Back to our roots: The rise and rise of ethnic pop culture

A collage of Winyo Shiphton, Sofiya Nzau and Okello Max.

Kenyan pop culture loves to stir a debate. At the very least, it drives conversations.

However, the conversation around Arbantone keeps cropping up. For instance, Blankets & Wine Festival announced their July edition line-up and digital journalist Ian Gitobu was the first to point out the the lack of Arbantone representation.

“Hii line up iko chini,” he said.

The acts selected for the show were Neo Afro Pop stars including Bensoul, Savara and Sanaipei Tande. 

Statistically, Arbantone is popular.

“For the past two to three weeks, the top trending songs in Kenya have been Kenyan. Right now, in the top 10 Kenyan trending it is only two to three foreign songs. Every time there is a popular Kenyan sound, you won’t hear foreign music. People have been knocking the sound, fixating on what they do not like instead of what they like,” Maandy said in an Instagram post. 

With support from industry titans such as Khaligraph Jones, to people like Castro, former manager and advisor to Tanasha Donna, and Roy Karuhinze; the resource, machine and time loaned to the Arbantone faction is immense. 

So while the online community is focused on issues like what genre is best placed to advance Kenyan music to an African music conversation such as Amapiano or Afrobeats, the Ethnic Pop contingent is growing every day.

Recently, Urban Folk Kenyan musician Ayrosh held his quarterly festival ‘Folk Fusion’. The festival has been a hit among his fans, attracting over 3,000 attendees even when hosted outside Nairobi.

“At the beginning growth was sluggish. Our only brand partners were, Fresh and More, caterers, Floor Deco, a flooring company, Jangwani Camp and 254 Brew. However, as we set up more editions, we have seen interest from individuals and brands," says Ayrosh.

Rumours are that Winyo Shiphton, a vernacular Kenyan vocalist, would play at the Paris Olympics main stage. There has been no official communication from the Olympic Entertainment Committee.

Winyo has been basking in global recognition with his 2018 cut alongside Kato Change and Suraj being played at the International Dance Music Festival Tomorrowland by South Africa’s Black Coffee. His record Nyoro is also a fan favourite. 

Musicians like Ayub Ogada are well respected, with big artistes like Ye (formerly Kanye West) sampling his record Kothbiro.

Acts such as Makadem, renowned for his Nyatiti-led instrumentation, spent half the year on tour abroad, reflecting Ethnic Pop jubilation. 

“In the past year, I have witnessed the potential for Kenyan music to resonate globally. It has become clearer that by embracing our authenticity and cultural roots, particularly through genres like Benga, we can captivate local and international audiences,” says Benga godfather Udulele.

Recently, his record Biwamiel off his debut studio album Soulful Benga Vol. 1 realised 500,000 streams on Spotify.

“Folk music often evokes nostalgia, authenticity, and connection, resonating deeply with diverse audiences. The authenticity resonates with listeners, fostering connections and encouraging more engagement and streaming on platforms like Spotify,” he says.

Not long ago, Afropop sensation Charisma bagged his first 1 million views on YouTube as a solo artiste. He used Luo in the song to articulate his message and that added texture and flavour to it.

Another example is Blinky Bill’s latest studio album We Cut Keys 2. In the record, Blinky embraces his roots and delivers a heavily influenced album that pays homage to Ohangla and Luo music, fusing it with his funky-edged production.

“I love the Blinky album because he always gives us something new, he is ahead of his time. He fuses the sonic elements well and it is pleasing. The beats and lyrics are so good,” says Agie Opondo, Mdundo’s Lead A&R.

She is an advocate for native languages being incorporated into Kenya’s pop music adulations.

“I love what Okello Max, Rosa, Coster Ojwang, Fully Focus and Sofiya are all doing. It is relatable and beautiful, the lyrics gel so well and the traditional elements give it a unique flair. I love that we are embracing our roots and are proud to merge it with our modern lifestyle. We are moving from imitating and we are rich culturally. The craftsmanship is a joy to watch and this shows a true picture of what and who we are,” says Agie.

She says how Watendawili’s record Cham Thum has been a revelation in the music industry.

“How they say they will take a woman back to the village reflects our lifestyle and cultural heritage. I love that they can adopt that in their music and it makes me proud,” says Agie.

Other anthems such as Sofiya Nzau’s Mwaki and Fully Focus’ Kikuyu House EP are gifts that are true cardinals to Kenyan heritage, with a blend of contemporary sounds.

“In other countries, most people tap into their cultures and export them to the world. It is time to repackage our amazing culture and export it to the world,” says Fully Focus. 

Sofiya was named the highest-ever grossing average monthly listenership for an East African artiste on Spotify, crossing the 10 million monthly mark and surpassing names like Diamond Platnumz and Zuchu.

All this from belting out melodies in her vernacular language, Kikuyu.

RPM Kenya’s Head of Marketing Vincent Mutuma says there has to be variety in the music arena for it to be healthy.

“Variety is the spice of life. If Afropop songs can reach or surpass the money that these vernacular songs make, that would be great. But artistes such as Gidigidi, Mercy Myra and Harry Kimani have always been there, loved and accepted," he says. 

"The audience is growing and rediscovering its love for this sound because it fuses the best of both worlds - urban music and culture - creating differentiation with Afrobeats." 


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