Ethics and Perspectives

Michael Onsando
9 July ,2019


“And I’m the asshole in the room?”

Miles Ahead, a movie on the life and times of Miles Davis, opens up on a moody Miles Davis locked up in his house, listening to session tapes and nostalgic on what is described as past glory. It is 1964, five years after Miles release “So what,” that took the world by storm. When a writer claiming to be sent from the studio comes to write about his “comeback” Miles flips. He drives all the way to Columbia records to demand his pay where he pulls a gun on an overzealous Artists and Repertoire executive who claims to own his music. As he pulls the gun he also ends up unwravelling the web of perception around him where the records are holding his money, the writer isn’t from the records and a young producer is trying to use the moment to give his own artist space to shine. Finally having his fill he leaves with the line “And I’m the asshole in the room?”

I go back to this scene every time I find myself coming up against a wall of perception (whether the wall is from me looking out or outside looking in). Anyone walking into the room would see a man with a gun. Instead the story unravels to show a man tired of dealing with layers of deception, trying to find the truth (and struggling with drugs)

“Honestly, ethic mayne – ni nini mbaya na nyinyi?”

I’m always worried about what it means when we decide that one side of a narrative must be correct. That certain people acting must be perceived as acting in a certain way, and that their violence is always viewed through a lens of of erratic, without reason or just plain ghetto. And how these assumptions create the worlds where we exist.  

I wonder, for example, how quickly the guilty verdict was arrived at. The question asked was not “what’s happening here?” “what has happened?” “why are you behaving like this?” Implicit within the question was the fact that assumptions made were not about the issue in question. Rather, “nini mbaya na nyinyi?” implies that there is a consistent wrongness. Not that this action is seen as wrong but rather this action is seen as a pattern of wrongness that is inherent within the question. In asking nini mbaya na nyinyi we are immediately drawn into a certain framing of the issue. The framing that shows Ethic as a group of rowdy young men out for trouble and directly implies them as on the wrong in this particular situation.

I wonder (some more) if the reaction would have been as loud, as blatant and as publicly shaming if it had been any other group or individual at the centre of the trouble. For sure, the issue would have been handled (violently even, it was, after all, a violent moment) but would the concert have been shut down? Would the MC’s voice blare over the speakers at the whole stadium about the problem? Would the DJ have hidden their computer?

Or would there have been some “technical difficulties” as everything was sorted out?

“But if he’s scared of me how can we be free?”

– Boogieman, Gambino

I’ve been trying to write this piece without falling in defense of anyone – I’m not privy to what happened. As such, there are words and places I refuse to go because the aim of this piece is not to level accusations or defend actions. I’m trying, instead, to talk about how we deal with what we see and whether we question why and how we are responding to things the way we are. Because if not aren’t we just going around projecting our fears onto the world? And if we are creating a world shaped by our fear then are we doing the work?

Cheza na Nare

Michael Onsando
12 March ,2019

“New position, new position, new position every time I come in…”

There’s something about this song by Ethic Entertainment that encapsulates everything I like about urban nairobi music. The group – Reckless, Swat, Zilla and Seska – rose to fame with lamba lolo, a term that spread almost as fast as their music. Maybe it’s the simple rhythm on the synthetic instruments or the kapuka style drums genre but it’s impossible to listen to this song without at least bopping your head – and maybe even be tempted to ape the odi dance that you saw once in that video that time.

“Hizo miaka zote nimekuwa missing lakini iko kitu hamjaniambia/

Kaa ningebaki bado ungekuwa na taki ya kuskia nikiwaimbia/

Ama by saa hii mngekuwa mnanifanya vile mnafanya ma pioneer (…)

It’s not that serious rap ni hobby/

Bila mziki bado namanga/

Ingekuwa career si ningekuwa nalia kuskia ati Naija Night Nairobi!”

The story of our ability to celebrate that which is not ours has been told so many times that it rings hollow. It is also the story that makes invisible the people behind 3 million views cheza na nare gathered online. Still the story of music is often a story of elsewhere. Experienced and loved elsewhere before home catches up.

“nobody is going to pay you $100,000 in Nigeria to do a show, or even $60k to come and jump on stage for a set. But you can easily get that money by walking into Kenya or walking into Gambia.”

