“New position, new position, new position every time I come in…”
There’s something about this song by Ethic Entertainment that encapsulates everything I like about urban nairobi music. The group – Reckless, Swat, Zilla and Seska – rose to fame with lamba lolo, a term that spread almost as fast as their music. Maybe it’s the simple rhythm on the synthetic instruments or the kapuka style drums genre but it’s impossible to listen to this song without at least bopping your head – and maybe even be tempted to ape the odi dance that you saw once in that video that time.
“Hizo miaka zote nimekuwa missing lakini iko kitu hamjaniambia/
Kaa ningebaki bado ungekuwa na taki ya kuskia nikiwaimbia/
Ama by saa hii mngekuwa mnanifanya vile mnafanya ma pioneer (…)
It’s not that serious rap ni hobby/
Bila mziki bado namanga/
Ingekuwa career si ningekuwa nalia kuskia ati Naija Night Nairobi!”
- Nyashinski, now you know
The story of our ability to celebrate that which is not ours has been told so many times that it rings hollow. It is also the story that makes invisible the people behind 3 million views cheza na nare gathered online. Still the story of music is often a story of elsewhere. Experienced and loved elsewhere before home catches up.
“nobody is going to pay you $100,000 in Nigeria to do a show, or even $60k to come and jump on stage for a set. But you can easily get that money by walking into Kenya or walking into Gambia.”
- Mr Eazi, interview
In this quote, for example, Kenya is the elsewhere that Mr Eazi has created for himself while home – Nigeria- still struggles with the concept of paying the man what he believes he should make. These are commons struggles that artists meet as they grow in their career. In the same way our largest artists have worked hard to create and craft with nuances that leave space for international sales between lines. We, in the same way, fit well into the space created by artists from elsewhere – hence why we would pay substantially more for Mr Eazi than for Fena.
“The size of the global market for creative goods has expanded substantially, more than doubling in size from $208 billion in 2002 to $509 billion in 2015, data by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) shows (…) But even with the potential of the creatives industry, Kenya and other developing countries are yet to tap into this lucrative global market.”
We see it in all the statistics – the “global” market is imperative to artisanal success. Which is why when I hear “na tuko tu pacho, kwani boss iko nini?” I am reminded of the choices that we make when we decide to identify ourselves as who we are – and what this means for our perceived value, not just as artists. And I see a choice made to insist on the existence of a “we.” An us who gather around the fires of pacho and calif. Creating a space where we are centered, contexualised and (mis)understood. It is also a belief in our ability to lift ourselves – to satisfy our own ambitions. “I trust that I can make music – and they will pay for it” despite all the insistence on “global” facing work – this music is designed to face one direction only – inwards, unapologetically.
“Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen”
- Happily, Lyn Hejinian
And that we continue to remember that we exist is important. That we center ourselves whoever “we” wholly are is important because that is the fire that keeps us going. So, today, I want to tip my hat to all our musicians who consistently hold up a mirror and remind us that we exist. May you continue to feed our flames. And, by any chance, ikizima…
“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.
In part 1 of this two part series Alexander Ikawah takes us through campaign music and what it says about us, who we are and where we are. Look out for part 2 next week.
Each political season campaign trucks drive around town blaring music as frenzied youth dressed in campaign merchandise dance in, on, and around them. You might imagine that the choice of what music to play is critical. Inevitably, some songs rise to the top of the pile and come to embody the message of one or the other side of the campaign. In the period preceding the 07/08 election, the song that had come to occupy that spot for the opposition was an ohangla hit called ‘Raila Kar Chakne’ by Onyi Papa Jey. It is a magnificent song. Magunga Williams captures it thus:
“His song “Raila-ODM” did not become a favourite simply because Raila Odinga was currently the heartthrob of the nation, most favoured to win the 2007 election and highly likely to become the 4th Commander-in-Chief of the Kenyan forces. No. Well, maybe in a small part this was also a factor. But to give credit where it is due, this was not just a song. This was a soundtrack to the coming to life of a dream that Luos had longed for, for nearly 40 years. A presidency.”
And indeed the song is epic in scope, covering a multitude of Raila’s achievements but particularly the struggle for constitutional reform embodied by the orange movement. It attempts to rally all the coalition’s allies and acknowledge their support. It urges calm in Kisumu(Beduru mos) and features a soccer game in which Jakom scores the winning goal.
