Gengetone, the business behind the hype and the question of a Kenyan sound

The 2010s decade brought with it mixed fortunes for Kenyan music industry. While the increasing access to mobile phones and internet did revolutionize entertainment, the unintended consequence was that of falling revenues. Gradually, the emphasis was shifting from reliance on music sales to a system where musicians have had to garner mass popularity, then attempt to monetize the same through shows and corporate endorsement deals. At the same time, fans constantly complained about the low quality content churned out of urban music studios, and instead, preferred songs from other regions, mostly Tanzania and West Africa.

In search for solutions, a number of suggestions have been, and continue to be, made. In fact, from last year to the beginning of this year, a discussion about a quota system for radio/TV playlisting did evolve into a campaign dubbed #PlayKe. Meanwhile, behind mainstream attention, a youth-led style of music was erupting in Nairobi’s ‘Eastlands’, with the song “Lamba Lolo” by the group Ethic (pictured above) spearheading the wave. Different possible names were floated, including ‘odi pop’, but it’s the term ‘Gengetone’ that eventually did stick as the reference to this new sub-genre that has got many excited, and understandably so. Soon, the #PlayKe crusade got eclipsed.

Of all the things that have been said about the meteoric rise of Gengetone, what has struck me as odd is its premature elevation to ‘what will save Kenyan music’ by a section of the industry. Some have even romanticized this phenomenon as the birth of a Kenyan sound (what?). To me, I find this not only laughable but also born out of desparation. To expound, I have to get a bit technical. You see, to characterize a sound, one has to break down the music into individual instruments played, the style of arrangement employed and how the listener engages with what they hear.

Gengetone, just like contemporary dancehall, largely entails electronic instrumentation and melodies, and its tempo, which ranges from mid to low, accords the artist space to get somewhat lyrical. In this regard, it is structurally closer to ‘Genge’ – – an older hiphop-influenced style pioneered by the likes of Juacali and Nonini. What has stood out, however, is Gengetone’s raunchy male-driven lyrics which some have even sensationally termed ‘pornographic’. But, even in this sense, it’s not new; remember Circuit & Joel’s “Manyake” or those songs by Nonini which made parents cringe? Moral issues aside, the fact that this sub-genre’s only unique identity is how provocative the lyrics and associated dance styles can be and not an innovative arrangement & production (what with the sampling of Latin-pop/reggaeton beats and then rebranding them as gengetone?) definitely disqualifies it as a bonafide Kenyan sound. Benga, to me, still remains the surviving Kenyan sound – – at its peak, it was exported to other countries as far as Zimbabwe. That’s the benchmark!

Gengetone, therefore, is a wave, a timely and necessary one for that matter. Can it solve the problem of dwindling revenues for music practitioners? Well, that depends on the business approach by those behind the artists: how they’ll convert the fans into consumers. Still, the truth is, gengetone fans are mostly young and cannot guarantee sufficient merchandise/ticket sales. Since the industry depends on performance gigs, this creates a chicken and egg problem, in that, the edgy lyrical content might scare away corporate sponsors, while, on the other hand, it is such edgy content that attracts the audience.

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