Ethnic Perceptions in the Classification of Kenyan Popular Music

T. Michael Mboya

Several studies of Kenyan popular music of the early twenty-first century reveal that this music actively reproduces ethnic perceptions that feed into the politics of the country (Mboya, 2009; Ogude, 2007; Simatei, 2010; Wa Mungai, 2008; Wa Mutonya,2007). By general agreement, Kenya’s politics of the time is deeply ethnicized (Nangulu, 2007; Muga, 2009). This article highlights the role of the popular music industry in the manufacture and circulation of ethnic perceptions in Kenya at the time by focusing on the marketing and promotion of the music. Specifically, this article examines the reception of a popular song, “Riziki” (2005) by Ja-Mnazi Afrika, and its contested categorization by different “middle-man” consumers of Kenyan popular music, players in the industry who significantly influence the “end-user” consumption of the music. The argument is that ethnic perceptions influence categorization, and in turn this perpetuates the same.

The Reception of “Riziki

“Riziki” has been one of the most successful Kenyan popular songs of the first decade of the twenty-first century. It was the title track of the second album by the group Ja-Mnazi Afrika and was a “hit” in the country right from the time it was first recorded and released in 2005 through to 2008. It is not easy to account for a song’s popularity,to latch onto what exactly makes one song, and not another, a “hit”, but “Riziki” has several of the characteristics one readily finds in many commercially successful Kenyan and East African songs. The song has a simple melody that is easy to sing-along to, and which is anchored in a “punchy” and memorable chorus; there is a hint of naughtiness(sexual innuendo rather than graphic, obscene language) and, linked to that, a sly political comment in the lyrics; there is the impression of philosophical refection on the universe (the subjects matter are doorways that introduce “weighty” stuff that apparently lift the song from ‘mere fun dance music’); and the “climax”, “chemko”or “sebene” (the extended instrumental section meant for dance) is melodious and well-managed

Even though in Kenya it is nearly impossible to know how many copies a music album sells in cassettes and compact discs, given the problem of music piracy (Nyairo, 2004:20-26), there are several indicators of the popularity of “Riziki”. The song enjoyed massive radio airplay, especially over 2006-2007. In 2007 it won the Best Western Benga Song Award at the Kisima Awards, at the time the most prestigious music awards in Kenya. That same year, Ja-Mnazi Afrika won the first prize in the Best Band/Group (Kenya category) at the Pearl of Africa Music (PAM) Awards in Uganda on the strength of the song. Both the original and a modified version of it were in 2008 used as theme songs for the Kenyan crime investigation series Cobra Squad which aired on national television station, NTV. On the national holiday Kenyatta Day of the same year, Ja-Mnazi Afrika performed “Riziki” in a medley to the crowd that had, led by the President of the republic, gathered to celebrate the heroes of the struggle for Uhuru [Kiswahili: “Independence”] at the Nyayo Stadium. Over 2008, Awillo Mike,the composer of “Riziki”, also the band spokesman of Ja-Mnazi Africa, and one of its three leaders, was something of a regular interviewee of all the leading Kenyan broadcast stations. Awillo was also interviewed by the BBC in their Kiswahili segment.The mobile phone companies Cellulant, Mobile Sawa, Style Up Ringtones, Mobile Fun,developed cell phone ringtones from “Riziki” over 2008. The song continues to be a significant component in the repertoire that enables Ja-Mnazi Afrika to be constantly on tour throughout Kenya.

Closely examined, the indicators of the generally positive reception of “Riziki” by the influential Kenyan consumers of popular music cited above, such as the organizers of the music awards and the ringtone developing and selling companies also send intriguing messages that are extra to the music. For example, “Riziki” won the Best Western Benga Song Award at the Kisima Awards of 2007. Questions arising from this are one, is “Riziki” a benga song? Two, if indeed it is a benga piece, what is western benga about the song? Further, the companies that came up with ringtone versions of the song variously classified it (over 2008) as “Luo”, “Zilizopendwa” (Cellulant);“Lingala/Rumba”, “Zilizopendwa”, “Local/East African” (Style Up Ringtones); “Local/East African” (Mobile Fun); and “Luo Tones” (Mobile Sawa). To clarify and explore the implications of these questions, a little background knowledge of “Riziki” and its composer is necessary.

Awillo Mike’s “Riziki”

Awillo Mike started composing “Riziki” in 2000 when he was still with the Kilimanjaro Sound Band whose four main players (instrumentalists/vocalists) were Tanzanian .Awillo was the group’s animator, and its first Kenyan musician. The group also had two Kenyan dancers. In Awillo’s explanatory narrative, he was inspired to compose “Riziki”by personal observation. He was walking through a street in the Mwembe Tayari area of Mombasa one night when the on-going hectic economic activity struck him as curious. The activity produced two almost contradictory reactions. On the one hand,Awillo was impressed by the work going on, and thought that people should never get excuses to be lazy and to idle the time away while they are unable to meet their basic needs – here were people who were trying to make money even at night (hence the Kiswahili proverb that he uses in the chorus: Uki zubaa zubaa utapata mwana si wako[Kiswahili, rough, semantic translation: if you are not keen you will lose that which you value]). On the other hand, still cognizant of the work and thinking that night is the natural time for rest, Awillo wondered if and when those hard workers of Mwembe Tayari ever took a break from their activities. That reaction became the question prominently asked in the song: “Lakini sasa mwapumzika saa ngapi?” [Kiswahili, literal translation: But now, at what time do you rest?]

