Stop The Foreign Music! African Pop Stars Ask For Government Help

Aug 18, 2015
Originally published on August 19, 2015 1:31 pm

Taylor Swift may be the world's No. 1-selling artist, but she might have a hard time getting airplay in some countries.

In South Africa, 55 percent of the content on radio stations as well as community and public TV has to be local.

Nigeria has a law that more than 70 percent of the music played on radio must be by local artists.

Kenyan artists want Kenya to do the same. Musicians there are pushing for a law that would force Kenyan radio stations to devote 70 percent of their playlists to Kenyan music (and 70 percent of TV programming to Kenyan films).

"I want more local songs in the chart," says Yusuf Noah, the 34-year-old CEO of Grandpa Records (his stage name is Refigah). His label features what he calls the "Kenyan sound," based on Benga, a local music that originated in the mid-20th century.

Add an overlay of Swahili rap and dance-hall beats to that traditional rhythm, and you get something like the rapper V-Sita's "Hivo Ndio Kunaendaga," or "That's How It Goes," a No. 1 hit two years ago.

In Kenya, the 70 percent proposal hasn't gone further than a meeting between the artists and the Ministry of Culture. But the government is banking on the work of its artists. Kenya projects that by the year 2030, 10 percent of its GDP will come from copyright-related industries like music, film, art and publishing.

Isaac Rutenberg is the director of the Center for Intellectual Property and Information Technology at Strathmore Law School in Nairobi. He says a 70 percent local rule would be a huge boost to the arts. But protectionist policies are contagious, he points out, and that's not a good thing.

"When one country does something like that, a neighboring country retaliates with something similar," says Rutenberg. "So at some level, you will end up with smaller segmented markets that are not looking abroad but are really focused at home."

The whole concept of protectionism can feel a bit retrograde in an era of laptop studios and YouTube, when every kind of music is available to almost everyone. And musical borders are blurring. When I came to talk to V-Sita, the song he was working on was straight-up country pop, from its guitars to the "twang" in the singers' voices.

Only, the singers aren't from the American South but from Kenya. The musicians are Kenyan, too. And the track was produced in a Kenyan studio.

That, says Refigah, is exactly the point. Protecting local artists is not about preserving local culture at the expense of global or focusing artists inward.

"We are a young industry," he says. "And we want to grow. And we want to employ more people, and how will we do that?"

By manufacturing more Kenyan pop stars, he says. With a little help from their government friends.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in foreign language).

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Musicians in Kenya want their radios back. Actually, they want to be back on the radio more, more than, say, Taylor Swift or artists from neighboring countries. NPR's Gregory Warner reports from Nairobi that they're pushing for a law that would force radio stations to play a majority Kenyan music.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Nickson Wesonga, who produces and raps under the name V-Sita, helped create what he calls the Kenyan sound. It's based on a drum rhythm called benga.

NICKSON WESONGA: (Imitating drum rhythm) Something like that, you know?

WARNER: But overlaid with Swahili rap and dance hall beats, you get something like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIVO NDIO KUNAENDANGA")

WESONGA: (Singing in foreign language).

WARNER: "Hivo Ndio Kunaendanga," or "That's How It Goes," rose to number one in Kenya when it came out two years ago from Visita's record label, Grandpa Records. Grandpa Records's 34-year-old CEO, Yusuf Noah, stage name Refigah, says he wants more Kenyan artists to have a chance at stardom.

YUSUF NOAH: I want to have more local songs in the chart.

WARNER: The way to do that, he says, is legislation, forcing radio stations to play 70 percent Kenyan music. There is a law like that in South Africa - 55 percent of content on community and public TV and radio stations has to be local from South Africa.

NOAH: Or even Nigeria, they have a law - 70 percent of the music that must be played is their local. Seventy percent of the movies on their TV station, it's local because it create even work.

WARNER: So far this proposal has not gotten much further than a meeting between the artist and the ministry of culture. But the government is banking on working artists. By the year 2030, Kenya is projecting that 10 percent of its GDP will come from, quote, "copyright-related industries," like film, art, publishing and music. Isaac Rutenberg is the director of the Center for Intellectual Property and Information Technology at Strathmore Law School in Nairobi. He says a 70 percent local rule would be a huge boost to the arts, but protectionist policies are contagious.

ISAAC RUTENBERG: When one country does something like that, a neighboring country retaliates with something similar. So, you know, at some level, you will end up with smaller segmented markets that are not looking abroad but are really focused at home.

WARNER: In many ways, this is already happening. Kenyan musicians see a bigger threat from Nigerian artists than Western. South African musicians say their protectionist policy isn't strong enough. They're pushing for a 10 percent increase in local content minimums. But the whole concept of protectionism can feel a bit retrograde in an era of laptop studios and YouTube when almost every kind of music is available to almost everyone to reproduce. In fact, the track that the producer V-Sita was working on when I arrived was straight up country pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Open my windows, let the sunshine in, shine in.

WARNER: Now, there is nothing distinctively Kenyan about this tune except it's Kenyan singers and Kenyan musicians produced in a Kenyan studio. And that, says Refigah, is exactly the point. Protecting local artists isn't about preserving local culture at the expense of global or focusing artists inward. It's about the industry.

NOAH: We are a young industry and we want to grow. And we want to employ more people. And how will we do that?

WARNER: By making more Kenyan pop stars, he says, with a little government help. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.