James Kahongeh: “How about we start off by looking at how Kenyan hits performed locally and elsewhere in the world in 2021? Journalist Nick Kanali shares some interesting facts from Spotify about who consumed Kenyan music and from where in the world. From these statistics, it is indisputable that the Kenyan sound enjoys a global audience, with listeners spread out in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Definitely music to the ears of local artists.”
Kenya’s music industry has transformed significantly over the past 40 years to become one of the most established and competitive in the region, with an estimated worth of Sh320 billion, according to a 2021 World Bank report. For decades, the rich Kenyan sound has shaped other music genres on the continent, and is itself a product of multiple influences from Africa and beyond. From Genge and Gengetone, Kapuka, Rhumba, Benga, Afrofusion, tribal, Taarab and soul, Kenya has for years been a theatre for experimentation with diverse music sounds and styles.
Even so, some quarters claim that Kenya’s music is inferior, because the Kenyan sound is not as popular around the world as either ‘’Naija’’ or ‘’Amapiano.‘’ To these critics, Kenyan artistes have failed to impress at home, justifying ‘less’ airplay in Kenyan media.
This, though, could not be further from the truth. Evidence shows that Kenyan music is popular both at home and abroad.
This collection, featuring individual Kenyan hits and a playlist, interrogates the history, transformations, successes and setbacks of Kenya’s music in the dynamic, exciting, and sometimes brutal, industry. From a rich Swahili style to hits in ‘’Kenyan English,‘’ lyrics that are recognisable from the streets to offices and a robust mishmash of techniques, Kenyan music is a concoction of creativity and chaos, thrill and good vibes.
Image by filipefrazao/Getty Images
JK: “The YouTube channel Cleaning The Airwaves (CTA) is a deep well for enthusiasts hoping to learn about the journey of Kenya’s music. CTA hosts figures such as Tedd Josiah, Sanaipei Tande and Kaligraph Jones, all of whom have shaped the music space in different ways at different levels in the last four decades. In this conversation ‘Big Ted,’ the celebrated emcee breaks down the history of Kenyan Gospel music and entertainment scene with precision: the highs, the lows, and the resilience.”
JK: “How did Kenyan music that originated among the Luo spread like bushfire far beyond the shores of Lake Victoria to different parts of Kenya and further to Southern Africa and the world? Who was Oluoch Kanindo and how did his name give birth to a new genre of music in Zimbabwe? This article demonstrates how Benga, which has a distinct African musical heritage, became the unifying sound among Africans in the 1960s and 1970s by speaking to the ‘issues and realities of the marginalised lower and rural classes’—hence its popularity as a Kenyan style.”
JK: “Let’s take a breather with a dose of some ‘rebellious’ Kenyan hits shared on Twitter by Wanjiru Kung’u. Fans like this commentator and enthusiast of the Kenyan sound believe music from Kenya is erroneously underrated. Wanjiru seeks to set the record straight by sharing some hits and letting listeners and viewers judge the quality of Kenyan music by themselves. Watch and listen to them to see for yourself.”
JK: “If there is a quality that makes Kenyan artistes truly unique, it is their ability to infuse global sounds such as South Africa’s Amapiano in their work. From youth sensation Trio Mio to Kagwe Mungai and Gospel artiste Guardian Angel, Amapiano is quite the rage among Kenyan musicians. This collection of Kenyan-Amapiano songs is a demonstration of Kenyans’ versatility when it comes to music performance.”
JK: “Few Kenyan artistes and bands have drawn massive crowds abroad the way Sauti Sol have managed to do in the last decade, a period of remarkable success and multiple awards. Arguably Kenya’s most successful music band of all time, Sauti Sol have entertained Kenya and the world, and taken the country’s music profile to stratospheric heights. Here, the quartet entertains attendees at the Africa Music Awards (AFRIMA) in November 2019 in Lagos, Nigeria.”
