Every now and then, especially when a song is released and its lyrics deemed ‘dirty’, the conversation on Kenyan music content resurfaces. Most people argue that artists should make music that revolves around societal issues or ‘conscious music’, if you will. The kind of music referenced by that phrase, as commonly agreed, is that which enlightens the listener on what is going on around them.
Pioneer hip-hop groups like Kalamashaka and Ukoo Flani made such music during their time. In 2001, Kalamashaka released their debut album Ni Wakati and, on it, they addressed themes like street crime, tribalism, politics and Africa’s unending conflicts. Later, in 2004, Ukoo Flani Mau Mau dropped Kilio Cha Haki which gave a vivid description of the difficulties of slum life. During this period, a link between music and activism was established. So much so that almost every artist had to pick an issue to represent in their songs.
Unfortunately, this didn’t last for long. It faded, in part, due to the increasing competition arising from from the emergence of dance-friendly sub-genres, kapuka and genge. This, in effect, squeezed conscious music and artists out of mainstream media attention -– and, of course, rotation. Then came the internet era. Now, artists had more access to music from across the globe. Such influences meant that the content being churned out of recording studios was, preferably, commercial.
Since history always has a way repeating itself, ‘woke’ music began finding its way back to fans’ ears. For instance, in 2018, Muthoni Drummer Queen released the album SHE (which is a spirited celebration of womanhood from different perspectives). The project felt galvanizing.
The following year, Kaa La Moto, who is easily one of the country’s best lyrists, unveiled Kesi, an album that highlights corruption, unemployment and the drug menace among the youth. Other rappers on similar path include Trabolee, Clay Og Stoner and Romi Swahili. Unfortunately, you will hardly find their music being played on radio & TV.
As it appears, as a nation, we do not have a genuine desire for conscious music. On one hand, we decry the absence of it, yet on another, we don’t act like we are ready for it. How exactly do we expect new artistes to move in that direction when we don’t support those already on it? Honestly, it’s time we as fans walked the talk.