Questioner: How are we to treat others?
Ramana Maharshi: There are no others.
“We recognize someone as a stranger, rather than failing to recognize them.”
- Sara Ahmed
If there is anything that stokes the fuel of divisive politics it is this idea of the other. This creating a caricature of people who don’t identify the same as you do. What it does is it takes the way in which the things we are afraid of manifest and use them against us. This phenomenon is more easily known as stoking our fears.
I find the word stoke most appropriate because fear is like a fire. The face of fear is not tears and hiding but violence. And like a fire, fear catches on. Especially in this shareable world where we are all on the Internet sharing our experiences and perspectives it’s easy for fear to catch on and spread itself around. It becomes even easier when we fail to see the human on the other side of any conversation and leave ourselves susceptible to reducing people to a batch of traits that we have read somewhere.
In an eloquent thread on the recent reporting on xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Sho Majodzi outlines a few key truths:
“The reason we have bad leaders is because we want bad answers. We want people to say “foreign nationals are completely innocent” or to say “foreign nationals are completely responsible for crime.” We get dishonest leaders because we want things to be black and white and the truth very seldom is. Good leaders would require us to be more nuanced. Good leaders would require us to understand that more than one thing can be true at once. And that some things can be partially true. But good leaders are not successful because we don’t want the nuanced, complex and multidimensional truth. It’s not neat and easy to consume or attack. This is why we either get inactive leaders or populists.”
- Sho Majodzi on twitter
I’ve written about truths and histories here before. About how a lot of issues arise not through manipulation and falsehoods but because two or more things, known to be true, are held in opposition to each other rather than as parts of the whole. When this happens we eliminate the needs and experiences of the people around us and focus on keeping our selves unharmed. When we ground ourselves firmly and absolutely in our own perspectives we give those around us an impossible decision. Either to set their own experiences aside and live in a world that has been created by our fears (often to their own detriment) or to stand firm in their own ways of seeing and brace for impact.
“And towards this end, knowledge itself becomes a trap. Just because you are aware of oppression and the many ways in which it works doesn’t mean you have analysed the agreements you had made with the world. And because the agreements you have are based on factors rooted in this same world you are critiquing then how much of that world exists within you? Which of your decisions, attitudes, mannerisms and biases were decided for you – do they align with who you decided you want to be?”
I’d like to take this argument a step further and ask – how many times do you refuse to see the forest of truth for the trees? We’ve heard the age old advice – avoid fake news. But what seems to be even more urgent is to now avoid news that you agree with too deeply. News that has been tailored to confirm and affirm everything that you believe in. When this happens you must ask yourself “why?” “What am I failing to see? What other perspective exists to this story?”
And it’s even more urgent now. With big data companies like Cambridge analytica tearing through the data to create echo chambers we need to be able to sift through for ourselves. To place the burden on the people who create the fake news is to take the power out of our own hands. We must seek to read and understand things and people we disagree with. To see where they are coming from and what their fears are made of. It’s only with this nuanced approach will we be able to elect the leaders we need and begin the work to creating a truly shareable world.
“Perhaps this is why the government’s favourite bully was in charge of this task. Because public trust has been eroded to the point that, our guard is up when the government asks for our ID numbers. To the point that, rather thank thinking about the importance of data to nation building, we know that the data we give will probably end up with our phones ringing as a private company tries to sell us something. Because we know that rather than using the data for national planning, allocation of resources and wealth distribution the data will most likely be used to leverage the Kenyan people as consumers to a multinational company – or something along those lines.”
Last week I wrote about public trust – especially in relation to the census process. Aside from voting this is perhaps one of the times that public participation is most needed in a governmental process. While they may be comfortable passing all kinds of laws without even considering the public’s view, the census process demands that they go to the citizen and ask that they share their data.
Which is probably why the rift between the citizenry and the government was most apparent in this time.
Nation building is a dance of sorts. It is impossible for the state to move forward with their plans without some form of permission, or at least complacence, from the citizenry. And, because of the scale of the project, it is impossible for it to be run like a campus group assignment. There must be some order, some selected representatives who are trusted to carry their people’s message for dialogue to occur on a national level, aligning goals, dreams and aspirations. Even further, nations must align regionally depending on the state of the global politic to create a block of nations strong enough to bargain from a position of strength.
The trust in the system is implicit when it is drawn out theoretically. It is easy to say that the citizens, of course, trust the state that they have placed in power. And that the national dialogue will happen from a position of “messenger” bringing the message of their people to other peoples and negotiating for the greater good. And even further, that negotiations between states will happen from a similarly noble place.
When we look at the situation practically, a whole other set of facts comes to light.
