“I surrender this isn’t love it’s torture”
- Hold me down
Love, or ideas of what love can be, has the ability to bring us to our knees. With our backs against the wall and confronted by the harsh truth that no one is subject to your will – that illusions of control are just that. Love, we are reminded is a battlefield for preservation of the self, in a landscape that continuously asks for compromise, for a little letting go for a little more space – just a little.
My first encounter with the album “Dreams in Stereo” happens in Eric Wainaina’s studio. I have wandered into the space on other business and Eric has just come from recording “Okay,” the opening track on the album. The song takes us to all the places we know and trust Eric to take us. Heavily layered choir like melodies over intricate piano and guitar with the trademark tenor that brought us “nchi ya kitu kidogo” immediately let’s you know one thing – you’re listening to an Eric Wainaina record.
But if love itself has the ability to bring us down to our knees then what does its absence do? At what point in the process of unraveling and bringing back together does one decide enough is enough? And, post this decision, what does it look like to put oneself decision in the absence of the person they had decided was supposed to be with them for the rest of their lives?
I miss my second encounter with the album. Having made it to the album launch I barely make it through Sage Chemutai and Tetu Shani’s great openings before a my body decides that it has had enough of my nonsense. The migraine has me in bed before Eric takes the stage.
Speaking at an interview this is what he had to say about the album,“It is an even more personal and intimate album in many ways, where I felt freer to just be myself. It also explores a wide range of musical genres that are close to my heart.”
“Nilikukosea nini, ukanichukia?”
- Don’t bury me
The tapestry takes us through a variety of sounds, with each song painting a particular place in the landscape that our attention is being drawn to. There is clear evidence of very deliberate thought about where each note is placed, where every sound effect resonates and every echo. Even when he brings other artists in, we see why they are where they are. A personal favourite is how the diverse style of John Nzenze, Kendi Nkonge and Blinky Bill come together on “don’t bury me” creating a bouncy, snappy track that moves at the everyday rhythm of life – in a song that talks about moving on, moving forward without anger or angst, but rather letting go to move forward.
“Can we fly away together, tell no one – don’t leave a number.”
- Fly away together
I spend the week after the concert streaming the album almost every day. Not only because I was supposed to conjure up a few words about it, but because I am drawn to find more in every listen. To find more of the narrative, to move through the nostalgia and hope once again – I tire my kid brother on one such listen – so perhaps the music intended for more errr mature audiences.
Life has a way of not stopping. No matter what happens, life trudges on. And even as we tell ourselves that love is irreplaceable, we find ourselves slipping once more. We find ourselves loving, despite ourselves. We find ourselves caring, despite ourselves. And, no matter how careful we are, we find ourselves asking, once more to love and to be loved.
“Paid my dues, now I’m ready for the loving, ready for loving – no substituting.”
- Long time coming
As I write this essay I am still listening to the album. At 41 minutes long, the piece of work lends itself to a long drive, a long walk or the mindless listen at your work desk as you wait for 5pm. Packed with lyrical and musical content, this is more than the songs you play in the background and ignore – this music demands being listened to, demands being heard – again
“I need you to take me to a brand new day”
Brand new day
“Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen”
Perhaps this is why we turn to art for the answers. When love pushes us to our knees we already know what we are supposed to do. We already know that there is little to be done. Instead we need someone to remind us that, eventually, it gets better. Eventually, we see the world as beautiful again. Eventually we love – again.
“The curio shops near the Sarit Centre in Westlands will be demolished next week.”
- Curio shops in westlands to be demolished, The Star, Feb 1 2016
It was not until May 10th2018 that the curio shops in Westlands were demolished. On the day of the demolition roads were closed and the internet was abuzz with questions on nostalgia, culture and gentrification.
Amidst the continuous labour we see on the streets these days, it is increasingly easier to make peace with the transient nature of things. The feeling of coming up against a familiar landscape and finding it different is now one we are all accustomed to – whether it is taking a wrong turn on a bypass, or driving into a ditch somewhere.
“For more than 40 years, 73-years-old Mzee David Waweru traded at the recently demolished Westlands Curio Market, selling African curios, carvings and Maasai jewellery, like hundreds of other traders who worked there.”
- Westlands curio market was my life, Anyiko Owoko
It takes a certain naiveté to believe in glorified narratives. Your dad is the biggest and strongest – until you see him as another man. Or santa claus is real, until you are the one who has to buy the gifts. Sometimes believing in the dream is a product of distance from it – from what it means to labour towards its actualization. And from the circumstances that make its actualization impossible.
“Growing up in the village back in the 80’s, we often used to hear stories of this place called Nairobi better known then as the ‘city in the sun’. According to the stories the city was this fabulous place which was clean, well organized and everything worked like clock work. The buses were always on time, garbage was always collected, newspapers and even milk was delivered to your door step just like in the movies and most importantly there was no water rationing. You have to understand that back then in the village these things sounded foreign to us and made us long to visit this place called Nairobi.”
- How can we restore lost glory to the city under the sun, Samson Nderi
Eventually, it becomes easy to forget the fragile nature of freedom actualizing circumstances.
“I lost my innocence of a predictable and certain world in 1982 on the first day of August. I was 8 years old. My elder brother returned from a party on the 31st July and had turned on his portable transistor radio to catch the 6 am news. That Sunday morning, the hesitant voice of radio veteran Leonard Mambo Mbotela on VOK’s national service announced that the government of Daniel Arap Moi had been overthrown.”
