Quality question haunts the push to play Kenyan music

Diamond Platinumz. /Victor imboto
Diamond Platinumz. /Victor imboto

Should media houses play Kenyan music more often? The issue has bubbled under the surface for ages, but exploded earlier this month on social media.

Artistes are indignant at radio presenters, TV hosts and deejays who won't play their music on heavy rotation, while seemingly favouring Bongo and Naija tunes. The counter-argument stipulates that there’s a need for delivery of "quality music".

But judging by the Internet, which is not controlled by the media or deejays, audience tastes do not reflect well on Kenyan artistes. Four of the top five artistes on YouTube in Kenya last week were from Tanzania, for instance.

Music is certainly not one of the biggest exports coming out of the Kenyan market. Only a few acts have distinguished themselves globally. Sauti Sol, for instance, are past nominees of the coveted BET awards. But such success stories are few and far between, and the following they command pales in comparison to foreign superstars.

In a quest to understand the underlying problems, nearly all stakeholders in the music industry agree that the only way to promote the arts as a nation is to invest in our own. However, this puts forward the question of whether our artistes deliver music good enough to be considered for airplay.

ARE STANDARDS FALLING?

The standard of music by our Kenyan acts has been repeatedly questioned, with stakeholders raising concern on content and quality issues.

Award-winning rapper Khaligraph Jones, who ignited the #PlayKenyanMusic conversation on Instagram, is in the forefront of advocating local music to gain more airplay.

However, speaking to the Star, he accepted that the Kenyan music scene has a long way to go before it can be likened to the leading music nations.

“Nigeria is an already established industry. They are out there and have working mechanisms that push their music. Our music might not entirely be up to standard, but we surely have Kenyan artistes putting in work,” Khaligraph said.

Paul Amuko, a film producer and upcoming performing artiste, said the music scene suffers from mediocrity, and this affects how it is perceived by the masses both locally and globally.

"Kenyan music defies all values of perpetual art, from the production of content to its dissemination. The industry cannot be aesthetic or commercialised because it absolutely lacks originality," Amuko said.

Veteran producer Tedd Josiah said production of local music has lost the skilful intricacy it incorporated back in the day, diluting its quality.

He’s nostalgic for his inclusion of live instrumentation in those days, and is proud of the success he achieved with releases like Wicky Mosh’s “Atoti,” Suzzane Owiyo’s “Kisumu 100,” and Gidi Gidi and Maji Maji’s “Unbwogable”.

“Artistes now don’t want to pay for quality production and they want a quick fix. Production is at its all-time low, and the technological advancements over the years have made production worse,” Tedd said.

On the other hand, singer Vivian doesn’t underestimate the value of Kenyan music. She unequivocally condemns the notion that our acts are not making good music, and holds that all stakeholders in the industry have a role to play.

“Musicians, songwriters, producers, radio hosts and basically anyone in the music scene needs to step up. Even with the good content we have in the country, we still don’t get airplay,” Vivian says.

WHO’S TO BLAME?

Digital music consumption is a huge thing now more than ever. In February 2018, we witnessed the introduction of the music streaming app Songa by Safaricom in a market that is already flooded with endless options to pick from.

Streaming has thrown music genres and sounds into one pot for everyone's reach and consumption. It’s the future, and if you are not delivering, then it would be important to ask yourself if you are truly in business.

Our artistes have access to this affordable and accessible means of communication, including social media, but for some reason, they have put their hopes on radio hosts and deejays, who don't seem to get what the fuss is all about.

Khaligraph said hardly is his music ever played on radio, regardless of his huge following. He owes most of his success to the use of social media platforms, though he points out that it would be a boost if he got good airplay.

"Nigeria has social media. Wizkid has a big following, but radio still supports him. It's the responsibility of the media to gradually introduce Kenyan talent to the world,” Khaligraph said.

AD Family Music Group’s president Musau Mumo said there is no one to represent young, budding artistes when it comes to making decisions in the music industry.

He said receiving inadequate royalties is one of the major hindrances when it comes to creating good music, considering the recent proliferation of new artistes.

“Due to lack of funds, we can’t afford to invest in high-quality production. This, in turn, means we won’t get media attention,” Mumo said.

ARTISTE WORK ETHIC

In response to a query on principles that should guide artistes, Tedd Josiah said: “If I’m being given the opportunity and privilege to be on radio or TV at any particular time, I need to honour this call. I will be there before time.”

The story of how fame turns creatives into mindless celebrities cannot be told in one instance. More often than not, it’s no longer about the music; it’s now becomes a quest for internal and external fulfilment.

With good hits come opportunities that need to be put into good use. However, artistes have been accused of unprincipled ways that have seen certain stakeholders omit them from their playlists.

A programme controller at one of the leading radio stations in Kenya, who prefers not be named, confirmed this by stating that artistes often do a good job at failing themselves.

He said artistes in Kenya don’t realise that media houses have set policies that govern operations and what is considered for airplay.

“It’s unfortunate that artistes are not using available platforms like YouTube to push their music. It’s not the responsibility of a radio station to make an artiste known, it is the artiste’s responsibility,” the programme controller said.

With lack of a proper team and good research, artistes will always find themselves absorbed into an already existing mess. And because deejays and radios need to keep a lively fan base, and at the same time realise commercial value, they will play music that’s on demand.

POLITICIANS WEIGH IN

The debate has now caught the government's attention. President Uhuru Kenyatta requested that musicians meet him at State House to discuss the way forward for Kenyan music.

Others politicians who have expressed their opinions on the matter include Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho and Starehe MP Charles ”Jaguar” Kanyi.

During Bruce Odhiambo’s memorial service on Thursday, Nairobi Senator Sakaja promised to introduce the debate in Parliament to ensure local music gets 60 per cent airplay in the media.

All in all, if we are truly serious about this being the end of a chapter, then all key stakeholders have a major role to play. But to say that Kenyan music is not getting significant airplay now compared to the past is a massive understatement.

We are at a time where music geniuses around the world are taking over the airwaves and dominating charts. Consistency is a virtue our musicians need to embrace, and their work should stand the test of time.

There’s not a set guideline to making quality music, but local producers, artistes and creatives need to put their heads around it, establish an orientation, include elements of local culture, work right and simply make good music for national and international appeal.