).
You know there’s a problem when a music producer talks that way
Last weekend, a former music producer who has since left the city to farm vegetables told me that there’s nothing like a Kenyan music mix – only an East African one ati because there’s not enough good enough Kenyan music to fill a mix. You know there’s a problem when a music producer talks that way, and I’m glad he fell off the wagon because part of the reason our music suffers an inferiority complex is because often, a musically ignorant aspiring musician walks into the studio to finds an equally ignorant producer. So they copy paste ideas from their favorite foreign musicians (and most of it is even done so badly) without any or very little creativity if there is any at all. The result is…well, the music we all love to hate.
Again, if you think I’m just a hating brother, go find out how many mainstream music producers even know how to play the keyboard or any musical instrument for that matter. Therefore, expecting good music from these quacks is like expecting a successful heart surgery from Dr. Mama Zainabu.
Musicians, if you want to make any musically sensible music, go to River Road. It will be cheaper, faster and you will have one hundred cool alternative baselines, solos and arrangements to your song from humble veteran musicians and producers. It’s also easier to bump into world-class record executives down there than you will at some wannabe record label in the hood.
I neither totally blame nor have any personal problems with bad music producers and musicians other than their laziness to learn and lack of willingness to understand the sacred art (Google and You Tube never stopped being your friends). I partly blame our policy makers because why the fuck is music and art studies still a reserve of a few in public schools and expensive private schools? It baffles me how I never studied art and music in primary school then suddenly they were options in a few high schools and universities. What the fuck? If you can’t afford to pay teachers and doctors, why are you forcing so many kids to study sciences when you can give them an option to be artists?