In this quote, for example, Kenya is the elsewhere that Mr Eazi has created for himself while home – Nigeria- still struggles with the concept of paying the man what he believes he should make. These are commons struggles that artists meet as they grow in their career. In the same way our largest artists have worked hard to create and craft with nuances that leave space for international sales between lines. We, in the same way, fit well into the space created by artists from elsewhere – hence why we would pay substantially more for Mr Eazi than for Fena.

 “The size of the global market for creative goods has expanded substantially, more than doubling in size from $208 billion in 2002 to $509 billion in 2015, data by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) shows (…) But even with the potential of the creatives industry, Kenya and other developing countries are yet to tap into this lucrative global market.”

We see it in all the statistics – the “global” market is imperative to artisanal success. Which is why when I hear “na tuko tu pacho, kwani boss iko nini?” I am reminded of the choices that we make when we decide to identify ourselves as who we are – and what this means for our perceived value, not just as artists. And I see a choice made to insist on the existence of a “we.” An us who gather around the fires of pacho and calif. Creating a space where we are centered, contexualised and (mis)understood. It is also a belief in our ability to lift ourselves – to satisfy our own ambitions. “I trust that I can make music – and they will pay for it” despite all the insistence on “global” facing work – this music is designed to face one direction only – inwards, unapologetically.

“Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen”

And that we continue to remember that we exist is important. That we center ourselves whoever “we” wholly are is important because that is the fire that keeps us going. So, today, I want to tip my hat to all our musicians who consistently hold up a mirror and remind us that we exist. May you continue to feed our flames. And, by any chance, ikizima…  

Winging it with Blinky

Guest Writer
25 December ,2018

by April Zhu

Photograph by Nairobiphoet

“Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales” sounds like the title of a picture book for kids in their twenties and thirties. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s to stop feeling like an imposter. Trust the process. Trust your own hard work. “Blinky” Bill Sellanga’s first solo album is an anthem for the young creative just trying to “do the thing.”

Blinky Bill pulls back the curtain on the performance of celebrity and instead “performs” humility. He goes out of his way to prove that, even when you become a big shot, some things don’t change. The song “Bills to Pay” bypasses the glamour of creative work and instead elevates small and unsexy humiliations like chasing after your own money after you’ve done the job. With a string of sharp puns on PayBill, pay the bills, and “pay Bill to play”—plus that passive-aggressive “my dia”—Blinky Bill drops the ultimata that hustlers want to but can’t always: “Wakati wa kulipa umefika / Toa pesa sasa hivi, sasa hivi.” Louder for the clients in the back, please.

“My dia my dia my dia you do not know me very well
So let me tell you little something

I am looking for no drama.”

– Blinky Bill, “Bills To Pay,” “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”

The whole album toggles between reassurance and desperation. Take “Oh Wah,” which features Nneka and Petite Noir. It’s an internal dialogue, a backdrop to bad news on TV: “Healing is what you need / is what I need is what they need / but my country keeps hurting my soul / I can’t watch the news no more / I can’t watch the news no more.” It’s familiar for any young Kenyan who has witnessed their country fall and sighed, “How now, Kenya.”

Or for any young person, really, who daily processes the rapid reel of the internet, suffering and humor and love and meaninglessness assorted on one feed. Who sees bad things in the world on her screen and feels, at the same time, both incredibly privileged and completely powerless. “Oh Wah” is not pedantic; it’s not even a call to action. It is an honest meditation on injustice that doesn’t shove answers into questions. Running through this album are these kinds of interrogations about where we belong in the world, often with brave uncertainty.

For this reason, the opening track, “Lwanda Magere”—named for the mythical Luo warrior whose invincibility was unraveled by a woman—is at first jarring. A kick drum mimics the forward march of battle-ready hide drums, while bass and talkbox trade off into one another and are all swept into pixelated static: a myth, digitalized. What does it mean that an album that grapples with endless questions—especially the big one, “Where do we come from?”—begins first with some sort of answer? “Lwanda Magere” hangs like a plaque above the door we step inside, a benediction to origin that will frame everything else to follow.

Everyone knows that Blinky Bill has a thing for nostalgia. He trawls up sounds we didn’t know we still remember, like those of the Bata Shoeshine Boys. When asked about his influences, he points backwards: The Mighty Cavaliers, Slim Ali and the Hodi Boys, and many more. Kenyans speak starry-eyed about music of the past—the golden age of immortal zilizopendwa, or genge and kapuka, a time when our sounds were envied. Blinky Bill takes on a quiet resistance to that pessimism. Resistance, because he is deliberate (almost political) about reversing Kenyans’ musical amnesia. Quiet, because he makes it good without having to tell us it’s good. His optimism is stubbornly Nairobi-centric.

