Our singers busy crying foul, but just how local is our ‘local’ music?

Members of the Musicians’ Union of Kenya hold peaceful demonstrations outside Nation Centre along Kimathi Street in Nairobi on August 10, 2015 to demand that music played by local Radio and TV stations in Kenya be at least 70% local content to improve on their earnings. PHOTO| SALATON NJAU

What you need to know:

  • This directive was quietly withdrawn a few weeks later after an outcry from listeners who were not happy with the new format of music where Sukuma Bin Ongaro would be played side by side with Michael Jackson.

It has been an interesting few weeks in Kenyan music. Musicians have taken to the streets to agitate for greater airplay of their music on radio and TV.

Many of these musicians did not seem to be aware that the ministry of Culture was just launching a music policy which, among other things, requires that the national government ensures that at least 60 percent of music aired on Kenyan radio and TV is local content.

It is hardly surprising that coverage of the policy has concentrated on the creation of a quota, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. Actually, the campaign to get radio stations to play more Kenyan music goes back a long way.

In 1985, Cornelius Nyamboki, then Director of Broadcasting, directed that the Voice of Kenya play 50 percent Kenyan music on both the General (English) and Kiswahili radio stations.

This directive was quietly withdrawn a few weeks later after an outcry from listeners who were not happy with the new format of music where Sukuma Bin Ongaro would be played side by side with Michael Jackson.

A debate over what is Kenyan and what is foreign is, to use a now popular phrase, a non-issue.

The protesting musicians are particularly irked that Kenyan airwaves are saturated with Nigerian pop.

Three decades ago, the foreign dominance came from another part of Africa: Kinshasa, Congo DR (then known as Zaire).

But what really is foreign music in today’s interconnected world?

Kenyan musicians have been openly craving for collaborations with their Nigerian counterparts. The leading pop band in the country at the moment, Sauti Sol, have just released their new single, Shake Your Bam Bam, whose beat is taken from a Jamaican riddim, never mind that they claim it’s a throw back to the “Kenyan beat in the 90s”. The same song interpolates lyrics from a soukous hit by Awilo Longomba, while the video is directed by a Nigerian Clarence Peters.

Given this confluence of styles and influences, would Kenyan radio stations play Sauti Sol and not Awilo, for instance?

In his Saturday Nation column last week, Magesha Ngwiri rightly questioned the value of music that is played everyday in the name of Kenyan music that often turns out to be third-rate imitations of what we now call foreign music.


When a Kenyan artiste like Victoria Kimani, who is signed to a Nigerian label, says there is no support from the Kenyan audience then does that mean that she is quite happy to use a foreign label and foreign producers to get exposure in foreign markets but then frowns when music from Nigeria is played in Kenya?

Mr Nyamboki’s directive might have had an impact in the VOK monopoly of the airwaves in the 1980s, but surely imposing a music quota in 2015 in an age of not just multiple media channels but multiple platforms, gadgets, online streaming and downloading, is redundant.

Actually, the reason why there is so much Nigerian music on our airwaves is simply because in a free market, the West Africans are currently edging it over the competition.

In an atmosphere of competing platforms, there is a real danger in making listeners switch off their gadgets if the music on radio and TV doesn’t meet their expectations.

When so many people have the option of listening to music on their phones, anything short of the highest quality will not be tolerated.

After all, if a Kenyan performer is struggling to sound like Davido or P-Square, then you may as well just listen to the real deal.

The debate on the music policy should not just be confined to the proposed quota for local content, however desirable it is to play more Kenyan music.

The real focus of this policy is on laying the foundation to produce highly skilled musicians who can then produce music on a par with the rest of the world.

There is no shortage of sound policy statements in the document, including a national award scheme to reward excellence in all genres of music and dance, the recognition of a professional union for musicians and music education and training from primary to university levels.

The Music Policy also requires the government to offer tax concessions to the music industry as a whole and provide funding for music projects through grants and access to loans.

In fact, if the Kenyan musicians played music that contained 60 percent local content, from benga to chakacha, then the whole debate over foreign domination on our airwaves might just be reduced to a non-issue.


A brief look at the Music Policy


The National Music Policy requires the government to ensure that at least 60 percent of music aired on Kenyan media is local.

Vernacular broadcasting stations shall also be required to play at least 30 percent of music from other communities in the country

The Government will create a Music Trust Fund to help artistes create quality music while a practical oriented music curriculum will be introduced at all levels of Education.

Other bodies to be created are a National Music Board that will be responsible for implementation of the Music Policy and the National Music Tribunal to resolve disputes among players in the music business