LYRICAL BANDITS

The evolution of explicit Kenyan music

While Ethic and Sailors are all the rage, they have simply rehashed an old formula of sexual lyricism pioneered in Kenya by the likes of Nonini

In Summary

•  The music that has taken the Kenya by storm the past two years has been very sexual in nature.

• Why is that? is it a reflection of the changing times or just the resurgence of old styles re-invigorated for a new generation? 

Ethic Entertainment Ethic entertainment on the red carpet Image by Image Credits.Instagram/ethicentertainmen
Ethic Entertainment Ethic entertainment on the red carpet Image by Image Credits.Instagram/ethicentertainmen

The music that has dominated the Kenyan music airways the past two years has become increasingly sexual, according to some observers. When did this infusion of lewd lyrics and explicit music videos start, and is it a sign that our society is imploding?

Sexuality in music videos is not something we just stumbled upon; it became widespread in the 1980s, with pop divas like Madonna at the forefront.

Evolutionist Charles Darwin avers that music as a form of expression was first acquired by mankind for seduction purposes, implying that those who did not make beautiful music stood little chance of winning mating partners.

Did that style of music start recently with groups like Ethic and Ochungulo, or do its roots go much further? For the keen study of the Kenyan music industry, the turn for the more controversial lyrics started when this century started.

Kenyan music had a lot of spice in the past that many might have already been forgotten, with it having a long history of filthy lyrics in it.

RAP AND DANCEHALL

Kenya at that time was in a nascent state, as far as the music industry was concerned. The music that dominated the charts was largely rap music and Jamaican dancehall.

Both genres had a lot of lewd lyrics, with explicit visuals to go along with the music. This was the period when many Kenyan musicians were starting to emerge on the scene and also trying to make their mark.

Jamaican groups like TOK with their song, 'Bam Bam' and R&B star Sisqo's 'Thong song' dominated the charts at the time, showing that there was a market that was ready for that kind of content.

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One of the first songs that showed that Kenyans could make controversial music was sang by Calif Records’ Nonini. The genge musician released a string of songs that had many conservatives in an uproar.

Nonini had a few lascivious songs like ‘Mtoto Mzuri’, ‘Kuta Vitu’ and’ Wee Kamu’The latter would stir the most controversy, with the music video featuring some peripheral nudity.

In true Kenyan fashion, people criticised, praised and further criticised the video, labelling it 'Un-African' because of its sexual nature.

Nonini wasn't alone, as the group Wakimbizi also excited their fans with their suggestive, relatable and catchy songs. The group was made of two brothers, Mariko and Filter, and Andree, who was their childhood friend.

The trio released songs like ‘John’, Jogoo’ and ‘Nishike Pole Pole’. ‘John’ showed the group's innate talent for subliminal lyrics.

Then came one of the best rap groups in Kenya's history, called The Bugz. The group featured members Bobby Mapesa and VBO, releasing club banger after club banger. Their song's ‘Wezere’, ‘Kamoja Tuu’ and ‘Naskia Utamu’all featured themes that were sexually suggestive in nature.

Songs like Flex's Nyundo’ and Circuit and Joel's Manyake’ song that had subversive lyrics were also released during this period and were becoming the norm.

But after its growth and increasing popularity between 2000-10, the controversial musical content became niche. Why was that?

ENTER SAUTI SOL

Sauti Sol and their new brand of music changed the market the same way Kanye West impacted the hip-hop industry in the mid-2000s.

Kanye entered the American hip hop scene as a troubadour with a brand of music that re-invigorated the market, with more harmony and cerebral lyrics being infused into his music.

His music challenged the status quo at the time of either gangsta rap or the emerging crunk genre. His music videos were a breath of fresh air, which rarely featured female nudity, something that was a staple of the time.

His market disruption is similar to what Sauti Sol did to the Kenyan music industry with the freshman single, ‘Lazizi’The effort introduced a new genre into the market: that of Afro-soul.

The group shaped the way music was ingested, with their soothing beats and lyrical content being praised. Their music was not only family-friendly but also transcended borders.

The music had moved from the provocative to the emotive, resulting in many Kenyan musicians who relied on subliminal, socio-sexual music being pushed out.

Even during their purple patch, when the group could do no wrong, they were still criticised when they released the raunchy song called 'Nishike'The song went against form for Sauti Sol, and they were heavily criticised in some quarters.

Funny thing is that despite the controversy, the song did well and was trending on social media, and the video amassed thousands of views. Currently, on YouTube, the song has 3 million views.

The group dominated the scene with their Tanzanian and Nigerian brothers. The foreign musicians flooded the market in wave after wave that captivated and thrilled the very fickle Kenyan audiences.

But since 2017, the market has been dominated by one artiste to the exclusion of all else: Diamond Platnumz and his Wasafi stable. That is, until the emergence of Ethic. 

ETHIC LEADS NEW GENERATION

This period in the backwaters lasted until the re-emergence of ghetto rap, with Eastland's group Ethic spearheading this renaissance.

The group came out with their monstrous hit 'Lamba Lolo', which was probably the biggest song of last year. The song translated in English means someone licking a lollipop. Sounds innocuous, but when put in context, a more subliminal meaning could be deciphered, the connotations of which you are smart enough to get.

After 'Lamba Lolo's' success, the old formula was rehashed but with new practitioners: Make the most explicit music with content that can muster radio play, meaning the more subliminal the lyrics, the better.

The music videos accompanying these songs leave nothing to the imagination, with the coded language given voice when the music accompanies the visual.

The floodgates had been opened and songs like 'Thutha' by Ochungulo Family have become the norm. This song could be arguably compared to Wakimbizi’s ‘John’, which references a male anatomical part.

'Thutha' is a famous word and, as they put it, Ochungulo Family thought of a song to celebrate our Kenyan women's physical appearance that a majority have failed to appreciate.

Another song that shocked the senses this year for its unapologetic nature and was even banned by KFCB was 'Takataka' by Alvindo.

The song spoke about a spurned man who then insulted the woman, who had either dumped him or rejected his romantic advances. A cathartic song for those into dark black music, but not for a conservative country like Kenya.

Another song that is taking the subliminal to another level is ‘Kata Tenje’ by Psycho. The song simply means to have sex. The video has ladies twerking all over and is poorly shot.

During the song, the group disses Ethic and goes ahead to brag that if you are not for some ‘action’, then you should go ahead and look for a Bible and enjoy the reading.

Ethic themselves haven't been left behind, with the group releasing hit after hit. And yes, all their songs have had a lot of sexual imagery in them, both lyrically and visually.

Song's like ‘Pandana’ and ‘Instagram’ have reinforced their reputation as the premier group in this category, but another group has come and might take their trophy.

That group is called SailorsThe large group, made up of five members, has made 2019 their year, releasing the songs 'Wamlambez' and the follow-up smash hit 'Pekejeng'.

Both songs are an ode to sexual congress, carefully veiled in new Sheng words that can pass the cultural police. ‘Wamlambez’ even had the privilege of being banned by Ezekiel Mutua, something that has seen it gather more notoriety abroad.

The question many should ask themselves is this: If art imitates life, then what does that say about a large portion of Kenyan society that is in thrall with the new wave of sexually suggestive music dominating the music scene?

Edited by Tom Jalio