The Chime of Change: How TikTok’s Signature Sound Echoes Through Kenya’s Youth-Led Protests‍

An overlooked 2 second chime is the most important sound of Kenya’s youth-led protests. The protests, which began focused on rejecting the proposed 2024 Finance Bill in Parliament, have since evolved into national protests on corruption and governance. The overlooked signature sound is the one that the short-form video hosting service TikTok automatically ends most of its videos with, after it has shown the username of the creator who created the video. This sound is inextricably tied to as a sound of change across Kenya and the world. 

For social media analysis, many will be quick to point out the role of X, formerly known as Twitter, with its posts (formerly known as tweets), trending topics, live audio conversations known as X Spaces, and more as the true organising platform. However, a majority of videos shared, going viral, and showcased on mainstream media have been TikTok videos trending on Twitter. When examining #RejectFinanceBill2024 to #OccupyParliament and now the #RutoMustGo conversation, TikTok has been the voice of the people. And especially Kenya’s young people.

TikTok is Gen Z’s platform, X is a millennial platform.

There’s a generational passing of the digital baton that’s taken place in the past months, with the foundations set over the past 5 years. X, formerly known as Twitter, can be considered one of the core platforms associated with protest, picketing, and petitions. X’s trending topics had become a space to dominate a narrative. For years, there was a sense of pride when a legitimate discussion, subject, or topic made it to Kenya’s trending topics list. It didn’t take long until there was manipulation of these topics. X trending topics could be weaponised by getting dozens of ‘thumbs-for-hire’ content creators to shill subjects, topics, and ideas. This would make the trending topics a space where legitimate public digital grassroots conversations were met with astroturfing, a form of online media manipulation where fake or real accounts are paid to prop up a particular counter-narrative. This has gone on for the better part of 11 years across Kenya’s social media. The prolific use of X, formerly known as Twitter, is what prompted Nendo to describe Kenya as the ‘verbal’ of East Africa, compared to Tanzania, which my team and I have considered the ‘visual’ capital of East Africa, and Uganda, which I describe as the ‘VPN’ capital of East Africa for their ability to circumvent social media taxes and internet shutdowns. TikTok changes this and puts it all on its head.

Kenyan TikTokers

Video is to TikTok what Word are to X (fka Twitter)

To understand TikTok is to understand a shift in how social media has worked for the past 7 years. For Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, a user is greeted most of the time with an empty text box, which has been around for up to 20 years since Facebook started in 2004. When Instagram came along it invited social media users to look at their rear-facing camera and document sunsets, meals, and various moments. TikTok completely rewrote the expectations, ideas, and understanding for many reasons that we’re witnessing with Kenya’s ongoing protests. On Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, before TikTok, when you joined, you had zero followers and often had to build a list of friends (for Facebook) or followers (for Instagram and Twitter). You needed to post your content, which would be sent to your friends, and grow by accepting friend requests or followers who discovered your content as it was shared. This was called the social graph - it mattered who you followed, who followed you back, and where your content went.

TikTok completely rewrote the rules behind this across all social media platforms. On TikTok, it was more about TikTok’s algorithm - the way that it shows and recommends videos to users - that mattered. You could start a TikTok account in a rural Kenyan town and find yourself experiencing hundreds to thousands of hundreds of thousands of views - without a large follower base. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and Facebook copied this approach as they witnessed their platforms losing ground and attention to TikTok over the years. Regardless of how much they adapted, TikTok emerged as its own peculiar platform. Nendo has written about this before with insights into vernacular video content in different ethnicities and rural and peri-urban users are a core constituency different to the Western social media platforms. TikTok had already for years organised itself into different sub-genres of content in vernacular for different tribes that I would describe as LuhyaTok, LuoTok, KikuyuTok, KambaTok, KisiiTok, and more. This has allowed a rediscovery of cultural heritage at a digital scale mirroring the themes TikTok has broadly, including music, dance, comedy, news, entertainment, lifestyle, and more.

TikTok also successfully challenged its users to focus on video first. Whether the popular front-facing camera for selfies, selfie videos, explainers, or more, or the rear-facing camera to capture sights and sounds. The generational shift in Kenya’s internet space is that for some who have come of age on TikTok they believe that the internet is video-first with everything following that new commandment. The protests bear witness to this. For TikTokers, it isn’t enough to be present there; they must also take photo and video evidence - be these selfies, selfie videos, or chronicling themselves and those around them. Given the number of Gen Z youth present and participating in the protests, this has created one of the biggest sources of user-generated video content over a public event in Kenyan history. 