“We’re at the most interesting phase of any art scene, to be honest, in Africa. If you’re looking at Africa, you’ll take a look at Nairobi. We’re just discovering ourselves and figuring out how to express ourselves in a way that makes sense to us.”

– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014

You won’t find cheap copy-pastes of “traditional” “African” sounds, easy tropes that are vaguely “tribal.” You do, however, get that cold little sparkle of an ongeng’o in “Winner.” Or a thin veil of distant chant in “Oh Wah.” Or the crunchy “chka chka ka chka chka” in “Atenshan” (and his mic tests) you hear in K-South’s “Kapuka This.” In the same way that benga artists, translating nyatiti into guitar, bridged old tunes into a new world, all the while creating something singular, Blinky Bill is certainly a bridge from something to something.

“No one back home considers [The Mighty Cavaliers’] contribution important so, with working with this music, I’m going backwards into Kenyan music history and trying to bring it forth so the new generation that’s listening to Kenyan music—which we’re at the forefront of pushing—are exposed to these musicians and their work.”

– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014, referring to Just A Band’s rendition of [The Mighty Cavaliers’ “Dunia Ina Mambo”

But from what to what? “Genre” is deceptively subjective. British artist FKA Twigs described this: “When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre. And then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer.” The act of “genre”-ing music is intractably political and fraught with questions about gaze.

“One of my least favorite terms is the box of ‘World Music,’ where for years the music from the ‘Other’ places has been lumped together,” Blinky Bill said in an interview with OneBeat. The concept of “world music,” according to journalist Ian Burrell, originated in a north London pub as a means for promoting non-Western artists, but now just puts them in a “ghetto.” Take Nneka, who features in “Oh Wah.” She lives in Berlin and sings in English, says Burrell, “but she hails from Warri, Nigeria, so gets categorised as a world music performer and thus finds it that much harder to get on playlists, get gigs, and get attention.”

This seems to be a conversation that Blinky Bill runs into a lot, especially outside of Africa, where feels he most needs to “explain” himself. (Although maybe this is changing?) As this album rappels down into the rest of the world, it will only become more necessary to “explain” his work in terms of Africanness.

Or not. “I feel sometimes when outsiders look to African music, there’s an expectation of a certain sound,” Blinky Bill said in an interview with OneBeat. “I’d like it to be just music.” He cares about “cooking up” interesting music, and apart from that, people can take it as they will.

Everyone wants to know Blinky Bill’s secret sauce. What’s his process? What “inspires” him? Where does he learn? But there’s no recipe. When interrogated on his process, Blinky Bill gives dry-cut answers with the same few wholesome ingredients: hard work, focus, learning from the masters.

He’s not bluffing. In any art form, intuitive talent can go a long way, but “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”—almost all of which Blinky Bill produced himself—demonstrates a grasp of the chemistry and mechanics of sound. Think of how he electrified the gospel number “Mungu Halali” with that groovy, glittering Wurlitzer that slides over the choir. Or how the big brass in “Atenshan” swoon as they crackle on the low notes, dragging a moment behind at the end of a phrase, weighed down by their own wooziness.

Sometimes you can tell when an artist is limited by their lack of control over their own medium. Blinky Bill, especially in this project, has transcended that. He’s mastered the foundations but hasn’t lost his experimental edge.  

“What’s inspiring my new album? Mostly….life. Having that understanding that no one truly has the answers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because the journey is as interesting as the destiny.”

– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014

But the whole point of this album—again, if we can call it a storybook for the young creative—is that, when it comes to making good work, there’s no mystique, kids, no winning juice. When you run out of ideas, DJ for some time. Force yourself to keep making, if only for its own sake. “Winner” is a sort of self-hype-talk, one you can imagine giving yourself in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning: affirmations of untouchability, unstoppability, unshrinkability. That it’s okay to doubt yourself and puff out your chest at the same time. Held at another angle, it’s a prayer.

“Let That Go,” featuring the loose-jawed, syrupy verse of Sampa the Great, offers another angle to confidence: a refuge that comes from another way of knowing. This track follows the contrite “Mungu Halali,” and it embodies an underside of faith in God: faith in oneself. I love this one precisely because it’s a woman saying she doesn’t give a fuck.

