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Blinky Bill. Photo: Maxime Debollivie.

Op-Ed: It's Time For Kenya to Get More Respect As an African Music Powerhouse

Kenyan music right now is arguably better than what's coming out of Nigeria, so why isn't it being played in Nairobi clubs?

There is something that has been driving a lot of people involved in the Nairobi arts scene up the wall and into a state of deep-seeded spite and loathing: that Kenyan music isn't played in Kenyan clubs.

Why not? How has the country so steeped in musical tradition cut around its own sound? This is a confusing matter, with no easy answer.

The Kenyan music industry is underdeveloped, yes, but not at all for a lack of talent. One needs to look no further than the last couple of months to see plainly that the Kenyan music scene is going through a truly incredible period right now, and that upward trend looks like it'll keep its trajectory upwards on into 2019.

Recent months has seen the release of new music from Blinky Bill, Stella Mwangi, Fena Gitu, Karun, Sauti Sol, the list goes on and on. Not to mention the dope new sounds of Kenyan house getting spun right now by the likes of EA Wave, DJ Coco Em, and Suraj on the dance floors of Nairobi and the Kenyan coast—and that is still before mentioning that there looks to be a continuance of brand new material next year. Yet Kenyan music isn't played in Kenyan clubs. Nairobi dance floors are utterly dominated by another nation's music: that of Nigeria.

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Coco Em. Photo by @Moharez courtesy of the artist.

Coco Em Is Nairobi's Hardest Hustling DJ

"We're building our own sound now. We just need to look inside of ourselves and see the things that makes us uniquely Kenyan."

Catching up with Coco Em is not an easy task these days. The girl seems to just be everywhere.

She picks me up at a gas station just before a rain storm; the interview a meeting that's wedged after two others for her, before she dashes off to Nairobi's Central Business District at rush hour for another. That seems par for the course for the Nairobi DJ, as she's clamped on to her chances and is currently not letting them go.

Coco Em has been playing on some of East Africa's most prominent stages, recently playing Nyege Nyege in Jinja, Uganda and going as far afield as spinning in Israel, bringing her own take on East African house mixes.

We sat down over chips in a nyama choma joint just up the road from Kenya's State House to talk about the music, the hustle and the journey that it's taken her to get here.

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Photo: Lizzie Farida.

Op-Ed: Why Is the Kenyan Music Industry So Behind?

"In Kenya we have yet to have that kind of financial and moral support as a country," Fena Gitu.

It's a fundamental question, one that many discerning music-obsessed individuals have asked four rounds deep at 2AM on a throbbing Nairobi dance floor: why is Kenyan music so behind?

Not in the musical sense, that boat holds no water. Kenyan artists, while they definitely have a different sound, can go punch for punch for any other African industry—I'll happily meet any naysayers outside. The problem is that they're not getting paid for it. So what lies at the root of this problem, why do the two other major 'hub' countries in Africa, that of South Africa and Nigeria, outstrip Kenya's industry by such a wide margin? A 2016 report from Price Waterhouse Cooper shows the two former industries trending upwards, growing, outside of population size. The Kenyan growth is visually dampened.

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