The Great and Not-So-Great Decibels of Kenyan Netflix Series, Volume

In the progressing realm of Kenyan television, a groundbreaking sensation has emerged, captivating audiences and carving its mark on the cultural landscape—the Netflix original music drama series, “Volume.” Crafted by the dynamic duo of director Tosh Gitonga and creator Njiiri Karago, the series thrusts viewers into the riveting world of Benja, portrayed with zeal by the talented Bryan Kabugi. His character, a young and ambitious rap artist navigating the complexities of the music industry, resonates with dreams, struggles, and the relentless pursuit of greatness.

The show’s ensemble cast is nothing short of a powerhouse, with standout performances leaving an indelible mark. Faiz Francis Ouma steals the spotlight as Castro, the charismatic troublemaker who adds an unpredictable edge to Benja’s journey. Natasha Sinayobye, in her role as the formidable club promoter and record label owner Andrea, brings a captivating depth that has viewers on the edge of their seats.

Before immersing ourselves in the gripping world of crime, “Volume” strikes a resounding chord by placing music at the core of its narrative. In a nation that stands as a continental leader across various domains, Kenya has long grappled with the challenge of cultivating a sustainable music industry. The series is a rallying cry for the recognition and celebration of Kenya’s musical prowess. Benja’s journey, fueled by an unyielding passion for rap amidst humble beginnings, becomes a mirror reflecting the dreams of countless aspiring artists facing the tough currents of the industry. This music-centric plotline not only amplifies the authenticity of the storytelling but also sheds light on the struggles and triumphs inherent in the pursuit of musical stardom.

Volume” not only delves into the pulsating beats of the music industry but also embraces the gritty allure of crime drama—a narrative thread interwoven with finesse. This crime element in the series harkens to the tradition of beloved Kenyan crime dramas like “Nairobi Half Life” and “Pepeta,” where the harsh realities of urban life collide with the dreams of the ambitious. Much like its predecessors, “Volume” masterfully navigates the intricate web of crime, adding layers of suspense and complexity to the overarching plot. The portrayal of Benja’s best friend, Castro, and his ties to the feared crime family, The Mujama Brothers, evokes echoes of the captivating characters that have graced Kenyan screens in the past. This crime-infused narrative not only intensifies the stakes for our protagonist but also pays homage to the rich legacy of Kenyan crime dramas, resonating with audiences who have developed an affection for stories that unravel the raw and unfiltered facets of urban life. “Volume” seamlessly embraces this tradition, fusing the rhythm of the streets with the pulsating beats of the music, creating a narrative symphony that captivates and enthralls.

The buzz surrounding the show is palpable, and rightfully so. This moment is monumental for Kenyan film, marking the second original series to be embraced by the global streaming giant, Netflix.This is indeed a huge moment for Kenyan storytelling. In this piece we will look at the strengths of the show that have made it so captivating as well as the not so strong aspects that have left fans asking for more.

The Strengths Of the Show

Exemplary Cinematography:

“Volume” emerges as a visual feast, courtesy of Chuanne Blofield’s cinematography. The series paints a vibrant tapestry of Kenyan life, with each frame meticulously crafted to capture the essence of the characters’ journeys. Blofield’s keen eye and artistry breathe life into the narrative, elevating it beyond the confines of a typical TV series. The series was actualized by a collaboration with Tusker Nexters which  not only introduced fresh talent but also gave them the experience of working under industry greats like Tosh Gitonga and Ivan Odie of Callivan Creatives. 

Superb Acting:

The series boasts a stellar ensemble cast, with Faiz Francis Ouma’s portrayal of Castro standing out as a masterpiece. Ouma effortlessly captures the essence of the misunderstood antihero, infusing charm and complexity into his character.Natasha Sinayobye’s compelling rendition of Andrea, the club promoter and record label owner, adds a layer of sophistication and intrigue. Notably, Bryan Kabugi as Benja embodies the ambitious musical protagonist, infusing the series with raw passion. Another notable character,albeit a minor one, is the store supervisor where Smallz works.The annoying supervisor played by Mugambi Ikiara,has zingers that leave the audience in stitches.

Innovative Fashion Representation:

Beyond its narrative depth, “Volume” showcases a commitment to staying culturally relevant. Costume designer Sharon Kinyanjui weaves the characters into the fabric of contemporary Kenyan life, featuring local brands like Studio 18 KE and Shop Zetu. This attention to detail not only enhances the visual appeal but also anchors the series in the current zeitgeist, creating a visual language that resonates with audiences and reflects the dynamic pulse of Kenyan fashion.

