People have been talking about the so-called “death of R&B” for over a decade now. It has been the subject of countless think-pieces, panels, Twitter debates, and Clubhouse rooms. The conversation gained steam again last summer when Sean “Diddy” Combs posed the question on an IG Live roundtable; “who killed R&B?” While the genre has no-doubt lost some salience since the 90s and 2000s when it thrived in tandem with hip-hop as one of the industry’s biggest cash cows, Diddy’s presumption is still unfair.
When music consumption turned digital and hip-hop culture found a new home on blogs like 2DopeBoyz, DJBooth, Pigeons & Planes, and Hot New Hip Hop, traditional R&B struggled to find footing in this new landscape. Additionally, as hip-hop also became more melodic, its once steadfast marriage to R&B became less mutually beneficial. Singers are less likely to be called for hook services because it is more commonplace for rappers to sing it themselves or enist another emcee.
Above all though, R&B has suffered from an issue of mislabeling and restrictive classifications. The old notion of “genre” is less useful these days as artists of all ilks increasingly broaden the range of their sonic experimentation. Many projects on the market today contain some element of fusion, that would make it unfair to ascribe them to a singular genre. Yet they still do. And oftentimes, that genre won’t be R&B, even when its essence is so palpable in the music. When Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange first came out, for example, it was designated as pop. Tems, who catapulted herself to superstardom last year makes unmistakably R&B driven music, yet due to her Nigerian heritage, her impact is most visible on the Afrobeats chart.
In East Africa, American R&B has long enjoyed popularity in the region since the 90s but it wass only in the last 10 years that we have seen the emergence and export of homegrown R&B acts like Atemi and Karun. It has since become one the most dynamic and impactful sounds of emerging music communities in the region. In cities like Nairobi it is a distinguishable sub-genre, with a flourishing ecosystem of artists and curators pushing the genre forward while stamping it with a uniquely Kenyan flare. The genre is, however, typically lumped under the “alternative” or “new age,” label, due in large part to its association with the small middle and upper-classes. Mainstream audiences often find it difficult to relate especially as much of East African R&B is sung in English and explores many foreign themes and influences. As such, R&B and other alternative acts often fall victim to the narrative of not being “African enough.” It’s an unfair critique considering American artists of the same ilk have no trouble finding support from local listeners, DJs, and radio stations. Nevertheless, many artists have found success at many different levels in the game, pushing back against the assumptions of class and language imposed on left-of-center music and resisting purist classifications of R&B. In this feature, PAM names some of these champions of East African R&B as testament to how alive and well the genre is.
Maya Amolo is a Kenyan singer-songwriter whose music explores love’s complex spectrum through the lens of alternative R&B. She has a gentle voice and sharp pen, both of which she wields masterfully to spin relatable and imaginative love songs. All this is on display on her debut album Asali which dropped in November. The album and the roll-out surrounding it shot a refreshing new energy into East Africa’s alternative music scene. In March 2022 she was named Spotify Africa’s first Fresh Finds artist and in May was featured on one the biggest Kenyan albums of the year, East Mpaka London by drill rap stars Buruklyn Boyz.
Idman is a unique voice in the realm of alternative-R&B. Before discovering and pursuing her talent for music a mere 3 years ago, she was a social justice worker, helming various racial justice organizations in Canada’s northeast region. With the introspection that came with the quarantine period, Idman came to find that making honest and vulnerable music is another way to be in service to her community as well as herself. The transparency that shades her music allows the listener to feel welcomed in her world as she poeticizes her personal experiences and grapples with conventions and taboos that surround gender, sex, and pop culture as a whole.
Xenia has been a game-changing force in Kenya’s music industry since her debut EP, Fallin’ Apart. In those short years, she has secured hit collaborations with Sauti Sol and Mr. Eazi, laid vocals on Burna Boy’s Grammy Award winning album Twice As Tall, and wrote for the likes of Teyana Taylor and VanJess. All the while she has maintained a loyal fanbase both at home and abroad. In many ways, she has been creating a blueprint for commercial R&B success in Kenya. Her latest effort was joint EP Maybe, with Nairobi producer Ukweli. It dropped last September.
Turunesh’s experimental sound is intimate and enchanting. She is an alternative artist that fuses R&B sensibilities with the indigenous musical traditions of her native Ethiopia and Tanzania to forge new genres she calls neo-gnoma, neo-swahili, and neo-taarab. These influences come through her rhythmic instrumentals, but are most evident in her vocals that often make use of Taarab scales and conventions. She has established herself as a prominent figure in the alternative music scenes of East Africa as well as Vancouver, where she is currently based.
Despite the fact that Gaidaa’s father was a musician, her parents never wanted her to pursue music. Like many other young African artists, her musical success is a result of a delicate balancing act between passion and cultural expectations. Her resilience in this regard have made her a beacon for both her native Sudan and her birthplace in the Netherlands. She has a playful down-to-earth approach to the genre, often utilizing live instrumentation and vulnerable poetic lyricism. Her debut album Overture dropped in 2020 sees her warm vocals glide between soul and R&B influenced tracks. She has since released only one single in October of 2022; the upbeat “Figures”.
MAUIMOON (aka La Soulchyld) returned to his native Uganda in 2021 with a dream of Afro-R&B stardom on his own terms. The young singer-songwriter and producer wanted to help shape the contemporary sound of East Africa by collaborating with the region’s pioneering, left of center artists. In the last year, he has released a medley of successful self-produced singles featuring rising stars like Joshua Baraka, mau from nowhere, and Chxf Barry. Afro and baile-funk-inspired percussion and electrosoul bass give Maui’s music an alluring edge, without being overbearing. His smooth, whispering vocals, sultry harmonies, and choice of sounds have a distinct and sensual R&B essence. His sophomore EP From Uganda With Love is scheduled for release on February 17th.
The Ugandan singer/songwriter with a voice like honey. This fast rising star has a knack for spinning charming and sincere love songs that fuse soul, afrofusion, and R&B. A church-bread vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, Joshua’s music has a spiritual effect on the listener. His ability to meaningfully connect with both mainstream and alternative artists and audiences makes him a unique figure in Ugandan music. His sophomore EP, Watershed debuted at no. 1 on Uganda’s Apple Music in October of last year.
Nikita’s breakout single “Ex”was one of Kenya’s biggest songs of the last two years. An undeniable earworm played everywhere from drive time radio shows, to clubs, to birthday parties. Following this success, the UMG signee has been slowly laying the foundation for R&B Pop superstardom.
Hailing from the coastal city of Mombasa, Caleb’s music is a cool composite of R&B’s most powerful spirits of the last 10 years. The eclecticism and careful curation of Drake, the punchy flows of Bryson, the moody musings of Brent, the sensuality of Wizkid… it’s all there, while still remaining uniquely authentic. His musical world is laid back and atmospheric, telling wistful stories of youth, lust, infatuation and heartbreak.
Karun has been a house-hold name in Kenya for over a decade now for her role in legendary group Camp Mulla. Since going solo in 2013, she has solidified her place as a leader in Kenya’s alternative music scene, making borderless pop music with R&B and Afro-fusion at the center. In 2019 she was featured on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list and was part of the first cohort of Mr Eazi’s Empawa Africa program. She has several regional hits under her belt like Here With Me, an afro-love song off her Catch A Vibe EP and has worked with Grammy award winning artists Juls and Savara from Sauti Sol. In June 2022 she released Passenger 555, a joint project with EA Wave producer Jinku telling a story of a rekindled love over a moody backdrop of R&B and downtempo Afro-house.