I was sharing links to music that was popular in East Africa last year with my brother (find his alter ego here), and he asked me to put them in a list for him. That’s a good idea for my blog, I said. Only trouble is, having recently been endorsed as a blog that will make you “a better person” by the Scarlett Lion, the bar for new posts is now a bit high. A simple countdown of my faves will not suffice. Luckily, I have deep experience describing pop musical phenomena in a way that makes them seem like they have social significance (see, for example, my interview of K’naan).
So here’s a list of seven songs that I liked that got a good amount of play in East Africa in 2009, along with some context that explains why each shows something “deeper” about society. Enjoy.
7. Tonite by Amani (Kenya)
OK, so to be totally honest, this is not my favorite song musically. But I still think of it as a phenomenon because (a) you couldn’t turn on the TV for 20 minutes without seeing the video, (b) it gives any American pop song a run for its money, (c) it captures the sometimes exhausting Kenyan party spirit pretty well, and (d) it shows just how hard it is to pigeonhole “African music” as this or that.
6. Bigshot by Madtraxx (Kenya)
Another silly song, but I love it for highlighting Kenya’s fascination with Nigerian-ness. The somewhat unconvincing imitation of a Nigerian accent (“they think my house is a ‘choch,’ oh”) and dress reflects the large profile that Nigeria has all over Africa these days. In fact, a vaudevillian Nigerian character appeared on a number of radio ads in Nairobi in the last few months, bragging about his big house and lavish lifestyle — being Nigerian has become synonymous with being a big shot.
5. Usinibore by Just a Band (Kenya)
This genre upsetter spotlights the cosmopolitan influences on Kenyan music. Interesting video, as well. Just a Band is a group to watch.
4. Niko poa (burua) by Mejja (Kenya)
This hip hop country-mouse/city-mouse tale takes the form of letters sent between a guy living in Nyeri and his brother in Nairobi (both portrayed by Kenyan rapper Mejja). I love this song because, in addition to being hilarious, it’s a little snapshot of some of the rural-urban issues in Kenya. (The title means “I’m cool” and refers to the situation of the urbanite; the rural guy is considering different moneymaking schemes, including robbery.) Of course, in real life, lots of people come from the country to the town only to face hardship, but this song doesn’t pretend to be a sociology lesson.
3. Yori yori by Bracket (Nigeria)
You could hardly go a day without hearing this song in the East Side A during 2009. The Nigerians, in fact, are dominating the East African airwaves — I call it pan-African pop. It was tough to decide between this joint and “Fall in Love” by D’banj (“They say love is blind, but I dey see well-well, oh”), “Do me” by P-square, and “Strong Ting” by Banky W.
2. Lazizi by Sauti Sol (Kenya)
This is one of my favorite songs of 2009 of any region or genre (I already wrote a blog post on the group). Sauti Sol is doing something completely fresh, in multiple languages, and is very popular in Kenya.
1. Pii pii by Marlaw (Tanzania)
This is that song — the song that will always mean East Africa 2009 to me. What a jam. I also love the fact that despite Kenya’s mild superiority complex in all things economic, every Kenyan clubber had to bow down to this song. (I do have to admit that it’s been suggested to me that this song was inspired by Kenyan Amani’s “Missing my baby,” but I’m too lazy to do the research.) In any case, Tanzania’s got it going on.
Hope you enjoyed that. Honorable mention to Nameless, who practically defines Kenyan pop music but didn’t have a song that made an especially strong impression on me during the time I was in East Africa; his wife Wahu; and Tanzanian staple Ali Kiba. Also, Tevin Campbell, New Edition and all things late-80s early-90s R&B are bizarrely popular in Kenya.
And finally, can someone please explain the fascination with “Wake me up before you go-go” by Wham!, which, I kid you not, I heard on the radio every single day I was in Kenya? I leave you with that.
[Edited 3/12/2012 to updated dead links.]