- Children of a revolution that never was, Oyunga Pala
And, with a little of romanticisation, it is easy to re-member concepts that had been put aside
“To be a millennial is to believe in freedom. To acknowledge that the ideals that make up the society should not erase or ignore certain people whose existence are in/within/revolve around the same society”
- To be a millennial is to believe in freedom, Troy Onyango
“This type of informal market is vital in Kenya, where so many people lack the education needed for skilled jobs. Money spent here helps support the artisans’ families.”
Narratives are sticky. What has been said will remain as what has been said, and what is done can never come undone.
“Life is a lived experience. There is only one way to do that, to live it. To seek. To find, sometimes. To accept Trump as the clarion call to the next phase of American aggression, which might just drive us to the next war we historians will describe as the war of our generation. To accept that each generation has a purpose, and ours isn’t defined by colonialism and independence, as much as it is defined by our need for jobs, better Internet, fewer wars, more inclusion, and a more humanist approach to social problems. By rapid political transitions, a debt bomb, the traumas we inherited, and those we are inflicting on ourselves. Those are our wars, so far, and they are real. If the next generation has different wars, then so be it.”
And freedom is a multifaceted concept. What can look like revolutionary reclamation of a space in one era can serve to its own detriment in another. As the world changes, so we must change with it.
“I came here around 1976 to start my business. I found this Market here. There were traders here already.”
- David Waweru, Westlands curios market was my life
There’s something cyclical about the reclamation of reclaimed space. The city takes back to give what had been taken back because it couldn’t give.
The first time I walked past the curio space after it was demolished, I couldn’t help but feel like something significant had died. Then I remembered it was just another shade of the sunset.
(they better build that road)
What happens to a dream deferred?
- Langston Hughes
Dare to dream
But surely we have one life and we must go after our dreams.
In many ways we grew up on a steady diet of dreams. Or, at least, on the availability. That someday we could dream our way out of (or was it into?) something different. In many ways, the path of the dream, and the dreamer, has been romanticized – as if somehow the path needs to look a certain way. This person had to suffer, but look at them now! They did it and so can you.
Somewhere, implied, is that suffering is the product of dreaming. And to claim that one is “chasing their dreams” is to imply that they are struggling (or they would have caught them – and stopped suffering).
But, the same society that dared you to dream also demands that you live within a script. Which is to say the statement is more “Dare to dream (in the following prescribed way).” And to dream outside those parameters is to set oneself up for various forms of failure – hence suffering.
These ways are normally the ways that are outside set systems that we have created. In a very direct way – the lawyer, doctor, accountant system. The real secret is finding out how to channel your dreaming to fit within professions that have established systems and are protected by the state themselves.
But there’s only so much room in these spaces – and there’s only so many people who will go into any given profession at any time. So what you really end up with is closed spaces and job creation as an election promise that will never go old.
And even if you find ways to channel your dream in the right direction there isn’t any winning. Doctors in hospitals find themselves taking up several consultancies to stay afloat. Lawyers drive suitcases of money across the city.
A friend of mine says that the problem is everyone is trying to do the same thing. And because there is only so much of this thing and everyone wants it, it ends up eating into itself and whatever spaces could be available for other things. Office buildings continue to eat their way into residential areas – gentrification is real. But cities have plans, and planners. And societies have architects, builders and pawns. So the question becomes “why is everyone doing the same thing?”
And it was asked – and the answer came: dream of something different.
Dare to dream. This is the diet.
It was fed to us three times a day, seven days a week.
We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad leadership. We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad policies. Those of us who have managed to entrepreneur ourselves out of it are living in a very false security in Africa.
- Ory Okolloh Mwangi
And then of course that is the problem. As the person who was dreaming you find yourself in the position of keeper of the dream, policy maker, educator, system creator, industrialist and maker of tea. All specialized areas (particularly maker of tea) and areas that get in the way of dreaming. Thus a young filmmaker finds themselves being a young marketer, studio head, advocate for the arts and maker of tea. All these are things that would get into the way of the business of actually making films.
And what happens when these people bring it up? They aren’t dreaming hard enough. Or, did they not know that innovation is difficult? The onus of creating an environment, as opposed to being placed on the architects of society is instead placed on the individual. And they find themselves not only frustrated at factors outside themselves, but constantly running into inadequacy.
The idea of Kenyans as generally corrupt or of Kenyan society as rotten does not gel with the facts and simply serves to obscure the real nature and source of corruption. As Ms Wrong put it, “although the problem is in fact one of elites writ large, Kenyan corruption is traditionally viewed in terms of economic rivalry among the country’s main ethnic groups.” Blaming Kenyans, or Kenyan culture is in reality blaming the victims for their own immiseration, and must be seen for what it truly is: a cover for impunity.
So when the answer to dwarfed dreams is to dream harder – what is really being said? What’s masked in the demand to “dream now and dream big!” to, “stay hungry and stay foolish?” If not to keep one focused on chasing illusions and dance around the central question? As Ory asks, how do we dream ourselves around bad policy?
But perhaps we can make a case for better policy and better structures that acknowledge a diversity of dreams. That things can only be created as they should once the space for them to be created has been made. Because only when these spaces are made can we begin to see proper movement in local industry. Only when structures and policies begin to centre people can we see people begin to centre themselves – and use themselves to cause others to flourish.
Without this demand the call to dream our way out of (into?) another life rings hollow. Like willing a plant to grow and starving it of water and warmth – we will our dreams to yield but starve them of the environment they need. Then, we put on our most puzzled faces ‘why?’ we ask, ‘why won’t they grow?’