Crafting a sound : Mike Mhagama’s role in naming Bongo Flava

Mike Mhagama

What you need to know:

  • A radio presenter, a key figure in the emergence of Bongo Flava, sheds light on the evolution and challenges facing Tanzania's pioneering music genre

Bongo Flava, a popular music genre that originated in Tanzania, was started by a few local artistes who were trying to find their sound amidst the popular rise of American hip-hop music, among other genres. To stand out as a distinct sound, the young people invented a fusion of various genres, and alas, a new sound was born.

But it didn’t have a name until a young radio presenter called Mike Mhagama, who was working for Radio One station, came up with a name for these new rhymes; he called it Bongo Flava. Though the facts of who came up with the name are disputed, the majority agree that Mhagama is behind the name Bongo Flava, as correlated by all the Bongo Flava pioneers.

These days, Mhagama works in corporate America, having made the US his home more than two decades ago, but he still keeps a close ear to the music industry in Tanzania and even played a pivotal role in introducing the biggest Tanzanian artistes to the American audience, he did host the first concert Diamond Platnumz did in California.

A few years ago, it seemed like Bongo Flava ruled the African airwaves from South to West Africa, so it was only a matter of time before we anticipated that Bongo Flava would have an international appeal. We were optimistic after seeing Ali Kiba jump on a track with R. Kelly during his glory days.

We were even certain of moving the masses once we watched Diamond Platnumz record back-to-back with the biggest American artiste, Ne-yo, the R&B crooner, for the song ‘Marry You’ in 2018 and later featured the biggest boss, Rick Ross, in the song 'Waka.’ All the songs appeared in his hit album, ‘A Boy from Tandale.’

Other artistes would seek international collaborations, in 2016, Rayvanny became the only Tanzanian artiste to win a BET award and we hoped that would open the door for other megastars from Tanzania to secure more wins.

But for the last five years, as Afrobeat and Amapiano took the world by storm, Bongo Flava seems to have faded from the picture and largely remained an East African sensation.

“I think at some point we stopped competing, we decided to do Amapiano,” says Mhagama, who is in the final stages of writing his book on Bongo Flava.

He points out, “We now have this sub-genre, Singeli, which is more promising than Bongo Flava. The flagship artistes, Diamond and Ali Kiba, at some point, when they got successful, thought they were at the same level as Davido and Wizkid from Nigeria, but it’s not true.”

Mhagama emphasises that Bongo Flava cannot be described as an industry, unlike its counterpart, Afrobeat.

“The industry comes to switch a lot of optics, like a record label, and the entire structure isn't so clear when it comes to record labels in Tanzania,” he shares.

Mhagama defines an industry as having a structure in all areas that are of significance to that industry. He points out the case in Nigeria, where if you go to a record label, there is an executive who doesn’t necessarily have to be an artiste or engaged in music production but deals with the management of the label like any organisation.

It is futile for a recording artiste to serve as an executive, for there will be a conflict of interest. Mhagama draws attention to the case of Konde Gang, where Rajab Abdul Kahali, aka Harmonize who is playing double roles as the executive and a recording artiste, As an artiste you will end up competing with your artistes and not prioritising their growth.

“You release a song, and your artiste releases a song; where do you think you are going to put your effort?” he questions.

That's what is happening with Harmonize and Ibraah, he will just do one song with him and carry on promoting his music. The same can be said with Rayvanny, the artiste and executive at his record label, ‘Next Level'. His once-promising artiste Mac Voice, has not had a substantial song in more than two years now, while Rayvanny is busy pushing his career.

Mhagama cautions “This is not a way to run the industry.”

Another predicament is unreasonable contracts, which the so-called labels make their artistes sign. “Where on earth does an artiste sign a 10-year contract?” he asks.

If you are not knowledgeable about the terms, artistes should hire lawyers to help before signing, that’s the only way Tanzanian artiste will prosper, and COSOTA should do more to educate artistes on terms and contracts.

“I hate when the big artistes say I am helping these young artistes, that's wrong, it’s not helping, it’s a business deal,” he retorts. These discrepancies led to the fall of big-name artistes like Rich Mavoko.

Mhagama mentions blackballing as one of the reasons Bongo Flava has stagnated. Once an artiste parts ways with a record label, the label that has strong ties with the media does all in their power to make sure their former artiste doesn’t get airplay.

Which also becomes their downfall, “Radio stations have become monopolised; they only play songs and talk about one individual, while other artistes can’t even get five minutes of their songs playing,” he says.

When it comes to Tanzanian artistes jumping into doing Amapiano and Afrobeat, Mhagama insists on the producers, artistes, and media presenters to stick with their genre and not give up on bongo flava, but rather redefine the new sounds based on the foundation, just like kwaito was fused into Amapiano but remained with a distinct South African sound.

So should bongo flava practitioners? "They should not be quite on Bongo Flava,” he advises.

“They are shying away from their responsibility, they don’t know what they are doing or are just following the money,” he elaborates.

Tanzanian artistes playing Amapiano will never shine more than the originators in South Africa, so we will always lose out to them, as we saw the young South African artiste Tyla win the Best African Music Performance for "Water" at the 2024 Grammys while none of our artistes were even in nomination.

Mhagama laughed at the notion that the top Nigerian stars are saboteurs, doing all they can to stop our leading artistes from shining internationally. “I am the number one fan of Bongo Flava; I love what Diamond and Ali Kiba are doing, but Diamond is not even in the top 15 artistes in Africa; he is big, but only in East Africa, financially and otherwise,” he says.

“These guys have big budgets to promote their music; they spend millions of dollars to promote just one song,” he reveals.

In his upcoming book, Mhagama has written extensively on the need for Tanzanians in the diaspora to support our music, emulating the way Nigerians have been able to get their artistes played in clubs and bars across the US, thus introducing the vast American listeners to Afrobeat.

He further adds, “Tanzanians should have the incentive to support fellow countrymen and show unity; thus, this is the only way our music will cross into the international market.”