The disruption to the music business in 2020 has been a double-edged sword: while the conventional model of live music concerts was halted by the pandemic, the opportunity arose for artistes to innovate, embrace digital distribution and performance platforms.
“Kenyan artistes discovered the power of the Internet to earn a living and monetise their art and that includes the power of streaming and the benefits of a powerful digital presence,” says Tim Adeka, the manager of the Norwegian-based Kenyan singer Stella Mwangi.
Mr Adeka says the ban on public events, including concerts, has been a lesson that artistes cannot just rely on the conventional revenue streams of concerts, appearance fees and corporate endorsements.
According to him, the success of the online launch of albums, like Nyashinski's ‘Lucky You’ and ‘Midnight Train’ by Sauti Sol forever changed the game for musicians.
“No other artiste or group of artistes had the impact that Sauti Sol did, signing a deal with Universal Music and a successful launch of the album ‘Midnight Train’,” says Anyiko Owoko, music and entertainment publicist.
Ms Anyiko says the songs on the album like ‘Suzzana’, ‘Rhumba Japani’ and ‘Nenda Lote’ bridged the gap between different generations by dipping into Kenya’s music heritage. “They were able to connect the past to the present by creatively adopting distinct music styles like rumba and benga,” she said.
The virtual launch of Nyashinski’s album ‘Lucky You’ in April was a huge success and set the trend for the production of online music events in Kenya. By the end of 2020, with Covid-19 restrictions still in place, most artistes had migrated their shows to YouTube, Facebook, and other online channels.
The story of Kenyan music in 2020 is not complete without analysing the impact of Gengetone; the urban sound driven by the youth and inspired by the original genge that was made popular in the early 2000s by artists like Jua Cali and Nonini. (Genge is a slang word referring to the masses). The music straddles hip hop, and dancehall, the message is raw and straight out of the hood.
Eugene Kimani, a music podcaster and radio presenter says gengetone sprang from a vacuum in creativity, where Kenyan artistes were sounding like imitations of Nigerian singers. There has emerged a whole new generation who have defied that wave and instead looked to the genge sound of two decades ago for their inspiration.
“The original genge didn't cross borders, but thanks to the Internet this current generation have shattered all barriers,” said Mr Adeka.
Mr Kimani adds that the content of the music reflects youth aspirations and the genre is not supported by a studio and a producer giving directions, so the artistes enjoy unparalleled freedom and the means to create their music.
“Their friends have studios, others have cameras, it is music the way the artistes intended the music to be, there is no one at the top telling you what to do,” he said.
“Just as our parents didn't understand Sheng when it first emerged, similarly today the slang has evolved and the children who are the primary audience fully connect to the message,” says Mr Adeka.
He predicts that artistes like Ethic, Boondocks Gang, and Mbogi Genje will be responsible for the massive streaming of Kenyan music on a global scale in 2021. “Gengetone is just like a small baby that needs to be nurtured and disciplined. The next-generation music billionaires are youth selling their music on digital platforms and getting millions of streams,” says Mr Adeka.
“However, the artistes have to rise to new challenges and direct their messages beyond the hood to begin addressing conscious global conversations like climate change. Right now, they can have fun with the music, but they must eventually also look beyond just the commercial interests and think of creating an impact,” he adds.
“Gengetone artistes have been very prolific and their music is prevalent both on and offline and it is also danceable, especially during the pandemic when people just want to have fun so this is a good opportunity for this music to gain traction across Africa,” said Ms Anyiko.
Mr Kimani adds that there will be many more new artistes emerging in 2021, while very few of those who have been on the scene for longer than three years will survive because the shelf life for artistes today is very short and most of them are making music for the moment, and not for longevity.