Myth #1 about the Kenyan music industry: there is no distinct ‘Kenyan’ sound.
Myth #2 about the Kenyan music industry: everyone is either a gospel artist or copying Nigerian artists.
These were some of the sentiments that people would cite when grumbling about the lack of popularity and support the Kenyan music scene receives. Myths like these often focus on the fact that globally there is nothing that distinguishes Kenyan music from that of musical powerhouse countries like Nigeria or South Africa and the seeming ubiquity of Kenyan gospel musicians. These myths, however, don't notice that Kenya doesn’t have a distinct sound because most artists are creating music that defies genres and expectations and the difficulty of finding one generic category to classify over 45 ethnic groups under one generic ‘Kenyan’ banner.
This is not something Kagwe Mungai tackles on his first album, ‘Spectrum,’ but he does bring to the forefront the diverse and individual stylings of Kenyan music and its artists. Released on May 4, ‘Spectrum’ is an Afropop album that contains elements of Dancehall, Gospel, R&B, and Hip-Hop. It has a little bit of everything for everyone, something the Kenyan music scene is never celebrated for - the fact that someone somewhere is creating the kind of music you like with a Kenyan twist, making it hard to lock down an overtly Kenyan sound.
Kagwe Mungai has refused to be confined to one genre. While some musicians stick to one sound and never part from their way of doing things, you never know what you will get with Kagwe. In a 2017 interview with Standard Digital, the singer expounded on the terms Afro-Kagwe and Afro-Funky to describe the type of music he creates and how he manages to remain unboxed in.
“I wake up in the morning and depending on my mood, I decide what kind of music to compose. One day, it may be reggae, the next, it may be hip-hop,” he explained, “I don’t believe in confining myself to a specific genre. There’s too much good music out there to play with.”
The 28-year-old is skilled in making party tunes that will get you on the dancefloor, like with ‘Baas’ where he enlists the original Kenyan turn-up song creators, Kansoul. Though the lyrics may have you blushing -‘nimekula sister yako’ and others that we will leave you to discover for yourself - this is an undoubted Kenyan banger. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Kagwe enlists the help of Madtraxx who has also repurposed childhood rhymes and songs to create a new way for those of us way past the Kati playing age to enjoy songs such as ‘Skamaress’ or ‘Super Seena.’
Kagwe is clearly a huge fan of sampling, whether through transforming childhood tunes or incorporating phrases from popular songs. It sometimes borders on excessive but what keeps it fresh is that element of surprise when you hear a particular phrase or beat. An unexpected sample on 'Spectrum' is Angelique Kidjo's 1994 single, 'Agolo.' Which for some people is synonymous with growing up in Nairobi during a particular period and time and fits perfectly on Miss Obi, Kagwe's ode to Nairobi.
Music is capable of transporting you to a different time and Kagwe does an excellent job of taking us on a trip down memory lane. From the playground songs, the old school samples, and even the gospel-tinged song ‘Ogopa Mungu,’ which takes you back to those Christian Union days in high school and doing the side to side shuffle during praise and worship, this album feels reminiscent of being a teenager in Kenya when Insyder Magazine was my magazine of choice and ‘Get Down’ by Madtraxx was THE jam. Kagwe takes that nostalgia and combines it with the current trends and issues.
From the personal dramas of love to club tunes to songs like ‘Pressure’ that touch on the state of the Kenyan economy, the rising cost of living and the barrage of assault that the everyday Kenyan citizen is faced with, ‘Spectrum’ encapsulates all the different facets of life in Kenya. In an interview with ‘Business Daily Africa’ a few days before the live performance of his album at The Alchemist, he explained that the songs on the album are meant to take you on ‘a journey of moods, from party songs to those speaking about love and heartbreak, and the more serious topics like the challenges that we face as a country.’
If it wasn’t apparent when he joined the music industry in 2011 or when he dropped his 2012 mixtape, ‘It Only Gets Better,’and the ‘Kama Kawaida’ single, or when he produced ‘Sauti Sol’s ‘Nishike’ or Eric Wainaina’s ‘Selina,’ Kagwe Mungai is a talented producer and artist.
‘Spectrum’ reaffirms that he has had his foot on the gas pedal and has no intention of kanyagaing the brakes anytime soon. With ‘Spectrum’ we see Kagwe experiment with different sounds and techniques and remind us that the best thing about the Kenyan music industry is the variety within it.