Will Sing For Food

Michael Onsando
26 January ,2016

Many musicians would rightfully be millionaires if they got paid what they are worth. They should be getting six figure cheques from MCSK every month.

“am[sic] one of the pioneers of youth rap music yet I have not even been paid for close to 3 years now”

“Many musicians are not getting their rightful dues out of their intellectual property. MCSK is making so much money from the music but not paying us the way it is supposed to; something that has been going on for a long time.”

The structures within the music industry in Kenya have failed the musician.”


A quick google search shows a history of musicians demanding for their money from MCSK. If we were to follow their motto “making the world better for those who make living beautiful,” it would appear that the company has been failing for a very long time.

3 questions arise from this situation:

  1. How has this gone on for so long?
  2. Why now?
  3. What does this mean?

How this has gone on always makes its way back to the systemic. After all the MCSK is not the only organization that is meant to be in service to the people with an unfortunate motto. Utumishi kwa wote comes to mind, amidst some others. Even now, as we continue to wonder where this money that should be going to musicians is magically going classic silencing tactics are being used. A town hall already saw Elani being called out for being young and inexperienced (it was, at least, an unpopular opinion). Same town hall showed, if nothing else, there is a gaping hole somewhere that has been there for a while. And it doesn’t look close to being plugged.

And this is not the first time that the MCSK has come under public scrutiny, consider this section from the Business Daily in December 2010:

“The government is set to revoke the license of Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) over its high operational costs compared to the royalties it pays musicians, a move that will deny local artistes millions of shillings in fees.”

Which was followed through by this in July 2011:

“A judge has reinstated Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) mandate to collect royalties on behalf of more than 5,000 local musicians whose earnings were under threat following the revocation society’s licence by the Kenya Copyright Board.“


Both of these paragraphs are the first paragraphs of the articles. What’s put in the lead (term for first paragraph) often dictates what happens in the rest of the piece. It’s interesting to see how both writers here are sympathetic to the MCSK. It is positioned as an organization that is going against so much to ensure that artists get their money. This organization happened to be caught up by high operational costs and a few missing millions. How unfortunate.

It is the unfortunateness of this that continues to keep institutions and people around when they have ignored what they should be doing. This pointing out of the unfortunate thus becomes the problem. It is no one’s fault, and in being no one’s fault, we don’t need to talk about it. Ahmed reminds me that when we talk about something we come up against we come up against the thing we talk about.

And continue to talk about.

Which brings me to why now. It’s important to think about why Elani got heard.  At least to the extent that they are heard. Neo Musangi proves useful to this end:

“To call oneself a babi in Kenya is to declare one untouchable. To ask, “Mta’do?”  without the arrogance of Kenya’s political class. Without the violence of a country at war with its own. It is to say,  “I am telling you this, and I am aware of the risk I take with an articulation of this kind but I am not afraid. Because I have no reason to be afraid”. It is to say, in many ways that even within one’s vulnerability (because there’s an ever-present vulnerability embodied in queerness) one’s body is not available to the violence it attracts if unbabied. Also, it is to say, “You might not like what I am telling you about me right now but you are going to have to listen to me because babiness is listened to in this country”

There is nothing special about this moment in time. Not more that there was when the other artists were speaking. It then proves to be a matter of class that was at play here. Babiness is listened to in this country. This is not said in an attempt to devalue or discredit what is being said. It is to re-ask what has been asked, how many musicians have had their money just disappear? The ones who, as one lady pointed out, weren’t even adequately represented in the town hall?

And let’s not forget what disappeared money means

Disappeared money in this case is another meal, another item of clothing, school fees. Think about what it would feel like if your boss decided to just pay you 20% of your salary this month. For no reason other than no one could be bothered to check.

This is what it means.

Having more money in the pool for musicians opens up the industry in so many ways. They continue to re-invest in their music. This means sound producers, instrumentalists, videographers, songwriters, actors, crew and many others get paid. More money floating around in the music economy means more music, more competition. The quality of the work will go up.

These is what it means.

This is even before we begin to talk about the value of music for the healing it brings. For the information it spreads.

For just being music.

Still, I remain wary. This is not the first time the MCSK has been under the lens. Even as I write this, I wonder if it will be the last. How do we make this happen? We participate. We listen. We send letters. We talk about this. The weekly cycle of rage continues to turn. Every day we’re given something new to hold and consider. With each new round of fuckery we drop the last one. This purposeful act of forgettingness keeps us from holding anyone to account on anything. How about this one? How about we refuse to let go this time?

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