Language dictates the most basic socio-cognitive domains of the human species from acoustic modalities and complex sound sequences. Darwin even draws analogies between the evolution of languages and species, remarking on development through a process of struggle, “the survival of certain favored words in the struggle for existence is natural selection”.1
The world has a vast palate with plenty of different dialects but for many cultures language evolves from a core root. While there are over 1,000 languages spoken in Africa, anthropologists and linguists generally agree that most African languages fall into the four main groups: Hamito-Semitic, Niger-Congo Kordofanian, Nilo-Saharan, and Khoisan.2 While the four language groups host various ethnic communities, the Swahili language from the Bantu community which predominantly falls under the Niger-Congo group boasts over 200 million users worldwide.
Through trade Swahili has evolved into one of Africa’s most recognized languages. The East Africa Community holds a special place for the language as in 2017, the bloc made Kiswahili an official language and the AU recently adopted it as its official language.3 So, if Swahili is so widely spoken in Africa, why hasn’t music from East Africa, apart from Wasafi Records affiliates, made it to the global stage? A deeper question arises, why hasn’t Kenyan music achieved mainstream success in the country compared to West African music?
There are a lot of sociopolitical issues around accessibility, mainstream success, and profitability. According to Statista in 2021, over 16% of Kenyans live below the dollar.4A huge population of Kenyans are made of the youth and as many of you know, Kenya is struggling with employment and the majority of youth are now living below the poverty line. Accessibility is key, to listen to music you have to have a radio, a phone, or active internet to stream music, and not having access to these things contributes to poor listenership.
While this is a challenge for the 16% of Kenyans, what about the 84%? Due to western influences in entertainment, the media has played a role in influencing how we perceive class structures in language, and these divides can be seen throughout the music industry.5
This goes back to colonial history. While it’s a common assumption that colonisers were intent on spreading English, the colonial administration started to backtrack in the 1920’s. They realised that an English education interfered with the goal of maintaining a subordinate class of workers, as English speakers were unwilling to perform manual labour jobs.6 Social distance was to be maintained through linguistic distance. This changed after World War II, where colonialists started to see that independence was quickly approaching and so they switched tacks, pushing English in schools, and mounting a campaign to create a Westernised elite in Kenya to protect their interests in their absence.7
English has long been associated with more opportunities, better jobs, and higher classes. So, listening to music in English rather than in Swahili, Sheng or other Kenyan languages can be framed as aligning to a certain class through music and language.
The rise of Gengetone is an interesting case and poses a bit of a contradiction to this theory because it’s one of the few genres that seems to have reduced the gap, mostly through impeccable timing and addictive production. However, when we look at groups like TnT and their American influenced diction, we can start to see how language and class divides express themselves through music. Khaligraph Jones has not been spared either as he’s also been accused of trying to market rap to the affluent classes.
While there is a historical and political machine behind music and profit, it can’t be ignored that over the last decade the global industry has been more open to music in different languages. Gengetone is one, Afro-influenced Brazilian funk from the poorest favella’s in Rio is another, and good production and a good beat has somewhat taken over language and lyrics. The divides between language and the enjoyment of music are slowly breaking down, and while Nigeria may be the trendsetter, Kenya still has a chance to come up in a similar way. Don’t mind me, I’ll just be replaying these Gengetone tunes!
Charles Darwin, Paul H Barrett, and R B Freeman, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Vol. 1 (London] Routledge, 2017).