“While a majority of politicians from across the country have insisted that the headcount meets the minimum threshold of credibility, it is feared that some figures could have been cooked. In the 2009 census, a dispute arose but the figures were upheld by the courts (…)The 2009 controversy now casts a long shadow over the 2019 census in Mandera, Wajir and Garissa counties. State officials in the region have been accused of facilitating irregularities by inflating household numbers in their areas of jurisdiction”
There’s not a single large project in the country that moves through the entire process without being marred by a scandal or a possible scandal. The new curriculum is currently under fire for being hastily implemented and not being thoroughly thought out. No one even knows why we built the SGR and the big oil that was supposed to save us is actually churning out a measly 2000 barrels a day with estimates expecting up to 100,000 barrels per day (for comparison, Nigeria exports about 2,200,000 barrels of oil a day).
It’s not all gloom and doom. The new roads are a joy to drive on (despite what they are doing to our debt) and our GDP seems to be steadily on the rise. We have new currencies, driving licenses and passports – so one could say our swag factor has gone up by X to the power of n.
The media (us guys) are not making it easier in the trust game either. Incetivised by clicks and sales we know the easiest way to get a story circulating to a wider audience is to sensationalise it. To speak using stronger language and to avoid looking at the nuance in the conversation. As such every issue is set up as the government vs the people. The people v the power (I am reminded that binaries are unwinnable).
“Can’t win if it’s me against me, one of us ain’t gonna survive”
- Lupe fiasco, Beautiful lasers
And so we continue trapped in this cycle. The people eye-ing the state, the state eye-ing the people and money, ideas and progress falling in the cracks. Last week I wrote about the tone the government uses with the citizens, the utafanya ama utafanya tone that is alienating rather than brining together. Still, in this time of tough talk, how do we bridge the gap? How do we get everybody on board towards believing that this space can work for all of us?
“Going down river road you can find yourself anywhere.”
- Clifton Gachagua
No, this is not a book review of Meja Mwangi’s classic. But, as I find out on a Umoja rooftop one cold evening, there is something classic about it. The brainchild of Clifton Gachagua and Franklin Sunday as Kavochy and DRR welcome us to choma, readings, music and drinks.
The premise is simple, Franklin reveals to me a few weeks earlier over as we sit on a different rooftop, Pawa 254, in a more affluent area of town. The question he asks is simple “what happens when we move these spaces closer to the people?” Perhaps this is why the name Down River Road is so enticing. Because if there is somewhere you will find “the people” it is on riverroad. You will find them selling wares on the streets, looking for buses to go home, looking for buses to go to their homes (and there is a difference). Walking down river road you will feel the bump of shoulders, the smell of labour and the taste of cigarette smoke.
Which is why the deliberate thinking around the recently launched Down River Road journal is so important. And, perhaps why their call for papers for their first issue is interesting. Take this from their about page:
“Place has always been difficult in two ways. Firstly, the subjective spaces we exist in, the product of the senses. Then: the imaginary places. Often we inhabit both places at the same time, creating varied possibilities and realms as we claim our existence in each reality. Place is always changing, moving, even when our bodies remain static. And when our bodies do finally move, place moves with us. In these new places we create homes for ourselves because our survival depends on it.”
And as places move and change, we move and change with them. Like listening s Kamwangi Njue play tunes that fill the chilly evening with warmth. Or hearing Ndinda Kioko read about lovers and being close enough to touch them. When the setting is made properly a place can turn into any place. And any place can be found as long as you get on the right bus and alight at the right stage.
Down river road promises to be the bus for the people who are looking to get a taste of arts and literature that is born of the people – of art that occurs rather than is occurred. Like reading about Sir Owi’s rise in the ranks of the music industry or letting M K Angwenyi take you to places where you can no longer see.
And they are open for submissions.
The journal is looking for submissions for its debut issue themes on ‘place’ with the submission deadline being 1st October 2019. They are looking for:
“…work ranging from poetry to (non)fiction between 3500 – 5000 words. We’ll accept 3-5 poems maximum of 40 lines each. Flash fiction pieces should be between 500 – 1000 words. We also welcome other experimental forms (mathogothanio) and medium including interviews and conversations, maps, photography, illustrations, video and audio.”
So join in. Take a walk down river road and share where you end up – it could be anywhere.
“mkono inahonga imevaa bracelet inacolours za flag”
Besides all the other necessary things that this long and beautiful piece of writing contains it particularly has me thinking about rhetoric as a key. How language as a kind of shibboleth into spaces. With our words we signal to each other – I see you, I side with you, I understand you, I disagree with you. Perhaps this is why lying and manipulation are a large part of our fears. That we will realize someone had learned enough about our language to use it to navigate our emotions, hiding in the blindspots and never revealing themselves.
The problem, of course is that acceptance is at the core of the human. We are social beings. And not everyone has a healthy attitude towards confrontation. In order to be vulnerable and honest we must always be ready to lose everything – especially with the proliferation of cancel culture. As jools puts it, consensus becomes king. It becomes more important to agree with the larger whole than to express an original or dissenting thought.