This year, the airwaves are ruled by Onyi Jalamo’s ‘Tibim’ a song you have probably heard. I intend to discuss it because it is the most popular, however, there is another song perhaps more deserving of the limelight that I shall discuss too. ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ by Amos Barasa. The former appeared on youtube as a grainy video that quickly became viral. As of now, two versions of the original have a total of about a million views. It is the noisiest tune on the streets at every NASA event, the campaign song by popular demand. The latter is a more musically and lyrically complex traditional song by Amos Barasa that made its debut early this year. The most popular youtube version had a modest 271,206 views by the time I was writing this article but I intend to discuss it as well because it is, by my judgement, the best composed of the lot this year and the closest in scope and emotion to Onyi Papa Jey’s classic.
I also wish to discuss something else, the disconnect between two types of voters and two types of musics that the campaign period reveals. These campaign songs are undeniably crucial to the political process and yet they operate in some lesser media space, occupying the airwaves of local radio stations and emerging to seemingly surprise the national media who then do inadequate and token analysis of their meaning and significance, confident that after the season, they shall be irrelevant once again. A cursory understanding of the music scene suggests that these musicians are largely invisible to the media in the period between elections and then if their song becomes a hit, suddenly become news. And the media often neglects to do its due diligence in covering and discussing their role and impact. It is as though there is a caste system in the music world and the election season presents the only chance for a certain group of musicians to achieve national relevance.
In a news story aired this April, Ouko Okusah declares that this season’s hit song ‘Tibim’ is, “one of the lousiest piece of music ever produced in this millennia.” He proceeds to denounce its lyrics as being empty and reeking of substandard creativity. In particular, he singles out the word ‘tibim’ whose meaning he does not explain. He declares the video pathetic as well. He is only half right about the video, but he is dead wrong about the quality of the song. He looks at the video but he does not see what it shows. He hears the music but its meaning is beyond him, so he assumes there is none. And he marvels at the ‘masses’ dancing to the song all over the country. Ouko Okusa is no stranger to ohangla, I am tempted to wonder what it might be that made him miss the meaning of this song, hiding in plain sight. And in this case, in plain lyrics. He ends his story with no insight into the song, and no reasons given for the insults levelled at another’s art. A professional attacks another professional’s work with no reasons given?
Okusa is not alone. Magunga went on to write this after we spoke,
“…every time Raila has offered himself for an election a theme song has to be composed. I cannot remember who sang what in 2013. It was that obscure. In 2017, Onyi Jalamo just gave us this useless arraignment of verse with no meaning whatsoever; a 7-minute waste of time that merely rides on a catchword, TIBIM, invented by former SONU Chairman, Babu Owino. NASA (the song, not the coalition) is, at best, a pile of fermenting garbage. That NASA (the coalition, this time) even chose it to be a campaign anthem is a tragedy. That jingle is so bad it can cause brain decay.”
I wish to shed some light on the song in question and perhaps in so doing, offer Ouko, Magunga, and any others like them a chance to come to a different conclusion about the song. A small service in literature.
Jalamo is singing about what he perceives as the country finally agreeing to unite behind Raila’s presidency. This is precisely the same thematic content that Onyi Papa Jey had tackled with the more acclaimed ‘Raila Kar Chakne’ from the 2007/8 political season. The mood of the song is celebratory. For those who remember Gor Mahia’s unbeaten streak in 2013. And the hashtag #Giniwasekao (we have already taken this thing), Jalamo’s song is in the same vein. A pre-celebration/encouragement message. It is rooted in the Luo culture of ‘pakruok’ –praise giving- to celebrate and encourage heroes, leaders, teams(e.g. sports), and I am sure in the past, armies. It is a cultural song, in the ohangla genre.
‘Tibim’ is not a nonsense word. It has onomatopoetic meaning. It describes the sound of something being struck. A point hitting home. A final blow. It evokes the emotion of triumph after struggle. A striker might be described as hitting the winning shot ‘Tibim!’ and subsequently scoring. Dholuo has words like that. Words with onomatopoetic meaning and Jalamo uses several in this song. ‘Tialala’ might describe the sound of a veil being torn. ‘Riaaa’ is an exhortation. You may shout ‘Riaaa!’ to your hunting dog to encourage it to catch the game you hunt. The bulk of the song is made up of lyrics that name a politician and request the replies ‘tibim’ and ‘tialala’ from participants.
