East African music is getting its place in the spotlight and with a wealth of talent previously highlighted, East African Records (EAR) are at the forefront of getting the world to step up and listen to the endless pool of talent that needs to be heard.
The distribution platform also has a studio in Kampala alongside doing ‘label-type services’ such as helping artists to develop a promotion strategy, assisting with creative direction, helping get covers and videos made, linking musicians to producers and sorting out people’s online profiles. We’ve already highlighted some of the most exciting music from East African Records and they have helped to break artists such as MC Yallah, Faizal Mostrixx and Ecko Bazz.
EAR are “not a label”, as founder David Cecil has stated many times to me. They are more of an enterprise that looks to bring about a levelling off of the African music scene, which has for years disproportionally favoured other regions of the continent.
“People struggle to think of a single East African artist and when I talk to one of the higher ups in the streaming industry, he described East Africa as a ‘black hole’.” EAR director and Founder David Cecil told us. “One of the things we wanted to address when setting up EAR was to say, there is a lot of good music here and the local scene is very vibrant.”
Beginnings and early endings
EAR’s root first took hold when David moved to Uganda and wanted to help build a space for local artists to create and showcase their work.
“Initially my idea was to set up a cinema, which was going to be an independent cinema with a bar and cultural activities but then it evolved into a live music space Tilapia. We did some DJ nights and some of the electronic music scenes that are active in Uganda one could argue it started there. It was, to my knowledge, the first rave that had ever happened in Uganda.”
However, David’s plans were almost de-railed before they really got started as Tilapia played host to a play about the conditions of homosexual people in Uganda, a country where it is not only illegal to be homosexual, but can be punishable by death.
The River and the Mountain was billed as a dramatic comedy, hoping to break down taboos and dispel a lot of myths about gay people that were seen as “paedophiles and monsters” to a lot of Ugandans.
After being banned at the national theatre, the play moved back to Tilapia where the show went from strength to strength and was a success. But problems were rumbling under the surface as law firms were consulted to see if the play was breaking any Ugandan laws.
“I said to everyone if anything goes wrong, I’ll take the blame. If the director for example had got in trouble, she could have gone to prison. I was very arrogant and thought they couldn’t possibly put me in prison – it wasn’t even activism in my eyes”.
“Whoever heard of somebody going to prison because of a comedy drama? Unfortunately, I did go to prison.”
David was kept in prison for nearly a week and subsequently put on trial for 3 months, charged with “disobeying lawful orders”. However, David won his trial as the judged dismissed the case on the grounds that the prosecution didn’t have any evidence and he was subsequently let free. However shortly afterwards, David was picked up by unmarked police and taken to holding cells and kept for a week. David was deported from the country back to the UK.
“I literally didn’t have time to pick up my toothbrush.” David recounts “I arrived back in the UK in shorts and a t-shirt and had to get my Dad to pick me up in mid-winter.”
Even after that experience, David wanted to return to Uganda and after a 2 year battle, he was given leave to return to Uganda in 2015.
“That was the year of the first Nyege Nyege and I was helping out at the festival. Having said I would go back and keep a low profile, I ended up on stage!”
The East African wave
East African Records was set up when David returned and a locally sourced team was gathered to help bring his vision to life.
The studio was set up alongside Wana Benjamin, Timothy (aka T-Mo) and Amani Greene – all local producer-engineers who made beats, recorded live sessions and helped manage the studio. Semulema Daniel worked on local promotion and artist liaison and had a team ready to push music on the underground and mainstream media.
Utilizing the studio as well as distribution, Ugandan artists were able to gain a more all-encompassing experience. Essentially you could record your music in the studio and EAR would handle the distribution of your music, as well as assisting with local promotion, which will hopefully lead to a growing fan base and live shows.
“Our distribution service was new and unusual to most people in Uganda – so we used the studio and live shows as a way of publicizing the distribution service”.
There was a real need in East Africa for investment in music and the arts. A lot of talented artists who wouldn’t have the contacts or funds to move forward with their own projects could hit stumbling blocks on the road to getting more recognition.
“Artists are normally expected to pay for their own promotion. Sometimes they will have a rich manager come in and say ‘I’m going to make you big, I’m going to pay for this stuff’. Because there isn’t a lot of financial liquidity in Uganda, it’s very hard for Ugandans to earn money through live shows. If artists complain in the UK or Europe about the economy of the music industry, they haven’t seen anything. It’s 10 times worse in Uganda.”
