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Kenya's Netflix Original VOLUME Doesn’t Hit All the Right Notes

Following the success of duology ‘Disconnect’, director Tosh Gitonga is back with the critically acclaimed Netflix original music drama series ‘VOLUME,’ this time alongside creator Njiiri Karago. It is a coming of age 6 part TV series about Kenyan lad Benja, played by Bryan Kabugi, with dreams of making it big in the music industry despite his humble beginnings, all while trying to stay out of trouble. His best friend Castro (Faiz Francis Ouma), his girlfriend (Serah Wanjiru) and his mother all support his dreams in their own way until the consequences of his ever-growing fame starts to assume control of his life.

There’s many good things to be said about this show, but an unanimous opinion is the beautiful cinematography and picture quality by Chuanne Blofield. A close second is the casting of the show. We have seen the same faces representing Kenyans on screen for far too long; it started to affect how audiences consume some of these productions, despite wanting to show continuous support for the ever growing film industry. Thanks to a partnership with Tusker Nexters, a new generation of 27 budding film industry professionals were given the opportunity to work under the mentorship of Tosh Gitonga under his initiative Primary Pictures, which was crucial for this project.

Castro’s character is without a doubt a standout performance on the show. His introduction to the audience set the tone ever so clearly that he is the troublemaker in Benja, and honestly everyone else's life. He has charm and he mostly means well, but he is also his friend's biggest setback. Faiz Franics does such a good job in playing the misunderstood antihero of the show. He annoys you, you want to get rid of him, but at the same time you also find yourself rooting for him and whatever shenanigans he’s up to. No one rides for Benja harder than him.

Benja (left, played by Brian Kabugi) and Castro (right, played by Faiz Francis)

Another fan favourite is Ugandan actress Natasha Sinayobye who plays the antagonist of the show. Her performance as a club promoter and record label owner is compelling and this reflects every time she appears on screen. Her role as a somewhat loving mother manages to humanise her cut throat approach to business and the industry she works in as well. 

Benja, who you might recognize from Showmax’s Salem, is the ambitious musical protagonist. Driven by his passion for music by way of the church and his absent but also musical father, Benja falls in love with rap and is determined to make it out the hood with his talents. Netizens have compared this storyline with that of Philittv’s production Click Click Bang and another Showmax original Pepeta

Every so often the narrative on screen is either about a poverty stricken go-getter trying to make it in the tough city of Nairobi, or a poverty stricken hopeless romantic caught in a crossroads between the life he’s left behind and the life he’s working hard to attain, often involving a two opposite types of romantic partners. And while this is a reality for many Kenyans, I think there can be more creative ways to tell this story. Click Click Bang uses football as their true north, while VOLUME uses music as theirs - which I duly appreciate. 

However narratively, the series felt rushed. The pacing of the show was somewhat inconsistent, with some of the episodes feeling different from each other. The series was at its best in episodes 3 and 4, which highlighted mental health, drug use and the power of social media. In fact, the series tackles various issues in subtle but important ways. Ivy, played by Stepahnie Muchiri, takes on a feminist role as a social media influencer. However, she has layers. Through her character we get a glance into sex, colorism and the price of fame. Through the voice of reason, Smallz, played by Elvis Ounyo, we get a look into mental health, queerness, criminalisation of sex work and the importance of brotherhood. Mona Ombogo and her team of writers made sure each character on the show was fleshed out in complex enough ways to keep you interested in all their stories. 

It was also lovely to see the show grounded in the current zeitgeist with Kenyan brands such as Studio 18 KE and Shop Zetu on the characters through the work of costume designer Sharon Kinyanjui.

However, the show quickly begs the question of whether music was truly important to the creators. Considering the current climate of the Kenyan music industry and the massive year we had in 2023, more could have been done to spotlight our immense talent on the momentous scale. This is not to take away the purposeful direction the show took in including an array of incredible musicians and rappers such as Timmy Blanco, NJERI and Poppa Don (who performed that iconic intro track), as well as Jovie Jovv, Jivu and many others through music director Bryan Smallz of Black Market Africa and music supervisor Ivan Odie of Callivan Ceatives. It’s more than any other Kenyan show has done for our music industry and for that they earn a very loud round of applause. Nevertheless, a soundtrack album was high on the list of expectations for many. Many Kenyans online have asked about different tracks on the show, trying to Shazam them and to no avail. Imagine how productive the series’ rollout would have been for everyone involved if they prioritised this engagement with the audiences. 

Perhaps an even worse issue was the show’s audio production that felt very lazy and hastily done. The music was almost never in sync with the words being mouthed on the screen, including the very obvious voice overs that were a bother to the ear. 

Additionally, the show also fell short in focusing more on the characters' day to day lives and less on the narrative of music and HipHop at its core. They lightly touched on the ups and downs of trying to make it in the industry, but it felt more like a crime show at several points and less like a music drama. And while all these themes make great plot devices, music becoming a side character unmistakably hurt the show.

Perhaps if they took more time to train Buggi about the cadence, flow and attitude of a rapper from the array of artists they had access to while making the show, it would have made for a more authentic performance. Hip Hop enthusiasts from around Nairobi were not too amused with his rhymes either; whether it was his freestyles or studio sessions - his bars were very wanting. If we get a season 2, I really hope this is rectified because Buggi plays his character far too well with his natural charm and talent to be let down by this aspect of the writing.

Here’s more of what I’m curious about: Benja and Ivy’s chemistry on screen. It was palatable and I want to see more of it. Is the love triangle storyline overdone? Yes. But did they make me want to watch them more? Also yes. I’m also curious to see where Lucy’s code of ethics takes her while she enters this new world with Jesus on her shoulders. Will we ever know what secret Smallz and Castro share between them after his regretful and sudden demise? Also, what are Andreas motives and how will Castro play into them?

So much was left unanswered and despite how short the first season was, I’m more than curious to see how the creators answer these questions. Hopefully there will be less struggle and more success. Lord knows we need to see that on our screens. I hope that these storylines will be further fleshed out in season 2 and were not just used to drive Benja’s storyline forward, leaving us scratching our heads in confusion. All the same, VOLUME has been trending on Netflix since its release, so I’m hopeful for a renewal.  


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