Taylor Swift may be the world’s No. 1-selling artist, but she might have a hard time getting airplay in some countries.
In South Africa, 55 percent of the content on radio stations as well as community and public TV has to be local.
Nigeria has a law that more than 70 percent of the music played on radio must be by local artists.
Kenyan artists want Kenya to do the same. Musicians there are pushing for a law that would force Kenyan radio stations to devote 70 percent of their playlists to Kenyan music (and 70 percent of TV programming to Kenyan films).
“I want more local songs in the chart,” says Yusuf Noah, the 34-year-old CEO of Grandpa Records (his stage name is Refigah). His label features what he calls the “Kenyan sound,” based on Benga, a local music that originated in the mid-20th century.
Add an overlay of Swahili rap and dance-hall beats to that traditional rhythm, and you get something like the rapper V-Sita’s “Hivo Ndio Kunaendaga,” or “That’s How It Goes,” a No. 1 hit two years ago.
In Kenya, the 70 percent proposal hasn’t gone further than a meeting between the artists and the Ministry of Culture. But the government is banking on the work of its artists. Kenya projects that by the year 2030, 10 percent of its GDP will come from copyright-related industries like music, film, art and publishing.
Isaac Rutenberg is the director of the Center for Intellectual Property and Information Technology at Strathmore Law School in Nairobi. He says a 70 percent local rule would be a huge boost to the arts. But protectionist policies are contagious, he points out, and that’s not a good thing.
“When one country does something like that, a neighboring country retaliates with something similar,” says Rutenberg. “So at some level, you will end up with smaller segmented markets that are not looking abroad but are really focused at home.”
The whole concept of protectionism can feel a bit retrograde in an era of laptop studios and YouTube, when every kind of music is available to almost everyone. And musical borders are blurring. When I came to talk to V-Sita, the song he was working on was straight-up country pop, from its guitars to the “twang” in the singers’ voices.
Only, the singers aren’t from the American South but from Kenya. The musicians are Kenyan, too. And the track was produced in a Kenyan studio.
That, says Refigah, is exactly the point. Protecting local artists is not about preserving local culture at the expense of global or focusing artists inward.
“We are a young industry,” he says. “And we want to grow. And we want to employ more people, and how will we do that?”
By manufacturing more Kenyan pop stars, he says. With a little help from their government friends.