Tyranny of numbers or not, the fact that East Africa could only muster one award at the 2015 MTv Awards Africa in KwaZulu Natal over the weekend is a clear indication that our zone needs to work harder with its music.
Nigeria, the biggest winners down South may have had the biggest number of voters in Durban but they also have something else East Africans do not have and need to have. They have an identity.
Sauti Sol carried Kenya’s hopes in two categories Best Group and Song of the Year (Sura Yako) while Tanzania’s Nasib Abdul aka Diamond Platinumz was nominated for three- Best Male, Best collaboration and Best Live while his compatriot Vanessa Mdee contested for Best Female.
Only Diamond came out with an award as Best Live act. Now if that is not tokenism, I don’t know what is.
Being a hot live act serves no indication of what one’s musical capabilities are.
Jimi Hendrix torched his guitar, perhaps to catch attention, on the stage, although one suspects it could have been a direct reaction to a popped up psychedelic mind bending pill. Still in the very next instant he gifted you entry into a beautiful, surreal and almost metaphysical world of imagery in The Wind Cries Mary complete with chromatic guitar chordings in F major. Now that’s genius!
That is not to say that Nasib Abdul’s award from the Mamas in Durban last weekend is worse than useless in musical terms. His fans love him and voted for him even if now, in hindsight, they might feel he could have behaved better after his acceptance speech. That, however, is a matter for the Tanzanians to deal with.
What Kenya most specifically needs to work out is how to service and serve their music in a way that captures the attention of the continent and at the same time keeps its local consumers in the loop so to speak.
Sauti Sol are fairly urban and on the basis of that, probably have a decent international profile. What probably needs to come across, I suspect, is how they can reach audiences in a way that makes musical sense.
There are guys in Nairobi who sell as many as 500 CDs if not more in a day at Sh100 each with zero press and FM Station rotation. You will not notice them or recognise them on the street because they ply their business in the back streets. That is music that is played in low end bars and upcountry beer dens. The most common element in their music is social commentary on diverse matters ranging from infidelity to retirement payoff swindles by ladies in thin skirts with expanded derrieres achieved through chemical lotions from China.
It takes guts to get to the places where this music is played not to say one also needs to be linguistically versatile to decipher the hidden meaning in everyday tribal speak.
The Nigerians have this at the core of their musical expression but given their international outlook and exposure they have managed to take this music to the next level. It has fantastic home support because it has locked out all other popular foreign music. Those in the know will tell you how tough it is to crack the Lagos market. Yet, and this is the crucial part, Nigerian musicians know everything there is to know about what other parts of the world are doing musically.
While Africa is musically struggling to catch up with Nigerian standards, the Nigerians are looking at cracking the global standard. And they are doing it.