Literary Meaning In Joseph Kamaru's Songs

Volume 15, Issue 3  | 
Published 05/02/2019

By Kanyi Thiong’o

Different scholars of Literature have in the past researched on the literary meanings in Kenya’s popular songs where some of these works have been published in local dailies, in international Academic Journals and some have even  been submitted for the award of Masters and PhD in Literature in different local and international Universities. Some of these scholars include, Kariuki Gakuo, Pauline Mahugu, Maina wa Mutonya, Joyce Nyairo, Kariuki Kiura, David Rotich, Kangangi Wanja, Earnest Monte and Kanyi Thiongo, to mention a few. These studies can be treated as confirmation that literary criticism of the literature that is encompassed in songs as critical reflections of society has defined its space in the media and in the academia.

This article revisits literary meanings conveyed in Joseph Kamaru’s songs to reread history, education and entertainment that is permeated in his songs as discourses of literature. Like all committed artistes Joseph Kamaru has a music career that dates back to the precolonial era; the political climate of the dictatorship of the first and the second regimes from the 70’s to the era of multiparty democracy; political songs; love songs and religious songs to mention a few of the thematic areas that have defined his music. Joseph Kamaru does not sing for singing sake. Each of Joseph Kamaru’s songs educates, entertains and informs. These are the three main pillars which every credible work of Literature must achieve.

Joseph Kamaru has a music career that dates back to the 60’s. As Craig Harris observes in Joseph Kamaru Artistic biography, Kamaru has been influencing the music scene since 1967. Influence in this case can be taken to mean, how most musicians in Kenya compose and write their songs. This can be cited not only in the melodic structure (tune), which marks most of the song. Kamaru’s songs have been studied at master’s level and PhD level. This is evidenced in Kariuki Gakuo’s Masters thesis A Study of Alienation in Joseph Kamaru’s songs and Ernest Monte PhD on the Songs of the Mau Mau (Stellenbosch University) to mention but two.

Joseph Kamaru passed away on 1 October 2018 in Nairobi

The educative value in Joseph Kamaru’s songs has in the past attracted several levels of attention from various schools of thoughts and disciplines. Literature, music, history, anthropology, sociology, and even political science scholars have all identified various shades of meanings in Joseph Kamaru’s songs. The poetic richness one finds in Kamaru’s songs, the artistic creativity he employs to de-familiarise meaning, serves to document Kenya’s history by archiving the experiences that have defined Kenya’s memories from the days of the Mau Mau armed struggle to liberate Kenya from colonial hegemony; to political atrocities that Kenya faced during the turbulent times of Jomo Kenyatta’s dictatorship; the ups and downs that Kenya faced under former president Moi; and to political and religious practices that define our Nation today.

When Joseph Kamaru released a song on the death of Kariuki J M it almost put him in direct conflict with the government of the day. Kamaru through the melodic structure that defines his music, the heartrending lyrics from a literary perspective has succeeded in documenting not just our history but literary and artistic practices that define Kenya’s musical aesthetics as philosophical practices. This will be of essence to the current generation as well as to future generations which will want to peer into the development of Kenya’s literary, musical, and political ideologies.

Kamaru can therefore be thought of as a committed artist as well as a detailed historicist who has used music to see the past and the effect it has had on the present and to prophesy the future. In this context Kamaru has not only reported on what is happening around him but in addition offers sharp criticism on sensitive issues that affect our society. In this view Kamaru qualifies as a New Historicism critic. As Malpas observes historicist criticism of literature and culture explores how the meaning of a text, idea or artefact is produced by way of its relation to the wider historical context in which it is created or experienced. In this context Kamaru not only looks at the society as a social mirror but in addition as a text from which he draws his themes to infuse his songs with new genius in terms of artistic creativity.

The Marxist ideologies in Kamaru’s political songs put him at loggerheads with different governments of the day during the Jomo Kenyatta and Moi eras. At, one point, he almost found himself behind bars when he was asked to explain the content in songs such as Cunga marima. In this song the persona issues a serious warning to an unmentioned person. The persona tells the person to take care of the way he is treading, there are holes he’s likely to fall into on the road he is traversing. This song has double meanings but clever Kamaru got away with it because he stuck to the connotative meaning. As a similar war-related publication of A Man of The People and the coincidence of the break of the Biafran war almost put Chinua Achebe at crossroads with the Nigerian government; Kamaru’s songs have at some points in his singing career had him face the wrath of political despotism. This political commitment to criticize bad governance is witnessed in most of the songs which Kamaru sang in the 60’s and 70s when political assassinations of prominent figures like Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya and J M Kariuki, took place in broad day light. In a song such as Thia ithuuire mumianirii, an antelope hates the person who exposes it, Kamaru appropriates the metaphor of an antelope to warn those criticising the government to expedite their mission intelligently; failure to which 'the same hyena that ate J M Kariuki happens to eat them as well’.

