Why Kenyan music is drowned out by Afrobeat

Tuesday March 08 2022
King of Genge Jua Cali.

King of Genge Jua Cali (in white) perform entertains fans on January 16, 2020. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


The famous pimped-up matatus, or minibus taxis, of Kenya's capital, often move through the traffic to the sound of Nigerian Afrobeats music, Tanzania's Bongo Flava or South Africa's Amapiano.

Step out of the vehicle and the foreign tunes are booming through the speakers of street vendors. And likewise on the radio, the most played tunes are rarely from Kenya.

The global rise of Africa's urban pop music scene has been a source of pride for the continent, but in Kenya it has also raised concerns that local musicians are being squeezed out.

Some in the industry say that new Kenyan talent is not being given the chance to break through.

One radical solution is to raise the quota for Kenyan music on radio stations from the current 40 percent, agreed in 2014, to 75 percent of the tracks aired. But the current figure of 40 percent is already a hefty amount and there are questions as to why, given this exposure, Kenyan musicians continue to struggle.

One of the difficulties is that more airplay has not translated into more revenue for the artists. The problem is that Kenyan broadcasters, while complying with the quota, have been reluctant to pay royalties.


Court cases challenging this non-payment have dragged on for years.

"But, perhaps because of the lack of money, there is also the question of whether there is enough new quality Kenyan music being produced to fill the proposed quota.

In order to respond to the challenge of Afrobeats and Bongo Flava, some local musicians have adopted West African accents in English, or Tanzanian Swahili -- a worrying sign for some of a loss of self-confidence and originality.

But what choice do they have if they want to compete?

The regular concert appearances in Kenya of Nigerian stars such as Davido, Burna Boy and Omah Lay, and Tanzania's Diamond Platnumz, Rayvanny and Harmonize spark frenzies among their local fans.

But whereas a decade or more ago Kenyan music - through the Kapuka hip-hop genre - was drawing global interest, this has now fallen away.

Music executive Agnes Nonsizi believes that as it evolved into Gengetone, which was influenced by dancehall and reggaeton, the unique pop identity was chipped away - allowing for the entry of sounds from Nigeria and Tanzania.

There have been some breakout stars like Sauti Sol, Khaligraph Jones and Nameless. But success stories have been few and many have struggled to make money from their talent.

Music publicist Bilha Nguraiya has some harsh words for many Kenyan musicians whom she thinks "don't want to compete and measure up" with the continental stars. "Music was a way for some of them to get away from poverty. And now they are too scared to get out of their comfort zone because it might upset the equation - they don't know better and are afraid to take risks," she told the BBC.

Some say that one reason Kenyans don't have a strong affinity with local music is because it doesn't have a strong cultural grounding, but Nguraiya disagrees.

"Our music has an identity, it really does. But it's Kenyan consumers who have a problem with the identity. Artistes are a mirror of society, but we just don't like what we are seeing in the mirror," she said.

There is also a growing inclination among upcoming musicians for lewdness, which propels them into the spotlight before they soon fizzle out and disappear.

According to DJ Sashi Diva, "The songs rake in millions of views on YouTube but you can't play them in a club. That is where Nigerians and Tanzanians beat us."

And this all feeds back into what radio stations are prepared to play and whether they could fill a 75 percent quota. Around the country, listeners are voting with their ears, and for the moment Afrobeat and Bongo Flava are clear favourites.