Scrolling myself to sleep one night, I saw a tweet that I will loosely paraphrase (because google has refused to reveal its secrets to me). It was something along the lines that most of our current crises are born of the fact that a lot of our rules were created by people who died a long time ago, for their own context and we’re only now realizing that we can change them.
Which is why this (same) piece has me thinking about the rhetoric we have been programmed to accept and whether we have examined the changing paradigms around them. Take this excerpt:
“Those 60s-70s firebrands were born at a time when the CPUSA had 80,000 members, and even within the Democratic Party it was possible to be sympathetic to the Soviet Union. McCarthyism did much to smash this, but the contemporary existence of attempts (however imperfect) by the dispossessed to wrest control of their destinies, particularly in China and the Third World, proved an irresistible inspiration. Since then the left has had to contend with the destruction or reversal of these attempts, and a vigorous retrenchment of the power of capital. The “establishment left” in the United States is basically limited to the unions now, who are almost universally in thrall to the Democratic Party.
We also live in very different times economically. In many Western countries, the 1970s were the peak of both the average standard of living and income equality. Today we face a crisis of capitalism on the scale of the Great Depression – and that crisis only ended with the Second World War’s bonfire of value.”
And this seems to be a real problem. Instead of solutions arising out of our current problem state and working towards an end goal it seems like we are fitting our current problems into old rhetoric of “change” and hoping that it will give us the solutions that we need for what is facing us now. I imagine we cling to old rhetoric because it’s safe and because we are lazy. The pursuit of capital has us focused on doing “what we need to do” in order to get ahead. I imagine there’s also something in there about the shape and face of a revolutionary. The need to be like Malcolm X or Che Guevara with thousands of people marching down the street behind us. The need to be great as greatness has been described to us, rather than the drive to make actual tangible change in the world around us, regardless of whether greatness comes as part of the package or not.
“Herein lies my problem with what were essentially soup kitchens that Occupy sites the world over set up: feeding the homeless is a laudable aim, but you are not seizing your chance properly here if you’re just happy with that. The free breakfast program set up by the Black Panthers was not at all just because children in the ghetto were going hungry – it also included a comprehensive program of political education, it was based on the principle that militancy and resistance is much easier if you aren’t hungry, and it also massively increased the passive support they received from a neighbourhood’s population.”
This is why I’m increasingly wary of revolutions, especially self-titled ones. Because a revolution is only called so deep into its happening and measured by impact. Till then here are only plans to create change and how these plans are implemented over time. And these plans must be grounded in a common cause i.e what are we trying to achieve and does this thing that we are currently doing align itself to said goal? Nowadays it seems like the main thing being achieved is acknowledgement of one’s contribution in a race to being the next icon, the next revolutionary person. And so we ask, what must I say, what must I do in order to be perceived in this way that I can leverage my image?
How can I make my way into the halls of history?
Capitalism, of course, encourages this pursuit of greatness. It is the very stuff that capitalism is founded upon, how to do you leverage the shadows to create an untouchable image? And the internet, with its unforgiveable memory insists that we maintain a perfect online persona, align ourselves to the right arguments on twitter, post the right images and such. It gives us a detailed guide of rhetoric – speak to this group like this, acknowledge this, refuse this. In this way we end up regurgitating rather than understanding and because to question is to accept that maybe we might not agree or understand (and might not be received well) we continue to follow and impose these rules upon others.
“In fact, I would go so far as to say that history has been rewritten and this idea of a single New Left is an invention. Two concurrent but separate movements for liberation (one primarily racial/economic, and the other primarily sexual/narcotic) have been conflated for various reasons, such as the primarily rhetorical support they lent each other. This cleavage still exists today, although modulated by the changes in conditions between now and then.”
And so we have long complicated posts on the nature of intersectionality and feministing and other 3 or more syllable words reconstructing the same class barriers that they are speaking against. Where the barrier of entry remains an education that has taught you to navigate this rhetoric. Where instead of seeing people we see ideological loopholes and flaws in thinking with little compassion and then wonder why we can’t create a shareable universe.
Because the vision itself is not shared.
Like arguing with a christian set on converting you, it is not a two sided conversation. Rather it becomes a class condescension that is quick to categorise and place one’s problems in these “oppression boxes” instead of listen to see what solutions may present themselves – if any. And because the solutions themselves are often messy. It’s often more complicated than a twitter thread. It’s often more complicated than “that’s white people” or “that’s men” (binaries are unwinnable) and to admit that punctures a hole in our savior mentality. If problems are complicated, nuanced and call for analysis then we can’t just fix the world. We can’t just save everyone. And if this if so then we might need to do actual labour, actual political uncovering, discovering and organizing – ugh.