TikTok also rewrote the expectation that content needed to be polished and immaculately performed. As long as one’s sound and lighting are fine, the bedroom, bathroom, or balcony is the perfect location to speak one’s mind. The algorithm on TikTok does the rest, amplifying the videos and messages to millions upon millions. In Nendo’s estimate, there’s been over 500 million views of the Reject Finance Bill conversations on the platform, and this doesn’t count the likely +300 million elsewhere on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, X, and Instagram where content gets reposted for additional engagement. Something I consider a type of ‘engagement harvesting’ where someone takes the seeds of popular TikTok videos and then reposts them on other platforms to ‘reap’ the likes, comments, and shares they would get. Not all TikTok creators are active elsewhere, and this is an increasingly popular form of content curation that takes place online.

Sounds and the echoes TikTok creates

What TikTok also introduced the world to was the power of sound. One way to navigate TikTok is through sounds. Each video published on the platform is separated into the sound behind it and the video itself. This allows other TikTok users to create videos where they lip sync or replay certain sounds. Music is a big example here. The protests The protests have a soundtrack, one that I wish I had the time to put together on Spotify. TikTok, it includes everything from AI-generated songs to snippets of popular lyrics by existing recording artists such as Sauti Sol, King Kaka, and others from emerging subgenres of Kenyan music and dance.

The sounds of the protest have been fascinating to observe. TikTok creators have been able to find themselves quoted, and their audio has spread to different parts of TikTok and the broader internet. From their chants downtown in running battles with the police to peaceful protests and the one-liners shared when the camera is rolling. All of these have created a digital footprint for others to remix and build on to transmit the message further. There’s also been some misinformation cropping up, with sounds being used to deceive or trick. This sleight of hand takes place when someone wants to misrepresent a point in their video. So there can be inaccurate audio overlayed on a particular video of a politician, protester, or public figure. This is another reason that TikTok is unlike other platforms, popular videos spawn a range of responses, replies, and remixes without someone leaving their phone or their location. The protests are interesting for this reason, as well. Asking what the sound of the protests have been on TikTok through audio, narration, music, and more.

TikTok edits: a new form of expression

Another of TikTok’s biggest features is how it has democratised video editing. After TikTok acquired CapCut in December 2020, the video platform went on to incorporate many in-app features to help video become something anyone can learn and adopt. Many content creators, whether passive, part-time, or full-time, are likely novice to expert video editors. On TikTok, one of the ways to stand out is through one’s edits and editing style. There’s no shortage of inspiration. This involves deciding how to frame, cut, and curate a selection of videos. There are also those on TikTok who have taken great care to look back at the words, videos, and promises of politicians and political figures. They’ve downloaded videos from YouTube, news websites, and more to create elaborate videos with trending TikTok sounds to frame debates, challenge stereotypes, or energise the base of protestors. Jules Terpak goes into edits in much greater detail and I recommend her insights around this. 

Some Gen Z protesters have gone as far as to call on their favourite global content creators and challenged them to speak on the Finance Bill. This has witnessed a range of international content creators, many of whom have never visited Kenya or Africa, speaking out and lending their voices. These then get captured, edited, and shared online. Whether Xevi, iShowSpeed, or Dylan Page, there are dozens who mentioned the way they were surprised how many Kenyans followed them. 

The future for TikTok in Kenya

When TikTokers want to meet, they go Live and hold discussions, something that saw X Spaces reach new heights with millions of listeners tune in and highs of over 130,000 active listeners. TikTokers turn on their ring light or stand in front of a window and start speaking to their camera. And with that, they move from typing to speaking straight to camera. When the mainstream media cameras came on, many were ready for the moment and not shy to speak their minds. They’d done it to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands online. So speaking to millions through the large cameras didn’t faze them.

For the protests, there’s At Nendo, where we’ve been publishing about TikTok since before they acquired in November 2017. I have spilled a lot of ink over the years cross-examining communities, creators, and content from the platform and have now witnessed a moment where TikTok, which was already popular with Gen Z and younger people has crossed over to Gen Y and Gen X in Kenya. My team and I have done research across different countries, contexts, and socioeconomic classes, looking into TikTok’s impact and effect on Kenyan society. We have had the chance to meet them, and even in our Dada Disinfo project, to learn how women content creators find safety from online gender-based violence. 

My team and I have chronicled hundreds of TikTok videos, moments, and messages with thousands more to analyse and piece together the power of TikTok in these moments. We’re constantly open to partnerships, collaboration or commissioned research to unpack this historic moment. If that sounds of interest, do reach out.

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