According to Awillo, the basic melody and some of the lyrics of “Riziki” came to him at the moment he received the inspiration for the song. The song was, to his mind at its conceptualization, and even after, a rumba with a muffed zouk beat. This was basically the Tanzanian “muziki wa dansi” [Kiswahili: “Dance music”] that Kilimanjaro Sound Band was playing at the time. After a gestation period of five years, and having grown in the form, that Awillo Mike, who had by the time moved on from Kilimanjaro Sound Band through the Kenya-based Congolese group Choc Generation and the Kenyan bands Extra Kimwa and Bana Kutana to found Ja-Mnazi Afrika, was satisfied with “Riziki” and finally recorded it in 2005.

Categorizing “Riziki”

Regardless of the motivation behind the categorizations of “Riziki” noted above,one can aver that such classifications produce and define audiences for the music. Grossberg et al explain that: The concept of the audience is a social construction, a concept that can mean and be made to mean many different things. Yes, there are real people out there watching a television program, or reading a newspaper, or buying an album, who can be said to be in the audience for a particular media product. However, the idea of an audience is never merely an innocent description of the sum total of individuals. The fact of the matter is the song was, to his mind at its conceptualization,and even after, a rumba with a muffed zouk beat. This was basically the Tanzanian “muziki wa dansi”“Riziki” is not a benga song unless, we casually broaden the parameters and say all guitar-based Kenyan musics are benga and all European and American songs of the 1980s are soul, etc. As has lately become the trend in that the audience does not exist out there in reality apart from the way in which it is defined by different groups for different purposes (Grossberg et al, 2006: 222).

These audience definitions have multiple ramifications – cultural, political and financial- in early twenty-first century Kenya. Let us start with the categorization of “Riziki”as a Western Benga song as the organizers of the Kisima Awards did. If we go to the characteristics of benga as a genre as defied by Mboya, (2009) will easily recognize that “Riziki” is not a benga song unless, we casually broaden the parameters and say all guitar-based Kenyan musics are benga and all European and American songs of the 1980s are soul, etc. As has lately become the trend in Kenya.

But, even if “Riziki” were a benga song, is there in existence a sub-genre of the form that is referred to as western benga? What are the characteristics of this sub-genre?There have been attempts to distinguish between Luo benga and other variations of the genre. For instance, Stapleton and May have written that: while the Luos followed root [benga] rhythms, Gikuyu musicians like Joseph Kamaru …and Francis Rugwiti developed their own vernacular sound … while the Kamba band Kilimambogo Boys created their own mesmerizing benga sound, keyed around instrumental patterns and frequent rhythm guitar breaks (1989: 231).

On the basis of these distinctions some researchers (e.g. Wa Mutonya, 2007) have accepted the existence of Western and Eastern benga. Now, the distinctions Stapleton and May make can only give variations of benga that are based on the languages which the song lyrics are in; DhoLuo, Gikuyu, Kikamba, Kalenjin, Ekegusii, among others.More important though is that, while it is indisputable that musicians of different ethnicities have contributed to the development of benga, it is all but impossible to see that these contributions have resulted in the construction of them as constituting coherent regional or ethnic characteristics. This is a point that needs further exploration, especially given the fact that the key lead guitarists (this being the main instrument in benga) of the more successful of these bands from outside Luo land have been Luo, and the obvious sustained referencing of Luo benga that one finds in these newer “varieties” (see Osusa et al).

From the practice at the Kisima awards we know that the ‘western’ in their categorization of benga refers to the western part of Kenya, the organizers having rather problematically demarcated the country into two parts, the West and the East.Given the problems with the boundary-marking, the delineation pretends to relate to the physical territory, whereas it actually is linked to ethnicity and so, given the movements of peoples, a musician operating in western Kenya can be considered to be playing eastern benga and, vice versa. It is therefore not difficult to be sympathetic to the feeling held by several musicians, Awillo Mike included, that the organizers of the Kisima Awards practice some form of unjustified protectionism. The argument here is that when Kenyans root a song to a (perceived) place of origin, either of its makers or intended primary audience (as indicated by the language of the lyrics),rather than to its genre, they effectively remove the song from those markets away from its assumed origins and also from competition with other songs of its type whose origins are located in those other places. This removal “protects’ those other songs by giving them opportunity for the kind of success and advertisement that is brought by recognition regardless of their quality and simultaneously limiting the acceptance of the barred song. In a phrase, free competition is undermined, and with that, the benefits that accrue from free competition are lost.