Ugandan artists primarily make a living from live shows, with side jobs in collaborations, merchandise and commercial endorsements. “Most local artists are not making a living wage off music- that is the reality”. David tells us. “The ones who were succeeding before Corona were very busy gigging all the time and it was like 10% of those who made anything worthwhile. I always tell people to get a day job or sponsor or they’ll quickly get disappointed!”
The last few years have coincided with a surge in talent coming from the East African music scene, absorbing music from other parts of the world.
“We are hearing EA Wave in Nairobi; they are a self-styled electronic movement that has emerged from hipsters in Nairobi. Then you are hearing new forms of hip hop in Uganda called ‘Luga-flow’, it sounds like an international hip sound but Ugandans have a way of working the language which is very melodic. I don’t know what they are saying but the words just flow.”
But alongside Nyege Nyege Tapes, whose explosion in popularity for its African music hasn’t occurred before in the underground music scene, there could be an argument that this is a warped image of the African underground that is purposely designed for Western audiences.
“[You sometimes have] outside actors operating in Uganda who are influencing Ugandan artists to deliberately produce music that is more palatable to an international audience,” David explains.
“That can be problematic as you are encouraging people to make music that is to be consumed abroad but those people abroad think it’s authentic, local music. They are making music in a local spirit, but they are not making it for the Ugandan crowd.”
It’s both a gift and a curse in a sense, as artists who previously struggled to sustain their art could have brand new income sources from Europe and the West, but could have to sacrifice their true identity. This has led to conversations propping up about the difficult balance between outside influences on African music, potentially shifting the landscape of the music scene.
Ugandan DJ Authentically Plastic said in a recent Unsound festival roundtable “Black Techno Futures” that the African underground could be in danger of “European voyeurism”.
That losing of authenticity is not in danger any time soon, not only because of the huge popularity of Ugandan producers and MC’s for their own local music ecosystem, but also in East African Records variety in its musical output. You will find pop, trap, and techno co-existing and given equal love and attention.
On the flip side, outside influences being fed into the African underground has created some of the most interesting and exciting music in the world, and arguably can’t be replicated outside of Africa. “I personally don’t have a problem with that happening. They might like it and they might think that the direction the label is suggesting is better and in many cases the labels coming in they give the artist full creative control.”
Investment in East African music
With an ever growing roster of artists and talent that David and his team have helped nurture, you sense that this is only the start of an upward trajectory for EAR. That upward trajectory can arguably be mirrored in the ever growing popularity in legitimate music streaming in East Africa.
Currently music consumption in Uganda is driven by kiosks – local shops where you would go along to have music downloaded to an mp3 or laptop. Despite helping to drive exposure for artists, they won’t make any money back, unlike streaming. Even if the streaming revenue is famously low for artists, it could still provide some much needed revenue. Tidal has become one of the first of the big streaming giants to recognise the emerging African market, offering cheap subscription deals.
“Our system anticipates these developments, as we get all our artists copyrighted and established on major international streaming platforms. We think the industry in Uganda will go legit and EAR is positioned as one of the only (perhaps the only?) distribution company that operates transparently and legitimately.”
But streaming revenue won’t help a burgeoning music scene by itself, as real investment is needed in a country that has been ignored for so long by international markets.
“I saw that setting up a venue was a good thing because I was able to give a platform for artists to try out new material and I would invest in career development. It was the same thing when I set up the studio. For me, one of the most positive things you can do for the music industry is building the infrastructure and partnering with artists to help reduce costs, so if you are talented and broke, you still have a chance to create the music and platform it.”
The new batch of East African music festivals such as Nyege Nyege and Kilifi New Year may have a lot of international acts on their lineup, but nonetheless they showcase the melting pot of talent that exist within the region and self-sustaining independent festivals can provide not only performance opportunities for local musicians but also gain widespread international attention and transform people’s perspectives of the region.
“Apart from that you have the British Council and Arts Council one-off funds. Are they worthy, yes but they aren’t sustainable. If you coming in with one grant or sponsoring a singular event, unless you invest in the infrastructure where are those artists going to be playing. We need less one off grants and more investment in infrastructure.”
Listen to our East African records takeover show on Reform Radio: