Microphone soldiers have sown the seeds of social change and political transformation in different corners of the African continent. This was done by the collective Y’en A Marre (Enough Now) within the Senegalese hip hop scene, which helped put an end to Abdoulaye Wade’s presidency in 2012.
Also the Sankarist musicians of Le Balai Citoyen (the citizen’s broom), which in 2014 helped overthrow the Campaoré regime after 27 years in power; or the group of around 40 Malian musicians led by Fatoumata Diawara who united against the imposition of Sharia in northern Mali in 2013.
There are many examples of how music can function as a tool for popular struggles on the continent.
Two recent events have shaken the foundations of Southern Africa and East Africa. First, the Al Shabab attacks in Kenya, whether the 2013 attacks on the Westgate shopping mall or the recent massacre at the University of Garissa. Secondly, the current wave of xenophobia is spreading to major cities in South Africa.
With a powerful history of protest music in the rainbow nation, it has not been long before the country’s musicians have come together to raise their voices and send messages of unity to condemn these acts. However, a strong response from the Kenyan music community is still awaited.
On April 14, the collective of artists and activists from Nairobi Pawa 254 organized the Garissa Memorial Concert in downtown Uhuru Park. A large number of Kenyan musicians such as Sarabi Band, Juliani or Eric Wainaina participated.
But despite this, there is a wide range of views and opinions, mostly critical, on the mobilization of the Kenyan music scene to address the issue of terrorism and all the social and economic consequences it has for the country and its citizens.
Kenyan hip hop artist Abbas Kubaff, who was unable to attend the concert because he was touring outside the country, welcomed the organisation of the event. “Concerts like this are important because there is no other group in Kenya capable of reaching such a number of people – beyond age groups or tribal borders – as musicians.
Collective dueling in the face of tragedies like Garissa’s can prevent further divisions within the country’s different ethnic communities. When terrorist attacks occur in Kenya, there is often a wave of anti-Muslim and anti-Somali sentiment throughout the country.
That is where musicians need to be able to remind Kenyans that while terrorism is abhorrent, it is not the Muslim or Somali community as a whole that is responsible for these evil acts. Distrust of politicians must not undermine national unity. That’s why I’m convinced that music has to play its role as a unifying force,” Abbas says.
Another heavyweight of the country’s music community, Abdi Rashid, seems to hold a similar opinion to the rapper and praises the sensitivity of the artists who participated in the event. “There is a great awareness on the part of Kenyan artists that an attack on the civilian population by armed actors is a crime that cannot be repeated.
Most of the musicians who participated in the concert organized by Pawa are shocked by the events and not only expressed their horror and sadness at what has happened to our Kenyan colleagues at the commemorative concert, but also at other venues. There’s a lot of involvement,” admits one of Nairobi’s most important concert promoters.
Despite recognizing the unifying force of events such as this memorial to the victims of Al Shabab’s terrorist attacks, the most critical do not hesitate to express their opinion. “I have worked before with some of the musicians who gathered in Uhuru Park to pay tribute to the students who were killed in Garissa.
As much as I agree that the families of the victims deserve all our emotional support, I don’t believe in using the misfortune of others to win hearings. Musicians should be writing songs that address the cause of these problems and should, as elsewhere, offer solutions to the conflicts our country is experiencing,” says Tabu Osusa, a veteran producer and founding executive director of Kenyan record company Ketebul Music, referring to an event that seems to have more propaganda than the true ability to empower Kenyans through music.
However, Abdi, curator of the Garissa Memorial Concert, founder of Roots International and live music programmer at Cairo’s Choices Pub, believes it’s not fair to compare other musical scenes on the continent with the musical universe of Kenya.
“Dakar has its own context, and what motivates people and musicians there derives from that particular context. We are no one to judge the musicians of each region, nor to compare or equate Africa as if it were a single whole. The reality on the ground is that the separation between peoples, countries and regions is very real and palpable. The horrible attacks in South Africa are proof of this,” he admits.
