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He is a musical icon in the region, with hit after hit under his belt., but he feels let down by a regime that ought to protect him.
Throughout his career, veteran gospel artiste Reuben Kigame has projected a calm demeanour that is every now and then punctuated by melodious songs. But when he spoke this week in a series of tweets, he came off as a fiery bull that had broken from the stable.
After more than three decades of a celestial music career — but also of multiple setbacks — the Enda Nasi hitmaker couldn’t hold back anymore.
To politicians and representatives of the music copyright bodies in Kenya, Kigame warned: “You’re not welcome to speak at my funeral when I die.” The tweet bore all shades of anger; anger that he has often concealed than expressed.
He says: ‘‘There is time to get angry, especially at evil. A society that is not angered by exploitation and evil is dead. There are just not enough angry Kenyans.”
It’s easy to understand his frustrations and anger. This year marks 34 years since the Eldoret-based artiste recorded his first song. From Bwana Ni Mchungaji Wangu to Sweet Bunyore, Kigame’s songs have been played on radio, TV, in churches, in matatus and national ceremonies for decades.
In a just society, he would be living the life of his dreams. Except the rewards tell a different story. Debts and Sh10,000 in monthly royalties is all he has to show for years spent sweating it out in the studio.
In what amounts to an insult to his career, he says one of the royalty bodies has consistently sent him Sh40 every month for several years now.
To many Kenyans, the breakdown of these figures was not only embarrassing but demeaning as well, thanks to corruption, music cartels and mismanagement of Kenya’s music industry.
What goes on in his mind when he receives such amounts after his long career? “Imagine collecting Sh40 at my age!” he says. “I have been in debts all my music life because I need to survive. God hates exploitation.”
Collection and distribution of music royalties in Kenya is a chaotic affair. The Kenya Copyright Board (Kecobo) has been licensing different stakeholders to form what is known as a collective management organisation (CMO). These include the Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK), Performers Rights Society of Kenya (Prisk) and the Kenya Music Producers Association (KMPA).
All these bodies are required to collect royalties on behalf of artistes, which creates more confusion than efficiency.
In some instances, the royalty bodies hoard artistes’ income after collecting it with no explanation. Kigame says: “The formula is simple: you collect, you pay.”
Eleven years since he registered with the more than 15,000-member MCSK, Kigame says he has never made half a million shillings “yet records show that I have lost tens of millions to cartels”.
The royalties, he adds, are as erratic as they are sparse. “The last payment I got was early last year. Even this came after a lot of haggling.”
None of the bodies responded to our phone calls and queries on text messages this week. We will publish their responses should they come.
Two years after releasing his Lipo Tumaini album in 2019, the songs haven’t been registered, despite following up on the matter on different occasions. What this means is that while the songs get airplay on radio and TV stations, he doesn’t receive a single cent.
Out of every Sh10 that consumers of Skiza pay to telcos such as Safaricom to have music playback during phone calls, the artiste gets Sh2 or Sh3. Kigame argues artistes shouldn’t get the shorter end of the stick. “Let’s renegotiate the formula of payment, such that the musician takes home the bigger share. After all, he or she is the content creator.”
It’s the sad reality of not just him, but other artistes in the country as well, many of whom live off scraps after years of dutifully entertaining the country. In January, for instance, it emerged that Dick Munyonyi, the Firirinda hit-maker, was living in penury and sickness after his music career. A section of Kenyans were outraged.
There are, however, those who correctly argue that the older generation of music artistes in Kenya failed to adapt to the changing times and the evolving music consumption habits. The result has been unspeakable poverty for the artistes even as their songs enjoy mass airplay.
He may have been in the music space for decades, but Kigame is as tech-savvy as any young artiste today. His business approach evolved pretty quickly as he embraced technology.
First, he set up a fully-functional and active website where all his ministry work is published. And then he set up a YouTube channel, Kigame Media TV, where he monetises his content. “Growing your channel and posting content regularly can earn you good money,” he says.
Enter Covid-19 and the music industry is now in dire straits, more than ever before. “We can’t host concerts anymore. We’ve had to resort to social media by publishing our content on Facebook and YouTube,” says Kigame.
Thirty-four years and 30 albums later, life tops the list of his milestones. ‘‘Many friends have passed on, including during the current global pandemic. I’d like every breathing moment to count for now and for eternity.” He’s also celebrating music lovers, without whom, he notes, there would be no sharing of music.
To rescue the industry from the rut of grand theft and mismanagement, Kigame says the approach of multiple royalty collection points must be abolished forthwith.
“Establish only one body to deal directly with the artistes. Audit the body thoroughly. They should also make royalty payments public,” he says, adding that artistes must also be in charge of the industry to realise accountability.