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Kenya: The rise and fall of Gengetone music

By Omondi Were Jnr

Posted on December 29, 2022 11:30

A new musical style, Gengetone, captured Kenya’s youth in recent years, holding its own against the tide of Nigerian music flooding East Africa. But a lack of proper business structures around the musicians led to its downfall. Might it be revived?

On 31 May, 2018, a group of relatively young Kenyan boys dropped a peculiar-sounding song on YouTube, and with it, a new genre of music was birthed. The song was titled ‘Lamba Lolo,’ and those boys – at the time – just went by their own stage names; Rekles, Seska, Swat, and Zilla; they would later morph into the group Ethic Entertainment.

‘Lamba Lolo’ sounded different.

It wasn’t like anything Kenyans had heard before. The beats were wild, and the hook and chorus and verses even wilder; those boys, despite their young age, were openly saying things even adults were afraid of saying back then.

The title of the song itself, ‘Lamba Lolo’, loosely translates to ‘Lick the lollipop’, which was just a cheeky way a boy could use to tell a girl to give him oral pleasure.

The video of the song was thrown together in the ghetto – there was no choreography, and no script, everybody was just given a lollipop and told to have at it.

They were rugged and their words were vulgar (half of which most people did not even understand because it was in ghetto ‘Sheng’), the video was raunchy, and no radio or TV station was going to touch it. But the boys and their friends did not seem to have the slightest care in the world.

They were having fun and that was all that mattered. Little did they know that they were creating a movement.

The rise, rise, and eventual decline

‘Lamba Lolo’ became a hit, and Ethic Entertainment ruled the airwaves for a good year after their first release.

It was not being played on mainstream TV or radio, but it gained ground online and through DJ mixes; which means it was all over matatus and in clubs, places that did not censor the insane lyrics.

The boys became so big that showbiz personalities were falling over themselves to manage them, and they eventually settled on a certain Teleh Mani.

Afterward, in August of the same year, they dropped another smash hit dubbed ‘Position’ featuring one of the country’s then-biggest musical groups; The Kansoul made up of Mejja, Madtraxx and Kidkora. A month later, they were back at it again, with another track by the same title – ‘Saba’ – before they closed the year with ‘Instagram’.

Throughout their break-out year and the next, they constantly dished out hit songs, proving that they were not the one-hit-wonders most people expected them to be, and amassed a large following. They turned from the ghetto boys in that first video to bonafide superstars.

But in the background, a battle was brewing between them and their manager; a dispute which would be one of many reasons that the group would eventually go their separate ways after a beautiful, yet short run.

Teleh Mani accused them of refusing to pay him despite having funded their music videos. He went ahead to delete the said videos from Youtube, dragged them to court and even kicked them out of his concert line-up.

Later on, one of the group’s members – Swat – also caught himself on the wrong side of the news after he reportedly escaped mob justice over theft allegations. The group was later signed by an international record label but not much emerged out of that deal, marking the beginning of the end of the Gengetone music genre.

Enter Sailors

While Ethic Entertainment and its management was still embroiled in a back-and-forth, another group was preparing to take the crown. Sometime in April 2019, another bunch of boys emerged out of the woodwork, making music in the same genre that Ethic had introduced only a year earlier.

Sailors became a household name almost immediately after they released ‘Wamlambez’, which got people moving.

The five-member team came in almost the same manner as Ethic; raw lyrics, earth-pounding beats, and a lot of noise in between the verses.

Wamlambez’ was banned by the Kenya Films Classification Board (KFCB) from being played in public spaces, but even that did very little to dent its popularity; if anything, it served to boost it even more, because the mind of a Kenyan – any human being, really- is attracted to things that are prohibited.

And so ‘Wamblambez’ took off instantly. Social media challenges were created for the track during the Covid-19 period when people were confined to their homes due to curfews and lockdowns. In the challenges, someone would open their window and shout “wamlambez”, and a random person would respond “wamnyonyez”.