Raila tibim. Tibim!
Wetangula tibim. Tibim!
Obado tialala. Tialala!
Perhaps Ouko does not know but these words had already found use in the political process well before Onyi Jalamo borrowed them to use in his song. They were already being used in campaigns all across Nyanza in precisely the way that Onyi uses them in his song. I was home in Migori for the party nominations and Obado was ‘tibim’ in the red corner, Ochilo was ‘tialala’ in the other. The people Ouko Okusa observes dancing know precisely what the words mean, however repetitive and mundane they sound to him. Onyi Jalamo’s song is deeply relevant to its ohangla audience and that is a mark in favour of its quality.
We often criticize contemporary music based on perceived moral content. Jalamo does not moralise. He does not pontificate. He does not beg you to vote for NASA. He simply celebrates a victory that he wishes to sing into existence. His lyrics are clean. He points out a few of Raila’s finer points.
‘Amolo Odinga, gik ma itimo dongo. Ikelo Democracy.’
Amolo Odinga you do great things. You have brought democracy.
To those who may accuse him of buttering Jakom’s behind, I ask you, are the lyrics untrue? Does Jakom not count among his contributions the very recent and hard-won struggle for a new constitution? Is that not a great thing? And is Onyi Jalamo not entitled to his interpretation of events?
The women leaders of NASA are celebrated equally. He devotes an entire verse to their praise, some names he mentions repeatedly.
Gladys Wanga. Tibim!
Amilo Gesagesa. Tibim!
Again the song scores. In comparison to most recent local hits, even crossing over to the side of gospel, such recognition and praise of women leaders is without comparison.
The song makes a point to be ethnically inclusive, mentioning leaders from all the different parts of the country that NASA has secured alliances within. All the NASA principals are Tibim. Joho is Tibim. Muthama is Tibim. This too is a point in the song’s favour.
It is not a posh composition by any means. One can discern from the sound that it was not produced on a large budget, but it did not need to be. This limited budget is perhaps what Okusa is noticing with the quality of the video. In fact, I do not fault Onyi for the original video quality. I pointed out that Okusa was half right about that because the cameraperson took really bad shots. Onyi Papa Jey’s classic was not the best shot of videos either. These political hits never are when they first appear. They are spontaneous, reactionary, expressions of a groundswell of emotion. The emotion Okusa fails to observe in the dancing masses shaking to NASA.
It is not a perfect song either. Not all of Tibim’s lyrics are happy and celebratory. There is a line, casually dropped but ominous where Jalamo sings, ‘ma kata kochuno to wadonjo gi balangewa’ – If needs must, we will climb in through the rafters.
It is a veiled threat. If Okusa wants something to fault the song on, this is what I would submit as a fault. At the NASA rally on Saturday, this rhetoric was reiterated by incensed politicians on the podium in front of a mammoth crowd and international media. I disagree with this threatening rhetoric. I wished for Onyi Papa Jey’s classic with its more level-headed ‘Beduru mos’ message but unfortunately, this is not his season. A more mature artist, he was wise enough to warn of violence without threatening it.
In the meantime, Jalamo has realized the potential of his song and there is a new Tibim video out with slightly better production quality and more Swahili lyrics than the original. Jalamo wants more Kenyans listening. I would suggest that Ouko revisit this artist and both versions of this piece of art and do another news feature about it except this time, to treat them with the professional courtesy they deserve. NASA(Tibim!) is probably the most nationally significant piece of music that will be recorded in Kenya this year.
Amos Barasa’s ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ is a humble giant of a song. It is composed with traditional instruments and features Barasa plucking on a litungu as a talented orutu/wandindi offers counterpoint for the lyrics all through and his band backs him up. It is not a big budget production either, but the video is creative and ambitious.
In an interview on K24, he explains the lyrics a little and it is clear that he did not intend it as a NASA hit. Music is alive however and even though it bore a more general message at composition, its meaning has evolved and its key lyric ‘Bindu bichenjanga’ –things change- has found application on the campaign trail and resonated with NASA supporters from Western.
