Beyoncé’s The Gift comes in the middle of a lengthy, ongoing conversation around cultural representation in entertainment and media. In this regard, it is debated to have missed the mark – the glaring absence of any East African artists did not go unnoticed. Lion King, which the album is based on, is said to have been inspired by Kenya’s landscapes, and therefore our sense of entitlement to some room on the album is not unfounded. After all, for too long, culturally and creatively, a stereotypical vision of Africa has served as a sort of Pinterest board from which things are picked off of for inspiration, and after the fact, is relegated to an indistinct corner of memory. This time, now that we know better, we want to take up space – we want to be remembered remembered – and what better platform than a Beyonce album? Because of these interlinked factors, the snub hurts. More than just a little. However, the lack of an East African artist on the album may not just be something to cry foul about, but also something that gives us room to think about East Africa’s musical positionality, both in terms of strategy, and sound.
Over the past few years, the meteoric rise of Nigerian music has made ‘afrobeats’, a term I use with caution, an ubiquitous sound. From a sales perspective, having several big-name Nigerian artists on the album must have been a no-brainer. The same can be said for the South African acts. But beyond a monetary justification lies deeper questions: where did Nigeria and South Africa (and even Cameroon, and Mali) start from to make it onto a platform like a Beyonce album? And what is it that makes a sound move around the globe, settling comfortably into places it arrives at from great distances, both of space, time and culture? And what is it about Kenyan music that couldn’t do this, at this time?
I am thinking about familiarity as an aspect of repeatability and presence of music, both home and away, as something that allows for the ease of movement of music from outside its country of origin. Several current genres of African music borrow heavily from the rhythms of the people within the country the music is born in, being mixed with sound elements from overseas. For example rumba (lingala) arose from a mixture of Congolese folk music and Latin American sounds, evolving as it spread all across Africa. This evolution of sound is something that doesn’t stop – the music we listen to is an offshoot of another, which has been an offshoot of another, sometimes hyphenated to no end. At times, somewhere along the web, it becomes difficult to distinguish origins, but we are left with music that remains familiar to a wider range of people due to the recognisable elements that remain pervasive despite all the transformations along the way.
Another more complex factor contributing to the spread of music is that of the culture and politics of a place at a particular time. In the 70s and 80s, several bands from DRC, singing in French and Lingala, made their way to concert halls filled to capacity in Europe, especially in francophone cities, a factor that appears to be a colonial by-product. From this article, I also learn that Kenyan musicians at the same time were topping international charts. There have been photos of Miriam Makeba meeting with superstar Grace Jones, and there are rumours of James Brown having plagiarised André-Marie Tala, a Cameroonian singer and guitarist (and a personal fave), after a trip to Cameroon. And now, Beyoncé’s The Gift. Since Africans have been making records, they have been taken across the globe, for reasons that transcend basic familiarity – reasons that derive from the complex cultural landscapes of each particular time and place.
As Kenya eased into the new millennium, a new sound emerged, one mostly bearing influences from outside – reggae, hip-hop and R&B. Those who rocked the urban airwaves were no longer what we’d consider our parents’ faves, these slinking unceremoniously into zilizopendwa status. Perhaps it is this stop-and-go musical timeline in Kenya that leads to a discontinuity, and a lack of coherence across generations, audiences, and artists. Along with various other analyses done of the country at the time, was our musical development in a particular direction also interrupted, or re-routed? And why is this the case in Kenya? Influences are diverse, but what happens when those from our own country are overlooked in favour of what, perhaps, may be a more universally accessible sound? And the conversation around this has been long, and lively, but what, also, does it mean to have a musical identity, as a country?
This last one has always been a difficult question to answer, even given the richness of music within Kenya. Contemporary Kenyan music could, once upon a time, definitively be rhumba, in all versions of this storied history available to us, and as another aspect of a complex cultural landscape. It could also have been what we now call zilizopendwa, music from Them Mushrooms, Bata Shoeshine Boys, Fadhili Williams, Freshly Mwamburi, and so on, that was popular at the same time. Why, then, is rhumba still relatively ubiquitous, while other contemporaneous music is not? (even the name, zilizopendwa, alludes to this.) Bob White, in Rhumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu’s Zaire (Duke University, 2008) writes of Kinshasa, an epicentre for rhumba music production in DRC, that “Kinshasa was not simply filled with music; it seemed held together by music.” There is a certain culture where the meaning of music, especially as a form of identity, seems to have been lost in Kenya, something that, years later, compared to a country like DRC, may undermine how we, and others, see ourselves musically. The limited reach of music within the country, with separate epicentres that do not radiate further than a certain limit, could be a reason for the breaks in continuity along the trajectory of Kenyan music, and the loss of a sense of ownership.
But perhaps it is not about the kind of music, but about the commercial and social structures that ensure longevity and stability, about the ways we think about what wants to be listened to, and how to make that part of our musical outreach, based on the prevailing musical cultures of the time. Perhaps it is a combination of both. But returning to my first point, given the success in a country like Nigeria with near-similar music production and distribution landscapes prior to the boom in afrobeats, I believe, more than anything, that what fails to make a presence in Kenya’s contemporary scene is the ability to create a long-lasting familiarity, that which feeds identity; a familiarity that arises from collaborations not only between artists, but across sounds. It’s not only about the genre as a whole – but the minutiae of the sound that constructs it. Thinking about how we can incorporate elements of these Kenyan musics – a drum pattern here, finger-plucked strings there – not only as a way of paying homage to those who came before us (and are still here), but as a way of passing the sonic baton along. Music has always been placed in community, and when the sound fragments, when it no longer carries the bonds that familiarise across generations, so does the movement of people around it, movement that is responsible for propelling music from strength to strength. I believe that once we come to a place where music is in flux, not just within pockets of genre and influence at different times in different cities, but across time and space, we can stay in constant conversation with our musical idiosyncrasies as a nation, while still enhancing our capacity for experimentation, growth and further development, that may or may not include a feature on a Beyoncé album.