East Africa’s Version of American Idol: An Insider’s Story

Here’s a story by Will Kennedy on the kind of talent competitions we’re now seeing in Nairobi. He’d know because he was hired to be a studio producer for one of these new TV shows.

Six blue-masked doctors in white coats stood before us, each monitoring an infrared detector, checking for signs of fever in travelers. It was late February, and I had just arrived at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, where I was greeted with an Ebola screening. Unlike many of the people deplaning with me, I did not come for a safari, or a post at an embassy, or to work for a non-governmental organization. I was hired to be the studio producer for an East African music talent contest show called Maisha Superstar.

Along the lines of American Idol or The Voice, this show was searching for—and helping to mold—the next big pop star from a region that includes Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. With Idol suffering from declining ratingsand set to end next season, execs looking to make talent competition shows compelling would do well to look to Nairobi.

I’ve been working as a record producer, recording engineer, and mixer for nearly 20 years in L.A. I’ve never really watched TV talent competition shows in the U.S.—the music isn’t that engaging, they create false game-show drama to boost ratings, and they aren’t even effective in finding successful music acts. So why was I there in Nairobi to produce the studio recordings that would accompany a TV talent show in a country I’d never been to before?

Great point. Why? Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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