“I keep the hate up on the dinner

Play it like a lullaby till all the haters simmer

Throw away the throwaways till I discover

To keep the spirit when all my shit come down to winter.”

            – Sampa the Great, “Let That Go,” “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”

Blinky Bill picks up these ideas of success and turns them around in his hand. Where does success come from? Why is it so hard to reach? Is it wrought out by hard work? The grace of God? What is it even? What do we tell haters? What do we tell our worst critic, our selves?

And then, just like that, in the last line of the last track, one more question—this one from Asa—lifts us off into a bright blue sky: “Why can’t we be happy?”

A question that, if you sing it, sounds more like an answer.

April Zhu is a writer and artist in Nairobi, Kenya

Loving in mono – dreaming in stereo

Michael Onsando
7 August ,2018

“I surrender this isn’t love it’s torture” 

  • Hold me down

Love, or ideas of what love can be, has the ability to bring us to our knees. With our backs against the wall and confronted by the harsh truth that no one is subject to your will – that illusions of control are just that. Love, we are reminded is a battlefield for preservation of the self, in a landscape that continuously asks for compromise, for a little letting go for a little more space – just a little.

My first encounter with the album “Dreams in Stereo” happens in Eric Wainaina’s studio. I have wandered into the space on other business and Eric has just come from recording “Okay,” the opening track on the album. The song takes us to all the places we know and trust Eric to take us. Heavily layered choir like melodies over intricate piano and guitar with the trademark tenor that brought us “nchi ya kitu kidogo” immediately let’s you know one thing – you’re listening to an Eric Wainaina record.

But if love itself has the ability to bring us down to our knees then what does its absence do? At what point in the process of unraveling and bringing back together does one decide enough is enough? And, post this decision, what does it look like to put oneself decision in the absence of the person they had decided was supposed to be with them for the rest of their lives?

I miss my second encounter with the album. Having made it to the album launch I barely make it through Sage Chemutai and Tetu Shani’s great openings before a my body decides that it has had enough of my nonsense. The migraine has me in bed before Eric takes the stage.

Speaking at an interview this is what he had to say about the album,“It is an even more personal and intimate album in many ways, where I felt freer to just be myself. It also explores a wide range of musical genres that are close to my heart.”

“Nilikukosea nini, ukanichukia?” 

  • Don’t bury me

The tapestry takes us through a variety of sounds, with each song painting a particular place in the landscape that our attention is being drawn to. There is clear evidence of very deliberate thought about where each note is placed, where every sound effect resonates and every echo. Even when he brings other artists in, we see why they are where they are. A personal favourite is how the diverse style of John Nzenze, Kendi Nkonge and Blinky Bill come together on “don’t bury me” creating a bouncy, snappy track that moves at the everyday rhythm of life – in a song that talks about moving on, moving forward without anger or angst, but rather letting go to move forward.

Can we fly away together, tell no one – don’t leave a number.”

  • Fly away together

I spend the week after the concert streaming the album almost every day. Not only because I was supposed to conjure up a few words about it, but because I am drawn to find more in every listen. To find more of the narrative, to move through the nostalgia and hope once again – I tire my kid brother on one such listen – so perhaps the music intended for more errr mature audiences.

Life has a way of not stopping. No matter what happens, life trudges on. And even as we tell ourselves that love is irreplaceable, we find ourselves slipping once more. We find ourselves loving, despite ourselves. We find ourselves caring, despite ourselves. And, no matter how careful we are, we find ourselves asking, once more to love and to be loved.

“Paid my dues, now I’m ready for the loving, ready for loving – no substituting.”

  • Long time coming 

As I write this essay I am still listening to the album. At 41 minutes long, the piece of work lends itself to a long drive, a long walk or the mindless listen at your work desk as you wait for 5pm. Packed with lyrical and musical content, this is more than the songs you play in the background and ignore – this music demands being listened to, demands being heard – again

“I need you to take me to a brand new day”

Brand new day

“Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen” 

  • Hejinian

Perhaps this is why we turn to art for the answers. When love pushes us to our knees we already know what we are supposed to do. We already know that there is little to be done. Instead we need someone to remind us that, eventually, it gets better. Eventually, we see the world as beautiful again. Eventually we love – again.

Dreaming in stereo by Eric Wainaina is available on Songa, and iTunes.