Kenya’s Gatekeeping Problem

gatekeeping/ˈɡeɪtkiːpɪŋ/

noun

the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something.

Before I begin, let me say that I am aware that gatekeeping is not unique to Kenya so if this is your contribution to this topic, spare me. Secondly, gatekeeping exists in a myriad of spaces, from politics, to the lit world, to TV etc – I am going to be talking about music specifically.

Now onto the matter:

Late last year/ early this year, the issue of Play Kenyan Music (#PlayKEMusic) gained momentum, fueled by remarks by DJ Pinye stating that DJs shouldn’t play “mediocre music“. This issue is primarily about urban Kenyan music. Now, for someone with this platform, access to radio and TV, to subjectively make these statements while not applying the same metrics to music from other countries is absurd in my opinion. We must accept that he (and others) are industry gatekeepers. A problem.

Have you been watching Cleaning the Airwaves on YouTube? I mean, if you listen to the subtext in some of these interviews, you would see that this issue has been around for a long time.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCaMvRElBIF3otmOLq8cxwEg

This isn’t the first time we have talked about the issue of playing Kenyan music and why radio/TV doesn’t give it priority. From the days of Kalamashaka – the issue of gatekeeping has arisen, we look back with rose coloured glasses on how good their music used to be. However, at their peak – their music wasn’t on radio and a quick Google search will show that this was the case. I remember Hardstone in an interview talking about how his career was railroaded by DJ Pinye.

(click here to listen: https://www.facebook.com/GidiOGidi/videos/10156358086478896/)

If you’ve watched any music documentary or read music history, the issue of DJs, radio presenters, industry heads gatekeeping isn’t new. I think what makes it even more difficult for Kenyan artists is the lack of an organised industry and the fact that certain personalities have their foot in every aspect of the industry. They own record labels, are event promoters, have contracts with the largest companies, are producers, have ownership in radio stations – In such a case, having gatekeepers arbitrarily decide what makes the cut or not, coupled with a populace that likes being spoonfed and rampant corruption within ALL systems that are meant to work for the benefit of artists – we encounter a situation where breaking into the mainstream urban market is dependent on factors beyond the actual music being made. In the case of Ethic and their viral hit Lamba Lolo – it was the virality of that song that led them to being the force they are now. We (you who is reading this and I) know that they would never have gotten radio play if that video did not become the viral hit.  

Urban radio presenters and other media personalities do not need to go to other countries to find that they play their own music (Nigeria, SA etc.) as was being discussed at the time. This is a non-issue in this era of social media. They are well aware that this is the case, yet are either drunk on some power trip or they don’t care about the music industry. Simple.

Gatekeeping goes beyond radio presenters et al. It also includes established industry insiders spreading false stories about musicians/artists – and these words being taken at face value. That is another form of gatekeeping rampant in the 254. Because of their standing in the industry, if an old head producer for example says that a certain musician doesn’t do XYZ, even if this is false, it is taken as the truth – closing out that person to opportunities that they would otherwise go their way. I don’t understand why this happens but I have heard of this happening a couple of times and it fills me with a rage I cannot express in words. What is the motivation my guy?

Something else I’ve noticed and quite frankly perturbs me is lack of visible mentorship – in essence protégés. You know how you see western artists have people in their roster that they mentor and “show them the ropes” of the industry. Does that happen here? I just don’t know? (outside of Sauti Sol who frankly can be considered “new” and I respect them for this particular thing).

By the way, I know many will say that with the advent of social media, musicians don’t need radio/DJs/Promoters etc but you know this is simplistic thinking. We should firstly, have systems that work and also want the systems to work. Industry insiders should also strive to ensure they aren’t being stumbling blocks to the growth of the industry by perpetuating nonsense miaka nenda, miaka rudi.

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2 thoughts on “Kenya’s Gatekeeping Problem

  1. I find the call for “quality Kenyan music” so disingenuous and pretentious. Some of it is just classism tbh. People suddenly remember ‘standards’ when it’s time to play Kenyan music, but they’re okay listening to mumble rap artists who can barely keep up with the beat. The industry is still largely cliquish and predatory, and something really needs to be done about transparency in royalty collection organizations, which are really just robbing artists. Gatekeepers are also sexually harassing (mostly female) artists, and that’s a conversation that needs to be had too.

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