Merging music and literature will lead to more readers in near future

Artiste Mejja

Mejja's latest single ‘KaNairo Dating’ tells the tale of the trials and travesties of trying to get a girlfriend in this city – with its drinking, demanding and at times borderline neurotic ‘Nairobi Girls’ – has garnered over three million views over the last few weeks.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • School textbook and readers make up the lion’s share of the entire book publishing industry in Kenya.
  • Mejja advises young folks, who now face many challenges in this modern hustle of life, to “always talk to friends and loved ones, and not close up about their problems, as this can lead to mental health issues.”
  • It isn’t the past you’ve left behind, but the road ahead, that matters.


As schools reopened, hundreds of students are and were expected to visit the book stands at Sarit Center during this year’s Nairobi International book fair.

According to Kenya Publishers’ Association’s James Odhiambo, “school textbook and readers make for the lion’s share of the entire book publishing industry in Kenya.”

On the weekend that schools closed for a brief fortnight’s term holiday, a literary and musical extravaganza took place at Kiambu High school, sponsored by Oxford University Press.

Every time the ‘Mash Up’ crew DJ opened his mouth to shout ‘Mejja,’ the over a 1,000 children – the boys of Kiambu High, a few girls from Muthiga Girls’ High School – roared back in an audio-tsunami ‘Okonkwo.’

‘Mejja?’

‘Okonkwo!’

When the 36-year-old artist finally took to the stage, the teenagers literally went bananas – the scene absolutely bonkers, with ‘security’ students having a terribly difficult time pushing back against the frenzied throng of Generation Z-ers who wanted to rush the stage, even as teachers (many themselves in their mid-twenties to thirties) got to their feet to dance.

It was telling that every one of the students here was born in the Kibaki Era, post his inauguration– that is after December 31st, 2002; and that they were also singing, line by line, every single stanza of Major Nameye Hadija’s songs from memory, for the hour or so that the artist, twice their age, would entertain them.

We, as Oxford University Press authors, had earlier curtain-raised with readings from our high school readers, as well as giving pep talks to the Kiambu high school boys (and the visiting girls’ school) on the ‘importance of literature in life.’

“I've argued for ages that we need, as authors and publishers (especially for high school readers), to interest Generation Z readers in literature by fusing book readings with popular culture,” said Mike Mburu of Oxford University Press, the chap whose brain-child this was – having previously worked with Kwani? (and who still organises open-mike readings at KNT).

“I am glad it's started happening at OUP under the leadership of our regional director (John Mwazemba, who is also a regular contributor to these pages).”

Nairobi International Book Fair

It is certainly a different scene from the staid stand/s students will find at the Nairobi International Book Fair.

In a session led by English literature teacher Mrs. Kamau, Oxford author Elizabeth Kabui inspired the boys and girls present with the tale of how her own tenth place national final finish in the Posta letter writing competition years ago, and a trip to the Sarit Center (for an early book fair) led her into the world of literature and writing.

Mwalimu Shullum Nzioka, echoing the late Prof Ken Walibora, explained why as a nation, ‘Kiswahili lazma kitukuzwe’ (even as we increasingly embrace the Queen, or is it now the King’s language)?

Clifford Oluoch, himself a high school principal and writer, spoke passionately of the importance of developing reading habits in school. He is part of a team of Oxford writers for the CBC curriculum, and the first 15 of their graders’ books were unveiled at the Sarit Nairobi International Book Fair yesterday.

As the author of the popular ‘A Jacket for Ahmet,’ this writer was invited to speak on themes of football, terrorism, the Internet, teen curiousity and ‘classroom boredom’ as the fabric from which we wove a novella that, in its year of release, has done quite well in the market.

Susan Mutonga, the Regional Sales Coordinator for OUP, is very clear that they will keep on “doing these kinds of events, that merge what teens are interested in, like music and celebrities, with what we do, which is sell literature, as the fusion of the two is a winner.”

With this formula of inviting stars alongside authors, the books also get a shine, and different schools are able to want to purchase the texts of writers they have interacted with.

The students also get to showcase their talents during these musical and literature extravaganzas. Other than spoken word and debate, there was pop, drill, afro-beats, gospel, soul and blues by students Isaac Kon, Moses Akim and ‘Marh World Entertainment,’ alongside the ‘Mash-Up Crew’ filming the entire extravaganza for a TV audience.

Certainly Mejja, or Major Nameye Hadijha, 36, is the major local star among millennials and certainly the ‘Tik Tok’ generation, across these last 30 months, since his collaboration with Femi One (Utawezana) blew up, so that it has a staggering 13 million views on YouTube.

“Mejja is the great oral story-teller for our Gen Zee readers,” says Mike Mburu. “It’s why we got him.”

Whereas a major international artist like Megan tha Stallion has had 236,846 views of her ‘Sweetest Pie’ song released last month, Mejja’s YouTube views, from his ‘Kanairo Dating’ single, similarly released last month, are at 3.1 million views.

The ‘Landlord’ hit that he released 11 years ago, was based on their experiences with house owners in Majengo, Nyeri, where he and his brother were brought up in hardship by a single mom (and no place named ‘Majengo’ anywhere in Kenya is ever leafy or gentrified), has thus far garnered 3.7 million views.

The same number of views as ‘Siku Hizi ni KuBad’ that Mejja released a year ago, pointing at extremely interesting analytics – the under-40 local artiste is experiencing exponential popularity growth among the Tik Tok generation, that has access to smart phones, and that is hooked on audio-visual viewing habits.

And it is the constant story-telling, like in his ‘Karibu Kenya’ song about our wannabe habits, that is his genius.

His latest single ‘KaNairo Dating’ tells the tale of the trials and travesties of trying to get a girlfriend in this city – with its drinking, demanding and at times borderline neurotic ‘Nairobi Girls’ – has garnered over three million views over the last few weeks, with ‘Siskii (Kamote)’ that played on the theme of the freak control/ pseudo-psycho wife/partner skyrocketing to 8.2 million views over the 2021/2022 period.

He advises young folks, who now face many challenges in this modern hustle of life, to “always talk to friends and loved ones, and not close up about their problems, as this can lead to mental health issues.”

In short, the Oxford formula of bringing together text story-tellers like authors with orature tale-tellers like Mejja is a gamble that will pay dividends. According to OUP’s Education Business Advisor Wilson Mwenda, “if Oxford can capture and create readers right from grade one to high school to college level, it is not just good for business but, far better, in the creation of a wholesome person who loves knowledge and literature.”

Sweating profusely at the end of his hour in Kiambu – “I charge as per ability to pay, the nature of the performance, and if it is for the next generation of Kenya, my rates are negotiable” – the modest musician, who refuses to ‘upgrade lifestyle too much to impress people when I can save money’ – Mejja looks out at the thrilling youth.

Then asks them to chant this, his life mantra: “Sio pahali umetoka, ni pahali unaenda ndio ina-matter.”

It isn’t the past you’ve left behind, but the road ahead, that matters.

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