MACHAKOS, Kenya — The lights: neon. The walls: faux red leather. The singers’ voices: autotuned. And the lyrics of the songs they hope will catapult them to stardom: all about the coronavirus.
Small studios across Kenya and East Africa are churning out thousands of “corona hits” across genres: reggae, ballad, hip-hop, gospel, and this region’s guitar-driven country music. The CEO of Ngomma, one of the region’s biggest content aggregators, which supplies YouTube and other streaming services with music and gets 300 million views a month, says 60 percent of new music on the platform is explicitly about the coronavirus.
The songs deal head-on with the economic pain inflicted on most Kenyans as a result of business closures and curfews and travel bans. Kenya never went into a total lockdown, and so far hasn’t been overwhelmed by the virus, but millions of mostly working-class people lost their jobs in a country where poverty is already entrenched.
The artists who come into Jawabu Studios each have their own story of pandemic-era hardship but come out feeling freer of their burdens. To listeners, the lyrics convey a sense of shared suffering during a crisis that, for many, has been at its most fundamental level about loneliness.
In the cramped fifth-floor studio, the lights dimmed, and Malack Kamande, 30, adjusted his headphones and positioned himself behind the mic. He normally makes extra cash as a paid choir singer, but with church closed because of coronavirus restrictions, he needed another outlet, and another payday.
Suddenly, from the suspenseful silence, he belted out his hit’s opening lines, which also serve as the song’s title and theme: “Coronavirus! Where did it come from?”
John Basil Siale, who runs the studio and creates all the songs’ underlying beats with his synthesizer and electric guitar, dropped in the bass lines and guitar riffs, and gave Kamande a thumbs-up through the studio’s glass screen. No one within earshot could stifle a little jig or resist the urge to at least tap their feet.
The somber subject matter didn’t stop the song from being a cheerful-sounding, relentlessly upbeat banger.
“I have been busy 24/7 since the pandemic started,” said Siale, who is from neighboring Tanzania. “I deal with one client a day. They have been producing corona songs — songs to pray to God to heal our countries. It has been a tough time actually, but it has also brought income to my company.”
Kenya is a deeply religious country, but Kenyans are also known for their blunt sense of humor. Kamande drew from both when his song abruptly cut from chorus to an impromptu skit. He took his cellphone out of his pocket and dialed God’s number. The angel Gabriel, for the moment working as God’s receptionist, put him through.
“Can you hear me?” asked Kamande.
“I can hear you, my child,” God replied.
Kamande then let loose a diatribe of the calamities that have befallen Kenya in recent times: floods, locust plagues, terrorism.
“But the scariest of all is something called corona,” he cried. “It’s killing our people, in other places too, Canada, China, everywhere. You are the only one who can help us, God!”
Just over 600 people are confirmed to have died in Kenya of complications of the coronavirus, but fear of contagion runs deep. The country’s health-care system is weak, and the government’s tone toward its citizens has been one of admonishment for rule-breakers rather than shared responsibility.
Siale doesn’t make much off the recording sessions. He takes pity on those who’ve lost jobs and are hoping a smash hit will solve their problems. He gives almost everyone who comes in a steep discount.
“People are looking for anything to lift them up. They are hoping to leverage coronavirus and become stars,” said Thomas Mahondo, the content aggregator executive. “Especially all these new artists. They sing about how their lives have been turned upside down and how they are hustling to get by.”
Some are trying to get a message across, too. Purity Mwikali, 36, lost her aunt, the woman who raised her, to the coronavirus and was appalled that some Kenyans still refuse to believe that the disease exists.
The plaintive refrain of the reggae single she recorded with Siale on a recent day goes: “One meter away, quarantine until when?”
“I loved my auntie,” she said in an interview. “When I gave birth, she was the one who assisted me. When she died, the pain was too much. It led me to sing that song. Corona hurt me.”
Both Kamande and Mwikali were nervous until the moment they got behind the mic.
“That’s when all the stress goes away,” Kamande said. “That’s when you let the music take over.”
It’s the same for Kenyans who hear the coronavirus hits over loudspeakers in bars, over the radio in shared cabs and through YouTube on their phones — the music, with its witty lyrics about the pandemic, makes the load feel a bit lighter.
Mwikali hadn’t been behind the mic in seven years. She recorded one song back then but couldn’t afford any more sessions.
“I come from a poor family, so they told me to hold on to my dreams, that they would figure something out,” she said. “I lost my job some time back, but fortunately I got a sponsor and I’m now at Jawabu Studios, singing again. I continue to trust that God will come through for me.”
Siale smiled and told her to relax.
“Breathe in,” he said. “It’s going to be a hit, I’m sure of it.”
Rael Ombuor contributed to this report.