Does Kenya Really Have A ‘Naija Music’ Problem? – Eric Wainaina

The story is often told about the mother cheetah who comes back home from the hunt to find her cubs have been trampled to death by elephants. Knowing that she is no match for these giants, she blames and kills a herd of goats. Similarly, when a group of Kenyan musicians took to the streets last week calling for less Nigerian and Tanzanian music, they were killing goats. The elephant in this case is history. However, not even history is a match for innovation.What do you think?

It’s funny, but the country music star Kenny Rogers can come to Kenya today, charge an arm and a leg, and play a month of sold-out stadium gigs. Yet his heyday was in the ‘80s. The same holds true for top-tier Nigerian acts. Their time, however, is now. Kenya seems predisposed to preferring the foreign, the exotic, the western. At the risk of being accused of bringing up ‘that old trope,’ it all began with the erosion of our culture when the colonialists came. Colonialism eroded Kenyan culture I dare say more than it did in West Africa, in Uganda, in Tanzania. Kenya was a settler state.

But when Kenyan artists march the streets asking for more airplay, what do they really mean? Surely they don’t mean a total ban? Where would we be without Stevie? Michael Jackson? The Beatles? Who wants to live a life without Beyoncé? And would you really like to be in a club that didn’t play Tiwa Savage, Chameleone, Diamond Platnumz? And if we embraced a total ban of art coming from outside Kenya, why stop there? Why not ban everything that wasn’t local? Like technology. Ban the television, the cell phone, the car, the computer. All innovation involves a certain amount of borrowing. You’ve got to start at a known to get to an unknown.

So when a group of Kenyan musicians march the streets of Nairobi saying they want more airplay, what they mean is that they just want more. Of everything. They want more access to great producers, more policies that favour growth not through airplay quotas (who wants to force appreciation?) but through education, more damn money from airplay, more prosecution for content aggregators who don’t remit royalties.

More space– not protectionism– to be heard. With the same care and attention that a farmer would pay to a seedling. They’re just taking it out on the Nigerians and Tanzanians because right now they seem to be getting all the love. This misdirected energy is not new. It would be better spent writing songs, though. Songs that come out punching at your heart or your dancing shoes.

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