The last five years or so have seen a resurrection in R&B after a global demise in the early 2010s. Artists including H.E.R, Summer Walker, Lucky Daye and Kehlani, and more recently singer/songwriters such as Victoria Monet and Brent Faiyaz have revitalised the genre with their authenticity and attention to craft.
However, even during this slump, the music scene in Nairobi has never fallen short of amazing R&B singers or songwriters. Instead, we have seen a progressive shift both in artistry and the reception to the genre overall. This shift is evident with musicians such as Bien, Xenia Manasseh, Bensoul and Nikita Kering being among the top streamed artists from Kenya in 2023.
R&B (Rhythm and Blues) dates back to the 1940’s and was coined as such for mainly black secular music i.e Motown, The Blues, Soul, Funk and even Disco. Over the years, it has evolved through eras to what we know it for today, with each era having specific elements that makes one stand out from the other. But it’s really between the 90’s and the early 2000’s that R&B was at its peak globally.
Historically, the Kenyan music scene has always had soulful singers, instrumentalists and later on even dancers. There were groups such as Swahili Nation and Tattu, and composers such as Harry Kimani. Their music incorporated Afro Fusion, Rhumba Soul, Kapuka Soul and so on and so forth, and were (in fact, many musicians still are) unmistakably influenced by Benga music, which had elements of Rhumba, Rock, Funk and Jazz - with an Kenyan twist. But unless they fell into these specific distinctions, most artists would have been termed as R&B artists of some sort today. In fact, if you googled most Kenyan vocalists at the time (especially the early 2000’s), you’d find that they are not defined by any specific genre but instead are described as Kenyan singer/songwriters. The genre-less nature of most of the music from that time and the notable R&B elements paved the way for the eventual emergence of the genre.
R&B now has grown into a superordinate for a lot of sub-genres that morphed over time. Think R&B/Soul, Neo Soul, New Jack Swing, Contemporary R&B, Alternative R&B, R&B/HipHop and many more. In Africa, we can add Afro R&B, Alté or what Ckay, famously known for his romantic lyrics calls “Emo Afrobeats”.
It’s hard to tell where exactly R&B in Kenya initially got its start, so let’s instead consider when and where its prominence began to take over. Some might say it was Eric Wainaina or his former gospel acapella group 5 Alive, others might say it was the impact of singers like Mercy Myra, Didge, Sheila Mwaniga, Amani and Coca-Cola Popstar winners SEMA. Younger generations might even argue that it happened with the emergence of Kenya’s biggest music superstars to date, Sauti Sol, who initially started as an acapella group and like most R&B artists sang in choir before transitioning into contemporary Afro Soul/Rhumba Soul music into their mature years and then fully into an Afro Pop group.
Away from the beloved but typical rhythmic and soulful music that was coming out of Kenya in the 2010’s, came a new generation of artists such the multi-nominated (BET, MTV and MOBO awards) R&B/HipHop group, Camp Mulla. Most notable was their lead vocalist Karun who won the hearts of many around the continent with her honeyed vocals. This singlehandedly shifted the way Kenyans consumed and made modern music. Before this, most of us either held onto the nostalgia of Old Skool Kenyan music, or were bewildered by Western top charting music. Camp Mulla, along with Sauti Sol that continued to skyrocket into stardom, and other prominent groups like Elani, planted the seeds of what would grow into a soulful homeland of R&B lovers, makers and investors.
At the same time, the infrastructure that would see these artists thrive was slowly being built. Just like any other part of the world, the internet gave Kenyans access to a plethora of resources that were useful for upcoming, experimental and independent artists. Where would many be today without Soundcloud and YouTube? Musicians got more confident in their work and thus more encouraged to publish it. This era between 2015 and 2018 was a time where Kenyans would throw whatever work they had out into the pond and waited to see if the fish would eat it or not. And if they were lucky, the fish would ask for more.
The combination of experimentation and ease of publishing gave birth to the alternative scene, but more specifically alternative R&B. What was even more exciting about it was that this was not just a space for up and coming artists, you would have artists as seasoned as Karun also participating in this experimental world of music making in Nairobi. Music schools such as Sauti Academy and creative arts schools such as ADMI Kenya saw a massive enrollment at this time as well and would nurture future talent. As a result, artists got together, worked and dreamt of the possibility of a creative life in the industry.
Fast forward, the musicians from this era gradually gained traction for their music. People got curious about them and wanted to see them perform so they started getting booked for shows. Venues like K1 Klubhouse have always been known to house musicians new and old, but it was events like Nairobi R&B that really pushed the genre into the forefront of the scene in the years that followed.
In the words of Faiza Hersi, founder of Nairobi R&B and Soul HQ, “I started Nairobi R&B not only as a deep lover of the genre, but also as someone who saw a gap in our scene. At the time no one was really investing into the musicians in that space and I really wanted to give them a platform where they could grow and expand their artistry.”
