This is the second part of a series of essays discussing and explaining the songs that have come to dominate this year’s political season. The first of the series (read here) focused on the opposition’s hits ‘Tibim’ and ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ and the emotional significance of the message they carried for the opposition side. This second essay explores the same, but for their opponents, the Jubilee side. Since writing that article, more has happened than can be summarized here. Suffice to say, the opposition is not in power and Jubilee stands poised to begin a new term in office.
The main reason I had written the essay was to explain the meaning of Onyi Jalamo’s hit song ‘NASA’ (Tibim!) and particularly, its many seemingly nonsensical words and describe what literary meaning they did carry. The obvious reason why it needed explaining was because it was in Dholuo and despite being so popular, most who listened to it (including many Luos) could not discern any meaning from its words. I had listened to the few musical numbers that bore the message and emotion of the Jubilee side and considered them self-explanatory, particularly because they were sung in Swahili. Their meanings were much more literal and open to public understanding and I didn’t think it necessary to explain the obvious. Subsequent events have convinced me otherwise. Music is not a static art. The meaning and significance of songs can change and morph based on context and circumstance, even based on audience, and the results of the presidential election represent a significant shift in the context and circumstance of all the campaign music created in this election season. I shall concentrate on Ben Githae’s ‘Tano Tena’ which like ‘NASA’ was the most prominent of its ilk and explain how its meaning and significance have been affected by the result.
Let us begin with a discussion of its merits and demerits as a piece of music. Music traverses an intellectual and emotional landscape using language as both tool and medium. In the first essay, Githae’s ‘Tano Tena’ is much simple song. There isn’t much to unpack from its lyrics or melodic arrangement, both are literal and truthfully, uninspired. He may as well have read the lyrics straight from a Jubilee manifesto. In fact, therein lies the song’s greatest weakness… the fact that he relays the campaign’s political messaging almost verbatim leaves the song emotionally vapid, a fact that is evident in the faces of the dancers surrounding Ben Githae in the video. They dance and sing with an energy that in many instances is obviously disconnected from the lyrical content. Even Githae’s face doesn’t always seem to reflect belief in what he sings, his dedication to singing it doesn’t waver though.
It is a simplistic song, you might agree with me that it doesn’t warrant much explanation. In the song, Githae seeks directly to convince listeners to vote for the Jubilee party. In fact, its first line states this intention;
‘Kuna sababu nyingi za kupigia kura Jubilee party…
…wakenya twasema, Uhuru-Ruto, tano tena.’
‘Uhuru-Ruto, tano tena’ proceeds to list development projects that Jubilee has been involved in and list them with each being followed by the tano tena refrain. The video features clips from Jubilee activities and the campaign trail including high definition videos of the SGR launch and others of Uhuru Kenyatta trying out the military equipment that was purchased for the security forces just before the election. The latter video clip accompanies a lyric praising Jubilee’s peacekeeping track record- weapons of violence and death alongside a lyric mentioning peace in a video performance by a gospel musician. The incongruity is startling.
The video also attempts to make a small group of people dancing around Githae appear larger than it is. It fails, cramming the group into frame in an unappealing composition and forcing some to peep between the heads of others hoping to appear on screen. It also includes one man whose costume is fashioned after the security forces; a suggestion perhaps that the security forces too are in the camp Githae sings in support of. Indeed in the aftermath of the election result announcement, it is not an unreasonable supposition to make.
Musically, and from the standpoint of literature, it must be stated that ‘Tano Tena’ has few merits. It is no wonder then that Ben Githae was singled out by his primary gospel audience as well as the general public for particular censure for composing and performing it. In one instance, he is invited onto The Churchill Show as a guest for what seems to be the sole purpose of ridiculing him over it. He is well aware of this and takes it gracefully, only seeming flustered when the hosts, in an instance of what might be described as musical bullying, remix his live performance of ‘Tano Tena’ with segments of Onyi Jalamo’s song, specifically the word ‘tibim.’
‘Kuna sababu nyingi za kupigia kura Jubilee party…
From a musical standpoint, The Churchill Show basically endorsed NASA with that action and paid homage to Jalamo’s musically superior composition. That the show did it and got away with it and that the audience found the incident funny says something about the emotional momentum that Jalamo’s song and its message had already built up at the time. Githae might have been left with egg on his face then but as another popular Kenyan musician once asked in a hip hop song, ‘Who is laughing now?’
Then there is the matter of genre. Jalamo’s song is of the ohangla genre and stays true to the genre’s specifications, even in the direction and execution of its two different videos. Githae is a gospel musician but this isn’t a gospel number. It is a secular song, and even worse, it is a secular song that ran the risk of alienating a large section of Githae’s own gospel audience who may not have necessarily carried the same political views. Githae was forced to defend his decision to compose and perform it multiple times and did so by saying that he had a right to a political opinion just like everyone else. This is not a demerit, but it certainly affected the reception of the song. Many accused Githae of putting aside the word of God to make some quick cash from the campaign trail and considering his stature as a musician, one might ask; Was it all worth it? At the last NASA rally, MC Mudomo Baggy hinted at a reason why he was involved. “Baada ya tarehe nane kutakuwa na ofisi ya wasanii pale state house karibu na gate, mimi nitakuwa na ofisi ndogo hapo.” He is a comedian, he might have been joking, but the state of the arts in the country is such that I wouldn’t begrudge Githae for making his bet. I would have warned him however that his audience would not like it.
