By Annrita Wangui Gituthu
Published September 24, 2014
Whether you are looking for Nigerian, South African, Congolese or Tanzanian beats, you will find all of them in Kenyan Gospel music.
Willy Paul, Gloria Muliro and Bahati are some of the singers who see their success as lying across the Kenyan border in Tanzanian music of the younger generation known as Bongo Flava. As the English would say; they have fallen for Bongo Flava hook, line, and sinker! Or isn’t that how the English idiom phrases it?
Apart from being played massively on popular TV channels and radio stations in Kenya, these musicians are receiving awards, accolades and praise in the country known for its traditional music styles like Benga, Omutibo,Mwomboko, Chakacha and Taarab.
But why would Nairobi-based artists opt for a Dar es Salaam (Bongo) art form derived from United States of Americaâ€™s hip hop with influences from reggae, RnB, afrobeats and traditional Tanzanian styles? But the surprise doesnâ€™t stop there; the Kenyans are aping everythingâ€”Kiswahili intonation and pronunciation, vocals and presentation mannerismsâ€”from popular Tanzanian singers such as Diamond Platinum, Bushoke and Ali Kiba.
Why are Kenyan musicians mimicking their Bongo Flava counterparts?
Perhaps no one symbolises this mimicry better than Wilson Abubakar Radido who is popularly known as Willy Paul. Some of his well known singles include Sitolia, Mpenzi and Kitanzi. He won the Best Male Artist of the Year in Gospel Groove Awards in 2012.
Willy Paul is Diamond in the way he projects his vocals, the language he uses, the delivery format of his performance and beats he employs. He has been criticized and derided fior this practice but he appears to be impervious to criticism. Before discovering that Willy Paul was Kenyan, I had for quite some time taken him to be Tanzanian.
Kevin Bahati, whose stage name is Bahati, came in the limelight in 2013. Like Willy Paul, Bahati is Diamond. Some of his songs that are aired on Kenyan television and radio include Siku ya kwanza, Mama and Barua. He has since scooped a Groove Award for Best Male Artist of the Year and an AFRIMMA award for Best Gospel Artist in 2014.
Song writer and performer Gloria Muliro is another singer who appears to be riding the Bongo Flava wave, especially in her collaboration with Willy Paul on songs such as Sitolia and Kitanzi. Her album earned her the 2013 Female Artist of the Year prize at the gospel Groove Awards.
The Bongo Flava fever is hardly the only virus that has infected Kenyan gospel artists as demonstrated by Groove Award-winning singers like Emmy Kosgei and Hellena Kitheka-Kaloki who employ South African Zulu beats in their songs. They even mimic Nigeria’s P-Square duo, they of the Chop Your Money fame!
Kosgey confesses that she is inspired by South African singers Miriam â€˜Mama Africaâ€™ Makeba, Keke and Rebacca Malope.
There is, however, a huge difference between getting inspiration and copying and artists must be aware of that. Mimicking what has already been done just puts God, the author of creativity, to sleep, to paraphrase Paa ya Paa Art Galleryâ€™s Elimo Njau quotation, â€œDonâ€™t Copy. Copying Puts God to Sleep.â€
Copying stunts and curtails creativity, innovation and variety without which there is no art. Perhaps saying that Kenya has no talent wouldnâ€™t be entirely wrong after all
Why, pray, does Kenya reward mediocrity? Where are the gatekeepers? Where are the critics? Does Kenya not have scouts, nurturers and managers of talent? Groove Awards, among other award initiatives in Kenya, would do well if they recognized and rewarded unique talent. By supporting mediocrity and mimicry, Groove Awards is promoting copycats into the gospel industry. I wonder what criteria they use to get their winners because it is difficult to imagine that the mimicking can go unnoticed.