Ezekiel Mutua: I’ll make artistes billionaires

Ezekiel Mutua

Dr Ezekiel Mutua gestures during a past interview.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • MCSK has had a long history of controversy, with generations of artistes accusing it of poorly managing royalty collections.
  • Dr Mutua stirred controversy by banning films when he served as the Kenya Film  Classification Board chief executive.

The appointment of Dr Ezekiel Mutua as the new CEO of the Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) has sparked a whirlwind of reactions. Having had a rocky exit from the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) where he held the same title, his shift to MCSK has drawn sharp reactions.

But MCSK has had a long history of controversy, with generations of artistes accusing it of poorly managing royalty collections. Certain industry players who have tried to fix the system have been met with mafia-style coercion, with some claiming to have received death threats.

Now tasked with fighting for the rights of some of the people he used to bash for “unclean” content, Dr Mutua’s appointment has not augured well with some players in the industry.

Among them is Chimano, one of the members of Sauti Sol band, who termed Dr Mutua’s appointment as “nonsense and recycling of leadership”. His band-mate Bien called it a disappointment, asking: “What did he do for film?”

But Dr Mutua — who told the Nation that he wants to make musicians “billionaires” — wants everyone to allow him to open a new chapter. 

“There’s so much money belonging to musicians that is being held by different copyright consumers because of mistrust and allegations of mismanagement,” he said.

“At KFCB, I was a regulator; so I was not there to make friends. But in my new role, I am here to fight for artists. My promise to all musicians is “pesa mfukoni”. I am here to make our artists billionaires. I will fight for artistes the same way I fought for journalists while at the Kenya Union of Journalists,” he added.

Dr Mutua has always courted controversy for his stand on matters that sometimes were out of his official mandate at KFCB. From banning music videos for contravening regulations to castigating gengetone artistes for encouraging moral degradation, Dr Mutua has on multiple occasions ruffled the feathers of several musicians.

His hardline position on clean content earned him the title “moral policeman” or “Deputy Jesus”, receiving ridicule and praise in equal measure. While some applauded him for attempting to keep our airwaves clean, others accused him of stifling creativity and overstepping his mandate.

But Dr Mutua thinks he was being judged unfairly.

Ousted from KFCB

“The media has always been unfairly harsh. Some of the headlines and nicknames that have been thrown at me are completely unnecessary. You may not agree with my professional stand but remember, I am a father, a son and an uncle. How do you think my family feels when they read your headlines and ridicule?” he posed.

Dr Mutua was ousted from KFCB last year amid accusations of irregular payment of salaries, which the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) probed. In a letter dated May 6, 2021, EACC wrote to KFCB chairman seeking documents and information to aid the investigation against Dr Mutua and another board member, Gathoni Kungu.

Documents sought by EACC included personal files of the two officers, pay slips and payment vouchers for monies paid to the two officers and the HR policy on salary increment, among others.

The embattled CEO challenged his dismissal, but the Employment and Labour Relations Court judge Maureen Onyango dismissed his application. She ruled that the board erred in appointing him for a further five years when he had exhausted his two terms of three years each.

“Furthermore, appointing him for a term of five years is in contravention of Mwongozo and the board’s HR manual. Therefore, the letter of appointment dated July 14, 2021 appointing him is null and void,” said the judge.

Another musician uneasy with Dr Mutua’s new role is Eko Dydda, a gospel rapper who is also an aspiring Member of County Assembly in Mathare in the August polls. He argued that Dr Mutua is too old for the job.

“You can’t appoint a campus student as a prefect in a nursery class. Arts and sports are a young man’s game, it’s time we get fresh leaders with new ideas. The future belongs to the youth but we must take matters into our own hands if we want to see change,” he said.

But Dr Mutua is unfazed, saying he is the right man for the job. He says he has turned around every organisation that he has been a part of. 

Good job at KFCB

Responding to his detractors who claim he was ousted from his previous position for mismanagement, Dr Mutua said the real problem was that the board had appointed him to stay on well beyond the recommended tenure. 

“It’s important to understand that the staff of MCSK are not musicians. We have different departments that require different expertise including finance, HR, communications and legal, among others,” he said.

“Those questioning the suitability of my appointment should know that I went through a competitive process and emerged top among the candidates interviewed. I am actually overqualified for the job if the advert that was placed in the papers is anything to go by,” he said.

Insisting that people should give him a chance and judge him by his work, Dr Mutua noted that he has a plan for the music sector.

In his estimation, “90 per cent of the public” thinks he did a good job at KFCB and, given a chance, will do the same at MCSK. 

Having worked in Kopiken (Reproduction Rights Society of Kenya), Dr Mutua is confident that he has adequate experience in collection and distribution of royalties. 

The gap, as he sees it, is in the lack of corporate structures and inability to get stakeholders on one page. With a royalty system that is marred by inefficient collection and questionable distribution of cash, music rights holders have for years remained a very frustrated lot.

Even his critics will agree that Dr Mutua raised the profile of KFCB, and though he was regularly accused of overstepping his boundaries, he instigated changes in the sector.

However, the questions on most people’s minds are, why him and why now. “It’s too early to tell, so I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt. Dr Mutua has the zeal and drive to bring real changes in the sector,” intellectual property lawyer Gerry Gitonga said. 

“I have represented big bands like Mangelepa and Les Wanyika who, after so many years of music, have nothing to show for it. All the same, Dr Mutua is there now and there’s nothing we can do about it so let’s hope that he does his job,” added Mr Gitonga.

Damning scandals

MCSK has had such a rocky past that its very mention evokes sad memories of oppressed musicians fighting for their rights. Registered in 1983, the institution is arguably the oldest collective management organisation (CMO) in Africa that is supposed to collect royalties and distribute it to music authors and publishers.

On paper, it’s a simple mandate, but execution has proven an uphill task. One of the most damning scandals in the history of the organisation is the audit report for the period of 2017/2019 that unearthed deep-rooted systemic inefficiencies.

A central theme in all the accusations facing MCSK is its ballooning budget; where administrative costs always outweigh distributed funds. The best practice for CMOs is that they should distribute at least 70 per cent of what they collect, but in this case sometimes the budget even goes into deficit.

Frantic attempts have been made to reform the organisation, from celebrity advocacy by the likes of Poxi Presha, Elani, Willy Paul and Nonini; legal battles and even a presidential intervention.

Efforts often meet invisible walls that frustrate the process. Even regulators with a constitutional mandate have all but failed to tame the situation, decrying legal arm-twists and never-ending court cases that make it hard for them to do their jobs. The state of affairs has led many to believe that there is a certain cabal of powerful individuals that keep the organisation afloat to serve their own interest. 

“I don’t speak about these things anymore. At one point, I was receiving so many death threats that I had to get police escort,” said a veteran musician who didn’t want to be named.

All eyes are now on Dr Mutua as he takes the task of streamlining a sector that has been dogged by misappropriation for decades.

The first uphill task will be restoring public confidence in the organisation, rallying music users to pay for content and putting money in the pockets of rights holders. Dr Mutua is confident that change is coming and dares his critics to challenge him on results.

“Watch this space; I have not failed in the past and do not think I will fail in negotiating for a way out of this matter for the sake of musicians. We do not have to let artists suffer because of technical legal matters in court. I believe we can engage on payment schedules with all the consumers of musical content to pay,” said Dr Mutua.