Every 20 years or so, a cultural spat ensues between two generations following each other. In our times, the song Wamlambez by the group Sailors marks the spot for the clash. A tweet from @WarariJK provided the spark for the disagreement as it claimed that Wamlambez is a bigger street anthem than Unbwogable by GidiGidi MajiMaji (image on top of page), a comment perceived as a blasphemy of the highest order by the generation that danced its way into a new political regime with Unbwogable.
Wamlambez rode on the power of social media to garner two million YouTube views in just three months.
In the same fashion, the Twitter handle @sakanasaoli16 hailed the prominence of the new music group Ethic as higher than that of Sauti Sol, an award-winning afro-pop band.
A similar uproar followed, pitting Millenials vs Generation Z.
Just how big are these new music groups?
We use three measures of influence to determine the facts.
The King of YouTube
The undoubted crown holder of YouTube views in Kenya is Sauti Sol. Since 2014, the music group has had at least one of their songs feature on the top 10 most viewed Kenyan music videos every year (see graph below). In specific years, Sauti Sol's music contributed about a quarter of the top 10 music videos views. Notably, Ethic's two music videos Lamba Lolo and Position never made to the top 10 most viewed music videos in Kenya for 2018. The videos garnered 3.6 million and 3.7 million views, respectively.
The gospel musician Shiro wa GP closed the top 10 list with the song Irema, with 3.8 million views.
In 2019, Ethic's new song Pandana has so far amassed 3.07 million views, while Sailors' Wamlambez has 2.9 million, as at June 9. Assuming each of the two groups retain their fan base throughout the year, we expect the number of views for each video to peak at about 3.6 million, lower than the top 10 music videos at the end of 2019.
There is a chance of a random event significantly increasing the viewership of either of the two groups. Nevertheless, comments on secular music video happens within the first few months of a song’s release, according to data from YouTube Rewind on the top 10 Kenyan music videos. Commenting correlates with views, hence most YouTube viewership occurs within the first few months. However, gospel music gets more comments over time. It shows gospel music has a higher shelf life in comparison to secular music (see graph below). We, therefore, expect, Ethic and Sailors’ music to have a short shelf life.
The only accurate measure of success is survival. If a musician appears on the top chart for a few years, there's something about their music that makes it big. Examples include Christina Shusho, Eunice Njeri, Willy Paul, Nyashinski, and Sauti Sol. Other musicians such as Alicios, Elani, Daddy Owen, Akothee, Naiboi made it to the top 10 list only once in the history of YouTube.
Ethic and Sailors are yet to make it to the top YouTube league and are highly unlikely to do so this year, so the jury is still out on the popularity of the two groups on YouTube.
Perhaps the most successful Kenya music of all time lays with the late Ayub Ogada. In 1976, the Afro-Rock group Black Savages, consisting of Barrack Achieng (bass), Job Seda (a.k.a. Ayub Ogada) – percussion, Noel Drury Sanyanafwa (drums), Jack Odongo (keyboards) and Gordon Ominde (Golden Simone) – guitar, recorded the music Kothbiro.
Kanye West has sampled the 1976 version of Kothbiro in the music titled Yikes, Jim Jones and Rick Ross followed suit and sampled the music in State of the Union. Pop Buchanan also used the same tune in his rap song I love My Ancestors.
Sampling (Using a portion of a sound recording in another) tells a thumbs up of sorts of a musical composition by fellow artists.
Possibly the second-most popular Kenyan music by sampling ought to rest with Dunia ina mambo by The Mighty Cavaliers. Eric Wainaina and Just A Band did renditions to the song. Neither Wamlambez nor Ethic have any sampling to date.
Melody delivers the principal part of the harmony in any piece of music. Producers hunt for melodious tunes in various music to provide rhythm for new music. It's hard to tell whether Wamlambez's melody presents an excellent beat for sampling.
Beyond the beat
The influence of music goes beyond dance and listenership. So popular was Unbwogable that it influenced academic studies into the definition of Kenyan English. Several other studies characterised the role of music in political change, with Unbwogable as an example. It was the first-time pop music in Kenya featured prominently in academic studies. The duo of Gidi Gidi and Maji Maji were later appointed as Messengers of Truth by the UN-Habitat.
Other musicians who excelled beyond their music include Kalamashaka, who wrote the music lyrics to the famous PSI condom advert Sema Nami in 1999. It was the first-time sheng featured in a high budget advertising campaign in Kenya. Over the years, Mercy Myra, Winyo, and Eric Wainaina have contributed their music and vocals to the advertising industry. So far, Sailors and Ethic haven't made an incursion in the advertising industry - an alternative validation on the popularity of any musician.
Away from adverts, the movie industry provides an alternative avenue for an artist to spread their influence. Three Kenyan musicians have had their music featured in Hollywood movies. Bamboo's track Compe, and Kalamashaka's Ni Wakati joined the list of soundtracks to the American motion picture Primeval in 2007. The 2014 version of the song Kothbiro sang by Ayub Ogada featured in the film Constant Gardener. Locally, the famed Kenyan 1990s detective TV series Tahamaki featured the song Dunia ina Mambo as the opening and closing theme music.
The fame of Wamlambez and Ethic seem bound to a subgroup of the Kenyan population - how big they can become is still a matter of rolling the dice.
The author is a data scientist. @blackorwa