JK: “It is hard to imagine a better pandemic gift from Sauti Sol than ‘Rhumba Japani.’ Done with a posse of other big names in Kenya’s music arena, this colourful jam features a beautiful combination of sounds and vocals, and is every chord East African. I, like many Kenyans, remember the hit with something of nostalgic dread, but also an eruption of delight—having survived the Covid-19 scare.”
JK: “Members of this boys band (Mordecai Mwini Kimeu, Wachira Gatama and Kenneth Muya Mukhwana) are known for their eccentric dress code and hairstyles and frisky mannerisms, but mostly for their delightful, poetic music that is quintessentially Kenya’s urban sound. H-art composes music on ordinary human experiences such as being out of pocket (‘Ask my Shoe’), party life (‘My Jaber’) and thankfulness (‘El Shaddai’), making their music relatable to many listeners. This playlist is as playful and as emphatically Kenyan as music can get.”
JK: “Nothing cements the hallowed place of Kenya’s music in Africa quite like collaborations between local artistes and their continental counterparts. ‘Nakupenda’ (I Love You) by Nigeria’s popstar Yemi Alade featuring Kenya’s king of Afropop, Nyashinski, exemplifies the popularity of the Kenyan style. It underscores the rising profile of Kenya’s music on the continent while validating the talent of its artists. Nakupenda is a work of absolute Swahili beauty, African diversity and artistic finesse by two of Africa’s top musical talents.”
JK: “After more than 10 years as an insider in the music industry as a publicist, media personality Anyiko Owoko understands the music industry inside-out and is, arguably, one of the continent’s most influential women in music. Having worked with big African names like Adekunle, Patoranking and Sauti Sol, Anyiko’s word about African music is incontestable.”
JK: “The global rise of Africa’s urban pop music scene has been a source of pride for the continent, but in Kenya it has also raised concerns that local musicians are being squeezed out. Is it because of minimal new quality music coming out of Kenya? Is it because Kenya lacks a sound that is as identifiable as Afrobeats, Bongo Flava and Amapiano? Or could it be that Kenyan consumers are just uninterested in content from home-grown talent? Emmanuel Onyango evaluates each of these arguments.”
JK: “Whereas the Afropop genre of music is African, it has come to be associated with mostly music from Nigeria. Often, this has made the relationship between Nigerian artistes and those from the rest of Africa, including Kenya, lukewarm, tense and sometimes outright hostile. How do the different styles of music from Africa coexist and what’s their interplay?”
JK: “Kenyan artiste Tetu Shani has a bone to pick with music platform Spotify for what he calls ‘ghettoisation’ of local content. Tetu argues that placing songs with ‘global potential’ in the ‘wrong’ (regional) playlists limits local artistes from thriving. While being featured on a major music platform raises the profile of an artiste, well, sometimes it might be a drawback. He has a valid point.”
JK: “The dominance of Amapiano, Bongo and Nigeria music on Kenyan airwaves can leave some Kenyan musicians feeling humiliated. Kenyan comedian Eric Omondi is willing to go to any lengths to compel the country’s Parliament to protect local artistes through legislation. He and others want Kenyan media houses to play nothing less than 75 percent Kenyan content.”
JK: “No Kenyan artiste carries the hope of the country’s music in the future quite like Kenya’s queen of R&B Nikita Kering currently does. At 20, the plucky and exceedingly talented youngster with a powerful, melodious voice has already clinched three AFRIMA music awards, including two during the 2021 edition where she beat continental powerhouses Wizkid, Zuchu and Nandy. Kering’s exploits on the music scene are perhaps the clearest and loudest statement that Kenya has an abundance of quality music to offer to the world.”
James Kahongeh is an enthusiastic Kenyan journalist with experience covering science and human-interest stories. He has a bias for stories in art, climate resilience and sustainable development. James’ work has been published in the Daily Nation, Business Daily and The East African newspapers. He graduated in Linguistics, Media and Communication from Moi University in Kenya and seeks to educate, entertain and inspire diverse audiences with his work.