The rooting of “Riziki” to a place of origin, just like its identification as benga, is a moving away from consideration or apprehension of the song’s formal characteristics to an identification of the song in cultural, ethnic terms. This is important for the idea of place of origin in postcolonial Africa is often tied to the notion of ethnic identity.This explains why Chinua Achebe defines tribalism as “discrimination against a citizen because of his place of birth” (1983: 7, emphasis in the original). With that rooting, and the attendant creation of some dis/loyalty in the consuming publics, some attitudes of non-/ownership that arise from feelings of belonging to the place that the song is identified as originating from, a song is placed at the receiving end of both the political and economic advantages and disadvantages of ethnic / “tribal” discrimination.The rooting of “Riziki”to a place of origin, just like its identification as benga, is a moving away from consideration or apprehension of the song’s formal characteristics to an identification of the song in cultural, ethnic terms.

In the case of “Riziki” this placement has had only negative effects. The placement under Western Benga, which ordinarily means the identification of a song as Luo,denied “Riziki” the national audience it aspires for, while at the same time the song cannot pass for a Luo song. If language is the marker of the song’s ethnic identity (as Luo) then we must recognize that the lyrics of “Riziki”, except for a chorus that is inserted into the “sebene” towards the end of the song, are in Kiswahili, the national language of Kenya. Significantly, this “sebene”chorus is in OluNyala, a dialect of the Bantu OluLuhya language of the Abaluhya of western Kenya, and not in the nilotic Dholuo which is spoken by their JoLuo neighbors. If musical genre is the marker of the identification of the song in ethnic terms, then “Riziki” will be deemed to fall under the benga genre that was originated by Luo musicians (Osusa et al, 2009).This still constitutes a problem in the categorization.

The second difficulty is that it is theoretically difficult to insist on tying a musical genre that succeeds in gaining acceptance away from its originating home so much so that it attracts practitioners from its latter homes to the ethnicity of its originators. Can one say today, for example, that rock is African-American music? If the ethnic identity of a song’s composer will determine the ethnic identity of the song, then we must reckon with Awillo Mike’s claim to a hybrid Nyala-Luo identity, a fact that can be said to be made prominent by the point that even though Awillo has composed at least three OluNyala songs (“Ababu Okholo” and “Chingongo Chiebunyala” in Makulata and “Madembuso” in 100% Benga) and arranged a song in several of the OluLuhya dialects (“Lelo Luno” in Am not Sober), he has never composed a DhoLuo song. The Dholuo lyrics one finds in two of Awillo’s songs (“Am not Sober” in Am not Sober and“Makulata” in Makulata) are part of the choruses that he often tucks into the “sebene”sections of his songs. Part of the reason for the identification of Awillo as Luo arises from an amusing misunderstanding of the singer’s name, “Awillo”, which some Luo fans assume is the common Luo fond short form of the names “William” and “Willis”but in this particular instance it is an appropriation of the Congolese musician Awillo Longomba’s name. The appropriation goes back to the infancy of Awillo Mike’s musical career when he, like the Congolese musician, was an effective animator. “Riziki”, then,is neither Luo nor benga.

This matter of the ethnic identity of “Riziki” in particular and Ja-Mnazi Afrika in general has come up again and again in formal and informal discussions of popular music in Kenya. The fact explains why in several interviews that he gave to the national media in Kenya over 2008 Awillo Mike, consistently emphasized that his group is an all-Kenyan outfit that plays “national” rather than “tribal” music.

The motivations for the categorization of “Riziki” as Luo by the ringtone companies were obviously different from those of the organizers of the Kisima Awards. Ringtone companies sell their versions, and so they try to influence (or create) the markets. It would appear, just from the fact that some of the companies were tempted to give an ethnic infection to the products they were selling, that there was recognition that ethnicity plays a significant part in the choices Kenyans make in relation to the music they consume. An interesting categorization by some of the companies (Cellulant,Style Up Ringtones) is that which classified “Riziki” as Zilizopendwa. “Zilizopendwa” is Kiswahili equivalent for “Golden Oldies”. Classifying a song that is still “on top of the charts”, as it were, as an oldie is on the face of it inexplicable. But it should be said for the categorization that these companies were in their own way recognizing that“Riziki” was not to be defined in ethnic terms. In Kenya, strangely, Zilizopendwa are only Kiswahili songs of the 1960s and 1970s. It is important to note that these ringtone companies were also distinguishing “Riziki” from the (mostly Kiswahili-language) hip hop influenced music of the urban youth that had turned their backs on the guitar musics of Kenya. The guitar-musics then were wrongly understood to appeal only to the middle aged and the old. At the same time, the predisposition of members of these age groups towards buying ringtones was assumed to be minimal, hence the low number of ringtones developed for these musics. The same reasons for classifying“Riziki” as Zilizopendwa also come into play when the song is categorized under“Lingala/Rumba”.


Whether the motivation was to create markets for them or to accord the songs some recognition for their excellence, the categorization of Kenyan music and musicians in terms of cultural identities has basically the same ultimate consequence, namely, the entrenchment of the ethnicized character of Kenyan society. From the fact that the categorization was even made in the first instance one gets the sense that “ethnicity”permeated Kenyan society so thoroughly that nothing escaped it. Thus, whatever the intentions of the producer of “Riziki” the consumers of the song would still perceive it in ethnic terms.

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