There’s a famous saying you know. As happy as a lark – which is a small brown bird that sings beautifully. On that same note, could we also say as successful as Sauti Sol?
Everybody knows the award-winning Afropop band that has 5 super successful albums to their name, from Mwanzo to Midnight Train. They are undeniably the most successful pop artists to come out of Kenya and our music ambassadors to the world.
For example in 2014, they won an MTV EMA Award for Best African Act. The following year, they were the Best African Group at the 2015 AFRIMMA awards and MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMA). They’ve also scooped accolades at Kisima Music Awards, the Channel O Music Video Awards, and even at the Abryanz Style and Fashion Awards.
As if this wasn’t enough, the Kenyan boy band has performed in almost every African festival you can think of: from Koroga and Blankets & Wine in Kenya, Zanzibar International Film Festival, City of Stars Festival in Malawi, Swaziland’s Bushfire Festival, to Mozambique’s Azgo Festival. They’ve also completed several American and European tours over their 15+ year music career. And shared stages with their music idols Habib Koite, Salif Keita, Lokua Kanza, and Coldplay’s Chris Martin.
Basically, they’re living the dream of every African musician. But how did they get here?
This question is what led me to watch Bien-Aime’s interview series on The Play House by CTA. Bien is the outspoken lead singer of the group who is not afraid of being controversial. The singer-songwriter and guitarist with the unmistakable golden voice has also collaborated with various Kenyan artists outside Sauti Sol. And churned hits like Haiwi Haiwi, Yes Bana, and the latest one Niko Sawa.
I’m also a fan of Kenyan digital guru Richard Njau aka A Star from his gospel rapper days in the 2000s. He was once a member of the group Chit Chat alongside other Kenyan musicians you may know – Mayonde and Rigga – and signed to Kanjii’s Kijiji Records.
Today, he’s the beloved host of Cleaning the Airwaves, one of Kenya’s most popular YouTube channels. And a co-founder of 4UP Digital, a digital agency and creative hub that handles everything from the strategy through to the implementation of digital products.
I’ve watched a couple of CTA episodes featuring the visionary Muthoni Drummer Queen and Kenyan diaspora artist Waithaka. The only series I finished though, was Jua Cali’s journey as the king of genge from the 2000s until 2020. Afterward, the episodes became too many.
But this Bien series caught my attention. First, friends and followers were raving about it online. And then a close friend sent me one episode and encouraged me to watch the series from the beginning. This was the final push I needed.
You should know I’m not a fan of watching series; they take too long to finish. I’d rather watch a 2-hour movie once a week and get it over with. But because this was the lead singer of the baddest boy band in Afrika, I decided to watch each one of the 15 episodes every other night while washing dishes.
Now that’s called multitasking while saving time.
And boy was it worth it. The face of Kenya’s biggest (and most stylish) music band was not only humorous and honest. In one sitting that must have taken hours to film, Bien and Njau had an in-depth and insightful conversation about Sauti Sol’s music journey and the Kenyan music industry as a whole.
Every musician needs to watch this, I thought.
But not everyone has the time or patience. So I decided to save you hours of screen time by sharing the top 13 lessons you can borrow from Bien Aime’s journey as an artist and member of Kenya’s most successful band. Get ready to take notes.
Sing in church, in school, even in the streets. That’s how Bien started as a musician – as a primary school kid. It might be too late for us to go back, but not for the younger generation. So let the children around you attend art camps, sports events, even science fairs. Once you see their strengths, support them. Just as you would have wanted to be encouraged as a child.
Find people you vibe with and have a similar vision. Bien-Aime Baraza met his bandmates Willis Chimano and Savara Mudigi in Upperhill High School in 2005. And immediately they clicked.
Together, they were part of the singing school’s legacy acapella group Voices in the Light. Later, Savara became their in-house producer and Chimano their fashion stylist.
What about the fourth member of this superstar team? They met Kenyan guitarist/music producer Polycarp Otieno at Alliance Francaise after high school. Initially called Sauti, they later added Sol (Spanish for sun) to mean “Voices of the Sun” – coming full circle.
Practice practice practice
After finishing high school, Bien recounted how they’d meet at Uhuru Park every other day to rehearse – even if they had no upcoming shows. They probably looked crazy. But this made it easy to get gigs. In 2006, they got their first song featured on Spotlight in Kenya compilation album by Alliance Francaise.
Their first big win.
Build a fanbase
Thanks to their consistent practice, Sauti Sol performed at countless events at Alliance Francaise and other event venues in Nairobi. Sometimes for free. But it paid off. While getting their soulful voices out there, they built a growing youthful audience. Even before they recorded their debut album Mwanzo under Penya Records, everyone knew and loved Lazizi.
In the 2000s, almost every Kenyan musician was either doing hip hop, genge, or kapuka. But these Boyz 2 Men crooners had a different sound – a soulful acoustic sound. And because of that, they stood out. You can tell by the success of their first two albums Mwanzo and Sol Filosofia with hits like Lazizi, Blue Uniform, and Soma Soma. Their soulful songs were played on Kenyan radio stations and even in Nairobi clubs despite not being the typical “club-bangers”.
A lesson to all the left-field musicians: make the music you want and you’ll find your true fans.