Through Nairobi R&B, she flew in musicians such as Masego and KAMAUU into the country and would have Kenyan musicians like Karun and Xenia Manasseh as openers to showcase the potential of Kenyan R&B. This further led her into establishing Soul Headquarters, her record label and agency of which she still closely works with the two including other Afro R&B/Alte musicians such as Aylo and more recently Altair Saïd, with the aim of pushing Afro R&B to the forefront of the continent.
Other music and art events such as Blankets & Wine, Africa Nouveau, Thrift Social and more recently Folk Fusion and Nakili Sessions have also played a major role in highlighting the soul that’s bestowed in the city.
Taking it back to the Soundcloud era, it is impossible to talk about R&B’s rise without acknowledging the producers behind the songs from that time. This era saw a lot of musicians experimenting with electronic producers that explored different sub-genres of R&B. Producers like Just A Band, EA Wave, XPRSO and Sichangi to name a few. Their production work would introduce Kenyans to even more artists such as Wanja Wohoro, Tetu Shani, Mayonde, Wendy Kay and Vallerie Muthoni. This is what I think differentiates R&B that was made then and what is made now- the producers willingness to experiment with sounds. Producers have always played a major role in what the genre has evolved into over the years. We wouldn’t have many classics if it wasn’t for legends like Ted Josiah and Tim Rimbui, who both honed the careers of many Kenyan musicians such as Eric Wainaina and Suzanna Owiyo, as well as Ogopa Djs who produced music for artists like Amani, Wahu and Mr. Lenny. Today producer Ukweli is currently at the forefront of reshaping the genre.
In our post COVID-19 world we have seen a rise of many more artists that fit within the sub-genres such as Maya Amolo, Kinoti, Muthaka, Ethan Muziki, Ayrosh, Njerae, Charisma, Mutoriah, Bridget Blue, Watendawili and so many more who honed their crafts during lockdown and came out swinging as the worlds ‘new normal’ began to take course.
Outside of the enduring nature of R&B music and its relatability to many music lovers, another big reason for its rise in Kenya right now is the accessibility to a larger audience thanks to the internet. More listeners are able to tap in and appreciate its diverse nature from Kenyan artists, despite the genre’s African American roots. We currently have the globe on our radar, proven by Spotify Africa and COLORSxSTUDIOS collaboration which aims to shine a light on African R&B.
According to the COLORS website, “The Kenyan capital city of Nairobi is fast emerging as a hub for some of the most exciting original voices emerging from across East Africa''. In celebration, they brought together 18 musicians, songwriters and producers from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Botswana, Burundi and the diaspora for a multi-day songwriting camp alongside a series of masterclasses. This affair provided a platform for these artists to connect and collaborate, as well as perform for millions on their A COLORS SHOW platform on YouTube. From Kenya, we had Lisa Odour-Noah, Xenia Manasseh, Karun, Bien, Maya Amolo and Zowie Kengocha. You might have also noticed Nyokabi Kariuki who was COLORSxSTUDIOS own pick outside of the collaboration, not as an R&B artist, but as an inventive composer and sound artist, putting the experimental and underground music scene in Nairobi on the map. The stars aligned in everyone’s favour!
Each artist delivered their own unique spin on the genre and was met with much praise. The music that came from this collaboration is proof that when Kenyans support our own, we can reach greater heights than when we don’t. Long gone are the times where Kenyans would only celebrate their own once they were recognized elsewhere; the R&B scene now can proudly say that it was supported at home through the invitation of such music platforms and demanding for shows to hear their favourite artists.
Spotify picked their Afro R&B Tantalizers playlist for this collaboration because they noticed Kenya’s affinity for R&B music over the last year. Not only was it the most streamed playlist on the platform, but they also noted that Kenya is the global leader in R&B music consumption and the numbers are steady on the rise. Despite R&B resurrecting globally, and Africa being on the watch, there’s a special spiritedness coming out of Nairobi city that stands out when it comes to the love of the genre.
Many wonder what genre will be the one that will finally give Kenyans and East Africans as a whole recognition globally since the 2010’s, and it’s easy to see why some have their bets on R&B. However, it's not that easy to tell. The industry landscape is ever changing despite the great potential and talent that we have. Who knows, it might even be house that eventually does the job. Either way, the biggest takeaway is that we need to celebrate and uplift our own in order for them and us to reach global scales. COLORS came here because Kenyans online made several appeals to see their favourite Kenyan artists on their platform and it happened. Who is to say that we can’t take it further?
In the meantime, apart from those mentioned; keep an eye out for Kasha, Altair Saïd, Caleb Awiti, Maali, NJERI, Iyanah, Andyah, Billy Black, Amara Tari, Emma Cheruto, Nge-The-Producer, Lukorito, Hawi Okello, Hendrick Sam and so many more artists flaunting Kenyan Soul around.
Click here for a playlist of all the mentioned artists from newest to oldest in the scene.