Is Bongo music suffocating Genge brand in Kenya?

Monday, October 26th, 2020 00:00 |

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Sibling rivalry between Kenya and Tanzania has invaded the music scene. Competition between Genge (Kenyan hip hop music) and Bongo (Tanzanian music) over which is more popular is at fever pitch.

Reports from the entertainment industry reckon the penetrative muscle of Bongo into the Kenyan market. 

Unfortunately, Genge hasn’t made a showing worth its name in Tanzania. In fact, and curiously so, successful Kenyan musicians like Otile Brown or Willy Paul are becoming more and more popular in Kenya because they have pulled off an interesting mix of traditional Tanzanian taarab, afrobeat and hip hop. Are Kenyans abandoning their own Genge for Bongo?

Their many differences aside, on a scale of American to African, Kenyan Genge tends towards the former due to its dancehall hip hop style.

On the other hand, Bongo is more African in melody and manner.

People who love Bongo music say its tune is more melodious and satisfying. I guess the same can be said about Genge because preferences that follow aesthetics can be very controversial.

I am Kenyan and I know better than make sweeping pronouncements about our own music.

Nonetheless, one defining characteristic of these music styles is the language medium.

Genge is more prone to the use of English language or forms of it because Genge is hip hop and, therefore, natively Black American.

On the opposite scale is Bongo whose main medium of expression is Kiswahili.

Though lovers of music do not give much thought to language of composition, the idea of “familiarity” has been proved to be at the heart of why people find some music more pleasant than others.

We are, therefore, likely to listen more and more to songs or tunes we can relate with or sing along to.

Accordingly, one of the reasons Bongo has penetrated the Kenyan market could be its use of Kiswahili. 

But this can’t be the only reason since many Kenyans have enjoyed Lingala music for ages without understanding the language!

Could it be the melody of Bongo? Maybe. Many Bongo lovers around argue its Taarab-like flow is satisfying and spellbinding.

Does this mean Genge is less melodious? Certainly not. Use of language as medium of musical expression is far more complex than that.

Since music is representational and symbolic at the same time, successful song writers are often necessarily fluent in the language of its expression.

Music lyrics are the product of some reflection of the human experience expressed in language whose various grammatical resources make it possible for us to interpret the world around or inside us.

In other words, fluency is instrumental to both musical creativity and appreciation.  

Bongo artists compose and sing in Kiswahili whose propagation is without a doubt much more successful in Tanzania than it is in Kenya.

With their native competence in Kiswahili, Bongo artists enjoy the privilege of singing in their mother tongue.

By contrast, Genge artists use mixed language forms with English or Kiswahili as their base.

Use of Sheng by Genge is a reflection of the ambivalence with which the status of English or Kiswahili is regarded in Kenya.

Could this language choice problem be at the heart of Genge’s dwindling fortunes?

Probably not, but one thing is for sure; it is difficult to compose and sing in a language you can hardly express yourself in.

This is why listenership of Genge is restricted to urban areas and especially among the youth or people in early adulthood.

By contrast, Bongo observes the customary code of polite language and behaviour to a great extent thereby making itself appealing to a wider audience. — The writer is a senior lecturer, department of Linguistics and Literature, JOOUST

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