“And I’m the asshole in the room?”
- Don Cheadle (as Miles Davis)
Miles Ahead, a movie on the life and times of Miles Davis, opens up on a moody Miles Davis locked up in his house, listening to session tapes and nostalgic on what is described as past glory. It is 1964, five years after Miles release “So what,” that took the world by storm. When a writer claiming to be sent from the studio comes to write about his “comeback” Miles flips. He drives all the way to Columbia records to demand his pay where he pulls a gun on an overzealous Artists and Repertoire executive who claims to own his music. As he pulls the gun he also ends up unwravelling the web of perception around him where the records are holding his money, the writer isn’t from the records and a young producer is trying to use the moment to give his own artist space to shine. Finally having his fill he leaves with the line “And I’m the asshole in the room?”
I go back to this scene every time I find myself coming up against a wall of perception (whether the wall is from me looking out or outside looking in). Anyone walking into the room would see a man with a gun. Instead the story unravels to show a man tired of dealing with layers of deception, trying to find the truth (and struggling with drugs)
“Honestly, ethic mayne – ni nini mbaya na nyinyi?”
- This lady (still not sure who she is tbh)
I’m always worried about what it means when we decide that one side of a narrative must be correct. That certain people acting must be perceived as acting in a certain way, and that their violence is always viewed through a lens of of erratic, without reason or just plain ghetto. And how these assumptions create the worlds where we exist.
I wonder, for example, how quickly the guilty verdict was arrived at. The question asked was not “what’s happening here?” “what has happened?” “why are you behaving like this?” Implicit within the question was the fact that assumptions made were not about the issue in question. Rather, “nini mbaya na nyinyi?” implies that there is a consistent wrongness. Not that this action is seen as wrong but rather this action is seen as a pattern of wrongness that is inherent within the question. In asking nini mbaya na nyinyi we are immediately drawn into a certain framing of the issue. The framing that shows Ethic as a group of rowdy young men out for trouble and directly implies them as on the wrong in this particular situation.
I wonder (some more) if the reaction would have been as loud, as blatant and as publicly shaming if it had been any other group or individual at the centre of the trouble. For sure, the issue would have been handled (violently even, it was, after all, a violent moment) but would the concert have been shut down? Would the MC’s voice blare over the speakers at the whole stadium about the problem? Would the DJ have hidden their computer?
Or would there have been some “technical difficulties” as everything was sorted out?
“But if he’s scared of me how can we be free?”
– Boogieman, Gambino
I’ve been trying to write this piece without falling in defense of anyone – I’m not privy to what happened. As such, there are words and places I refuse to go because the aim of this piece is not to level accusations or defend actions. I’m trying, instead, to talk about how we deal with what we see and whether we question why and how we are responding to things the way we are. Because if not aren’t we just going around projecting our fears onto the world? And if we are creating a world shaped by our fear then are we doing the work?
It’s interesting watching the TL today discuss Bob Collymore’s death. There’s the side mourning him because he was a pretty affable fellow and the side who feel that death shouldn’t shield him from his actions including his role in rigged elections, national CCTV fiasco etc
It’s in the murk of death that things come to light. Somewhere in the aftermath of demise people either gain the courage or realize they have no more time left to say what they wanted to say – to do what they wanted to do. Like the way we hold our breath at the funerals of business tycoons waiting for the second wife to show up with her family. When someone dies we know that the unexpected is on the way – especially when the person has a public profile.
On 1st November 2010 Bob Collymore took over as the CEO of Safaricom. He came in to run the ship in a company where Michael Joseph had made the position of Safaricom CEO a rock star position in the public persona. Somewhere amidst the launching of M-pesa and their IPO, Safaricom had won over the hearts of Kenyans. Millions of us were holding on to the stock that had started off at 5 shillings. In many ways, Safaricom had already become the company that is almost synonymous with Kenya. It is this ship that Bob was given to steer.
And the former Vodafone Chief Officer of Corporate Affairs did not skip a beat. From music videos with Jimmy Gait to Blaze to Capture Kenya the man was on a charm offensive with a country, seeking to woo the nation – an offensive that worked so well that 9 years later the man earned an appointment to the board of the National Cancer Institute.
On July 1 2019 he died.
There’s no ignoring the hero/villain dichotomy that exists – especially when it comes to here. Here where it takes amplifying the worst of oneself to make it to the top we know to be wary of those who have succeeded – the same could be said of Bob Collymore. Already the accusations are flying hard and fast and all we are waiting for is the proverbial baby at the funeral.
And this is where I want to play.
Because I’m not sure if I have much more to say about that. I met the man once or twice but not sure I had enough information to tell you what kind of person he is – and I’ve recently grown wary of judging people based off what makes it through the well of whispers.