Social Commentary through Narrative:

“Volume” uses  its narrative to subtly and directly address critica social l issues. Episodes 3 and 4 shine a spotlight on mental health, drug use, and the power of social media. Stephanie Muchiri’s portrayal of Ivy, the social media influencer, opens a nuanced conversation about feminism, sex, colorism, and the price of fame. Elvis Ounyo’s character, Smallz, serves as the voice of reason, shedding light on mental health, queerness, and the criminalization of sex work.

Star-Studded Cameo Appearances:

“Volume” surprises and delights with unexpected guest stars making cameo appearances, adding an extra layer of excitement for Kenyan pop culture enthusiasts. From the surprise appearance of Blessing Lung’aho to the studio session with Kenyan-American rapper Barak Jacuzzi, the series becomes a dynamic stage where established artists seamlessly blend with the narrative. These surprises elevate the viewing experience, making “Volume” a treasure trove for those keen on spotting familiar faces from Kenya’s entertainment scene.

The Shortcomings

Overplayed Plotlines and Familiar Tropes:

“Volume” finds itself treading on well-worn ground with plotlines reminiscent of other Kenyan productions like “Click Click Bang” and “Pepeta.” The recurring theme of a poverty-stricken go-getter striving for success in Nairobi is a familiar narrative, potentially limiting the show’s ability to offer a fresh perspective. While the focus on music distinguishes it, the echoes of familiar stories raise concerns about the show’s ability to break free from formulaic storytelling.

Inconsistent Pacing and Narrative Focus:

Despite its gripping moments, the series grapples with inconsistent pacing, with some episodes feeling disconnected from others. The narrative trajectory peaks in episodes 3 and 4, addressing critical issues like mental health and the impact of social media, but the pacing stumbles elsewhere. The series, at times, leans more towards a crime drama, overshadowing the intended focus on the characters’ day-to-day lives and the intricacies of the music industry. This  imbalance seemingly dilutes the intended focus and punchiness of the plot, leaving the viewer navigating through tonal shifts that hinder a seamless narrative flow.

Shallow Characterization:

“Volume” falls short in fully exploring the character Smallz, played by Elvis Ounyo, and his queer identity. The portrayal of queer characters in Kenya often faces challenges, and “Volume” missed an opportunity to delve deeper into Smallz’s experiences. The character’s introduction hinted at a struggle with sexual intimacy, but this aspect is left unexplored. The portrayal of Smallz’s queer identity, lacks visual exploration and remains confined to verbal mentions,breaking a golden rule of writing-show don’t tell. The premature demise of the character further diminishes the potential for a meaningful representation of queerness, resorting to clichés rather than breaking new ground.

Underwhelming Musical Contributions and Production:

For a series centered on music, “Volume” disappoints with a soundtrack that lacks memorability. The show’s engagement with talented musicians and rappers, such as Timmy Blanco and NJERI, falls short of expectations. The lack of a comprehensive soundtrack album featuring these talents diminishes the potential impact they could have had on enhancing the series’ musical identity. The show misses an opportunity to fully integrate these acts into the storyline, leaving fans yearning for a more substantial collaboration with these distinguished artists.

The lazy audio production is so evident, with music often out of sync and voiceovers causing discomfort. This diminishes the immersive quality of the musical elements. Furthermore ,the  show fails in the utilization of guest stars,and at best it only feels limited. Renowned lyricists and musicians like Wangechi make brief appearances without contributing substantially to the musical narrative.

Cultural Significance

In acknowledging these weaknesses, it’s essential to recognize that constructive critique paves the way for growth. While the series grapples with certain shortcomings, its contribution to the growth of Kenyan film is undeniably profound.The creators’ vision, amplified by a stellar cast, positions “Volume” not as a mere TV series but as a celebration of Kenyan storytelling—a resounding anthem echoing the vibrancy and creativity thriving within the heart of Kenyan entertainment.

The series focuses on music in a way that no other film offering has done before it. And as conversations about the problems of our music industry and how ro support it further are happening,it is refreshing to see an attempt to represent that on screen.The film  ignites a crucial conversation about the challenges and triumphs of the music industry, urging stakeholders to invest in the nurturing of this vibrant creative landscape.