Musicians don't have to sacrifice local identity to go global

Written by  Saturday, 20 December 2014 00:00

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Not so long ago I would have stressed the importance of African artistes incorporating the English language into their music if they wanted it to break into international markets. I soon realised the flaw in my logic when I looked at my own taste in music and realised that, as an English and Swahili-speaking Kenyan, I still love kwaito music from South Africa, which is normally sung in Tsotsitaal or Zulu – this despite me having absolutely no idea what was being said! The lack of comprehension doesn’t stop me from listening to kwaito. (Although not strictly kwaito), how many of you have heard ‘Khona’ by Mafikizolo? Now, hand on heart, how many of you (non-Zulu speakers) actually understand what it’s about?

Exactly. And it almost doesn’t matter…

Collaborate to translate

If I wanted to take the extra step of finding out what the lyrics mean, I could always do that online. But the success of such songs illustrates that, even in today’s globalised world, creating an international hit song in Africa doesn’t require you to sing in English. Music should make you feel, as well as think. That way, even if you can’t think about what is being said, you can still feel it. It’s also about making sure that you develop a strong brand – especially online, because that’s where you’re accessible to the whole world – such that, if someone really likes the sound of your song, they will find a way to figure out what you’re talking about, or fans will collaborate to translate.

'Khona' by South African duo Mafikizolo

Music from Africa has a distinctive sound and that’s a good thing. That distinctiveness might come from the language, or the beat, the melodies, or the harmonies. In my opinion, it is entirely possible for a song to have a European house beat, but if the vocal track is sung in a local African language that is enough to change the sound from euro house to afro house. We could play around with the language, or even what we sing about and how we translate those concepts through music. Love is a universal theme, but it can be explored through music in its local context.

A song about a boy in a village trying to woo a girl by wooing her parents – something that might only make sense to people who are familiar with that process – is still a love song nonetheless, but it’s telling an African love story.

That said, you wouldn’t want to put a musician in a box and dictate what he or she must sing about. Whilst music is about art, music is also about money. When you consider the commercial side of things, the Kenyan market is such that if your song hits in the club, the radio stations will have to pick it up. This influences the kind of music that artistes make as they want to get as much airplay for their tracks as possible.

Decline of media power

So whilst the spread of internet access has impacted how artistes attempt to internationalise, and has enabled audiences to discover and comprehend songs in foreign languages, it has also shifted the fundamental power bases within the music media industry.

Adelle Onyango on air at Kiss 100 KenyaAdelle Onyango on air at Kiss 100 KenyaTraditionally there was the media, the musicians and the audience. The media brought the musicians to the audience. Digital has disrupted that status quo; audiences are no longer tied to what radio or TV plays. People can go online and discover new music from any local, African or international artiste. The result is that power is shifting away from broadcasters to the artistes and fans, who can now enjoy more direct relationships with each other. Increasingly, we broadcasters find ourselves playing catch-up if the audience has already caught on to a certain song they’ve discovered via the internet and it’s become popular in the clubs. If it’s not on our playlists, we end up having to put it on so as not to seem slow or out of step.

Like many developing countries, Kenya is in the process of its digital migration but despite digital beginning to dictate trends, traditional analogue radio is still going strong. Radio is still the most accessible media throughout the country. If you have a car, you can listen to the radio. If you go to the village, most people have access to a radio, as it’s more affordable than a TV and doesn’t need electricity. If you are not literate, or don’t have access to newspapers and magazines, radio fills that void.

But as more of Africa gets online and gets connected, radio will need to change, and as markets expand, so the music industry in Kenya – and across the continent – will also need to change.

Afrobeat revolution

African music is breaking international barriers again (though artistes like Fuse ODG, D’Banj, and K’naan) in a way that it has struggled to since the afrobeat revolution. But to sustain this progress we need to create structures that can make this rise in popularity work for us. It’s all well and good to have the sound, but that’s less than half the story. If you don’t have the music business acumen then you have a problem, if not now then definitely later. It’s only now that artistes are beginning to carry themselves as a brand.

Once artistes start carrying themselves as a brand, they start to realise that their song is not just their song; it’s a commodity that they need to sell.

Kenyan artistes are beginning to understand that there’s a significant business aspect to making music which necessitates good packaging and marketing.

