Nairobi is home to nearly one tenth of the Kenyan population, with a staggering 50% of the population living in informal settlements in the city. A typical ‘average’ Kenyan statistically would be 19 years old, have 60/40 chance of employment and look forward to an income of between $1000-$2000 per year, but taking into account unemployment and poverty an average skilled worker might expect a wage of $5000pa. Despite there being a growing upper middle class, and ‘globalisation/gentrification’ of the city happening on a massive scale, this is a country where 1/3rd of the population is still surviving on less that $2 per day. The divide between the haves and have nots in the city is huge and growing wider. Nairobi is reported as being the 4th most expensive city in Africa, and having the highest cost of living index in East Africa. The average person living in the city spends more than twice the national average. These figures all differ slightly in the data and reports depending on the factors taken into account, but the reality is that Nairobi is not a cheap place to live, and while the city grows rapidly, particularly in the last couple of years, offering more and more interesting ways to spend money; coffee and restaurant culture, bars, entertainment, shops, travel, fashion, technology, apartments, the majority of the population does not earn enough to take advantage of these new opportunities.
The city has been a for-runner in east Africa in connectivity to the rest of the world, an IT & Tech hub, near 100% adoption of smart phones and 24/7 connectively which has made it a prime target for streaming entertainment providers, with Netflix recently launching in Kenya. The impact of this, is a young generation who have grown up with similar access and influences as a child in the west. Exposure to music, art, culture, information, global news and technology, unlike any previous generation in Kenya. (This background information is provided to make sense what’s been happening recently in the music industry in Nairobi.)
Prior to 2015, much of the musical energy in the city was split roughly into 3 streams –
- hiphop/rap (mostly coming from Informal settlements or icons of the population in informal settlements) – much of it in Sheng (local slang) or Swahili, much of it on ‘borrowed’ beats, and heavily influenced by the US
- Gospel – driven by the efficient and highly productive production houses in River road and delivered as physical CD’s at large church events and through vernacular radio and TV
- Traditional/Roots – the smaller of the 3 streams, but accounting for what little music was exported/exportable outside Kenya.
Whether it was by coincidence or subconscious coordination, no-one knows, but around the end of 2015, new music started to appear, artists whose music came predominantly out of electronic roots. Young producers, who’d mostly acquired their self-taught musical talents via DAW’s and whose influences were pulled equally from international artists and a love of the local flavours, instruments and rhythms. There was/is no overarching genre to this, each artist taking their own musicial journey, but it was and is a wave of energy, of collaboration which continues 2 years on, only growing in energy and diversity. With more and more creatives entering the scene which was dubbed ‘nunairobi’ and has encompassed similar innovative growth in many other creative sectors, like film, fashion, writing, photography, art and theatre. Most if not all producing awesome work but few managing to monetize or move towards becoming sustainable on their craft.
They are what I have called the ‘fuck it’ generation, by that I mean a huge number of emerging talents who decided ‘fuck it lets just make awesome stuff anyway’ and worry about how to monetise it later. The majority of the energy showed itself on SoundCloud (for music) on IG (for photography and fashion) and through Facebook (writing, arts) and in events (The Alchemist Bar in Westlands, being a key player in providing an open space for much of this energy to show itself).
Skip forward 2 years and the collaborations have been in the hundreds, the divergence of styles and skills have grown exponentially along with the numbers active in the scene from events companies, informal collectives, studio’s, artists, film-makers, musicians, producers, DJ’s, along with a persistent energy to keep breaking boundaries and push standards.
There’s a lot of curiosity about NRB from the ‘outside’, global music industry players talking about the Nairobi scene and the artists. The fact is though that the understanding of what the scene is or how it works here is somewhat limited. A recent interview question from a film crew “how much do you earn a month” just had us laughing. What NRB artists are very good at is moving around on very little, swapping promo for tickets, cruising for a whole night on a couple of drinks, doing gigs for exposure and audience building which look great but actually pay artists little or nothing. Collaborations which share studio time, equipment, skills and expenses are the goto model and what keeps new music flying out of the doors here at the moment.