“Legacy, legacy, legacy, legacy
Black excellence, you gon’ let ’em see”
- Jay Z, Legacy
Rather, I’m interested in the things that we leave behind. And whether they take the shape that we think they’d take – that we hoped they’d take. Following Binyavanga Wainaina’s death social media was awash with noise attacking his life, and then there was the noise defending him. Somehow in the moment we seemed to be reduced to binaries Binyavanga was a gay man, hence he was a bad man. Bob was a wealthy man, hence he was a good man. Bob was running Safaricon as the CCTV scandal happened; hence he was a bad man.
Somehow stories do no labour towards showing us the sides of the human, instead they are carefully picked out to show what the teller is trying to demonstrate.
And this makes sense because the court of public opinion needs heroes and villains. It needs people to be held to absolutes so that we can take stances. It needs personalities to be flattened and journeys be judged based on decision points that the public has no information about. In Binya’s case we see heavy othering as society retreats to the safe place of tried and tested homophobia. And then we see heavy romanticizing in the “genius nationalist” In Bob’s case we see the same dichotomy. Bob the hero who knew half of twitter by name and showed up in music videos and Bob the villain who headed one of the largest monopolies in the country (And, possibly the region?).
Legacy is complicated and its pursuit has been known to bend and break even the strongest of us. When you’ve been pursuing legacy it’s easy to ignore the needs of the few for the larger picture. And, as Thanos showed us, sometimes the larger picture doesn’t justify the immediate action.
But maybe, just maybe, we’ll eventually realize that there are no heroes and villains only good ideas, bad ideas and willpower. Till then, I leave you with Anyidoho:
And when it is all over
we shall once more inherit
a generation of cracked souls
for whom we must erect new
monuments and compose new
anthems of praise and the eternal hope of life
beyond the recurring stupidity of war heroes.
- Ground Zero, Kofi Anyidoho
There’s a story about three blind men trying to identify an unknown animal. Having no sight for their benefit they had to use touch. One man, touching the animal’s trunk, decided it must be a thick snake. The second man touched the animal’s legs and decided it must be a tree trunk. The third touched the animal’s side and said it must be a wall of some kind. The story goes on with several variations to the ending (as fables tend to grow and change over time). The animal was an elephant.
“After all, physics does not diminish the value of chemistry; it cannot take its place and on the other hand, cannot be replaced by it. Psycho-analysis is certainly quite particularly one-sided, as being the science of the mental unconscious.”
- The question of lay analysis, Sigmund Freud
This piece is not about Freud. However, in a series of essays on lay analysis we see Freud painstakingly try to make a case for psycho-analysis as an independent field from medicine. He talks about how the attitudes of medicine are affecting the reception of analysis and, for pages, talks about the importance of psycho-analysis as a practice. Reading the essays one can almost see his frustration, whether it is through his long windedness or how he states his case you can clearly see he is watching three bling men argue over the nature of something while trying to make it very clear that the thing is an elephant – and an elephant has different sides.
Today we hail Freud as the father of a profession. We see the importance of psycho-analysis and definitely wouldn’t go to a heart doctor for therapy. We understand that the trunk is only part of a larger elephant and not evidence of a long snake.
“In Kenya, let me be clear. You are ‘At risk poor’. There is no middle class. There is no planning. One illness or one partner losing a job any misfortune and you will be poor. Stop that your rich dad poor dad, I saved 200k on 52 week challenge so I am smart analysis”
The reactions to a 22 year old father “stealing” his child out of hospital have been something of a mixed bag. On one hand, we see the good Samaritans people who came in, paid the bill, donated legal council, gave supporting online messaging and so forth. On another hand we have the poverty shamers – how dare he not have enough, not be ready, not have a plan and so on. We, the blind, continue to touch different parts of the elephant and based on the decisions (and accidents) that we have made – relate differently to it and admonish each other for its existence.
The elephant here being poverty.
Before you continue, let me say that nothing I am going to write is new. There is little that can be said about the violence of poverty that hasn’t been said before. However, like Freud, we find ourselves trying to make something that is true apparent in an unseeing world. We touch the trunk of a father stealing his baby and we call it irresponsibility. We touch the tail of structures being rebuilt after a fire in Kangemi and we call it resilience. We touch the body of unemployment and we call it laziness. No matter how many ways you look at it – we seem to be unable to identify poverty for what it is – a systemic problem in the country, particularly driven by the absence of adequate social securities or services.
Why, for example, didn’t the young father have access to cheaper medical services? Or some insurance of some kind? Despite our first lady beyond-zeroing for years for maternal healthcare and Sonko’s various hospital raids? Or how come we can have people building in a way that is an extreme fire hazard without any intervention? And, in event of a fire, what are our emergency evacuation plans? Where are the firetrucks? And what even is job creation? And how come this environment is never really ripe for it?