There are unwritten rules regarding the discussion of political themes using music. Specifically, there is a history of propaganda through music that Kenyans have learned to be wary of and to resist. The kind that was practiced and perfected by the regime of Daniel Arap Moi. This unwritten rule is closely connected to the privacy and exclusivity of local languages and seems to state that songs tackling politics, especially those in praise of regimes or leaders, are only to be trusted if performed in local languages and in traditional genres. The underlying logic relates to both culture and economic class and assumes that music in traditional genres such as ohangla is conspiratorial and private, intended ‘for the house’ and therefore must not be insincere. Any insincerity is considered traitorous and is punishable by something akin to banishment or ostracism by the community who form the primary audience for these forms of art. To see an example of this, just type the words ‘Atommy Sifa exile’ into your web browser’s search window and hit enter. Political music in Swahili and English is perceived by the masses as either propaganda or activism, both thought of as elitist pursuits.
In our political context, Githae’s music is certainly in service of ‘the house’ as the regime whose praises he sings belongs to his community so he is in no danger of any such punishment. However, choosing to do it in Swahili in an attempt to be ‘inclusive’ brought this song uncomfortably close to the ‘Tawala Kenya’ kind of sycophantic PR music that the Moi regime was so famous for and indeed Githae’s fan base has suffered for this. And it isn’t just his language and content that smells of Jubilee PR, his choice of video characters seems tailored to appear ‘inclusive’ with the kinds of amateur dancers who would never appear dancing in any regular music video, even gospel.
This false inclusivity, embodied in Swahili lyrics and an association with gospel music was also evident in the Moi regime’s use of choirs and gospel musicians. I stated in the previous essay that the fact that various cultural performers contributed music to the opposition’s cause was proof that the path to true peace and inclusivity lies not in any national umbrella language but in a greater focus on our local ones. The crowd at Uhuru Park for the opposition’s last rally, mostly Nairobi voters, roared in appreciation when Esther Muthoni Passaris shook herself to the beat and shouted ‘Tibim!’ upon their request. She subsequently trounced Shebesh in their race even though they booted Kidero, a NASA bigwig by all accounts. Passaris is Kikuyu, Kidero is Luo. What the crowd did asking Passaris to dance to Jalamo’s song was not about ethnicity but about class, they requested proof that she was not too elite to enjoy their music and she was humble enough to humour them. I stated in the first essay as well that there is a split between two economic classes, an ‘elite’ class and a group I called ‘the ground’ – or ‘the masses’ to some. It is the elite group that seeks to nationalize identity with language and with religious association, a malady even the opposition elites were guilty of this year. The ground is largely secular, and is welcoming to all languages, ethnicities, and cultures as long as they are willing to try dancing to a new kind of music. To their credit, the opposition succeeded in building a movement to which the masses were ready and willing to invite themselves with their different cultural musics and languages. The Jubilee side failed to inspire the same adoration. If the music of both sides is to be compared, this year, the opposition side embodied the dreams and emotions of the ground/the masses while Jubilee stood for and represented the elite.
In a statement made after the declaration of the contested presidential results, NASA doyen James Orengo cites ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ as having carried a prayer that the electoral body had heartlessly betrayed. Things did not change – in fact the election seemed to mirror the two before it, including the fact of disproportionate violence meted out against the innocent in opposition strongholds and protesters expressing their disappointment with the manner and result of the election. Perhaps it is fitting that the most prominent of the songs that were produced to express support for the side that was pronounced victorious is Ben Githae’s ‘Tano Tena’ – Five more.
For the supporters of Jubilee, Githae’s song might sound like an anthem of triumph. Five more years of perceived advantage. Five more years of their man (or men) at the helm. For supporters of the opposition though, Githae’s song means five more years of the policies and promises that so many of their songs had cited as failures and expressed disappointment with. Five more years of the ills that had publicly bedeviled the country under the first five years, particularly corruption. And if the response of security agencies and government bodies to the protests that followed the elections are anything to go by, including the recent deregistration and harassment of the KNHCR and other human rights organisations, then it also means five more years of blatant human rights abuses and impunity. And as many pundits and political commentators have pointed out, these things are also reminiscent of another political era whose times no one wishes to revisit. To them, a more befitting hook for the song would have been, ‘Moi tena!’
In a photo of Uhuru Kenyatta published a few days after the contentious presidential result announcement, he can be seen together with the musician, both with broad smiles on their faces. Ben Githae’s gamble, its musical quality notwithstanding, has paid off. Jubilee may not have fulfilled the promises it made to artistes in its first term but if that small office for artists is ever built at the white house, it is more likely to be Ben Githae with a desk there and not Mudomo Baggy. Perhaps in his opinion, that was worth losing a section of his gospel music fan-base to secure.
The thing about campaign music is that if your side loses, its songs risk becoming irrelevant. If your side wins on the other hand, their significance remains, even increases. There is always a contest between the musics of the different sides and this year, Tibim and Bindu Bichenjaga might have put up the grandest show but it is ‘Tano Tena’ that wins. It is ‘Tano Tena’ that remains relevant now, whether it is a good song or not. And after the drama of the election results one is tempted to ask, who cares about merit in Kenya anymore?
Alexander Ikawah is a writer and filmmaker living and working in Nairobi. His work has been published in magazines Jalada, Kwani? and Lawino.