Retracing Kenya’s Songs of Protest

Volume 13, Issue 3  | 
Published 05/04/2017
Mwongela Kamencu

Performing and recording artist with an academic background in Kenyan History. 

Duration: 48 minutes 53 seconds

Everybody underestimates the role of the artist and I think that is their strength – Former Chief Justice of Kenya, Dr Willy Mutunga.

When he said the above in Retracing Kenya’s Songs of Protest, Willy Mutunga probably meant that no one looks at an artist twice until one of their protest songs gains traction. Once such a song picks up, it shapes the public’s perception to the disfavour of the powers that be, an unexpected paradigm shift that is almost irreversible. Not all the songs are anthems for a revolution, however, some serve as pinpricks to establishments while others keep the political momentum going before anthems take over.

Retracing Kenya’s Songs of Protest examines protest songs in Kenya from the independence years to 2013. The film, produced by Ketebul Music, is packaged alongside a booklet and a CD with 16 songs of protest released over the past three decades. The booklet provides supplementary information on Kenya’s history, the personal accounts of some of the musicians and the order of the songs which appear on the CD coupled with short explanations of what the songs are about.

The film’s first scene – the visit of former political prisoners to the infamous Nyayo House Torture Chambers – sets the tone for an exploration of Kenya’s dark repressive past.  John Sibi Okumu narrates Kenya’s history while mentioning some of the songs that were produced at the time of independence, and excesses such as assassinations that were blamed on the government of the day. In parts of the film, the protest songs are juxtaposed against ‘patriotic’ songs, perhaps to show the different roles that music can play in a state. Koigi wa Wamwere, one of the interlocutors in the film, demystifies the notion that all artists are progressive. In the film he quips, “There will always be musicians who will be compromised like anybody else … Politicians are not blind to the power of music”.

The songs of artists such as George Ramogi, Omondi Babadogo, Joseph Kamaru, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, Eric Wainaina, Iddi Achieng, Juliani and Kalamashaka are featured in the film. The film not only mentions individual artists, however, but also collectives that used song in their clamour for political change. John Sibi Okumu, for instance, describes how a Christian song - Yote Yawezekana (Everything is possible) - was appropriated and used by pro-democracy activists to demand the release of political prisoners in the early nineties. Yote Yawezekana was also a mobilizing song during the 2002 elections which pitted Mwai Kibaki against Uhuru Kenyatta, the preferred choice of President Daniel Moi who by then had ruled Kenya for about two-and-a-half decades.

Retracing Kenya’s Songs of Protest is fairly successful in describing the evolution of Kenyan music particularly in showing how the newer generation of urban musicians – influenced by western styles of music such as Hip Hop – came up. Given the length of the film its attempt to comprehensively retrace Kenya’s Songs of Protest over the past 50 years might have been overambitious. As a result, the film only mentions certain historical events of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in passing and also does not cast its net wide to bring in other standpoints from other artists who were active during those times. Benga artist D O Misiani, for example, is only mentioned in passing yet his music in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond was critical of the regimes in place. The film also presents a worrying picture of gender imbalance in Kenyan music as the majority of the film’s interlocutors are male and in addition, the majority of the featured songs are crafted by men.  Perhaps this imbalance should not be solely ascribed to the production team but to the Kenyan state – how can gender be well represented in the music of previous generations and of this age? If this were addressed, we would get a richer, more nuanced picture of society as certain realities that are particular to other genders would be exposed through music.

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