This political season, the Western alliance seemed to present the hardest challenge for Jakom to secure. Seasoned and advanced politicians had to be brought into the fold. It was hard fought but eventually, it was achieved. ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ hints at the feelings among the electorate in Western that might have motivated the region’s heavyweights to lay aside their own ambitions and back Jakom.
At last Saturday’s rally at Uhuru Park, it was the second most popular tune blasting from the campaign trucks and vans after Tibim. In the video, Barasa seems to track the story of the country, pointing out different things that have changed over time and offering them as evidence that change is inevitable. This desire for change, if the song reflects it correctly, is what consolidated the Western region behind Jakom. ‘Bindu Bichenjanga’ is to the people of Western and NASA what Onyi Papa Jey’s song was to Jakom and Nyanza. In Magunga’s words, “…a soundtrack to the coming to life of a dream.” But whose dream?
WHOSE MUSIC, WHOSE DREAM?
Earlier, I had mentioned a disconnect between two types of voters and two types of musics that the campaign period reveals. I like to refer to these groups as ‘the ground’ and ‘the elite.’ It appears to me that these two groups are as distinctly separated as conflicting tribes. It seems to me that these groups have different musical cultures. ‘The ground’ is rooted in cultural musics, languages, and identities that are often missing from the national mediasphere before election time. ‘The elite’ value and seek national and international identification and acceptance and consume music in ‘national’ or foreign languages such as English. NASA leadership, if they had been given a choice, would not have picked Jalamo’s Tibim song or even Bindu Bichenjaga. They had repeatedly chosen Helena Ken’s ‘Mambo Yabadilika’ for official events and rallies. The NASA principals were announced to this song. A song in Swahili, a national language. Ouko Okusah’s critique of Tibim’s quality is an elitist critique. The ground doesn’t care for video quality. They consume the music from the speakers of radios, whatsapp groups, and roadshow trucks. They choose songs that best represent the emotion they feel, and if that song is missing, they sing it.
Suzanna Owiyo composed her own NASA anthem, an attempt to achieve the same feat as Jalamo. She isn’t the only one. In the run-up to the vote, NASA anthems have proliferated online as musicians from all genres toss their hats into the ring. There is a Kamba NASA anthem, a ragga NASA anthem, a ghipuka NASA anthem, a Benga NASA anthem, a Kalenjin NASA anthem, and there will be more. None of them is produced with stellar quality, but all are popular and widely shared online. This art has not been solicited, it is happening on its own. These artists all see a ground ripe with listening fans and are eager to endear themselves by paying homage to the party. They are betting their futures on NASA and Jakom. Nothing like this is happening with music on the Jubilee side. This is significant.
It is also troubling. It hints at the lack of support and opportunities for independent artists in the country, especially those performing in local languages. It highlights the magnitude of the challenge that candidates who offer no cultural or populist affiliation face in the current political paradigm. And it also highlights a failure on the media’s part to adequately and consistently represent all in their coverage and programming. A debate about the place of local languages and cultural music in the national mediasphere is long overdue.
At Uhuru Park, everyone danced to these local language, cultural songs. Despite the differences in language, they seemed to be unifying factors, not divisive ones. Everyone shared the emotions these songs carry, in the hundreds of thousands. The feeling of being part of the same emotion with so many, it is powerful. It is powerful enough to sway votes and to change minds. Nothing is a better barometer of the sentiment on the ‘ground’ than the music that the ground is singing and dancing to. The IPSOS and SYNOVATE polls may have their numbers but in the musical polls, NASA is winning by a landslide. They say politics is fought and won at the grassroots, ‘the ground.’ I believe the musical polls are a far better barometer of the sentiment on the ground than any opinion poll. If you wish to know what the ground thinks of the presidential candidates as they head to the polls this week, just listen. You will hear Tibim! And Bindu bichenjaga.
Alexander Ikawah is a writer and filmmaker living and working in Nairobi. His work has been published in magazines Jalada, Kwani? and Lawino.
Many musicians would rightfully be millionaires if they got paid what they are worth. They should be getting six figure cheques from MCSK every month.