After the release of their first two albums, Sauti Sol became part of the Safaricom Live tour. And in this nationwide tour, they learnt a big lesson: while Nairobi adored them, the rest of Kenya had no clue who they were. Yet they saw how popular Kenyan musicians like Size 8 and Huratete hitmaker Jimmy Gait moved crowds from Meru all the way to Kisumu. This Inspired them to try something different. And so they collaborated with the popular P Unit t R Kay’s studio to make their first pop hit: Gentleman.
After its massive success, they haven’t looked back since. Some day ones may have dropped off because of their new pop sound but the true fans evolved with them. Until they got mature and nostalgic African music on Midnight Train, probably their best (and biggest) album to date.
Nishike was undoubtedly the most controversial song of 2014, remember? It broke a record at that time: 100k YouTube views in one day! But it also broke a lot of money deals. Sauti Sol were dropped by sponsors and got cancelled by promoters all because of the sensual music video.
Even though Nishike closed doors in Kenya, it opened wider gates outside the country. They were called for performance shows in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, and even Nigeria because of that sultry song. And these foreign promoters offered more cash than they had ever seen in their lives.
To top it off, the music video received a 2014 Nomination as East Africa’s Most Gifted Video by Channel O Music Video Awards. A testament that risks pay off when you stay true to yourself no matter what the naysayers say.
Elevate and become professional
You cannot talk about Sauti Sol’s success story without mentioning one man: Marek Fuchs. When Sura Yako made Sauti Sol blow up continentally and globally, they became Kenyan sweethearts again. It also opened doors for them to perform in the diaspora.
After a few gigs in American clubs, manager Marek decided they would only play in professional event venues where they could also sell their merchandise. And with all the fresh dollars they got, he advised them to record more songs and shoot quality music videos. Which is what they did.
They decided to release their third album Live and Die In Afrika in 2015 under their own label Sauti Sol Entertainment. They would later form Sol Generations Records, signing other superstars such as Bensoul and Nviiri The Storyteller. In 2020, Sauti Sol signed a recording deal with Universal Music Africa, a division of Universal Music Group. And even though they are no longer with Marek, they owe him a lot in setting up their professional pace.
Invest in your craft
Sauti Sol spent the magic money from shows and endorsements not only to buy fancy cars and bigger houses but also to invest in their craft. A good example is how they travelled across the continent to collaborate with other African stars. I’m talking about Yemi Alade, Burna Boy, C4 Pedro, Tiwa Savage, Mi Casa, and many more. The result: Afrikan Sauce LP.
Bien narrated how they recorded future hit songs in home studios and hotel rooms. They also shot music videos for almost all the tracks.
One of them cost them $30k – that’s approximately Ksh. 3,000,000! That song, was Melanin featuring Naija star Patoranking. As their most Shazamed hit song, their investment paid off.
In their collaborative album, Sauti Sol also worked with Kenyan stars. In 2018, they did a Rewind with the OG Khaligraph Jones. And two hit songs with another megastar: the meme inspiring Short N Sweet and the socially conscious Tujiangalie featuring Nyashinski. You’ll notice these two artists are in the same league as Sauti Sol, therefore their collaborations multiplied the viral effect.
Like Sauti Sol, work with artists you vibe with or are on a similar level with.
Let go of your music
After co-writing with Burna Boy again after African Star, Sauti Sol was ready to put their next collabo on their fourth album. While seeking clearance from Burna, there was a twist. The African Giant wanted to include Time Flies on his album.
What did Sauti Sol do? They let him. Because of that clever move, they ended up being songwriters on a Grammy-winning album! And the song is making more money for them from publishing deals.
Sometimes it’s okay to give away your creation to someone else – while keeping your rights of course. They could take it to places you haven’t been to yet. It’s a win-win. And don’t worry, you can always create more hits.
Always be ready
Speaking of Burna, Bien recounted how when he visited Burna Boy in Nigeria way before African Giant blew up, he already had 4 albums recorded. This has taught him to always be ready with new content. What is yours will come to you. But opportunity favors the prepared. Don’t let it find you flatfooted.
Innovate in a crisis
COVID affected a lot of workers, especially performing artists. Sauti Sol had just released their 2020 album Midnight Train and were ready to tour the world. And then the pandemic crashed their high-flying dreams.
How did they adjust? Well, they created their own reality TV show – Sol Family on Maisha Magic Plus – which became the top show on Showmax. Their virtual album launch concert on YouTube was the biggest and most-watched in Africa.
And in 2021, they launched their first product: Pacesol earpods in partnership with J Blessing’s Keep Pace Africa Limited. Being fitness fanatics, they are working on their Sol Active sportswear. There are many ways to channel your creativity and make money, especially in an unprecedented crisis like this. So innovate.
I picked up plenty of gems and laughs from this Play House interview series with Bien Aime on Cleaning The Airwaves. And as many Kenyans commented, it was one of the most insightful interviews ever!
The main lesson is that it takes preparation, consistency, and innovation to become as successful as Sauti Sol. It might take 10 years, or even 15, but you’ll get there. One dream at a time.
So, what’s your biggest takeaway from Sauti Sol’s success journey?
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