Truly Astonishing! What Holds Back Tanzania’s Music Industry?

Tanzanian 'Bongo Fleva' Music Artists

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To the untrained mind, they all start the same: the same prolonged beat that goes on forever. It’s so long that it’s beautiful. Before you know it, your right leg is bent like you’re about to take a penalty kick, and your hips are curved like you’re not about to. To account for your left leg, your right leg goes back to being at ease, which is also a cue for your hands to move like you’re training with a punching bag and for your eyes to be hypnotized.

You are vibing to one of the beats of Amapiano—the hybrid subgenre of house and kwaito music off of South Africa—that is the latest trend among artists of Bongo Flava.

DJ Maphorisa performing Amapiano tracks. | Photo from See Today Africa

The terrain of our modern Bongo Flava took shape in the 1990s while American hip-hop was in its golden age. Its founders fused traditional African music styles such as Taarab and Dansi with American hip-hop, then sprinkled influences from reggae and R&B. Its roots, however, can be traced as far back as the early 1980s when Remi Ongala ruled with his Rumba style of music and to the beach concerts Joseph Kusaga and Ruge Mutahaba organized before the radios took it mainstream.

The turn of the 21st century saw the arrival of titans like T.I.D, Matonya, Lady Jay Dee, Mr. Blue, T.M.K Wanaume, Alikiba, Ray C, and A.Y, whose craft was rooted in the struggles gripped the nation. It was a way for the youth to vent as they hustled. Throughout its lifetime, Bongo Flava has always been curious, never shied from borrowing from other cultures, and simultaneously delicate not to lose itself entirely to those more prominent than it. Perhaps that’s why it’s so rich in its spectrum, can’t be constricted within any single identity, and outdoors itself with each new batch of talent.

Such is the trait of the Tanzanian population. We are people in pursuit of the next big thing, whether essential or not, who address their mental health with gossip, a people person. And perhaps no one comprehended this aspect of us exceptionally well than Nassib Abdul (Diamond Platnumz)

He saw the money in it and understood the power of controversy- that the blitz and glitter we generate for small things is what makes showbiz. So he bombarded us with as much controversy as 50 million can carry, whether implicating or not; only the buzz mattered. He’d make sure we knew who he was dating, why the one he’d broken up with would crawl back to him crying, why the one after this would be lucky to have him, that the radios had an agenda against him and why music was more than vocals—just the correct dose to keep us in suspense but make headlines all year long.

Of course, the music was spectacular. He was and is a genius in the craft, perhaps the best to ever do. His strength was his flexibility, his ability to evolve and blend with each new music genre the nation had an eye for. When Afrobeats was gaining momentum, he tried it (Eneka); when we were in our taarab phase, he jumped in( Mdogomdogo); he would not let our Singeli phase go without gracing it; and now that we are in our Amapiano era, he’s given Africa one of its best 2023 Amapianos (Shuu).

Diamond was what we needed—a phenomenal talent with a cloud of gossip around them. For his service, we took him to heights no celebrity in Tanzania has ever touched. We made him Tanzania’s most streamed artist on almost all platforms—untouchable. And he was a hungry man. He worked even harder for his name to be mentioned with all the finest Africa had to offer—titans like Wizkid, Burna Boy, Davido, Yemi Alade, Black Kofee, and Sauti Sol.

Music was a business, and he mastered it. He’s ventured into the media and event promotion business with his WCB Wasafi label, and it’s winning big. It is in his image that most artists now mimic or find inspiration.

The industry enjoys a more significant following and exposure than at any time. More or less, new blood artists like Marioo, Rayvanny, Harmonize, Nandi, and Zuchu took the same formula and treated music as the business it is.

There is an influx of investment in quality audio and video productions, endorsements, concert quality, and, most importantly, individual artist worth. It would be without exaggeration to call our music industry the second-best in Africa after Nigeria’s. Our artists cut almost all the most significant charts in Africa on YouTube, Apple Music, or Spotify.