As I said, old and dull questions. Questions that I am as bored of writing as we should be of reading. Questions that arise time and time again as we watch our members of parliament fight over whether they need to tell the central bank every time they move over a million bob.
The 15 year old teenage girl who was allegedly kicked out of Olympic secondary school in Kibra for having dreadlocks will continue to stay out of school after the court failed to issue orders for her unconditional return to school.
The things we hold onto are the things that will eventually become the things that define us. And when we hold on to definitions like “proper” and “neat” as defined through the colonial lens, then we continue to ensure that the world doesn’t change. That we remain in the past, controlled by the same things that we claim to be leaving behind.
When CS Amina Mohammed asked that the Rastafarian girl be allowed back to school there was a refusal to hang on to things that should not matter.
“The Supreme Court on Thursday, January 24, however, reversed the decision by the Appellate court stating that each school had liberty to determine their students’ dress code. “
“The stranger comes to be faced as a form of recognition: we recognize somebody as a stranger, rather than simply failing to recognize them.”
Recognising Strangers, Ahmed.
I keep going back to this definition of the stranger whenever I think of identity. Ahmed does a great job of breaking down the image of the stranger and further of stranger danger. I like going back to her work because it’s easier to see how this position of stranger can be created as a phenomenon and how no amount of explaining, unmaking and remaking of oneself can turn them from being a stranger.
What’s worse is we are socialized to fear what we don’t understand or, to frame it better, what we recognize as outside our frames of understanding.
“It’s a complicated game to play – who started this war, who threw the first stone and how to stop it. Already giving in to fear, a section of MPs are asking that the terrorists be burnt in public. As if somehow increasing the violence of the situation will help.”
And, in knowing the stranger as well as we do – we know the shape of our fears exactly. Wagalla becomes Mpeketoni becomes Kasarani becomes Garissa becomes El Adde. We cry, one Kenya and ask ourselves how it stops, but do little work to untangle the mess that is created by the idea of a core identity and fringe identities.
Which brings me back to the debate on schools and hair. I find it interesting that the two questions surround identities with complicated history. The dreadlocked rastafari spelled nothing but fear to the colonial administration – ripple of which continue to be seen today. The hijabi, on the other hand, has been used to symbolize islam, which our fear has problematically interlinked with terrorism.
In this way, I’ve been wondering about the value of the heavily Judeo-Christian values that we insist on espousing as a society. Whether it is through Mutua’s consistent banning of films, through our militant and persistent homophobia or just the looks that one gets after admitting they don’t believe in god, how does it help us?
How does it help when the courts have to step in over a debate on how a girl should wear her hair to school? What anarchy will be born of accepting that the choices we make with our bodies are our own? How does it look when we are allowed to grow within our own parameters and towards our own goals, rather than holding ourselves back because who we are might step on the toes of something that we have been afraid of for so long that we only recognize it’s presence through our own fear?
And let’s not act like we don’t know what fear can do. Remember that a pervasive culture of fear in white America contributed largely to the voting in of Trump – a disaster whose results we are yet to fully experience.
“The Garissa Township legislator said Kenyans of all faiths have the right to hold true to their religious edicts and Muslims are no exception.”
Identity runs deep. People are more likely to follow their god than any court ruling and to enforce the court ruling further leads to religious persecution which is not only wrong but continues to perpetuate the same fear that we are working so hard to get past. And in our fear, we lash out and in their pain they retaliate. And yesterday becomes today becomes tomorrow – again.
“Lamu elders are now worried that the county’s cultural heritage and traditions could get extinct if urgent measures are not put in place to preserve them.
Lamu Council of Elders Chairman Shariff Kambaa told the Nation on Sunday that there has been continued proliferation of western cultures into Lamu in recent days, a move which has in turn resulted to various traditions getting lost.”
The things we preserve remind us of who we are. Whether it be a simple flavour in a meal to a song to entire elaborate rituals and ceremonies it is the things that we hold on to that give us a sense of identity. And it is in the way they hold onto us – a heavy tongue, a bad habit, a lens – that we are identified.
The problem is that the most important things often need the gentlest approach. One cannot be forced to treasure a thing (if anything, this might be the most counterproductive thing you could try). This becomes particularly complicated in multicultural spaces, multicultural house holds. And even harder with the all-imposing western narrative that has dominated most areas of our life.
I never learned how to speak my mothertongue. I don’t have a reason. Both my parents speak the same language and I could have easily picked up bits and pieces here and there. But America got to me first. I was more caught up in what the Hardy Boys hard to say than in anything that sounded like ebitabu. To date I listen more fluently than I speak. My words come out in bits and stutters as if my tongue is putting together old parts of a broken engine.
We value the things that we believe will give us value. I will remember this recipe – it will feed me. I will remember this song – it will comfort me. In the places where the things that we have carried overlap we call culture. A tune whispered by common ancestors as they gathered around a fire years ago. And when we discard things their value is questioned and made apparent.
