#LoveAwards – young Kenyans compete to produce songs on pleasure and sexuality

Checking the lyrics on day 2

In November 2015 the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), together with Love Matters, is launching the first Love Matters Music Award – providing young people in Kenya with the chance to produce songs and performances on themes related to pleasure, and sexuality. The themes have emerged from focus group discussions with young men and women in the region.  

Participants are being coached by international visual artists and music producers and will have the chance to perform live to an invited audience.

Here workshop facilitators Arno Peeters and Iris Honderos, report on the three workshops and share insights into the process of creating messages through music.

9 November 2015, Workshop Day 1

Sauti Academy, Nairobi

We deliberately did not prepare a strict program, since this day was maybe the most important. As two ‘Mzungu’ (white) artists from a country far away, who practice this mysterious ‘Community Art’, we needed to convince these talented Kenyan students to trust us with a most intimate subject: sex.

So, after some delay, the room had filled up with 17 students: 13 guys and 4 ladies of which one was both student and teacher. Also Natalie Lukkenaer, the director of Penya Africa and founder of Sauti Academy.ent. Sauti provides artist development programmes for 18-30 year olds and is the host organisation for our workshops.

We did an introduction round and started to explain what our position as artists is and will be: our partners have asked us to work on a subject and we cannot do that on our own. We need them, their talent, but foremost their sincere interest. Natalie later added that there are NGOs that will simply ‘pay to play’ and that we don’t work that way. It felt good to explain this from the get-go.

We showed examples of our work (Vietnam, Finland, India and Uganda) and explained how we like to use anything we can get our hands on and how we try to get the media involved to make our objectives visible. We think they really appreciated what we showed them.

But it was clear they were in a hurry to move on to hotter things: sex!

We showed some video examples of how music can deal with sexual content without being too specific: Erykah Badu - Tyrone and the ‘answer’ to it: Simone by comedian Tracey Morgan. Than a more serious matter with Lady Gaga - Til It Happens To You, which addresses rape. It was clear our aspiring music students started to get the hang of it: subjects can be heavy or light, handled with humor or satire.

We asked them if they ever wrote songs or lyrics about these kinds of subjects and one of the female students shared an emotional story of her being raped and how writing a song about it helped her to surpass the experience.  

Gradually more stories followed and a debate started to heat up, which got more personal and more delicate as we watched, without derailing into arguments. We’d love to share the stories, but we feel they are simply too personal. 

The discussion went on for hours and they did not seem to want to end it, until we more or less forced them to take the lunch break (after 3 pm!).

One thing is clear: the subject and purpose of this project is very much alive with these students and they are very candid about it! We are glad they are really enthusiastic to work with us on this and dedicated to put things to music.


10 November 2015, Workshop Day 2

Sauti Academy, Nairobi

On day two we had more participants from the previous day and the gender balance was even better. The discussions were vibrant, with daring questions and some emotional confessions. 

In the afternoon we asked the students to “free write” on the subject of sex, responding to themes that have emerged from recent focus group discussions with young men and women in the region. Writing “free” means writing whatever comes to mind in one flow for 10 minutes, preferably without stopping. The results were really baffling. Some had written complete lyrics, even strong and touching; writings that we can't imagine any other student would have pulled off at this level. This is a talented bunch!


11 November 2015, Workshop DAY 3

Sauti Academy, Nairobi

It was time for the students to show what they're made of and even more important: what they did with the subject matter. It could be tricky since they are in fact competitors, but we all agreed that they are colleagues helping each other out and being good sports falls within.

The results were bountiful and ranged from deeply touching tear swelling outcries about rape, based on personal experiences to a humorous take on HIV testing, (female) songs about enjoying sex and a religious take that was touching. And gosh: how these artists sound is simply amazing! 

Natalie Lukkenaer, founder of Sauti Academy, played an important role as teacher and was strict on quality and vocal technique. She was very satisfied with the sound but believes that there is always room for improvement. Natalie said, “If you believe you can be a musician, you can, but this doesn’t come for free. You may have a God-given talent but it’s not enough to just have talent. You have to develop and professionalise this talent if you want to get somewhere,” 

By the end of day three we had heard at least four or five songs that could become hit-records, once produced. I think the reason behind this quality is as simple as important: the students do not use computers, but just piano, guitar and their voice, which keeps musical spirits in shape instead of dumbed down to bits and pieces in an editor. A song structure will fail dramatically when performed this way, if it is not any good. A computer-icing (complete with flashy video) will keep the senses occupied, possibly distracting from the roots.

In this workshop no discussion on the content was needed – the students know what they want to say, we are helping them musically to share their views. There is still hard work to come, but I think we have winners already.

Entries for the Love Awards will be critiqued by a panel of judges that include sexperts and music and media professionals. The winners will be announced online on 20 November 2015, and the finalists will be invited to perform their song at a concert in front of a live audience in Nairobi later in November. 

Besides the winning entries, the top selected songs will be published and promoted on local radio stations and on global media networks. Contestants will go head-to-head in an online vote aimed to determine The Love Matters People’s Choice Award.

For more information visit the Love Matters Africa website.

All photos by Iris Honderos.

Date published: 

Arno Peeters

Arno Peeters is an international producer and sound artist. He runs Tape TV Productions.

Iris Honderos

Iris Honderdos has global experience producing community-based art on location.