Da revolution is on da phone

Sigh.

I do not come from the YoYo generation. So I had no idea dat P-Squared, a very phat duo of identical twins from Nigeria, had landed in Nairobi to give a concert that turned da city upside down. I had no idea that these twins had won a competition in Nigeria called “Grab Da Mike”. I do not know da guy called DJ Space of MOB DJs, who worries about being lynched if a P-Squared song is not played every 15 minutes.

I suspect our ministry of education does not know who DJ Space is either. Nor does the music department of Kenyatta University. I can just see the course curriculum: Dis Hip-Hop Course aims to be da Bomb.

We do produce a lot of people who can play da flute. We also can do praise-singing choirs. In our National Schools Music Festival, there is no Hip-Hop category, or anything that came after 1930. There are choirs singing things such as Waltzing Matilda and “Were you ever in Quebec, rowing timber on the deck”.

When I was in school, we had a teacher of great enthusiasm for what they called the set piece. Unfortunately he had a Meru accent which mangled all the hard consonants. The song went something like this: “A pigeon flew over to Galilee, Fre cru”. The choir had to find our inner bird and trill, over and over again, “Fre Cru, fre cru, fre cruuuuuu.” Poor man was only able to say Mblee Clu —

There are categories for sopranos, and altos and choral groups. There is no rhumba or benga. With the exception of the traditional music categories, there is nothing that in any way ties the tastes of any Kenyans or Africans, or even Quebec Canadians I know. There is nothing that ties any known market that has ever existed in Kenya: in pre-colonial Kenya, in post-colonial Kenya, in post-election violence Kenya, in science fiction Kenya. The buyers of the products of the music festival can only be dictators needing praise choirs and retired schoolteachers from small-town America in the late 1930s and the officials of the Music Festival.

For Kenya to become a middle income country by 2030, our government decided to remove music and art from our syllabus. The idea there I guess, is that there is no money or future in it. South Africa and Senegal make millions of dollars from cultural products—in part because their education systems celebrate local languages and culture.

The reason why Kenyans are bad musicians is because we are out of touch with our own tastes and instincts. The most important thing we learn in school is to demean who we are and where we come from. The reason why Kenyans are so culturally unconfident is because we stand in music halls and pretend to be rowing timber on the deck in Quebec. To this day the lobbies of our five-star hotels play this sort of music.

So while we were trying to be a sort of impossible and imaginary Western person—serving no market or idea—another billion-dollar market quietly landed at the feet of African artists everywhere a few weeks ago.

When the Zain group announced the arrival of a mobile phone network that covers 500-million people, from the Middle East to Nigeria, it fulfilled a vision by the founders of Celtel International to build the first true pan-African mobile phone network—inspired by the Nkrumahs and Marcus Garveys of this world.

Soon, and I mean in a matter of months, we will have a cheap, borderless platform from which to share ideas, music, words and conversations with millions of people. I will be able to produce a song and somebody in minutes in Nigeria or Congo or Gabon will scroll down his phone and buy it.

I will be able to do the same with animation, comic strips, graphic novels, romance ebooks, how-to multimedia and soap operas.

Many businesses are aware of this, as are many policy people, ICT experts and money people in London. But the producers of this content have been caught flat-footed. There is no partnership between capital, policy and artists. It truly escaped the minds of our foggy old policy people that this 20-year-old season called the Information Age is the one of the content creator: Da musician, Da writer, Da artist.

The mobile phone has brought the distribution we have all been dreaming about for over a century.

Already big British and American money is sniffing around to develop this content and sell it back to us. Most of Nairobi’s animators have been bought up.

Harvard now has a team documenting the rise of African hip-hop. Meanwhile, our students stand on stage and sing, “Fre Cru, Fre cru, Fre cru”. That Harvard graduate will be the guy to make the millions of dollars from our own cultural products.

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