ONCE upon a time, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was the breeding ground of musical genius in Africa. Back when we still called the country Zaire, DRC set the tone that inspired artistes to the East, West, and South of the central African nation.
From Kanda Bongo Man to Madilu System, Congolese musicians owned the continent’s music scene. Singing in Lingala and French, making music called “Soukous”, DRC had the continental musical standard to aspire toward.
Then the tides changed. Today, Nigeria and South Africa dominate the music industry and Soukous is but a shadow of its once popular and influential self. What happened?
In the 1950s and 1960s, artistes like Papa Wemba and Franco Luambo ruled the airwaves. Stars like Koffi Olomide came along in the 1970s and drove large African and European fan bases wild with live concerts and tape recordings. In the 1980s, a largely Paris-based Congolese diaspora of musicians ceased to produce music looking to Kinshasa, but instead sought international audiences elsewhere.
These days, Nigerian musicians like P-Square, Davido and Wizkid are national and international sensations. Furthermore, South Africa and Nigeria’s music industries seem to have the infrastructure together with the political and economic might to create the type of musical productions that facilitate global consumption. This includes high quality music videos, music award shows, international hip hop collaborations, and relatively established distribution channels. (See: Give the devil his due: How Mobutu gave birth to Nigeria’s Nollywood)
South Africa and Nigeria have yet to perfect the art of making money from making music. However, institutions like The Recording Industry of South Africa (RiSA) advocate for the intellectual property rights of musicians and co-ordinate anti-piracy efforts that allow for those in the music industry to make money from their efforts.
Large powerhouse companies like Universal Music South Africa and Sony Entertainment Africa are able to promote artistes to an international audience, letting them book tours and performances that play to tens of thousands of fans that can buy their music. Music video channels like MTV Base Africa and Channel O give artists access to consumers around the continent via DSTV and this is in large part how the popularity of D’banj and Burna Boy flourishes.
The political climate has played a large role too. While a government ban on certain songs by musicians like Koffi Olomide was a surefire way to build intrigue and a following amongst fans, it also made it much harder to thrive and grow the local Congolese music scene.
Uncertainty not conducive
At first, Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seku’s Authenticité (Zairianization) policies galvanised and developed a taste for homegrown, afrocentric art and culture. At a time when it became illegal to baptise children with names that were not African or to wear western suits and ties, African cultural products like Congo music flourished. At the beginning of the 1960s, Mobutu had inherited one of the richest countries in Africa; the mineral-rich nation was the second most industrialised African state after South Africa upon independence in 1960.
However, the country that he lost in the 1997 coup was notoriously corrupt and on the precipice of what has been over a decade of wars. The political instability, social hardships, and economic uncertainty in DRC have not been conditions conducive to growing an industry reliant upon many moving parts working together.
The Nigerian music industry on the other hand, much like its film industry, continues to dominate the African continent. The West African nation has been generating musicians of all genres—reggae, dancehall, R&B, with a notable penchant for producing African hip-hop sensations.
Nigerian record labels like Don Jazzy’s Marvin Records, WizKid’s Starboy Entertainment, and Banky W’s Empire Mates Entertainment are a testament to the business savvy nature of Nigerian musicians who double as entrepreneurs. It is no wonder that when Forbes collaborated with Channel O to release a list of Africa’s top 10 richest musicians, seven hailed from Nigeria.
These artistes have an understanding of the global music industry in a way that allows them to create hit sounds and become icons. The popularity of Nigerian musical stars extends far beyond the borders of Nigeria and Africa. The quality of the sound and production values of music that comes from this country can parallel that produced in Europe and the United States.
This is crucial in the 21st century as music culture shifts away from CDs and toward digital age modes of consumption, like iTunes and YouTube.
—The author is a Ugandan multidisciplinary performance artist and scholar