The place of Kenyan Identity in Popular Music as National Emblems

Volume 13, Issue 3  | 
Published 04/04/2017
Kanyi Thiong’o

Teaches literature at Egerton University and is currently pursuing a PhD in literature in the University of Nairobi.

It is wrongly assumed that by singing in Kiswahili the songs of the 60s and 70s functioned to unite Kenyans. I want to take a dissenting position to the one which states that Kiswahili, more than English or our ethnic languages, has functioned to unite Kenyans. This position is inspired by the need to call each one of us into greater reflection about situations within which we use Kiswahili on the assumption that it is a uniting language, yet within us, we remain divided along ethnic lines.

Despite providing people of different ethnic backgrounds with a means with which they communicate as they transact their daily businesses; Kenyans retain their ethnic attitudes and stereotypes as they were before independence. The fact that Kiswahili was used as a lingua franca, in music composition it does not necessarily follow that it united Kenyans. What Kiswahili did in this context was to provide the nation with a linguistic hypocritical gown with which Kenyans interacted yet holding firmly to their ethnic stereotypes.

Kiswahili in this context succeeds in concealing the ethnic stereotypes that define the true identity of most Kenyans. This is a weak identity that arguably defines an aspect of the true self of most Kenyans but this identity remains concealed. This can be proven if we look at how we tend to coalesce around our ethnic interests when it comes to matters of national interest such as the national elections. Many Kenyans vote along ethnic lines despite having Kiswahili as a national language. I want to argue that the assumption that Kiswahili unites Kenyans thus far remains a hypothetical position rather than a reality. What Kiswahili does is to provide Kenyans with a linguistic veil with which they conceal their true selves.

In this context therefore, Kiswahili provides us with a situation of a linguistic contradiction because it is seen on the one hand as if it is uniting Kenyans, yet on the other hand it is functioning to sustain their disunity by providing a hypocritical gown with which they hide their true selves from each other. This linguistic practice in turn becomes a form of ‘identity’ of ourselves but which we prefer to ignore. This is an identity which falls within what Derrida terms as an aporia, a Greek term denoting a logical contradiction.

I want to bring out this hypocritical position that exists arguably among many Kenyans so that we may garner the courage to address it to achieve real social and national cohesion. This can as a result improve the transparency with which we claim our Kenyanhood, identity and belonging. It can be achieved if we weed out the ethnic bias which Kiswahili functions to conceal and in so doing adapt Kiswahili as a language of inclusion transcending ethnic barriers; rather than use it to hide the hatred we have for others.

We cannot change our ethnicities, neither can we force the other person to change their race or colour, but we can outstrip racial and ethnic stereotypes regardless of the language we use if we cultivate an appreciating attitude of language, colour and beauty of belonging together. This can be achieved by cultivating a practice of admiring the linguistic apotheosis of the other with a clean slate of sincerity to enjoy the audio poetics in the other person’s language and speech patterns. As Michael Jackson puts it in the song ‘Heal the World’ it starts with the person in the mirror, when we look at ourselves. The creation of a positive attitude towards each other regardless of our skin and linguistic differences can work towards building a more united Kenya whose value system encompasses identity and belonging.

Identity as a concept begs the question of what is in our minds, about ourselves and about others. Kenyanhood, identity and belonging begin with the individual practice of telling members of every race, tribe, or creed positive things which are dear to oneself. This boosts the sense of belonging, sense of inclusion and accommodation in every one hence building a greater identity that would qualify for the term ‘Kenyanhood’.

This has been witnessed in today’s popular music where young Kenyans appreciate music of the local industry regardless of the language in which the artiste is singing. The artiste in this context will accommodate everyone during the performance regardless of their ethnic background. The fans on the other hand will define a sense of ownership of the music and the artiste regardless of his or her race, class, religion or tribe. 

Today we are therefore witnessing a hybridization of the pop culture music forms into Hip hop music genres. In Kenya especially Kenyan Hip hop has metamorphosed into different music genres such as Kapuka, Gipuka, Genge, Benga to mention but four.  It’s important to examine aspects of Kenyan identity which these music genres embody, in order to address ourselves to how they function as pragmatic shifts in our conceived music and cultural identities.

I want to argue that the current music genres function to integrate our identity and sense of belonging beyond the ethnic stereotypes. This is because current music genres define their audiences outside the ethnic background of the artistes. Music genres such as Ohangla and Mugithi (Spelling?) for instance do not attract only members of the Luo and Gikuyu communities respectively; in spite of the language in which the songs are rendered they attract listeners who do not even understand that language. Other music genres such as Genge and Kapuka appear to define Kenyan identity along age and not necessarily ethnic lines. This is because they appear to be favourites of the youth regardless of their cultural background. Popular music in this case appears to define discourses of social cultural integration and homogeneity which if well tapped and harnessed can function to create greater sincerities with which we define our identities, not necessarily by using Kiswahili but by appropriation of all languages as tools for building greater national unity.

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