Whilst there’s a need for more business-minded individuals working in the music management side of Kenya’s industry, those who do carve such roles for themselves find only underdeveloped and non-professional structures for them to operate within. We’re even only just beginning to see songwriting develop as a standalone career path in the industry. The structures that support behind-the-scenes roles really need strengthening if we are to truly be able to compete in the global market.

The internet is making the world a smaller place and a larger place, so we must always remember that our competition is not just our fellow Kenyan artiste. My radio station plays all genres of music so your song could air on KISS 100 in between a Chris Brown song and a Kanye West song. Many artistes misunderstand global competition. To compete internationally doesn’t require you to change the language of your song. However, it does require an understanding that your song can have a meaning, but your music must mean business.

Adelle Onyango,

Radio presenter,

Kiss 100 FM Kenya 



Banning Eyre  United-States

Senior editor @ Afropop Worldwide, guitarist, author


Banning EyreAdelle is right that a great song can break the language barrier, though not so much in the United States. Despite a rich multicultural history, America’s mainstream music market remains resistant to non-English songs.

Afropop Worldwide has catered to a niche market on public radio since 1988. Our listeners turned to African music for powerful rhythms, unique sonic textures, idiosyncratic vocals, and a sense of connection with something deeper than most U.S. pop. Lyrics were secondary. In the 80s and 90s, there were enough great African artists, adventurous record labels, publications, and broadcasts like ours to sustain careers. Today, a different landscape: few record labels, fragmented media (mostly on the web), and new genres of urban African music far more influenced by rap, R&B, dancehall, and techno. Now, the barrier for African artists in the U.S. market is not so much language as the music itself. As young African artists increasingly adopt American and Jamaican aesthetics, their work no longer feels like a compelling alternative to that first wave of listeners. Nor is it viable in the mainstream.

The question from here is whether a new generation of U.S. listeners, empowered by social media, hand-held technology, and the web, can create a second wave and build viable support for upcoming artists and genres from Africa. The jury is out.

Banning Eyre is an author, guitarist, journalist, and senior editor at His work with the public radio series Afropop Worldwide has taken him to over a dozen African countries to research local music, especially guitar styles. He has performed with countless musicians across the continent. He recently completed a five-part radio series on music and history in Egypt. Banning comments on world music for NPR's All Things Considered.


Paola Audrey Ndengue Cameroon France

Entrepreneur, founder of Pannelle & Co, digital comms executive

Website  Twitter  LinkedIn  Instagram

Paola Audrey Ndengue

I believe the 'local content/global standards' formula could revolutionise Africa’s music industry. I've rarely seen so much afrocentricity in music videos, mostly from afrobeats artists. The wearing of wax print clothing, celebrating of old traditions, and the beautiful displaying of tribal symbols and codes have all become trendy of late.

Even though I agree that speaking your local language is not essential for an artiste to go international, I still believe it can hinder your career development at some point. It depends on where you intend to sell. Nowadays, on a cultural level, borders between west, central, south and east Africa are slowly starting to disappear. Only this year, we've witnessed collaborations between AKA (South Africa) and Sarkodie (Ghana) in ‘Special Someone’, and between Fally Ipupa (DRC Congo) and 2face Idibia (Nigeria) in 'Diaspora Woman'. In a typical collaboration, English is the dominant language with local languages infused throughout. That makes sense to me because, no matter how good the beat is, the international audience needs something to hold on to at some point.

In 2015, I think we should expect more collaborations between African artistes, but also some between African and American superstars. I, for one, am impatient to hear one of 2015's most hotly-anticipated collaborations between icons of their respective urban music scenes — Wizkid from Nigeria and Chris Brown from the USA.

Paola Audrey Ndengue is an award-nominated entrepreneur. She is the co-founder of Fashizblack, an influential high-end afrocentric style magazine. She co-founded Pannelle & Co, a digital agency focusing on African creativity. She is a prolific digital marketing manager, and editor for NotJustOk, and writer for OkayAfrica. In 2014, her entrepreneurial impact saw her selected as one of five entrepreneurs of the year at CNBC Africa All Africa Business Leaders Awards. 
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Last modified on Friday, 30 January 2015 15:04

Adelle Onyango


Radio presenter @ Kiss 100 Kenya | Media personality | Event MC | Poet | Social activist and founder of 'No Means No' campaign

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