“The materials from Gikuyu, Kikamba, Dholuo and Ekegusii come in handy in the development of language activities, which include listening, speaking, pre-reading and pre-writing which, according to the new curriculum framework, are to be carried out in the language of the catchment area.”
It was not really cool to speak your mothertongue where I went to school. Or even to speak like you had been influenced by the village tongue. The heavy tongue was not only punished in class but on the playground as well. The diet was strictly western – the idea of a school serving ugali only came to me in high school. Even as a reader my search naturally took me to English greats like Poe and Kipling long before I had even heard of Achebe or Thiong’o. And, when I did, they were presented as not holding as much weight. As being just another and not “a great.”
“Except today it is fashionable to scream
of pride and beauty as though it were not known that
‘slaves and dead people have no beauty’ “
- Random Notes to my Son, Keorapetse Kgositsile
Maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s a new generation coming into itself. But the battle against cultural domination has been intensified. We see more women being encouraged to find their beauty within. We see musicians wading through our musical archives to create a sound that we can own. We see videos of Uzoamaka Aduma refusing to compromise her Igbo name for the white tongue and we celebrate.
It’s becoming cool to embrace your Africanness.
But how do you embrace something you never cultivated? How do you return to an Africanness you never actually owned?
We give ourselves reasons to remember. And we make them beautiful that they may stay with us for as long as they can. We bring them back into the syllabus and we hold festivals. We cook and we tell sing songs. We speak of our heroes like the heroes they are and we make room for a future where we won’t need to cling to what we already have.
Or we grow and watch passively as the songs are sung no more.
by April Zhu
“Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales” sounds like the title of a picture book for kids in their twenties and thirties. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s to stop feeling like an imposter. Trust the process. Trust your own hard work. “Blinky” Bill Sellanga’s first solo album is an anthem for the young creative just trying to “do the thing.”
Blinky Bill pulls back the curtain on the performance of celebrity and instead “performs” humility. He goes out of his way to prove that, even when you become a big shot, some things don’t change. The song “Bills to Pay” bypasses the glamour of creative work and instead elevates small and unsexy humiliations like chasing after your own money after you’ve done the job. With a string of sharp puns on PayBill, pay the bills, and “pay Bill to play”—plus that passive-aggressive “my dia”—Blinky Bill drops the ultimata that hustlers want to but can’t always: “Wakati wa kulipa umefika / Toa pesa sasa hivi, sasa hivi.” Louder for the clients in the back, please.
“My dia my dia my dia you do
not know me very well
So let me tell you little something
I am looking for no drama.”
– Blinky Bill, “Bills To Pay,” “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”
The whole album toggles between reassurance and desperation. Take “Oh Wah,” which features Nneka and Petite Noir. It’s an internal dialogue, a backdrop to bad news on TV: “Healing is what you need / is what I need is what they need / but my country keeps hurting my soul / I can’t watch the news no more / I can’t watch the news no more.” It’s familiar for any young Kenyan who has witnessed their country fall and sighed, “How now, Kenya.”
Or for any young person, really, who daily processes the rapid reel of the internet, suffering and humor and love and meaninglessness assorted on one feed. Who sees bad things in the world on her screen and feels, at the same time, both incredibly privileged and completely powerless. “Oh Wah” is not pedantic; it’s not even a call to action. It is an honest meditation on injustice that doesn’t shove answers into questions. Running through this album are these kinds of interrogations about where we belong in the world, often with brave uncertainty.
For this reason, the opening track, “Lwanda Magere”—named for the mythical Luo warrior whose invincibility was unraveled by a woman—is at first jarring. A kick drum mimics the forward march of battle-ready hide drums, while bass and talkbox trade off into one another and are all swept into pixelated static: a myth, digitalized. What does it mean that an album that grapples with endless questions—especially the big one, “Where do we come from?”—begins first with some sort of answer? “Lwanda Magere” hangs like a plaque above the door we step inside, a benediction to origin that will frame everything else to follow.
Everyone knows that Blinky Bill has a thing for nostalgia. He trawls up sounds we didn’t know we still remember, like those of the Bata Shoeshine Boys. When asked about his influences, he points backwards: The Mighty Cavaliers, Slim Ali and the Hodi Boys, and many more. Kenyans speak starry-eyed about music of the past—the golden age of immortal zilizopendwa, or genge and kapuka, a time when our sounds were envied. Blinky Bill takes on a quiet resistance to that pessimism. Resistance, because he is deliberate (almost political) about reversing Kenyans’ musical amnesia. Quiet, because he makes it good without having to tell us it’s good. His optimism is stubbornly Nairobi-centric.
“We’re at the most
interesting phase of any art scene, to be honest, in Africa. If you’re looking
at Africa, you’ll take a look at Nairobi. We’re just discovering ourselves and
figuring out how to express ourselves in a way that makes sense to us.”
– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014
You won’t find cheap copy-pastes of “traditional” “African” sounds, easy tropes that are vaguely “tribal.” You do, however, get that cold little sparkle of an ongeng’o in “Winner.” Or a thin veil of distant chant in “Oh Wah.” Or the crunchy “chka chka ka chka chka” in “Atenshan” (and his mic tests) you hear in K-South’s “Kapuka This.” In the same way that benga artists, translating nyatiti into guitar, bridged old tunes into a new world, all the while creating something singular, Blinky Bill is certainly a bridge from something to something.
“No one back home considers [The Mighty Cavaliers’] contribution important so, with working with this music, I’m going backwards into Kenyan music history and trying to bring it forth so the new generation that’s listening to Kenyan music—which we’re at the forefront of pushing—are exposed to these musicians and their work.”
– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014, referring to Just A Band’s rendition of [The Mighty Cavaliers’ “Dunia Ina Mambo”
But from what to what? “Genre” is deceptively subjective. British artist FKA Twigs described this: “When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre. And then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer.” The act of “genre”-ing music is intractably political and fraught with questions about gaze.
“One of my least favorite terms is the box of ‘World Music,’ where for years the music from the ‘Other’ places has been lumped together,” Blinky Bill said in an interview with OneBeat. The concept of “world music,” according to journalist Ian Burrell, originated in a north London pub as a means for promoting non-Western artists, but now just puts them in a “ghetto.” Take Nneka, who features in “Oh Wah.” She lives in Berlin and sings in English, says Burrell, “but she hails from Warri, Nigeria, so gets categorised as a world music performer and thus finds it that much harder to get on playlists, get gigs, and get attention.”
This seems to be a conversation that Blinky Bill runs into a lot, especially outside of Africa, where feels he most needs to “explain” himself. (Although maybe this is changing?) As this album rappels down into the rest of the world, it will only become more necessary to “explain” his work in terms of Africanness.
Or not. “I feel sometimes when outsiders look to African music, there’s an expectation of a certain sound,” Blinky Bill said in an interview with OneBeat. “I’d like it to be just music.” He cares about “cooking up” interesting music, and apart from that, people can take it as they will.
Everyone wants to know Blinky Bill’s secret sauce. What’s his process? What “inspires” him? Where does he learn? But there’s no recipe. When interrogated on his process, Blinky Bill gives dry-cut answers with the same few wholesome ingredients: hard work, focus, learning from the masters.
He’s not bluffing. In any art form, intuitive talent can go a long way, but “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”—almost all of which Blinky Bill produced himself—demonstrates a grasp of the chemistry and mechanics of sound. Think of how he electrified the gospel number “Mungu Halali” with that groovy, glittering Wurlitzer that slides over the choir. Or how the big brass in “Atenshan” swoon as they crackle on the low notes, dragging a moment behind at the end of a phrase, weighed down by their own wooziness.
Sometimes you can tell when an artist is limited by their lack of control over their own medium. Blinky Bill, especially in this project, has transcended that. He’s mastered the foundations but hasn’t lost his experimental edge.
“What’s inspiring my new
album? Mostly….life. Having that understanding that no one truly has the
answers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because the journey is as
interesting as the destiny.”
– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014
But the whole point of this album—again, if we can call it a storybook for the young creative—is that, when it comes to making good work, there’s no mystique, kids, no winning juice. When you run out of ideas, DJ for some time. Force yourself to keep making, if only for its own sake. “Winner” is a sort of self-hype-talk, one you can imagine giving yourself in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning: affirmations of untouchability, unstoppability, unshrinkability. That it’s okay to doubt yourself and puff out your chest at the same time. Held at another angle, it’s a prayer.
“Let That Go,” featuring the loose-jawed, syrupy verse of Sampa the Great, offers another angle to confidence: a refuge that comes from another way of knowing. This track follows the contrite “Mungu Halali,” and it embodies an underside of faith in God: faith in oneself. I love this one precisely because it’s a woman saying she doesn’t give a fuck.
“I keep the hate up on the dinner
Play it like a lullaby till all the haters simmer
Throw away the throwaways till I discover
To keep the spirit when all my shit come down to winter.”
– Sampa the Great, “Let That Go,” “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”
Blinky Bill picks up these ideas of success and turns them around in his hand. Where does success come from? Why is it so hard to reach? Is it wrought out by hard work? The grace of God? What is it even? What do we tell haters? What do we tell our worst critic, our selves?
And then, just like that, in the last line of the last track, one more question—this one from Asa—lifts us off into a bright blue sky: “Why can’t we be happy?”
A question that, if you sing it, sounds more like an answer.
April Zhu is a writer and artist in Nairobi, Kenya