Build Kenya, Buy Kenya…How we get it wrong

Bad music comes from somewhere…more often than not we are the source of this bad music because we don’t want to call it what it is-bad.

I’m fed up with listening to music on the radio, or watching music videos on tv, or reading  articles in the newspaper or watching shows on tv. I’m particularly fed up with consuming mainstream Kenyan media content because of the nagging feeling that we can do so much better. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few bright bulbs out there doing it right and representing what actual talent can do if given a chance. However, these few spots of brilliance are easily overshadowed by a wave of the worst in entertainment you could sit through on a commute to work in Nairobi traffic on a rainy Monday morning.

I’ve obviously been expressing this feeling of frustration to anyone who would care to listen (and anyone willing to be drawn into a debate) for some time now and to my amazement I’ve been directed to some fairly interesting alternatives for my recreational needs. I’ve come off it the better but still terribly disappointed. Any time I bump into a friend who’s just attended a play they are quick to throw in “…buy Kenya, build Kenya” somewhere in the conversation. I usually smile but on the inside I cringe and question why they feel the need to emphasize that.

The Wrong Stuff

This weekend I discovered myself at Alliance Française in Nairobi for the Drum Jam semi-finals. Because you live under a rock and can’t be bothered, let me explain what Drum Jam involves. It’s a battle of the bands set up where two bands compete for points assigned on the basis of showmanship, mastery of instruments, audience participation, arrangement of assigned music in genre clusters and band chemistry. The band with the most points advances to the next level of the competition where they get to do it all over again. It was a good way to spend the fading hours of Sunday evening. The points are awarded by a panel of judges and it was refreshing to note that some of the panel had just stepped of the stage after performing an invigorating set.

This stood out for me because the norm in Kenya lately is having a judge on a show because of how famous they are rather than what expertise they can contribute. Take Fashion Watch on Citizen TV. If the kettle ever called the pot black this would be the equivalent of a chimney listening in on that conversation and thinking, “Yeah, the kettle has a point”.

…they are quick to throw in “…buy Kenya, build Kenya” somewhere in the conversation. I usually smile but on the inside I cringe and question why they feel the need to emphasize that.

From their comments it was evident they knew the difference between a recorder and a flute, they had a right to sit on the judge’s seats. The audience however confirmed my fears on how we build the wrong stuff. You don’t need to be an expert in music to know if someone is singing terribly. You can get away with playing the drums like a lunatic on drugs because we’ll say it’s your technique but singing with your eyes closed doesn’t help you sing any better than a drowning cat on a rainy night.

The audience applauded the drowning cat musician to a deafening crescendo. I only later found out that some loud hecklers were friends of the band thus explaining the strange applause. My heart sunk. That whole band is going to ride a wave of confidence from gig to gig with no real idea what to work on, what to fix, what their weaknesses are or their strengths until they get to a point where there is no home grown support and the boos and jeers are the only response from the audience. By this point it’s too late to fix. They will either break apart or resort to playing in their home ground where the support is biased and unlikely to contribute to their growth.

This is how we ended up with rubbish on radio and TV.

Project Fame

Anyone reading this is old enough to remember Tusker Project Fame. You will remember especially the auditions and how you laughed till you cried as people embarrassed themselves on TV for millions to see. These beautiful people with the musical gifting of village criers didn’t wake up one day and decide to be particularly entertaining for the sake of a bucket list. They were encouraged all their lives by family, friends and church members about their voices being beautiful. Encouraged because it’s easier to give a false compliment than to give a harsh truth.

you open a newspaper and it feels like you are reading a blog post in hard copy. You can smell the bias in print, you know what political party the journalist and media house support, you can see the opinion but rarely the facts.

It’s easier to stand in church and say, “Let’s give him a better clap than that” after he massacres a good song under the guise “listen to the words, not the voice”. It’s easier to laugh in secret than confront these aspiring musicians and teach them how to allow us to be taken by the voice as we listen to the words. So they leave and make it to another level of exposure where it is easier to say “That was good” but not take the time to make it better. Before long there is a talent search and your friend is on TV making a fool of themselves and you’ve abandoned them like a Trump presidency.

Bad music comes from somewhere…more often than not we are the source of this bad music because we don’t want to call it what it is-bad.

Bad writing comes from somewhere too. That poorly written article in the Standard or the Daily Nation didn’t invade the scribe last night. It takes years to train a journalist and writing, good writing at that, is central to this training. But you open a newspaper and it feels like you are reading a blog post in hard copy. You can smell the bias in print, you know what political party the journalist and media house support, you can see the opinion but rarely the facts.

Bad TV shows come from somewhere too. No one wants to call out the script writer and say the characters were underutilized and the story was thin and poorly developed. No one wants to call the director aside and say the story was rushed and some scenes unnecessary or that the story was vague and could be refined. No one wants to tell the director of photography the camera tricks were useless in advancing the story and some shots were poorly framed. No one wants to tell the cast they over-acted and sounded ‘fake’. It’s easier to say, “That was an ok show” and prepare for another round of disservice. How else do you explain the on-going disaster of a show Tahidi High (which started off in life as a great show but slowly ran out of story to tell resulting in a tragedy of uneventful forced story telling).

Bad fashion comes from somewhere as well. Do you remember the disaster of a shirt Larry Madowo of the Trend donned during an interview with Sauti Sol? He could have said no and wore another shirt but pushed through with buying Kenya, building Kenya wrong. Some animal was harmed in the making of that shirt, if not, I was hurt for its sake.

Hope

There must be hope. We’ve already used this model of blind support for our politics and seen its effects (Mwizi wetu syndrome). If we want to build Kenya by buying Kenyan we need to make sure we’re buying the right bits of Kenyan. Don’t buy a scarf that looks like you assaulted the wrong end of a peacock in the name of economic patriotism. Talk to the budding fashion entrepreneur so that you wear something that flatters your look as much as boosts their bank account. Don’t walk around town with your hair looking like a bird’s nest because ‘my friend Sharon can style hair’. Talk to Sharon so she can make you look like a goddess and not a chicken standing in the rain.

Read your friend’s first draft and tell them it’s rubbish if it is. Tell them what to change, check the facts. Trust me; writers keep friends who critique their work harshly for longer.

Watch the movies on YouTube and give honest reviews. Say the actor was not in character, say the actress didn’t hack it as the damsel in distress because she didn’t seem to be in any distress. Make it better by refusing to consume it when it’s bad.

I’ll be attending the finals for Drum Jam in December, hopefully it’ll be just as entertaining as the semi-finals and the judges just as good if not better (a tough act to follow). Between now and then, I need some good music, any suggestions within the Kenyan realm?

Make it better by refusing to consume it when it’s bad.
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