This week’s visit by US President Barack Obama could be crucial to Kenyan music due to the interest he has shown in the past, and the great potential the US holds for the arts industry.
However, all depends on whether music entrepreneurs will meet counterparts from the US and other countries coming to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
As a senator, Obama’s personal intervention facilitated visa to US for the Kenyan trio, Extra Golden, that was invited to perform at a major music festival and also the participation of Kenya Boys Choirs during his inauguration was largely to do with his Kenyan connection.
After the event, the choir was signed by US Decca records and has enjoyed an international profile with tours abroad ever since.
The hosting of a Kenya month at the Smithsonian Museums was due compliment to the country and proof of improved relations between the two countries.
“It was a great event and fitting introduction of Kenyan arts to the US audience,” said Joseck Asikoye of Jabali Afrika who was at the event.
So far lukewarm relations between Kenya and the US has been a burden to the efforts to sell Kenya music in the international mainstream and Obama’s visit is a good sign that could very well ease this out.
Over the past decade, claims of stringent visa regulations and travel advisories have hampered movement of artistes from both sides, creating obstacles that have discouraged promoters.
But there is also a case of lack of initiatives from Kenya, in addition to a bad record on general marketing globally. This was well indicated in a recent observation by US music tutor Mary Conitz who said that the Obama factor has increased awareness to Kenya in the US politically, but not in the social and cultural sense and a majority of Americans knows very little about the country in this regard.
In his own reflection, London British music researcher Guy Morley noted that the Obama factor had indeed raised the Kenya profile in a unique manner which provided a platform to carry Kenyan music internationally. He however regretted that Kenya had not exploited this unique advantage.
“With good planning the Obama factor could do a world of good to sell Kenya music internationally, but it has not been well exploited,” he said.
It is expected that US music industry will start paying more attention to Kenya now that the relations are good but the challenge is for Kenya to develop a plan to market its own product.
This golden opportunity comes at a time when most countries have understood the multiple benefits of a vibrant music industry.
The benefits were first noted in Nashville, a music industry research funded by World Bank in Africa in 2009. It gave clear pointers to the relevance of music to a country’s overall economy and urged African countries to develop their music cultures as a means to recreation and a flagship that can attract investment.
In recent times, the growth of global music scene has a new aspect: presenting the art as a vital public relations tool for countries that export music. As a product, music has become a melting pot of global cultures and it takes innovative strategies to sell to the world.
Over the years, some African countries have managed to breakthrough internationally due to good planning and understanding the peculiarities of the various markets.
In the late 1970s , Nigerian tycoons pooled resources to take King Sunny Ade on a tour of Europe with an entourage that was too large to make economic sense but as the sponsors said; “They were not in it for economic gain but rather to show the world that Nigeria has music.”
Also in 1970, the Congolese government (then Zaire) hosted the much publicised world heavyweight boxing championship fight, Rumble in the Jungle, between Mohammad Ali and George Foreman to compliment a world class pop music festival that featured the best of the world at the time.
Countries with international events that attract attention include South Africa, Zanzibar, Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso. Others like Uganda have used tours by top international artistes to build its status in the world market.
But Kenya has been lost in this vein and should use the Obama opportunity to learn the process with a view to hosting events that attract international media coverage and the sharing of music experiences between the two countries.