“When young people and artists in Burkina Faso were able to rebel and take Blaise Campaore out of power, I was hopeful that this example would spread to other regions of Africa, but the facts so far show that my hopes were naïve at best.
We still have a different context. And it is in this context that we will continue to work as we try to borrow lessons and draw inspiration from what others have done and continue to do throughout the continent,” this veteran of the Nairobi scene humbly resigns himself.
But when it comes to comparing the political consciousness of other African musicians with the reality of Kenyan musicians, Abdi is not the only pessimist. Kenyan musician Makadem, traditionally a highly politicized voice, thinks that expecting something from Kenyan musicians in this sense is a sterile effort.
“Mali cannot be compared to Kenya musically, it is like economically comparing the USA with Bangladesh. Mali has been far ahead in terms of cultural structures for decades. Kenyan musicians are still struggling to decide on the issues we want to sing about or who we address when we sing,” says the artist.
Nevertheless, the collective of musicians, producers and programmers seems to agree that Kenyan music has a long history of protest. In Retracing Kenya’s Songs of Protest, Ketebul Music collected, in two albums, songs that trace the country’s history through its protest music during the 50 years between independence and 2013.
“There are many musicians in Kenya who sing against corruption, terrorism and violence,” acknowledges Abbas. “I think one of the strongest responses Kenyan artists have had was to the post-election violence that took over the country in 2007.
In response to the violence the group Pamoja Amani Upendo (PAU) was created, which translates as Union Peace Love, is a community organization that uses music and dance to promote peace and unity within Kenya, and organize concerts and shows regularly to spread this message to the people,” recalls the proud rapper of the social mobilization that took place to curb the wave of violence in the country.
According to all of them, it must be understood that as in any other part of the world, depending on the socio-economic environment from which each artist emerges, their demands are oriented in one direction or the other. “Many hip hop artists in Kenya come from depressed areas, where corruption and bad governance have been most affected after structural adjustment plans, holding back development.
For this reason I believe that many hip hop artists feel more responsibility in trying to use music to ensure a better future for future generations. I think some of the more conventional artists, perhaps from more privileged areas, are afraid to talk like hip hop about corruption or government, for fear of reprisals, or that their careers will start to be curtailed by people with influence in power.
In general, hip-hop singers like me are not afraid to talk, and we prefer to suffer the consequences of our actions because we have good reasons for it,” acknowledges Abbas, a young national hip-hop star.
Similarly, Makadem believes that in the Kenyan music scene people are not talking clearly enough about corruption or violence and therefore do not dare to pronounce on how the Kenyan Government manages the Al Shabaab threat. “Kenyans hate musicians like me. Many of them think that the musician’s role should be to entertain people, not to educate or impact public opinion on political issues.
I am a clear victim of this hypocrisy. I rarely get concerts because of what are considered inappropriate ways of thinking. In my opinion, Kenyans are cowards. Instead of organizing a protest against Al Shabab and Uhuru Kenyatta’s handling of the issue, a Garissa Memorial Concert was organized as if it were a great musical spectacle where the artists went to do nothing more than show themselves and reach more audiences. I got the hang of it and, of course, I wasn’t invited,” says the controversial Makadem.
Similarly, Tabu Osusa, whose label Ketebul Music released Makadem’s second album (Ohanglaman) in 2012, says without hesitation: “Unfortunately, most Kenyan musicians do not think about creating content of regional interest but most of their songs are about love, the typical teenage stories of boys who love girls and not about socio-economic or political issues.
Apart from musicians like Eric Wainaina, Makadem, Juliani, Sarabi and some others, there are hardly any musicians able to make their consciences shine in Kenya. There are very few voices comparable, if you will, to the Nigerian Fela Kuti or the Congolese Franklin Boukaka, who were able to question and destabilize governments on issues such as insecurity, corruption, tribalism or good governance in general.
In Kenya there is a lack of a united voice, a strong movement against Al Shabab,” says Osusa launching a flare to help the community of Kenyan musicians.