- KAZ 2007
“am[sic] one of the pioneers of youth rap music yet I have not even been paid for close to 3 years now”
- Sokoro, 2010
“Many musicians are not getting their rightful dues out of their intellectual property. MCSK is making so much money from the music but not paying us the way it is supposed to; something that has been going on for a long time.”
- Roba, 2011
“The structures within the music industry in Kenya have failed the musician.”
- Elani, 2015
A quick google search shows a history of musicians demanding for their money from MCSK. If we were to follow their motto “making the world better for those who make living beautiful,” it would appear that the company has been failing for a very long time.
3 questions arise from this situation:
- How has this gone on for so long?
- Why now?
- What does this mean?
How this has gone on always makes its way back to the systemic. After all the MCSK is not the only organization that is meant to be in service to the people with an unfortunate motto. Utumishi kwa wote comes to mind, amidst some others. Even now, as we continue to wonder where this money that should be going to musicians is magically going classic silencing tactics are being used. A town hall already saw Elani being called out for being young and inexperienced (it was, at least, an unpopular opinion). Same town hall showed, if nothing else, there is a gaping hole somewhere that has been there for a while. And it doesn’t look close to being plugged.
And this is not the first time that the MCSK has come under public scrutiny, consider this section from the Business Daily in December 2010:
“The government is set to revoke the license of Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) over its high operational costs compared to the royalties it pays musicians, a move that will deny local artistes millions of shillings in fees.”
Which was followed through by this in July 2011:
“A judge has reinstated Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) mandate to collect royalties on behalf of more than 5,000 local musicians whose earnings were under threat following the revocation society’s licence by the Kenya Copyright Board.“
Both of these paragraphs are the first paragraphs of the articles. What’s put in the lead (term for first paragraph) often dictates what happens in the rest of the piece. It’s interesting to see how both writers here are sympathetic to the MCSK. It is positioned as an organization that is going against so much to ensure that artists get their money. This organization happened to be caught up by high operational costs and a few missing millions. How unfortunate.
It is the unfortunateness of this that continues to keep institutions and people around when they have ignored what they should be doing. This pointing out of the unfortunate thus becomes the problem. It is no one’s fault, and in being no one’s fault, we don’t need to talk about it. Ahmed reminds me that when we talk about something we come up against we come up against the thing we talk about.
And continue to talk about.
Which brings me to why now. It’s important to think about why Elani got heard. At least to the extent that they are heard. Neo Musangi proves useful to this end:
“To call oneself a babi in Kenya is to declare one untouchable. To ask, “Mta’do?” without the arrogance of Kenya’s political class. Without the violence of a country at war with its own. It is to say, “I am telling you this, and I am aware of the risk I take with an articulation of this kind but I am not afraid. Because I have no reason to be afraid”. It is to say, in many ways that even within one’s vulnerability (because there’s an ever-present vulnerability embodied in queerness) one’s body is not available to the violence it attracts if unbabied. Also, it is to say, “You might not like what I am telling you about me right now but you are going to have to listen to me because babiness is listened to in this country”
There is nothing special about this moment in time. Not more that there was when the other artists were speaking. It then proves to be a matter of class that was at play here. Babiness is listened to in this country. This is not said in an attempt to devalue or discredit what is being said. It is to re-ask what has been asked, how many musicians have had their money just disappear? The ones who, as one lady pointed out, weren’t even adequately represented in the town hall?
And let’s not forget what disappeared money means
Disappeared money in this case is another meal, another item of clothing, school fees. Think about what it would feel like if your boss decided to just pay you 20% of your salary this month. For no reason other than no one could be bothered to check.
This is what it means.
Having more money in the pool for musicians opens up the industry in so many ways. They continue to re-invest in their music. This means sound producers, instrumentalists, videographers, songwriters, actors, crew and many others get paid. More money floating around in the music economy means more music, more competition. The quality of the work will go up.
These is what it means.
This is even before we begin to talk about the value of music for the healing it brings. For the information it spreads.
For just being music.
Still, I remain wary. This is not the first time the MCSK has been under the lens. Even as I write this, I wonder if it will be the last. How do we make this happen? We participate. We listen. We send letters. We talk about this. The weekly cycle of rage continues to turn. Every day we’re given something new to hold and consider. With each new round of fuckery we drop the last one. This purposeful act of forgettingness keeps us from holding anyone to account on anything. How about this one? How about we refuse to let go this time?