We can therefore observe that while Ngugi wa Thiongo criticized the same political ills in works such as Petals of Blood, and Oginga Odinga in Not Yet Uhuru, Kamaru used song as a literary genre to pass the same messages to the Kenyan society. Kamaru's rich application of irony and satire can therefore qualify him as a master of Literature who has refined his art to bite hard without hurting. This can therefore qualify him as a conscious bard who rises to the occasion to save his society from political calamity.

The same way good literature foretells what is likely to come even before it has been experienced, Joseph Kamaru’s political songs of the 70’s and 80’s resonated with the political climate of the day and he foretold the coming of democracy in his songs long before the multiparty era. Kamaru foretold the breakup of former president Moi and his then vice president Kibaki the former vice president even before it happened. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o once observed that a writer responds with his total personality to a social environment which changes all the time. Being a sensitive needle the writer registers with varying degrees of accuracy and success, the conflicts and tensions in his/her changing society, Kamaru has used the music scene and the power of the microphone to shape new ways of thinking, and to forge freedom of thought and expression the same way Ngugi wa Thiong’o among other writers like Achebe and Wole Soyinka have done using the barrel of the pen. Other artists such as D O Misiani, John De Mathew and Muigai wa Njoroge have done the same following Kamaru’s footsteps - their commitment to producing music that addresses social evils has not spared them the wrath of the law as well.

The political consciousness that marks songs of Joseph Kamaru has caught the attention of many because of the artistic manner in which he employs metaphor, and tonal nuances to criticize social evil. As Kimani Njogu observes in Songs and Politics in Eastern Africa, the post-colonial government sponsored choirs which composed music to perpetuate hegemonic normalcy and maintain the socio-political status quo. Joseph Kamaru and D O Misiani, however questioned this interpretation of patriotism, instead they aligned themselves with the needs of ordinary people. This did not auger well with Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi during their respective tenure as presidents. At one time Joseph Kamaru’s songs were banned from being played in public places. This is because in all his political songs Kamaru employs socio-political tonal structures that criticize leadership inefficacies that define practices of power of the previous regimes. This in effect, generates emancipative nuances that forge a course for political consciousness on the part of the masses.

In addition to making political statements in his songs, Kamaru can be said to be a social commentator. This is because he has also sung on various social themes such as love, marriage and hard work to mention a few. In songs such as Ndari ya Mwarimu Kamaru critiques how those in higher positions use their power to exploit the weak in society. Using the imagery of a teacher who gives a pass mark to a female student whom he has been exploiting sexually; Kamaru frowns upon social immorality in places of work and in society in general. The persona in this instance asks the girl, ndari ya mwarimu (teacher’s girlfriend) every time you are number one … what will you do when the main exam comes? While in class I’ll call you teacher but once we get to your house I’ll call you sweetheart … this invocation of an irony is intended to ridicule both the teacher and the girl for their indulgence in immoral acts. The song in this case ceases from being just a mere tool for entertainment; instead the song becomes a social tool for moral stock taking.

The song in this context transcends beyond its perception as a music or literary genre and in addition it qualifies as a philosophical practice with which people re-examine how they constitute their being. This is a philosophical position which Michel Foucault has examined in Ethics Subjectivity and Truth ‘The Ethics of the Concern for the Self as a Practice of Freedom’.

In his songs Kamaru, guides and counsel both the young and the old. In the song, andu a madaraka, for instance, he warns the young energetic men who acquire jobs in the city from falling victims of women in the city who smile at these young men and finally use sex as a bait to exploit the young men. Kamaru puts it clearly in black and white, ‘if you happen to see a smile, just remember, she's smiling at your money not you as a person’.


The oral nuances that Kamaru employs as a singing technique transcends the message beyond mere statement. This is because his appropriation of oral speech techniques creates a sense of immediacy with which the listener is cajoled to treat the message. As a feature of moral transcendence we can thus observe that Joseph Kamaru’s songs, as all great works of literature do, serve to improve the society by criticizing social rottenness on the one hand and praising the good. This is evidenced in his songs in praise of Mau Mau heroes such as Dedan Kimathi.

The consciencetizing discourse that marks Joseph Kamaru’s songs therefore, deserves further inquiry because it resonates with the changing times. As Joyce Nyairo once observed institutional memory is, in fact, the cornerstone of real development. Thematic Concerns in songs of Joseph Kamaru, draw cognisance to this fact. This is because Kamaru bases his songs on different issues that affect social stability and cohesion, which if ignored can plunge the country into anarchy.

Upon close examination, Kamaru’s ideological perspective as evidenced in the aesthetic practices that define his songs draws from a Marxist political standpoint, an anthropological reading of Kenyan society and mytho-criticism practices of constituting meaning that is hybridized with Christian values. It can therefore be concluded that Joseph Kamaru’s songs as literary discourses capture the listener’s mind by invoking artistic ways in which he invites the listener to interpret the world of reality.

Last modified on Tuesday, 05 February 2019 03:50

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.