Sauti Sol nabbed the best African Act at the 2014 MTV European Music Awards in November, becoming the first band from Kenya to do so. With a fan in Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, the band headed to Paris this week to win over more French fans.
To give an idea of the popularity of Sauti Sol in Kenya, the band played at Kenyatta’s private birthday party and performed during a visit by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in October.
Before the MTV awards, the president himself championed the band for the best group prize, which they subsequently won.
The turnout for Sauti Sol’s Paris show may have been low, but the crowd more than made up for their small number with sheer exuberance – to the extent that the band’s car was blocked by fans as they tried to leave after the concert.
The Paris show’s pure energy and exuberance give a clue to why Sauti Sol have made it big back home in Kenya – and, increasingly, across Africa.
The singer Willis Chimano – whose stage presence more than makes up for his diminutive stature – prompted screams of delight from his young fans as he worked the crowd.
The charismatic singers Bien-Aime Baraza and Delvin Mudigi, Baritone Chimano (Chim), and guitarist Polycarp Otieno also spark screams from the bands hardcore fans.
Three of the four sang in a high school a cappella group and formed their band in 2006 after graduating. They released two successful albums and will launch a third, Live Die in Afrika, next year.
Many of their early songs addressed social issues: “Awinja” is an ode to Kenyan women going overseas to work, while “Soma Kijana” promotes education. Their 2012 eponymous EP, filled with a new electro/dance party sound, was made in collaboration with the inventor of township techno, South African producer Spoek Mathambo.
However, it was “Nishike” (“Touch me” in Swahili) that put the group firmly on the map.
The song was a clear effort to market their sex appeal to female fans.
“Women rule the world and control the market,” acknowledged Chim to FRANCE 24.
The video for Nishike was brazenly sexual and promptly banned by multiple stations in Kenya.
Critics said the song was indistinguishable from every other oversexed, Americanized MTV song.
“Kenyan artists aren’t allowed to talk about sex, but all of our imported music does,” argued Chim. “We wanted to change that. Talking about sex is part of life.”
“Sura Yako”, released in September, was an apology/love letter to those scandalised by “Nishike”. It worked. The band’s Kenyan fans loved the video, which shows a wedding ceremony practiced by the Luhya tribe. The band members also invited their fans to share their own videos of the traditional Kenyan Lipala dance on social media.
In clubs here, West African dances rules, but we thought it was time for an East African dance,” Mudigi said.
Politics ‘ended the music industry’
The African continent is dominated by music from South and West Africa, mainly Nigeria. Sauti Sol’s rise has been complicated by Kenya’s lack of music industry. The group’s publicist, Anyiko Owoko, attributes this to the despotic presidency of Daniel arap Moi from 1978 to 2002.
“We had Kenyan stars in the 1960s and 1970s, but when he took power, the music industry ended. We haven’t caught up yet,” she said.
Owoko says there isn’t a culture of sponsoring groups in Kenya, so despite their success, most of the money the band earns goes on the group’s overheads. For the Paris concert, they paid for their own back-up musicians. They also finance their own music videos.
While honoured by the MTV EMA win, Mudigi was frustrated by the process.
“There’s still only one category for African artists and there are four separate voting stages to get through to qualify. It’s exhausting to rally fan support for each stage,” he explains.
Sauti Sol have a unique sound, an extensive fan base and, like all bands, a core, committed group of managers, producers and believers.
“I’m sick of being an artist, writer, producer, marketer… I can’t do everything,” Baraza concludes.
They are close to breaking into the global market, but they’re not there quite yet.