“The burden of identity is upon the identified”
– Chuma Nwokolo
“I say ‘I am a God’ and you go around saying ‘who the hell does that guy think he is?’ I just told you – I am a god”
– Kanye West
“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
― Audre Lorde
People have histories.
Histories create our uniqueness. No single person’s history is linear. It’s a blend. It’s a thing from here, a dinner there, an argument there – this forms us. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the beginning. Where do things/people start? A more interesting variation of this question is: how far forward can our histories take us?
Sara Ahmed writes:
“Words are hard. There is no doubt; words are hard. We know the troubling history of race. We know how race came into being as way of making a hierarchy out of being.
The words are reminders of this history. Some of us don’t need reminders. The words can be directed. They are directed.”
These things weave, mix, create, grow and trade to end up being what we know as Kenya. In conversation with a friend, he reminds me to be realistic with my claims – all this can’t just change overnight. I’m bothered by the constant claims to be realistic.
I wonder who “reality” protects.
Again I ask: Who is allowed to be?
When Moi turned 90 in September, his history was sanitized. I’m worried for the children who will grow up reading about our “benevolent” statesman. I’m worried for myself, for the lies I’ve been fed. I’m worried for the writer who will argue 50 years from now and be told to be realistic. Moi’s time wasn’t that bad. Kenya is ‘not as bad as…’
I’m worried about what pieces of history we are using to define ourselves.
What does it mean to have a whispering state?
One begins to imagine how Wahome Mutahi ended up calling his column “Whispers” – and what this says about Kenya. This is another documented part of Moi’s Kenya. The whispering state. Where gossip ruled the land. And even that was controlled. Where an identity was constantly being constructed.
Identity is impossible
– Nduta Gathoni
In “Not Yet Kenyan” Aleya Kassam writes:
“I have always wondered what happened to make my grandmother so frightened. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about the inherent fear so many women in my grandmother’s generation feel towards black men. This prejudice they then pass on to their daughters, and the daughters after that. It is ok to be friends with black women, but not ok to be friends with black men. Because you never know. The demonization of all black men. The fear of which, the basis we ourselves don’t understand, but we so often blindly adopt.”
Identity is impossible…. to shake off?
Diary of a mad Kenyan woman writes
“You are not really, real, actual human beings. You are maybe-terrorists.
You are the threat. We shall throw you off your own balcony. You are the threat.
Who do we erase? How many times do we erase them?
“an eight-year old is an eight-year old is an eight-year old
Wagalla is Waziristan is Westgate
a pregnant woman is a pregnant woman is a pregnant woman
Garissa is Kismayo is Nairobi”
“I wanna live, I wanna live, I wanna live.”
Those words stay with me. The song War in my Heart is a powerful social commentary. It reiterates thoughts of black disposability that have long been heard by black artists across the globe. To want to live, we must already be unliving. We must have already been removed from the narrative of liveable lives. We must have been removed from the identity, removed from our history.
If two non persons have children, are they non children? If we do not write ourselves into history will we ever be? Or will we always be the legislated against, the displaced, the disappeared, the disposables?
‘If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.’
– Zora Neale Hurston
Silencing is an important part of perpetuating the current power structures. When a woman says “Men oppress!” it is important to remind her of “not all men.” When homes are destroyed in Kibera, it is important to remind everyone of how “these people were warned.” When a poet is harassed,it is important that the internet puts her on trial.
But you can’t silence art, can you? Art has a persistence. Slips of poetry will be passed under desks. People will gather in basements to listen to spoken word or music. Blogs will be opened; Instagram pages and Twitter feeds. We know because we read Mwakenya. We know because we listened to Ochieng Kabaselle.
‘later that night i held an atlas in my lap ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered where does it hurt? it answered. everywhere. everywhere.’
– Warsan Shire
I’ve been tired. It can be tiring.
Recognising the pain of the earth means realising this pain.
Creating art that challenges means facing challenges created by that art.
And it is tiring.
And we get tired.
But we won’t stop.
We can’t stop.
We want our histories back. Like Dela, we want to live.