The difference between how Ethic and Sailors burst into the scene was that the latter had a plan, while the former was just winging it and fame found them accidentally. What Sailors did was that they approached one of the biggest media personalities in the country at the time – Mwalimu Rachel – and gave her their music, and asked her to manage them if she liked it.

Management structure

The advantage was that they had someone who was actually in the media industry, and who knew the ropes, guided them, and led from the front.

Ethic never had that. So, reasonably, at some point Sailors eclipsed Ethic and became the biggest Gengetone group in the game.

But their empire also came tumbling down. And, like in Ethic’s case, this too started with management.

Sailors were approached by another record label, which offered to produce their tracks and manage their finances. However, for that to happen, the label needed control of their YouTube channel, still under the control of the previous manager, unless she was paid a total sum of Ksh1.5 million.

Her argument was that the amount was equal to what she had spent over the years to groom the boys and turn them into stars. The new management refused to pay and instead opted to open a new YouTube account, but it was never the same.

The death of Sailors

Sometime this year, allegations started flying around from the Sailors group members about the previous and current managers.

The lead member, Peter Miracle Baby, accused Rachel of frustrating them and locking them out of million-shilling deals.

In response, the MRX Media founder maintained that she did right by the group as the “mother” she viewed herself to be to them. She added that as a result of their accusations, the group’s fans had sent death threats to both her and her son.

The two parties traded accusations for a while, including over a Ksh15 million deal. The Africa Report cannot independently verify any of the allegations, with requests for comment being ignored.

Is Gengetone still alive?

What is certain is that both groups brought forth the much-loved Gengetone music but have fallen by the wayside.

A few of them tried solo careers, with some even switching genres and styles, but their flames are no longer as bright. There have been many groups that have since come forth to also claim the Gengetone crown, and many have flown the flag high, but they all always seem to be signed by one record label after which their stars dim.

Is it safe to say that Gengetone as a genre is dead? Maybe. Maybe not. At least not according to prolific music producer Riccobeatz, also known as Mr. 808, who believes the Gengetone pioneers may have lost their way but the sound they brought is still alive, it just needs a little tweaking.

“The hype around Gengetone subsided because the content was very limited to things like weed, girls, and alcohol. Which is OK, but it’s monotonous. I don’t think Gengetone is dead though, it’s just somewhere around here and needs to be revived and the content broadened a little bit so that it’s just not vulgar all the time,” he told The Africa Report.

“The Kenyan culture is still not accustomed to getting that kind of content, people are still a bit reserved. Or, maybe, if they could find a way to sanitise their lyrics, like how Wasafi artistes could be singing about sex but they use such deep Swahili that people don’t understand what they’re saying but it just sounds nice. That way Gengetone can come back to life.”

No proper structure

However, Terazo New Media founder and Chief Executive Officer Nonsizi Agnes opines that Gengetone declined because there was no proper structure built around it. Nonsizi adds that even though the pioneers of the genre were exposed to great platforms which they could’ve used to expand their craft, they never fully exploited them.

“I’ve seen videos of Gengetone music being played in India and Brazil and that’s amazing. It’s a sound that could have gone through, but the players in it, starting with the artistes and the stakeholders, did not consider the business aspect,” she says.

“Talent is just 10%, the other 90% is the strategy and the business, and that is what we lack. For example, in Coke Studio 2019, Ethic was on the same platform with Mr. Eazi. If they had someone who was very business minded, they would’ve used that properly, because it was easy access to a collaboration. The music was good for its target audience, but it did not make business sense.”

Refigah, the man behind Grandpa Records, one of Kenya’s previously foremost labels, on his part agrees that Gengetone is indeed dead, but he feels like it did not die a natural death.

According to Refigah, the media may have contributed to Gengetone’s death even before it hit maturity.

“Gengetone was the only genre that was to save (our) face because at the time it came out it killed Bongo and Nigerian music … but it was not embraced as mainstream music,” he said.

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