There is a reason why he is called Papa Soul. You first heard him in Masheesha, the 2016 party hit with H_art The Band. He then poured out his soul in his original love ballad Ntala Nawe during Jamhuri Jam Sessions on YouTube. Fast forward to 2019, he was revealed as the first signed artist of Sol Generation Records. But why was he the chosen one?
As Savara said, Bensoul is a complete artist. A rare breed of musician. He’s a singer, songwriter, producer, self-taught instrumentalist who plays the piano, acoustic, electric and bass guitar. And get this, drums and violin too. Since landing in Nairobi from his Embu hometown, he has worked with and wrote songs for various East African artists. His portfolio includes Kidum, Nyashinski, Ali Kiba, Dela and Mercy Masika.
He also performs regularly with Kenyan legends H_art The Band and co-wrote some of their hits including Usiseme No. His original songs, which he plays at his own shows, are authentic heartwarming stories about love and its mishaps. Sprinkled with a few naughty lines only mature people will understand.
So it’s not hard to see why Sauti Sol chose to sign the seasoned musician to their new record label Sol Generation Records. This is their way of giving back to the Kenyan music scene which they currently dominate. They took time to take this major step because they needed to put systems in place and learn from their mistakes. Even Delvin Mudigi aka Savara completed a one-year program on music business at Stanford University. He’s now in Harvard for another one on music production.
Everyone is bringing their expertise into this new enterprise. Chimano is the creative and fashion director while Bien is good at PR and songwriting. Savara is creating structures for production while Polycarp deals with A&R. For the past 2 years or so, they have scouted promising Kenyan musicians at events and even befriended them. They wish to shorten their time to rise in the bubbling East African music industry. Starting with Bensoul.
Just like Sauti Sol, the new Kenyan star deleted all his Instagram photos and videos prior to the Sol Generation announcement on February 2019. Their first post was a short teaser video with audio clips brushing over the #playKemusic discussion, Kaskazini sitting in the dark studio and Bensoul finally appearing in the recording booth. We couldn’t wait to see what would come next.
Luckily, we found out the next day.
Bensoul’s first official single “Lucy” is a deadly combination of rock and dancehall beats accompanied by Sheng, Swahili and English lyrics. Produced by Mboks and Mutoria, it’s a relatable jam among many men beseeching a girl named “Lucy” to stop playing games and choose one lover once and for all. The hot video was evidently shot at MUZE club in Westlands. It’s just him, his guitar, dancer Eunice Mwikali (not Lucy), flashy LED lights, mannequins and great video directing.
Released on February 26th, the electrifying video received over 420k YouTube views in one month only. And it was not even 4/20 yet. How did it rise so fast so high? Bensoul has consistently been promoting his first music video and media tour on social media, while still looking like a rockstar. He has appeared on every mainstream TV and radio station you can imagine thanks to Anyiko PR.
The most touching part is Sauti Sol’s solidarity. They are behind the talented brother, quite literally. They pull up to his interviews like a squad and even sing backup for him. Bensoul must be the luckiest Kenyan artist alive.
Our new rockstar has been sufficiently riding the Lucy wave. Squeezing the juice out of it. On social media, he shares short witty captions that relate to his Kenyan audience, his hobbies of rollerblading (and falling down), and an acoustic cover of Lucy on piano - which you need to watch. You might also want to watch his live performance of Lucy at Africa Nouveau 2019 with H_art The Band watching proudly over him, and at Churchill Show with his Sauti Sol backup. He even released a skanking dub version with Savara on YouTube.
And like any self-respecting musician in 2019, he put Lucy on all international streaming platforms. And on SKIZA too for those Kenyans who like to use callback tunes.
But the most rewarding promotional strategy is #BensoulLucyChallenge. The power of the hashtag is real. As soon as the hit single came out and the positive comments started pouring in, Bensoul urged his audience to share videos of them singing or dancing to Lucy. And the people responded as seen from the creative covers by fans and fellow artists Band Beca, Kaskazini and Mordecai. The ones that stood out the most were the Ohangla version with Max Okello and Polycarp Otieno, and a mugithi version by Ayrosh and Mutoria. They changed up the catchy lyrics to Luo and Kikuyu respectively, as well as the style of playing the guitar. It is always a vibe to listen to authentic Kenyan sounds.
The most unexpected was a female-empowering spoken word piece by Mumbi. Which ended with a juicy word that rhymes with Lucy. I shall let that sink in.
To make it even more exciting, Bensoul turned the challenge into a competition. The cover video with the most comments would win a cash prize. This not only fueled shares but also his post-engagement through comments - cleverly translating into a higher reach thanks to Instagram algorithms. And true to his word, he awarded the most voted artists NIURU with Ksh10,000 in cash.
The dance challenge on the consecutive week attracted more fans dancing in their houses and outdoors, from freestyling to choreographed sets. Bien and his girlfriend Chiki - sorry, fiancee - set major couple goals for everyone. It was reminiscent of the viral dance challenges Sauti Sol sparked with their own hits Sura Yako and most recently Short and Sweet’s odi dance.
Another interesting string Bensoul pulled was to ask his fans to comment on his post if he hadn’t followed them back. And it worked. With these simple tricks, he connected with old and new fans from Kenya and beyond, increased his social media engagement and followers (as well as following).
He did not have to do all this. After all, Lucy is a world-class production both audio-wise and visually. Wahenga walisema Kizuri chajiuza kibaya chajitembeza. But with the large influx of content online, you have to take yours to the people. Let them know who you are and what you do.
Artists, are you taking notes? When releasing your next single or music video, it doesn’t hurt to be proactive. Get a photo shoot in advance, plan a media tour, record acoustic versions and employ creative ways for your audience to engage with your song. You don't have to be backed up by a record label like Bensoul, independent artists all over the world are doing it.
Our soulful superstar announced that as soon as Lucy reaches half a million YouTube views, he will release his next single and music video. And the Kenyan boy's dreams have come true, even before 4/20. His engaged fans are more than ready for their next favourite song.
According to a TV interview, Bien-Aime confessed that Bensoul recorded his debut album in just a week. The best live act in Afrika has even been promoting LUCY more than their new Afrikan Sauce LP. As Sauti Sol tweeted, it's Bensoul's time. He’s been in the background writing songs for others long enough.
From the teaser video, we already know they are cooking something hot with urban-fusion trio Kaskazini at the Sol Generation studios. In the meantime, we are still figuring out why their logo is a cock wearing headphones. All we know is Kenyan music is golden. And Papa Soul is living proof.