If you are a Kenyan with some form of regular access to the Internet, chances are that you’ve heard the chant “Wamlambez!” and the equally loud response “Wamnyonyez!”. This now-ubiquitous chant is derived from a hit song by a group of five high-spirited youngsters called Sailors.
The music industry in Kenya right now seems to be caught in a philosophical daze about what this new wave of music means to Kenyan culture and musical evolution. Ezekiel Mutua, CEO of the Kenya Film and Classification Board this week forbade the song “Wamlambez”, as well as the song “Tetema” by Tanzanian musicians Diamond Platnumz and Rayvanny, outside of clubs and bars. It is unclear whether this move is in his mandate, a man who is perceived to frequently overstep his boundaries and bestrides Kenya’s entertainment scene as a kind of moral policeman.
It is also unclear whether this forbidding is indeed enforceable, seeing that so much popular music is accessed on personal smartphones. In any case, Kenyan clubs and airwaves have been taken over by a new organic sound and we are all paying attention. Music is very much an anthropological tool, and we see these eccentric hits as a window into culture; more specifically how the music industry in Kenya is changing and how the making of hit songs is being reorganized, both from an artist and audience perspective.
How the Internet has changed audience composition
Despite Internet penetration growing rapidly in Kenya in the early 2010s, it was still not yet a viable platform for mainstream musical success. This is partly because the audience that was considered to be the “mainstream” wasn’t yet accessing the Internet as regularly or as easily. The demographic that was accessing the Internet at this point was the educated, middle to high-income earner and there still existed a lot of privilege for Internet access. As such, we believe a large number of Internet successes around reflected the tastes of this privileged group.
However, at around the halfway point of the decade, smartphone penetration reached a tipping point and Internet access became highly democratized. And herein began the true unspoken shift in power. The beauty of the Internet and the algorithms that operate it, mean that the demand side of the equation has a great influence on what surfaces to the top of search results.
One just needs to take a look at how much YouTube’s Kenya home page has changed over the years. The collective action of the majority tends to push certain pieces of content to the top, hence the word “trending”. As more and more of the mainstream audience began to access the Internet, they changed the entire fabric of what was popular or trending based on their own interests. It is in the midst of all this change that new genres like this so-called ‘Odi pop’ have emerged. The new sound has a very grassroots feel to it that is resonant with a large majority of Kenyans, especially the youth.
The medium is the message
One of the most common sayings in media theory is “The medium is the message”. The basic idea behind this theory is that the medium through which we consume a specific piece of content affects how we receive the message that is presented to us. The medium is the message, the content is only incidental. The evolution of the media landscape in Kenya has definitely affected the Kenyan message across various realms and music is no exception.
Before the advent of the Internet, mainstream media acted as a gatekeeper comprising traditional media owners and editors of radio and TV stations. This small group created all sorts of creative restrictions as to what the audience would and wouldn’t consume. The standard of what was considered acceptable for public consumption was sieved through the lens of these gatekeepers.
For music, this meant that certain genres or lyrics of a certain kind were promoted, while others were frowned upon. With the Internet however, music now has a chance to develop freely with no interference from the corporate or politicized media interests. As a result, this allows for very high depth and width of musical styles to come to the fore. It also means that what becomes a hit can end up being something very different from what we are used to seeing in the mainstream.
If you go down the rabbit hole that is YouTube’s recommendation engine based on Odi pop, an interesting trend begins to emerge. You get a front seat to a certain type of raw authenticity that brings out the real context of the lived experiences Kenyan urban youth. You get to witness a different perception of aspiration, lifestyles, hair and dressing from what you would expect from the mainstream media. Typically, most of these songs and their videos would never make it to radio or TV.
However, when we look at how audiences consume media on the Internet and especially social media and YouTube, it is often the case that grimy production of this kind of music has more appeal than the glitzy, overproduced nature of mainstream TV and radio content, music videos in particular. The amateur aesthetic is definitely important to content creation on the web. The songs don’t have the best beats out there, the artists don’t have makeup or extensive wardrobes nor do the video vixens necessarily appeal to the beauty ideal. They are just normal people, who are easily relatable, and this might be one of the reasons why a lot of these songs are raking in tons of views online. The fact that YouTube is the main medium from which this music has arisen has completely changed the way the message we’re getting is delivered.
The second part of the how the medium has affected this message is something that comes to mind specifically when you observe the two current champions of this sound, the groups Sailors and Ethic. The fact that the rise of the Internet in Kenya has been driven by the smartphone has meant that the power of publishing is not just with the creator but with the creator’s audience as well. Every single person today who consumes content online also has the potential to create something new from the content they’ve just consumed. In the case of ‘Odi pop’, the songs seem to come with a long tail of user-generated content for the artist’s audiences to snack on – that is, commentary, reactions, reviews or simply clipping highlights from the content piece, created by the audience themselves.
The technical term for this kind of audience member is the ‘prosumer’, and they are redefining the dynamics of how we think about popular culture. Their preferred tool of choice is the meme. Memes have been instrumental to the success and accessibility of this genre of music, and have spiked its visibility on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Songs like “Wamlambez” can be consumed multiple times a day outside the context of the full song itself. The meme has become a democratized art form that Kenyans in many ways (as with all art) have used to collectively express their traumas and interpret their culture. However, unlike almost everything else in entertainment, they are rarely made for the purpose of making money; they are simply here to make us laugh. They are an authentic intervention in our consumption of culture and we use them to evoke powerful shared moments of our collective cultural identity.
Songs have a way of capturing the national imagination, reaching moments where you almost can’t seem to escape the song with it playing everywhere and being sang by everyone. Something similar happens on the Internet when things go viral – seeming to follow no rhyme or reason, people are compelled to like, share, retweet or participate in things online. In the case of Sailors, Ethic, the Boondocks Gang, Ochungulo Family, Zzero Sufuri, and the rest, the manner in which their songs have captured the national imagination is telling of how much the audience has changed. The songs are a different kind of entertainment product. They rely on the contagious nature of humor on the Internet and the sense of belonging that challenges such as the #wamlambezchallenge provides. This in many ways is evident when you look at the mentions for the term “Wamlambez” on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Odi pop in some ways isn’t about the mastery of sound, it is a feel good type of music that also pays attention to the intimate ways in which we cultivate communities online. In short, we are enjoying music together in a different way, and our position in the food chain of media has changed. Again, the medium has fundamentally reorganized the way we receive this message. The way songs become hits in Kenya has changed and so has the relationship between the artist and the audience.
Still, the Internet also presents a new set of challenges, particularly with regards to issues of copyright, as Ethic came up against when their song “Figa” was pulled off YouTube and Apple Music for copyright infringement of the beats sampled in their song. The main issue here has to do with sample clearance for beats in Kenya. It is entirely possible that Ethic may have bought the beats for the song without knowledge that the beat was sampling someone else and hence infringing on their copyright.
As Kenyans begin to use more and more global music platforms to try and reach audiences, there will probably be lot more sample clearance issues popping up. Copyright enforcement becomes more and more of a global issue so you can get caught literally anywhere.
Previously Kenyans could get away with such issues, as enforcement was close to impossible when the songs were confined to analogue TV and radio. Who in the US would ever find out that one had a random Diana Ross sample in your song in Kenya?But the digital age means that local producers are not going to be able to do this anymore; the song’s virality on the Internet means that they will effectively run into copyright issues.
In short, the success of the song and the way it travels ends up snitching on you. In this way, the medium is influencing the way hit music is being made because originality of the sound is going to be paramount in how the song becomes a hit, unless artists can afford to pay for the sample.