Barely a fortnight after the release of the song Mwaki by Zern and Sofiya Nzau, discourse around the smash hit is as catchy and fiery as the song itself. Despite an earlier trend of calling the song overplayed, lovers of Kenyan music and some industry insiders launched an overwhelming counterattack in support of the song that has gone viral in over 20 countries on multiple continents, with some terming it Kenya’s Jerusalema moment- a viral South African song that took the globe by storm in 2020.
The song has been charting in several countries, including Brazil, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, and the United States. According to Beatport, a website that sells electronic music, the song is currently ranked at number 4 on the Afro House Top 100 chart. The song has also been used and reshared by many TikTok users, who have created their own versions and dances to the song. Some of the popular TikTok videos using the song are by @jessicabassjames, @daviddobrik, @addisonre, and @charlidamelio. As of the time of writing this, the tune has over 1.2 million videos on TikTok, with over 2.5 billion views and 400 million likes.
Sofiya Nzau calls herself an African storyteller, singer-songwriter, and lyricist from Murang’a, Kenya. She is known for her unique fusion of techno and amapiano music. Sofiya Nzau has quickly risen to prominence in the local music scene and has gained international fame. Sofiya Nzau’s music style is a fusion of techno and amapiano.
Thematic Focus and Production of the Song
The song Mwaki delves into the complex relationship between a young woman and her stern father, who had cautioned her against marrying a specific man—a warning she chose to disregard. Translated from Kikuyu, ‘Mwaki’ means ‘Fire,’ a term often used to describe the tough and no-nonsense characteristics of a person. The conflict in the song is between the young woman’s love and her father’s authority, and it is resolved by her decision to relocate with her lover, which she keeps voicing as the only way to escape his wrath.
Like all poetry, the song has multiple interpretations. On a website called Lyreka, a platform for users to discuss and share their interpretation of songs, One Kenyan user commented that the song Mwaki is about a woman who is in love with a man who is not from her tribe, and her father does not approve of their relationship. The user said that the song is a reflection of the tribalism and discrimination that still exists in some parts of Kenya and that the woman is brave enough to follow her heart despite the challenges. Another user on the same site (Lyreka) said that the song Mwaki is about a woman who is married to a man who is abusive and violent, and her father warned her about him before they got married. The words of the persona can be interpreted as a cry for help and a plea for forgiveness from her father, who is the only one who can save her from her situation.
The song is produced by Zerb, a Brazilian music producer who found Sofiya’s vocals on a website where artists and songwriters upload their vocal packs. According to Sofiya, she has an agreement with Zerb that ensures she benefits from the song and its success financially. She said that Zerb and his team have been supportive and respectful of her work. She also said that she is not bothered by the fact that she was not credited on the song, as it is a common practice in the music industry. The ownership of the song has indeed got Kenyans talking. Independent journalist Miss Chichi (username mx_chichi), for example, while replying to a viral photo from a user who could not find Ms Nzau’s name on the credits asked: “Didn’t she sell rights to the song because a Brazilian DJ is claiming it’s his song because he bought it.” Veteran producer Tim Rimbui reposted the screenshot in one of his threads discussing the song
Zerb is known for his exceptional production skills and his fusion of different genres and styles. He has worked with artists like Alok, Vintage Culture, Cat Dealers, and KVSH. He has also released his own songs, such as With You, Paradise, and Miracle. Zerb used a combination of EDM elements, Afro-house beats, and Kikuyu vocals to create the song. He said that he was inspired by the African culture and the energy of the vocals, and he wanted to make a song that would make people dance and feel good. He also said that he tried to respect the original meaning and intention of the vocals, and he did not alter them too much. He said that he wanted to communicate a message of love, freedom, and happiness with his music.
A Kenyan account going by the name Ambitious Llama led others in support of the tune, putting out the statement,” And the proof that it’s a good song with broad appeal is that it has over a million views on YouTube in less than two weeks & is currently popular on TikTok.”It further observed that more Kenyan artists should make such music (EDM/House music), as there is a market for it but “no one to satisfy that market”
Renown A&R Kiplagat, formerly of Mdundo and now the artist relations manager for East Africa at Tiktok, called the initial backlash hypocritical, as people request for hit songs even from other places to replayed all the time: “Napenda how y’all are hating on Mwaki that’s a few days old na bado wanaimba all I do is win from 10 years ago.
Both are hit songs & y’all are haters.”
Writer Keith Ang’ana,pointed out a recent trend of Kikuyu EDM songs that he called interesting,”Before ‘Mwaki’ by Zerb & Sofiya Nzau, there was ‘Kau’ by Saint Evo & Kwame, released in 2017. I can’t stress how much I’ve listened to that song.”
