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Kenyan Music and Copy Cat Culture

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A common complaint about Kenyan music and entertainment culture generally is that it has devolved into an orgy of familiarity. Risk-averse musicians have relied heavily on producing songs with beats and lyrics that audiences already know. Indeed, the majority of the top trending tracks in Kenya for the 2 last years have felt like a repeat of the same song. The hit-making formula in Kenya today seems to be built on infinitely recurring, bass boosted familiar Moombahton samples. This is after producers milked the Dem Bow rhythm for years.

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A major challenge for Kenyan music is the prevalent copycat culture.

Plot New Routes

Artists should strive to plot new routes to the same destination. After all, many new ideas are spin-offs of familiar ideas. However, this does not mean they should copy each other. Since the purpose of music is to entertain and to move people, musicians should apply a blend of originality and derivation. For example, Zzero Sufuri and Matata have reinvented the Gengetone genre. They took the familiarity of the genre and powered it with a pioneer hunger, carving their own lanes in a crowded road.

While I am not advocating for artists to switch up their whole style overnight, I am saying that with minimal viable steps, change can be introduced. As an artist, you need to ask yourself which parts are familiar to your audience and which need to change. Lev Vygotsky’s (1896–1934) principle of Zone of proximal development might come in handy in here. In this context, an artist can evaluate what their audience base like; improve on things like production, visual presentation, songwriting etc. The artist thereby advances their listener experience and overall improves their craft.

MAYA Principle

It is not surprising that the artists who experience longevity in the game always reinvent their act. For instance, Sauti Sol’s trick is to present classic themes by installing new elements to the same old story. Their recent hit song, Suzanna, interpolates the relatable Rhumba of the 1970s. It can also be argued that Octopozzo is at his best when he samples Rhumba music. This approach of creating a product that is ahead of its time but within acceptable present limits was formalized by Raymond Loewy (1893-1986) into what is now known as the MAYA principle – Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.

Another great example of continuous improvement and spin-offs is tech giant Apple. Each new version of their devices is an iteration of the previous with improvements here and there. We can assume that the development of the iPod in 2001 set the stage for the iPhone which would come six years later.

Prevalent Copycat Culture in Kenyan Music

A major challenge for Kenyan music is the prevalent copycat culture. The media has done little to stop this but instead, they perpetuate it further by playing music from a limited pool of artists. Artists and audiences have complained time and again that there is not enough Kenyan music and variety in the media. In a recent interview with Sound Safari, Steph, a rapper from Nairobi critiqued the media: “…the industry needs to change how it approaches airplay. There is a lack of diversity – same sound, same people etc. We need more representation on the radio.” The reason artists copy each other is because the system is designed to only pick a certain sound for a particular period. This culture has been perpetrated by gatekeepers, in turn, forcing creatives to jump on trends for their survival.

Mere Exposure Effect

Media plays the biggest role in keeping the public informed and entertained. If you doubt their power, look introspectively on how they turned the whole country to Naija & Bongo music in the 2010s. Not so long ago, Reggae was associated with the ghetto, dingy pubs, and rowdy youth. After the introduction of Reggae shows in the mainstream media, every club – including uptown clubs – has a Reggae night.

There is talk that the government plans to do an overhaul for the creative industry. Hopefully, this includes legislation that will see the media play more Kenyan music as a requirement by law. One of the ways to transform our ailing creative and culture industry is to give it more exposure. Over time, the audience will adapt and come to appreciate local content more. Apple’s strategy is taking its user on a journey through their innovations instead of outrightly introducing them to unprecedented new tech, unlike Samsung with their failed experiment with the Galaxy Fold. It is a delicate balance to test people’s curiosity and love for familiarity.

Gustav Fechner’s (1801 – 1887) Mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. If stakeholders come up with a solid plan and roll it out strategically, the consumption of local art will rise and more revenues collected. Consequently, the quality, value, and impact of art will rise drastically. After all, culture evolves in small steps – following familiar roots.



DJ Fita is a Kenyan DJ, music producer and music journalist. He is the founder of Sound Safari.

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