However, the current music industry in Nairobi speaks more to the dedication of a few visionaries and largely to the prolific creativity of emerging talent and the support of the more established players than it does to the word ‘industry’. Most of the systems are broken or just absent. Cash flow, which any business graduate will tell you is fundamental to the success of any ‘business’ is growing but nearly absent and what cash is flowing in the system is only now starting to come in the direction of the emerging talent, previously cash has always gone to mainstream, big players, commercial or ‘international’ artists. There are 3 phases a music scene needs to go through for monetization and sustainability: the movement (something new and engaging happening); formalisation (understanding how the industry works and joining in that process) and professionalisation (collecting on the results of formalisation). Currently in Nairobi we are largely in the formalisation phase. No shortage of talent or product but little understanding of how to make that talent provide sustainability in the industry.
While financial assistance is in short supply, what the scene has in abundance is a collaborative spirit, where certain established talents and players have helped to grow the scene, with sharing of resources, expertise and opportunities. Blinky Bill, a Ted fellow and member of the success story Just a Band, has helped nurture and collaborate with many of the new electronic producers. Muthoni The drummer Queen of events company Good times Africa, continues to offer significant exposure to emerging Nairobi talent in her regular Blankets & Wine events and Africa Nouveau Festival. Experts from all creative sectors share their knowledge freely via Alchemy sessions – a kind of swap shop of industry expertise. Santuri East Africa, were one of the first initiatives to bring production expertise and international producers to electronic workshops, and the project has taken productions from several artists in NRB, to reach critical acclaim, one of which has currently been nominated by Gilles Peterson for his top tunes of 2017 (Makadem and Behr – Nyako). Santuri have also been working with Midi Minds Kenya and DJ Rachael (UG) on a Femme Electronic project, to advance opportunities for female DJ’s in the city. ADA Creative studios (located inside the Alchemist Bar) have also done much to deepen the levels of production and performance, becoming the goto space for rehearsals and making connections/collaborations with visiting international artists. They have also raised the bar sound-wise for many of the bigger events through their partnership with FunktionOne, whose Audio Sans Frontier project has been able to provide sound to events in the region, which otherwise might not have been able to afford professional sound.
While traditional media, seems to ignore the emerging scene, new and alternative media, like WG Networks, Nairobi Underground, Hutchery Studios (live stream) and local bloggers, provide most of the coverage of what’s going on. In general larger online media platforms like, FACT, Fader, Stamp the Wax, Okay Africa, Music in Africa and True Africa, seem to be paying more attention to whats emerging in Nairobi than the local media houses.
The majority of the nu scene is in the process of formalising, rather then actually receiving reward yet for what they do. But still many don’t fully understand the processes required to formalise their music career, this is not helped by some of the systems being in disarray and basic sustainability being an obstacle to affording some of the steps.
NRB had one of the few functioning Royalty collection systems in Africa, until MSCK had its license revoked early 2017 (suspicions of fraud). The new CMO, replacing it, MPAKE, has taken most of this year and part of next putting systems in place to replace MSCK, in the meantime leaving the new artists no local CMO for collecting on Mechanical Rights. So that, there is nothing coming from this potential income stream unless artists have registered with international CMO’s. At an average of $100 (a significant amount in relation to earnings in Kenya) to register outside Kenya, and the reduced % received from international CMO’s for local plays, and numbers of plays for emerging artists being relatively low, the cost benefit for most emerging artists has meant they have not registered internationally and are not receiving royalty payments and are ‘in waiting’ for MPAKE to start processing. There are further issues with royalty collection even when it was functioning, because a whopping 70% of royalities collected in KE were sent out internationally for international music played here in KE, while almost nothing came back in reciprocal payments to KE artists played internationally. Local media playing high volumes of international music, causes much of the monies collected locally, to be sent outside the country, local artists getting to share only 30% of the profit from collections.
