Kenyan music built on talent (PART 2)

First published in the October 2012 issue of Destination Magazine

Music makes up a large part of any culture, and Kenya is no exception.

But you’d never know it looking at our music industry. Helen Kinuthia explores the ups and downs, past and future and heart and soul of the music business in Kenya.

….Ladies Mercy Myra, Achieng Abura and Amani make up part of Kenya’s songsters and Abbi, whose rich baritone voice is difficult to ignore, belts out his music with a reggae undertone. But while there’s a growing number of recording studios, the industry is devoid of record labels, leaving out a large part of the equation for success. Record labels take care of promoting, publicising, developing, producing, liaising, selling, marketing and managing legal issues for the artist, amongst other things. And they are a necessity in Kenya’s music industry.

Universal Music Group, one of the most respected labels globally, has recently set Kenya’s industry abuzz. It started with them becoming involved in Tusker Project Fame, Kenya’s answer to American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent. They’ve signed Ruth Matete, who won the latest cycle, and now they’re talking about setting up offices in Kenya. It’s not official yet, but Randall Abrahams, CEO at Universal Music Group South Africa, says there is growing interest in the Kenyan music industry. “The world in general has an interest in African music,” he explains, “We have been on a fact-finding mission and simply found Kenyan music producers to be receptive to our presence and wanting to engage.”

Randall Abrahams
Randall Abrahams

Universal has taken the necessary steps to try and understand the industry as is, by making several trips to Kenya, meeting with industry stakeholders and facilitating dialogue in order to identify with some of the challenges the market is facing. Though there has been some scepticism and caution, Abrahams feels that the overall reception has been warm and positive.


K’Cous, Shappa Man, Taio Tripper, Miss Karun and Mykie Toni, the hype man, are Camp Mulla. The group’s nomination for a BET Award earlier this year set the media – both news and social – ablaze. With their hit song “Party Don’t Stop” which so far has over 300,000 hits on YouTube, Camp Mulla have become a household name with the youth of Kenya. Their contemporary, hip hop sound quickly acquired a massive following, though this can be largely credited to the Internet in addition to their catchy lyrics and ‘swag’ style.

As the international music platform continues to grow and technology improves, it’s inevitable that up-and-coming Kenyan artists will reproduce what’s current. Music websites such as ReverbNation, SoundCloud, YouTube, MySpace, and social networks like Twitter and Facebook have made it easier for artists to reach a wider audience and promote themselves. Wainaina agrees, saying, “Computers have made it easier and cheaper to make music, but skill is still necessary. People with good ideas are now able to transform them into something others can relate to and enjoy.”

But Internet popularity doesn’t necessarily mean an income. For most musicians to earn a living, live performances are key. Safaricom Kenya Live has created an avenue for artists to bring their music to fans all over the country. Started two years ago, the series lets artists reach fans by making prices low – as low as KSH 250. This low ticket price attracts more Kenyans to the concerts as many are not willing to pay high rates to the shows.

This year’s concerts, which will take place over a period of five months, have a line-up of popular bands like Sauti Sol and Camp Mulla, among others. Safaricom has invested more than KSH 250 million to ensure top notch entertainment.

This is a sure way for an artist to bring their music to the people and possibly make album sales. Nonetheless, many singers have taken up side projects in order to sustain themselves. “What we have to do as musicians and business people is to determine several revenue streams,” says Wainaina who is a singer, songwriter, advocate and music teacher. This is understandable because the market is still growing, but it leads to irregularity and lack of constancy in the industry as artists can’t devote themselves totally to their craft.

Music as a Business

A couple of months ago, Airtel Kenya selected gospel artist Daddy Owen to be their official brand ambassador. Artists signing up with large companies to promote a brand or run a campaign for them is becoming commonplace – musicians are realising their business potential. “Music transcends in many ways and it’s an ideal form to pass on a catchy message,” remarks Rimbui, drumming his index finger on the table to make his point. “This is a plausible way to reach potential customers.” Banking corporations, phone companies and media houses are all reaching out to musicians to partner with them on various projects.


And the industry still has numerous opportunities that have not been delved. Managerial aspects need specific skill sets, legal issues require lawyers and magistrates who understand copyright laws, media coverage must present knowledge and insight on the profession – these are all areas with room for improvement.

Muthoni the Drummer has taken another route with turning her music career into a business enterprise. Her popular Blankets & Wine concert series is held the first Sunday of every month and pulls quite a crowd with acts from different parts of Africa. So far, Muthoni has hosted more than 30 successful shows – proving that skill, talent, excellent service and proper management take precedence in this field of business. “There is a new generation of artists who are taking the professional angle seriously,” observes Rimbui. “We are now employing business managers and agents.

Companies [too] prefer working with managers because they speak their language. This, in essence, has opened an avenue for new jobs.” And this is what this industry needs; growth and development in order to become the financial giant it ought to be.

Competitions, Events and Growing the Industry

Tusker Project Fame has become the must-watch and must-win music competition in the region. The panel of judges includes Ian Mbugua, Juliana Kanyomozi, Hermes “Hermy B” Joachim and Gerrard Foster, the Head of New Business Development for Sub-Saharan Africa for Universal Music Group (UMG) International. The show has contestants, a live band and faculty that guide the musicians each week through the competition. In addition to drawing viewers as it airs, it makes conversation for the next week – everything from how the contestants performed to what the presenters were wearing.

Another exciting development is the influx of international musicians, like Joe, Tarrus Riley and Johnny Gill. Previously, promotional issues and taxes had highly restricted the number of acts coming into the country. But the best part of these shows is what they mean for Kenya’s concert-going culture. With tickets selling for anything between KSH 1,500 and KSH 5,000, these shows have still been able to attract fans in droves.

Clearly, Kenyans are willing to pay for quality performances, whereas before, this had been an obstacle to making concerts profitable. There is an undercurrent of change in the music industry that many seem to acknowledge. “It’s all underground; there has not been any major explosion or anything specific you can point out, but it is all bubbling gently in the background,” voices Gill.

Gachukia, too, thinks that, “It’s one of those things where everything had to move and everything has moved. You may not feel it, but it is happening.” If every avenue of this industry is worked on diligently, the results will be a revelation of hidden talent, a creation of new jobs and an introduction of economic wealth that has been suppressed for too long.

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Destination Magazine, authored by Helen Kinuthia.

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