Self starters head for the arts as the shutters go up on more traditional careers
When the going gets tough the tough get going — and the recent slowdown in Kenya’s economy has seen a rapid growth in self starters determined to make it in the creative industries.
Gone are the days when only formal qualifications counted as you headed towards careers as doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants.
Now the arts are even more appealing with musicians, artists, actors, writers and comedians all finding work, limited only by the extent of their imagination and the skills they have acquired to express themselves.
With cutbacks in the workplace, the comfy cushion of regular hours, a guaranteed salary and health and pension benefits are becoming things of the past for many. Being self-employed is on the rise, with jobs not regulated by the state nor protected by union laws. But many are finding their new high risk careers even more satisfying as they live by their wits and their new found skills to survive.
Typical of someone already making his way is 29-year-old Emanuel Mutuku a piano and sax maestro. His journey began in the high school choir, where he became fascinated by making music and reading the scores.
“When I started, there was no-one to show you the ropes. It did not matter how good you were, you had to start at the very bottom. Back in 2008, there were few bands of note, and these were already set and were not looking for new hires,” he said.
Mutuku went on: “Once in a while, you could get the opportunity to play with a band if one of their members was otherwise engaged. I had to rely on the connections I made at school, in music and drama festivals.”
He continued: “Getting into the creative industry requires both an iron will and above average innovation. You either have to be bringing something new to the table, or be willing to claw your way into some sort of recognition.”
The creative industry in Kenya has grown by leaps and bounds, especially with the need for content brought about mainly by a rapidly expanding distribution infrastructure.
Nowadays, content is needed for platforms ranging from company websites to blogs and everything in between and there exist many different places for showcasing your creativity, including social media and media sharing sites such as Soundcloud. The number of people creating content, be it music, photography, graphic design or acting, is steadily on the rise.
The growth can also be attributed to colleges that teach music such as the Kamata School of Music and other smaller institutions like the Elaky School of Music on Kirichwa Road, Nairobi. Smaller universities like Zetech have also introduced music in their curriculum, helping more young people find a way to follow their passion.
Budding actors can hone their craft at the Kenya National Theatre, and other performace based artists can look to institutions such as the Nairobi Academy of Performing Arts for lessons.
In addition, places to play live music have increased, while bands and live performances have become more popular, as shown by the sold out, all Kenyan edition of the Safaricom Jazz festival on International Jazz Day.
Music is being touted as a way of getting more young people, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, into work. The support that the Safaricom Jazz Festival has given the Ghetto Classics programme in Korogocho an just one example of this.
Getting recognition is still a challenge, especially in acting and music, with the industries dominated by stalwarts who make it harder for people to get airplay or screen time.
Mutuku said it took hard work to develop his career.
“ I took music at Kenyatta University,” he said. “The journey since then has been tough for a while, but I have made it. These days, I play for churches on Sundays, some government gigs here and there and classical music shows once in a while.”
When I ask how many gigs he plays each month and how much he earns, he chuckles, “ I can’t really answer that. All I can say is that I can’t complain. I manage at least a gig every weekend, and sometimes one or two in the middle of the week. I also teach piano and guitar in my spare time.”
Anther success story in the creative field is that of Ian Gichohi, aged 28, who is a graphic designer. He said the industry is not as it was when he started in 2010. “Eight years ago, the number of graphic designers was not this big. In essence, the only schools that were churning out graphic design people were two , Graphins College and Shang Tao, to the best of my knowledge.”
He added: “The increase in the number of people getting into graphic design has made us work towards getting better. When you are in competition with other designers sending your portfolios to the same place, you have to work to be better.”
Working to be better does pay off. The consensus is that there is money to be made in the creative industry. However, a lot has to change in clients minds before this becomes reality. At the moment, pay depends on your negotiation skills and the way you present yourself.
“Some clients don’t understand why we charge what we charge, explained Gichohi. “You will find someone telling you to charge a lot less than normal because they do not understand what warrants those charges. You will get very infuriating arguments from clients sometimes. I have had clients who tell you. ‘But it is just making a logo,’ like it does not take time, skill and imagination to do so.
And that seems to be a common complaint.
Commented Mutuku, “Clients need to understand that what we do takes time. It takes the same amount of energy to come up with content as being in an office all day. Writing a score, practising more than six hours a day, making sure everything is perfect takes a lot more dedication than people give us credit for
“ I came to realise that the worst mistake you can make is to compromise the amount someone should pay you because that is a downhill slope that will result in you always being paid less than you are worth.”
And Gchoh added, “The biggest problem is that clients do not view our work as important. They take a long time to pay you and some clients you have to chase down for payment. Anyone who has plans of getting into the creative industry had better be ready for this and plan around it.”
Adding to the costs of creativity as a career are licences and permits.
Miriam Nyambura, a 25-year-old actress and blogger, said it is becoming increasingly difficult to film or photograph anywhere these days.
“County governments have turned the film industry into their personal cash cows,” she explained. “The Film Classification Board’s licences are too expensive as well. This is not a model that will allow this industry to grow. The film industry needs to be fuelled and not killed with hoops and hurdles you have to pass through to get content.”
Nyambura went on, “Shooting in Nairobi for instance is a matter of life or death sometimes. Even when you have the right permits, getting arrested is always a real possibility out here.
“It is already hard for me as a freelancer to get work that pays well since the spots are limited. I never really understand why they make it hard to create content that would supplement my income.”
Another problem with being creative is dealing with the Kenya Revenue Authority. Payments in cash, which are common in the industry, make your tax returns a nightmare to complete and the KRA does not make it easier for people willing to pay tax.
“You have to go through all your payments, both cash/Mpesa and by cheque, just to make sure you file the right thing to KRA,” Nyambura said. “It can get frustrating, especially the first few times, because you are not sure what you are supposed to put where. KRA should really try to make it easier for people who are self-employed or in this type of work to file their returns.”
The creative industry has grown massively over the past four years or so. There are a lot more opportunities available, with jobs that either did not exist or were not so accessible a few years ago, such as social media managers and copywriters, now becoming more available.
Other jobs such as online writers have also become possible with a stable and accessible internet. The government has also noticed the capacity for this sector of the informal economy to provide employment for young people and has taken steps to empowering creativity with the Ajira portal. At the moment, it is available only to help online writers with training and reference material, but it will expand to accommodate other areas of the creative industry as time passes’ an excellent first step.
Mutuku again: “Anyone who wants to start out as a creative needs to have patience and the will to adapt. You will also have to learn something more than you started out with if you want to succeed. I started out with the piano; I had to learn guitar, saxophone and how to play in a band. My friends started out as writers but have had to learn design to have a package that they can sell.”
And he concluded: “There is money to be made, but you have to know what you are good at, find something to complement it and work towards being the absolute best.
“You should also be ready to deal with people who will withhold your payments or not understand why you charge what you charge, so patience and the ability to keep your cool are essential.”