The whirling fan dominates the six square metre stall at Imenti House in Nairobi’s CBD. Old school hip hop plays in the background. At the mini reception desk, a monitor stands a few inches from the door. Posters of different movie genres and TV series cover the room’s four walls and a bench for the weary waits for sitters.
A twenty-inch screen mounted at the corner shows trailers of various blockbusters on mute to keep the client occupied as they wait. The fan rotates from behind the desk where CD writers heavy at work emit heat like a dragon’s breath.
“Hey when is this coming out?” I ask Jay as I point at the screen where the trailer for Mortal Kombat plays.
“In two months, kwanza there’s a fire series you should check out called Dead to Me, a dark comedy the way you like them,” Jay says.
“Nice niwekee hapa,” I say as I hand him my minion-shaped hard drive.
Jay’s Movies has been running for almost a decade. My early days as a client date back to when I was in high school. At the time, his business venture was more of a hobby born out of boredom that brought in income.
The movie business boom began in the early 2000s as demand for entertainment content and variety grew. Internet penetration and the rise of pirating sites meant movie lovers would no longer wait on local stations for their fix. Tech-savvy young entrepreneurs like Jay spotted a gap. They set up businesses dedicated to downloading and writing movies on DVD for clients hungry for the latest in pop culture. Soon, shops cropped up in Nairobi’s CBD and in the city estates dedicated to selling movies. Jay’s first clients were family and friends. He sold a movie for Sh50 and bundles of six for the price of five attracted more clients.
The business got more clients after Jay joined university five months later. He set up shop outside the university to keep out of the stringent rules on campus. Sometimes, Jay would be overwhelmed by orders and had to work through the night to deliver.
“I made a killing for three years in school but I had to temporarily put the business on hold for my final year,” Jay says. If it were up to some of my friends, school would have been the last thing on their minds if they had Jay’s business.
Before the DVD era, watching movies was a privilege provided by cinemas and drive-ins in different parts of the city. Going to these places was something worth looking forward to. It was not about the movies but the excitement that came with being among the first people in town to watch the latest release. Hollywood movies arrived in Kenya a week after premiering in international theatres. Ticket prices were and still are costly and the movie-going culture is the preserve of those who can afford it. Still, improvements from normal screen to 3D and the evolution of theatres have made the experience more memorable for moviegoers.
While Jay’ business serves a niche clientele, downloading and selling copyrighted material is illegal. The Kenya Copyright Board is the agency mandated to enforce copyright law. Officers from the board routinely raid shops like Jay’s to arrest and charge perpetrators.
Paul Kaindo, a member of the legal team at the Kenya Copyright Board says enforcing the law and bringing suspects to book has been a major challenge.
“Despite occasional crackdowns that would take place from time to time, these businesses crop at almost every building in town,” Kaindo says.
Suspects pay about Sh150,000 in cash bail and are out to continue the business. With international material, the piracy laws are more difficult to enforce unlike local content. Approval rights and documents have to be produced in the case one is caught distributing material with local content.
Jay has never had a run in with the officers from the Kenya Copyright Board. But he did encounter something close.
Weeks before graduation, Jay went in search of anew space for his business. As he strolled along Monrovia Street after his usual supply errands from Muindi Mbingu Street, he slowed down near Nakumatt Lifestyle. While still debating whether to go in or not, a towering figure approached him.
His authoritative demeanor implied he was an officer of the law, with cuffs hanging on the waist loop of his trousers. That was more than enough for Jay not to question his occupation. He tightly gripped his backpack strap.
As though he had picked up a scent of fear from Jay, the man probed about the contents of the bag and asked to look inside. Jay obliged, for all he knew he could have been questioning authority. Seemingly surprised by the packs of disks before him, the man unveiled a lopsided smile.
Jackpot. ‘Nyi ndio wale mna pirate vitu, unajua piracy ni kuvunja sheria na wewe itabidi ufunguliwe mashtaka.’ An invocation of the law and piracy. The man grabbed Jay’s arm. He kept his cool as bystanders watched the drama unfold before them. Meanwhile, Mr Authority made a phone call saying he’s bringing in a suspect to the station. After a few ‘Yes Sirs’ they walked long Monrovia Street as they headed towards Anniversary Towers. Jay asked about his offense but all he got was ‘utajulia mbele’ from the guy. You will get to know.
They get to Anniversary Towers and head to the 7th floor of the building. This was where a branch of Central Police Station was based for small time offenders. Jay is told to wait at the reception area where a security guard stands watch. Mr Authority proceeds into a room down the hall from the reception where he disappears for a couple of minutes. He later emerges with a white piece of paper and says it is Jay’s charge sheet. He asks for him for his phone and orders him to point out his mother’s number. He then proceeds to the very room ‘dialing’ on Jay’s phone.
Almost an hour goes by and there’s no sign of him coming out and neither are fellow boys in blue in the vicinity. His patience runs thin and Jay decides to bite the bullet and head to the room. He finds himself inside a banking hall. This was one for the books, not only was he made a sucker but his phone was gone. The con game in the city had nabbed him in its web.
When COVID-19 broke out, Jay’s business took a hit, like most other ventures. Things started to open up months later, but it wasn’t the case for Jay’s Movies. Clients have dwindled as a majority of his customers, myself included, are now connected to home internet fiber and have subscriptions to platforms like Netflix, Showmax, Disney Plus that cut him out as a middleman.
What was a once a go-to for the latest entertainment in Hollywood blockbusters is dying a slow death. What would become of this place? Would I be his last customer before he closes the shop one last time? Future generations won’t get to know the hassle we went through getting the latest movies or series.
Jay always said he will keep the albums of his original masters that he started with in his grandma’s house. A memoir perhaps of what a golden goose his hobby turned out to be.
A feeling of despair creeps up as I leave Jay’s shop. If he does close, I will no longer be making trips to this stall. Still, the collection of movies I have bought from him over the years will always be part of Jay’s business journey.