Kenya has a diverse musical landscape that draws inspiration from about 50 ethnocultural groups as well as popular music from other parts of Africa and the world. Genres such as reggae-dancehall, hip hop, soul-R&B, rock, and country music are just a few that can be mentioned as having a huge impact on the Kenyan scene. This diversity however has not always been advantageous. Even the glass-half-full lot, at the very least, have to admit Kenyan music is not competitive enough on the continental stage. With that in mind, it is easy to understand why boy band Sauti Sol are the exception and not the norm.
Kenyan music is too fragmented and its problem is that it has too many problems. A creative once told me that. This is the beginning of a four-part series(naturally) that will look at the personalities, individual sonic identities, and cultural impact of the Sauti Sol members. The series will also discuss the cultural impact each of them has had before assessing what goals are attainable for them and then try to predict their futures as solo artists.
Who Is Bien Baraza?
Bien is for all intents and purposes the natural leader of the quartet. Physically he is the tallest- and that plays a huge part in how people perceive him. Sonically he is the lead vocalist. This means he more often than not sings the hooks and the first verses. These are the most sung parts of a song, as any DJ will attest to, meaning for most Sauti Sol joints, the parts sung most by fans are those performed by Bien. This is a big advantage for him over his bandmates. He was born on December 28, 1987, in Nairobi, and attended Upper Hill High School where he met his bandmates, Willis Chimano and Savara Mudigi.In 2011 he graduated from the United States International University(USIU) with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. However, he never got to practice the profession as he had founded Sauti Sol five years earlier and the band was picking up steam. It is also known that his mother is former Deputy Chief Justice of Kenya- Nancy Makoha Baraza and is married to Chiki Kuruka, a Nigerian fitness instructor and media personality since 2019. He has no known kids.
Bien’s Solo Efforts
Bien-Aimé Baraza is talented no doubt. He is an excellent vocalist and songwriter as well as an instrumentalist, playing the piano and guitar. He released a studio album in November of 2021 – Bald Men Love Better, in collaboration with Aaron Rimbui, a seasoned music producer. He has gone on to also publish a stream of singles that have done exceptionally well in Kenya and beyond. Earlier this year,he was the first ever citizen to feature in the Official UK Afrobeat Chart. His song My Baby featuring Ayra Starr debuted at 12th out of 20 on the list.
But what is it about Bien’s sound that is so catchy? Rhumba, I’d say. But allow me to explain. Bien is a master of using different sounds and blending them with Rhumba which is a sound familiar to most Kenyans and East Africans. Not as many people understand French or Kilingala but many more can sing along to the tunes composed by the likes of Franco, Madilu System, Mbilia Bel, Tabu Ley just to mention a few. More than the lyrics, the sound, the way the instruments were played stuck with many growing up. Sauti Sol’s music can be generally interpreted as a redefinition of this Rhumba sound. And ever since they started concentrating on their solo releases, Bien is the one that has stuck most to this sound. The hit song Mbwe Mbwe is not even a redefinition, it’s instrumental and even length is an ode to rhumba. His latest, Too Easy infuses Afrobeats Rhumba and Amapiano. Bien’s genius lies in the way he subtly draws influence from past and present to create a fusion that sounds completely different and exciting.
Another thing that draws fans to Bien’s music is the way in which he crafts lyrics. They are not only catchy and easily memorable but also deeply relatable. For instance, the song Inauma, a fan favorite that tells the story of trying to heal after a break up is one great example of how Bien approaches lyricism. The singer uses simple Swahili words and does not pack lyrics into beat cycles letting the song move at a standard pace. He also employs stylistic devices like exaggeration to create humor. He dies the same in Mbwe Mbwe and on Nviiri’s Niko Sawa.
As mentioned before, Bien has been on several collaborations since going solo. The bulk of these have been with his Sol generation signees Nviiri the Storyteller and Bensoul. Those three have an understanding and natural chemistry that have seen them churn out the biggest Kenyan hits of the last two years. Bien has also worked with Darassa on No Body, to endear himself to the Bongo music scene, where he enjoys a large fanbase that includes Diamond Platnumz. He has proven himself to be an invaluable collaboration guest, writing catchy verses and even more importantly helping with the promotion once the music is out. Lastly, Bien is a great live performer and fans that have attended Sauti Sol concerts over the years know that this is a strength all the band members have. His performances have been described as energetic and engaging. His stage presence captivates audiences, and his performances are always memorable.
How Has Bien Been Important For The Culture?
Popular music is as political as the next artistic medium if you understand politics in the context of coming together to influence people and decisions. Bien has led Sauti Sol over the years in releasing music with heavy themes such as social justice and empowerment of minority groups. Numbers like Tujiangalie, Sikupi Tano Tena and his solo single National Treasure come to mind. They have started important socio-political conversations the country needed. Even beyond the mic, Bien has never shied away from expressing his beliefs. In 2020, he famously went to a Jeff Koinange Live show together with Khaligraph Jones and Eric Wanaina to discuss the role of musicians in championing civil discourse. He has also publicly spoken in support of women, the LGBTQIA+ community, PLWD, and other minorities on various occasions like interviews and on social media.
Bien has also influenced fashion. Sauti Sol’s neo-African aesthetic of the 2010’s is known to many Kenyans.The images of the boy band clad in unconventional, avant-garde silhouettes that borrowed from traditional African fashion are iconic. Bien perhaps was the most reserved amongst the lot but that does not mean his style was demure. He was not afraid of flaunting his well-chiseled physique, dressing provocatively to satisfy the scores of young (and not so young) fans that had turned him into a sex symbol. The official video of the band’s song Nishike caused a moral panic, much as it was an iconic pop culture moment in Kenya.
Styled frequently by Brian Babu, Bien took to wearing brightly coloured East African prints(known as Kitenge or Khanga)-these were considered feminine. His style fused modern Euro-American styles with African ones. This inspired tailors to adopt the concept for varying occasions ranging from official to casual to anything in between. The group’s impact in re-introducing men to khanga shirts was felt at the highest levels as in 2017, we saw politicians on the campaign trail wear them. Campaigning politicians were able to look stylish as they could don different designs but still maintain party colors, a far cry from the 2002,2007 & 2013 elections, which saw male politicians mostly wear branded t-shirts and polo shirts. Bien’s accessory game is also worth mentioning. He often wears sunglasses and African jewelry to complete his outfits. He dies not for hats, proudly choosing to show his bald head to the world. The bald thing is working for him, I’d say. Bien has helped to redefine Kenyan fashion, popularized African print shirts, and in the process encouraged people to embrace their cultural heritage. It is common to nowadays find Kenyan men wearing kitenge shirts without buttons and they come in different experimental styles.
Predicting The Future
I will now attempt to predict Bien’s future. Predictions are humanity’s guilty pleasure – as we evolved, oracles and soothsayers became analysts and consultants, and writers!
He is the most recognizable of the quartet members and has good momentum with the singles he has been releasing. He has the gravitas to be a big name on the continent, and if he plays his cards right, on the globe. He has a good relationship and the respect of African global stars like Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage who could help him reach that stage in half a decade or so. On paper, he could challenge Diamond Platnumz for the East African music throne, a long shot because of the benefits like fan numbers and market penetration that the Tanzanian has accrued over time. More realistically, he can garner numbers that can compete with Diamond’s from time to time. Bien can perform in English and seems to have a better understanding of the West African market. These advantages would help him, in the long run, to compete if he can keep East Africa interested in him as he pursues other markets.