Kenya: Renowned Crooner's Fall From Topping Benga Charts to Squalid Nakuru Slums

David Karanja Githendu nursed big dreams in 1989, the year he released his first single. He was keen to sing his way into unimaginable riches, then give back to society by building a state-of-the-art music school in Gatanga, Murang'a County - his home village.

He was right on course as he teamed up with John Ndichu and James Wamumbe, who were among the pioneer stars of benga beat in Gikuyuland.

His hit song, 'Mbeca' (Money), released in 1990 under his stage name Karanja David, was only second to the national anthem in Mt Kenya region.

It described the power of cash, which had seen many men agonise endlessly on how to get it, as it had become a ticket to the finer things in life - expensive drinks, women, roast meat, fast cars -name it. In a word, it says life on the fast lane is only for the loaded, "and if you don't have it you can only sit tight wherever you are and watch the good life pass by you."

Such is the grip money has on the human psyche, the song goes on, that it "can make you think so hard that you end up going nuts."

Hot on the heels of 'Mbeca', in a staccato succession of up to 140 hits, was 'Baba Nduingate Gitumia Giki' (Dad, just chase away this woman), about a man whose family boat had been rocked by his decision to bring in a second wife. The persona in the song pleads with his father to rethink his decision by chasing away the newcomer to restore peace in the family.

Then closely followed 'Nii Ndiri Kinanda' (I'm not a record player), where the persona tells his stubborn wife he is fed up with having to correct her even on trivial matters. He tells her he would no longer continue serenading her as she gyrated joyfully to the nice tunes at his expense.

Superstar life

In a word, the hits bespoke his determination to capture the imagination of his fans, rake in the money and enjoy the superstar life of his dreams.

At first, money poured in. So much of it that, by 1991, a short two years since he started out, he had made his first million - at a time when a million shillings carried way more weight in purchasing power than it does today.

With the money came the bottle, which gobbled up his cash before it could begin fattening his wallet. Like many other artistes, nothing had prepared him for a life of sudden riches, and so it ended up being his ruin.

By 1999, he was convinced life does not start at 40. If anything, the magical age could mark the start of one's downward spiral.

It is at 40 that, with dwindling fortunes and a fading dream, David concluded that music would not get him the big money he so badly needed. So he started hawking all sorts of merchandise on the streets of Nairobi. Little did he know that he was hawking his life to poverty.

"I would do music part-time and hit the streets for that extra coin to finance my lifestyle... for 18 years I fought hard to remain in Nairobi. The good dreams I had about my future were still intact but far away from reach," he says.

By 2010, he was unsure how to survive in Nairobi, "with piracy and the one-man-guitar revolution sweeping the analogue breed of musicians off the highway of the industry's fortunes.

"The saddest moment of my life was when I decided I had had it with the city and instead of taking a matatu to my home village in 2011, I found myself boarding a Nakuru-bound matatu. I wanted to start a new life far away from home," he says.

Once in Nakuru, cultural shock and the realisation that he could not get a job at 52 was a bitter pill to swallow.

"The first thing I did was to get myself a mud-walled shack in Mtaa wa Nyama village for Sh1,000 monthly rent. The second thing was to try and fit into the new economic situation. I had to think fast. I realised the craze in this new town was the boda-boda business. I did not know how to ride a motorcycle so I paid a young man to teach me how to do it. Armed with that skill I sought employment as a rider," he says.

The artiste says he would spend the day ferrying passengers and by evening he would have earned on average Sh800, out of which he would pay Sh300 to the motorbike owner, spend Sh300 on fuel and pocket Sh200. Sometimes the police and county council askaris would take away the Sh200, meaning he would be left with nothing.

Things got thicker and he ditched the boda-boda business and started mending shoes on the streets. It was now 30 years since he stopped singing and had lost touch with the music world.

Until Talented Musicians and Composers (Tamco) Sacco started compiling classics and an alert was issued to trace him.

"We were genuinely hurt by the sordid condition that we found him in. It was unimaginable that all these years his songs had remained evergreen and getting airplay across the market spectrum but no royalties ever got to him," says Tamco Chairman Epha Maina.

Mr Maina says all of Karanja's songs are on YouTube, "yet he is not the one who uploaded them, meaning some tech-savvy crooks are reaping from the crooner's art," he says.

Mr Maina says despite many promises to artistes and threats against music pirates, the government is yet to stop royalty thieves who deprive the musicians of their earnings.

New house demolished

"With challenges like Covid-19 and fast growth in tech-driven entertainment, a musician and squalour are not too distinctive. While the government can enforce the laws to protect our pay, it is yet to decide on how to do that. In the meantime, many artistes are subjected to the fate that befell Karanja," Mr Maina laments.

To avoid a looming bad ending, Mr Karanja and other Tamco members sent out an appeal to help Karanja build his own home and start an income-generating project.

"We had a budget of Sh2 million for land. We planned to build a permanent house for him, connect the home to power and water and spare something to buy him at least two dairy cows, some goats and some chickens to sustain him in old age," Mr Maina says.

Last week, however, when the three-bedroomed house in Mirango village, Laikipia County, was 80 per cent complete, it was demolished by unknown people.

"I am now convinced that fate and criminals have teamed up to do me in... in the same way my life goals kept running away from me. Good Samaritans figured out how to give my final lap in life some warmth, but criminals and fate have ganged up against me," he cries.

The erstwhile maestro is now beseeching his benefactors not to despair but consider building the house in a more secure place.

He appeals to President Uhuru Kenyatta to come to artistes' aid.

"Your Excellency, the help you have been promising us in terms of royalties is nowhere in sight," he says.

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