Veteran producer Tim Rimbui tweeted :”I was alive when a Kenyan 🇰🇪 artist ( and the country) got their first truly global pop song, charting everywhere in over 20 countries.Congratulations Sofiya Nzau.Keep grinding, guys.#mwaki“
DJ Fita,a popular name within the Afro House music scene compared the hit as Kenya’s Jerusalema moment,a viral South African song that took the globe by storm in 2020 during the Covid lockdowns,: “Mwaki is our “Jerusalema” moment, the first tune with a Kenyan to go viral in over 20+ countries.” He tore into the hatred and the notion that the song is overplayed,” It’s weird seeing so many people hate on it because saying it is being overplayed,”continued his X post,”That’s literally the whole point of “POP” music.What’s weirder is seeing people in music biz hate on it.“
In a separate post,he went over why this moment is important for Kenyan music, “Mwaki is not annoying. It being played everywhere is very good for the artists and the scene in general. Brings more ears and eyes to whatever else is happening here.”Award winning photographer Gufy Dox felt the same way too,”That Mwaki song should be overplayed. I don’t care and you shouldn’t too. Such voices need to be out there.”
What Kenyan House Gets Right.
Despite conversations around Kenyan music being riddled with negativity, arising from the fact that there are many loopholes to be sealed, the emergence of a hit song from a relatively underground genre shows that the industry has taken some steps in the right direction. One of the factors that have contributed to the growth and popularity of Kenyan house music is the support from streaming firms like Spotify, Boomplay, and Mdundo, which have a physical presence in the country and partner to curate shows and playlists. These platforms provide exposure and revenue for Kenyan house artists, as well as access to a global audience. For instance, Spotify launched in Kenya in February 2021 and has since featured Kenyan house artists like Blinky Bill, Suraj, and Saint Evo on its Afro Hub and African Heat playlists. Boomplay, which has over 50 million users in Africa, has also supported Kenyan house music by hosting events like the Boomplay House Party and the Boomplay Music Awards. Mdundo, which has over 7 million monthly active users in Africa, has also promoted Kenyan house music by partnering with local radio stations and DJs.
Another factor that has enabled the flourishing of Kenyan house music is the willingness of Kenyan musicians in the genre to use the internet to meet and collaborate globally. The internet has opened up opportunities for Kenyan house artists to connect with other producers, singers, and songwriters from different parts of the world, and to exchange ideas and influences. For example, Sofiya Nzau and Zerb met online through a website where artists and songwriters upload their vocal packs, and they decided to work together on Mwaki. Another example is Suraj, a Kenyan house producer who has collaborated with artists from South Africa, Nigeria, Germany, and France, and has released songs on labels like MoBlack Records, Offering Recordings, and Aluku Records.
Regular live performances by the artists, both locally and internationally by Kenyan house artists help them showcase their skills, interact with their fans, and gain more recognition and feedback in a way that has boosted the quality and appeal of the genre. It also helps them to network with other artists and promoters, and to learn from their experiences. For example, Blinky Bill, a Kenyan house artist, and DJ, has performed at festivals like SXSW, Nyege Nyege, and Lake of Stars, and has shared stages with artists like Diplo, Sauti Sol, and M.I.A. He has also hosted his own show, Blinky Bill Live, where he invites other Kenyan house artists to perform with him. Another example is Saint Evo, a Kenyan house producer and DJ, who has performed at events like Kilifi New Year, Blankets and Wine, and Africa Nouveau, and has collaborated with artists like Niniola, Idd Aziz, and Wunmi.
A fourth factor that has enhanced the originality and diversity of Kenyan house music is the incorporation of local languages, cultures, and sounds into the genre. Kenyan house music is not a monolithic or homogeneous genre, but rather a reflection of the rich and varied heritage of Kenya. Kenyan house artists use their own languages, such as Kikuyu, Swahili, Luo, and Luhya, to express their stories and emotions. They also draw inspiration from their own cultures, traditions, and histories, and infuse them with modern and global influences. They also experiment with different sounds, instruments, and rhythms, to create unique and distinctive styles. For example, Mwaki uses Kikuyu vocals to convey a message of love and defiance and mixes them with Afro-house beats and EDM elements. Another example is Benga House, a subgenre of Kenyan house music that incorporates elements of Benga, a traditional Kenyan music genre that originated from the Luo community.
Mwaki’s Fire is a bright spark for Kenyan music, as it demonstrates the potential and diversity of Kenyan house music. The song is a result of the support from streaming firms, the willingness of Kenyan musicians to collaborate with international creatives, the regular performances by the artists, and the incorporation of local languages, cultures, and sounds into the genre. Kenyan house music is a genre that deserves more recognition and appreciation, as it reflects the culture and identity of Kenya.