During the last couple of years there has been a huge growth in Ring Tone and download sites, Skiza and Mdundo are two of the bigger players. They tap into the low or no cost music distribution market which is hugely popular in Kenya, making music available to the low income population. Skiza operates on a less than 1KSh (1 US Cent) per track model, sharing 30% of this with artists, and Mdundo offers downloads for free on a ‘funded by advertising’ model, sharing proceeds 50/50 with artists. Both now hugely busy channels and they are putting money in the pockets of artists, however both models generally support ‘mainstream popular’ and the ‘already known’ and are hard for emerging artists to gain traction or monetise as the amount per download are tiny micro payments. There are also middle men in the Skiza process, agencies who manage the music on the skiza platform, of which some have been been notably bad in the ‘fees and deals’ they have charged artists for their services.
Access to global distribution channels and platforms has been easily available for a while to Nairobi artists via online platforms like CD Baby and Tune Core, but until this year, when we have seen an increase in numbers going through formal distribution, very few were actually using these channels, and most music was coming out (and being played on radio) from soundcloud, skiza or mdundo releases. This year marked the entry of Okay Music (an arm of Okay Africa) into the distribution market place and also of long standing global player The Orchard, now opening a base in Nairobi.
Few emerging artists understand the processes or value of formal distribution, but with Spotify still unavailable in the region, and being the major streaming channel, it’s easy to understand how it’s hard for artists to see the potential, or claim the potential, without the ability to view it.
Whether it’s the low disposable income of the general population or the percentage of the population below the poverty line in Nairobi, audiences have been generally hard to build for a city which loves to party, is predominantly young and a scene which is bubbling. The reality is that even free events don’t always fill up. Potentially the Uber fares home, or the cost of drinks, might be to blame, but even popular international acts can’t fill a stadium in Nairobi. This forces a reliance on commercial sponsorships for events to supplement ticket money, but in a climate where emerging artists are seen as ‘too young, too inexperienced, too risky, this impacts on the kind of events which happen and has resulted in a slew of artist led collectives putting on their own events, often not paying themselves to play. Break-even being a win! Artist collectives might not be able to provide incomes for fellow artists, but have been providing ’emerging’ emerging artists with good platforms to get known and build an audience. The liquor companies are just now, at the end of 2017, starting to see the value in the ‘scene’ because the demographics they attract are their brands emerging customers. Tusker Lite used creatives from Vibe Tribe collective to curate their latest ad, and vodka brands are doing nights with younger electronic DJ collectives, which may signal the start of new funding/sponsorship/endorsement opportunities for the emerging scene.
Radio stations have run with the Trap element of the new scene in a big way, but how artists monetise this interest is still unclear for many – it’s often a quick release, publishing through skiza and mdundo (and other similar platforms) to reap some benefit from the plays, but it remains to be seen if this will provide a sustainable career aside from small cheques.
What is lacking in the scene is all the infrastructure, support and professional artists services, which are hard to justify commercially when emerging artists earn so little. Artist development and formalisation of the industry, and access to resources, at a individual and collective level are sadly lacking because of poor cash flow in the sector, high costs and low incomes in NRB and a country which has had very little global music industry attention since the 1980’s. The creative industries in general and music industry in particular, could be adding significantly to the growth of Kenya, but until systems get fixed, artist and arts development is taken seriously, it remains the struggle of the few to keep going and hope someone notices enough for something, some musical product to catch fire.
These questions remain, how do we support artist development, how do we gain traction at an international level for NRB artists, how do we create low cost affordable workspaces, how do we provide next level industry training in production and musicianship, how do artists get access to technology and instruments, how do we develop the infrastructure support, like lighting engineers, sound engineers and marketing expertise, how do we grow (low income) audiences? NRB has the talent, but while most of the artists and the infrastructure partners alike are struggling financially to break even, how do we use the assets and energy in this scene to build a vibrant industry?