Rise of independent record labels in Kenya

Studio microphone in neon lights. [iStockphoto]

A recent report by Spotify dubbed ‘The Loud And Clear Report’ reveals interesting details about royalty payouts.

Out of $9 billion in royalties collected last year, Spotify says more than half went to independent artistes. This shows a major shift away from record companies controlling most of the music industry’s money.

In Kenya, record labels are starting to show more interest in Kenyan music.

Universal Music Group opened a branch in East Africa, Bien-Aimé Baraza signed with Warner Music South Africa, and there are more independent music companies partnering with labels like Sony, Warner, and Universal.

This increased interest might be due to Kenya’s growing internet access and smartphone use, which suggests that music streaming and sales could be successful here.

However, Kenya’s history with record labels is not all positive.

There have been reports of discontentment with deals between artistes like Ethic, Nikita Kering’ and Naiboi and Universal Music Group. These cases show that some record companies struggle to work with Kenyan talent.

Seeing this gap in the market, some brave and ambitious Kenyan artistes are creating their labels and building a new music industry altogether without much gatekeeping and are making a killing out of it. 

“Kenya has never been a record label industry-esque type of country. It’s not in our culture,” says producer Motif.

However, music entrepreneurs such as South Africa’s Raphael Benza tend to think otherwise.

“Kenya is on the cusp of competing with Nigeria and South Africa. That is why it’s important to be an early adopter and start to influence the scene before it takes off,” he says.

Here are examples of indie-run music imprints that are defining culture, monetising on the same, and leveraging their influence to become successful businesses.

Watoto Wakorofi 

Consisting of Lil Maina, YBW Smith, Dansky, and Sosa The Prodigy, the fantastic four helming Arbantone - a reimagined offering of the native genre, Gengetone, has emerged and taken the scene by storm.

The four alongside the Arbantone contingent including Gody Tenor, Sean MMG, Spoiler and others have zapped the Kenyan music industry with their youthful charisma and blossoming takes on old classic dancehall and Kenyan Y2K-sampled cuts.

Maina, being the most ubiquitous of the group has been on a tear of singles including “Alert” and 2024’s chart-topping anthem Nakam Saii, which peaked at Number 1 on Kenyan I-Tunes.

“They are not a record label, they are just a group of friends that have great chemistry and make music together. You can expect a project from them this year collectively,” says manager Steph Unruly.

Watoto Wakorofi is on a mission to shift the Kenyan music ecosphere, and their tidal wave has been noted. Throughout last year, hit records such as Lele, Tiktoker, and Nakudai have shaped Kenya’s club scene. 

Zoza Nation

For a while now, Zoza Nation, the umbrella company of Wakadinali that houses rap stars such as Sudough Boss, Dyana Cods, Skilo, Ares 66, and Katapilla, has also been making waves.

The most C-Suite of the crew seems to be Scar Mkadinali, who always issues updates and ideas of the imprints’ moves and plans. From signing legendary Kenyan rap icon Kitu Sewer to producing his album under ZN, Scar has also teased that the label is interested in singing Xenia Manasseh, and executive producing Mejja’s album.

Their visionary and creative exploits are very interesting and the group is entirely independent. Strategic partnerships with skyward music agency Vibelab that are pertinent for managing rapstress Wangechi’s career to produce their shows such as Rong Experience, share insights into the key associations look for especially after corporate Kenya blacklisted them for their grungy and grotesque approach to situations.

58 Records 

A product of Buruburu’s finest Buruklyn Boyz, the collective has officially formed its own record label and production house. “We will never sign to a label” they mentioned before their record-breaking debut album, East Mpaka London.

With good talent including Buruklyn G, Nito Trip, Mdigo, and sprawling the already indomitable Buruklyn Boyz duo, their top-of-the-year release ‘B Boyz Settings’ was an introduction to the extended talents on their roster.

58 Records is another branch of assets currently owned by the Buruklyn Boyz including their apparel line ‘Baggy Unit’, bike line ‘12 O’clock Boyz’ and more.

This year, Buruklyn have already done the impossible and collaborated with Amsterdam-based street-lux wear brand Daily Paper by being the face of their SS24 collection, a remarkable fete.

This goes on to prove you can also be independent and pull major brands and endorsements if you have your business in order. 

Mad Clan 

The Kibera hailing acts including fast risers Big Yasa and Spinx Mafia are from the Mad Clan faction.

Solidifying their brand in the Hip Hop universe, Mad Clan are an independent emprasario with the streets on lockdown. According to their most prominent artiste, Big Yasa, the enterprise can rake in Sh10,000 on a good day selling merchandise alone.

Yasa, who has successfully navigated the music industry at 23 years old with millions of streams, is also uplifting and empowering his peers and collaborators such as Spinx, Davaji, and many others to reach their full potential.

With his second opus WAPOA SZN, he has caught the attention of numerous international media for his efforts to build community and promote positivity through his musical contributions, and commercial ventures.


Although relatively a covert stable in the music and Hip Hop cognisance, this is one of the most seminal labels of the 2010s.

Home to Boutross, the label is popular for its championing of the Shrap sound in Kenya.

Borrowing from urban American and more so Atlanta culture, Trap, ADF led the charge in staking Shrap as the voice of young urban Kenyans with voices such as Boutross at the epicentre.

ADF has produced Boutross and Jovie Jovv, with supporting cast members Dope-I-Mean and K Green.

Shrap was largely a second-tier genre until Boutross would garner hit songs such as Story Ilianza and Yeah Yeah Yeah with Angela later on solidifying him as a mainstream figurehead in Kenyan music.

Boutross not signed to any record label has inked lucrative deals with Kibao Vodka, earned millions of streams, broke bread with international artistes such as Sho Madjozi in her prime and continues to push the envelope.


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