Nigeria’s music industry has cemented itself as a pop culture juggernaut in recent years, with its artists challenging for the top ten on music’s most famous chart- Billboard’s Hot 100. Icons like BurnaBoy, Davido, Asake and Wizkid are enjoying stardom that sees them fill prestigious venues like London’s O2 Arena and New York’s Maddison Square Garden. It is now impossible to talk about the Grammys without Afrobeats.

Most people attribute this progress to Nigeria’s use of English and its enormous diaspora and population, but that misses the truth. The thing about art is that it transcends borders when it’s good, and Afrobeats, for the most part, is now golden in its melody. It built an audience over time to the point that it’s now global. Language and population can only do so much; art must first speak for itself, just like Diamond’s art spoke amid the scandals.

Also, Bongo Flava does enjoy those same privileges, in Africa at least, so by such deductions, we should be more significant than we are right now. We can be more important than we are. All metrics point towards growth; we now have the attention of platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and AudioMack, and companies like Sony Music are signing Bongo Flava artists.

We just now have to be brave enough to seize the moment. And this time, it’s not up to the artists because they’ve done their part exceptionally well so far; it’s now up to the fans and the government. These two things should be done for starters:

Uphold artist freedoms: The cornerstone of all art is freedom—the freedom to reimagine and interpret something ordinary in a way they can, like drawing a parallel between a cup of porridge and a toxic ex or a corrupt leader. Often, this can come in dark, unfiltered thoughts that express vulnerability, pain and anger or as a joyous celebration of life, beauty, or success. Tanzania does not afford its artists this pool as a whole.

Most defenders of censorship claim that particular creations can indoctrinate the nation, and they are right. But remember that some songs have been convicted for less, perhaps honest criticisms. It is like we are in denial; in one part, we want the fruits only a democracy can offer, and in another, we are not willing to be as accessible as a democracy should be.

Confining artists within limits of thought is what kills art. It creates a self-censure mechanism, forcing them to make songs, not art. The government should let the artists be brave enough to criticize the system and bold enough to influence culture.

I am in no way calling for the suspension of all limitations and responsibility; I am instead calling for the removal of those who are in place to protect the status quo of those with privilege. Music is a form of activism. Rather than tame it into pushing its narratives, the government can utilize music to demand accountability and educate the public on various things, a way for the youth to vent a way to shape culture.

Pay our fair share: For Diamond to fill Wembley, he must first sell out the Benjamin Mkapa stadium with premium tickets. It’s simple: to be worth something globally, you must be gold in your home market. Many concerts in the country usually sell out for cheap tickets or free entry. It is suitable for the fans but wrong for the industry.

Artists mainly depend on concerts to make the most of their living. When we pay them close to nothing, we kill their drive. People who argue against this always claim that we are a poor country, so prices should stay down. I agree, but being poor doesn’t give us the right to pay people less than their worth in music or any other sector. It is only suitable to compensate them fairly because if we can’t see their worth, who will?

Music is now in its streaming era. Of late, we have had Spotify and the likes enter our market, but that’s not enough. Our crack down on piracy should expand to sites that provide free music to users while receiving millions in ad revenue and giving none to the artists. Again, those who argue we are poor should remember that art is beautiful and thus pricey.

We should not steal people’s labour because we are poor; we should pay our fair share because we understand exploitation. Also, provided one can’t afford to produce plans, Boomplay offers good free tier plans with ads that earn creators money.

We all dream of seeing our artists on the biggest of charts, touring on the biggest of stages. It gives us a sense of pride and hope. We are not far off from that dream. We have to borrow again. But this time, let us borrow how to value art. Let us borrow freedom.

You may also be interested in The Rise, Fall, and Potential Resurgence of Tanzania’s Movie Industry.

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3 months ago

Taking the music as a high form of culture as opposed to the traditional view that music and arts are for people too stupid to do anything else would also help,

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