I have been enjoying Twaweza Communications’ newly published issue of Jahazi journal, which offers provocative observations about Kenyan arts and economics. Although written mainly by academics, the articles use accessible language, while pointing to the ripe areas for cutting-edge research. The articles are premised on the centrality of popular culture to Kenyan politics and income-generation, a topic that is rarely discussed in African literature.
“There is no doubt that a new and deep-seated paradigm is emerging in the world in which creativity and knowledge are centrally placed in the political, economic and social spheres,” observes the Twaweza chief executive, Prof Kimani Njogu.
“The global digital revolution has opened avenues for the creative sector to express itself through wide ranging platforms,” adds Prof Njogu, an impeccable writer and gentle mentor for budding scholars and artistes.
I got my copy of the journal through my Nairobi networks, but you can download it from the publishers’ website, http://twawezacommunications.org.
I find Anyiko Owoko’s article the best in the journal, probably because she has written about my favourite music group, the inimitable Sauti Sol. My credentials as an agile dancer are well known across the ridges where I grew up, but if you want to witness a man with a whirlwind under his feet today, play a Sauti Sol song in my presence.
A TV producer, writer, blogger and TV host, Anyiko is the publicist for Sauti Sol. She advises young musicians not to wait for fame to come knocking on their door. Instead, they should tirelessly work to be at the top of their game from the very beginning.
“Do not wait to have a number one song or a video on YouTube with a number of hits before you present yourself,” she writes. When they had their first performance, “Sauti Sol had no recording at all, and we held a concert that was full house, and soon had a second concert.”
Like her, I used to hear of “fusion” in Sauti Sol. Now what washes over me when I listen to them play is an assemblage of multiple life forces, never fusing into a singular voice. Yet the whole is inconceivable without a single component of the spectacular layering of sweetness out of this world they bring to their performance.
Dr Maina Mutonya examines the music of Queen Jane, in a moving tribute to the departed musician. He notes Queen Jane’s presentation of class consciousness. “She not only takes the responsibility of being the voice of the women, but also the voice of the voiceless.”
Humphrey Sipalla examines the influence of Kenyan Benga in The Gambia, while Prof Michael Mboya explores the ethnic perceptions in the way we classify Kenyan music. Dr George Gathigi writes beautifully about the role of local-language FM radio broadcasts as catalysts of development.
In a piece dedicated to the late Dr Ezekiel Alembi (“an avid children’s writer, researcher and advocate for true children’s art”), Dr John Mugubi of Kenyatta University alerts us to the need to take children’s theatre seriously, noting that most TV programming in the country targets adults and teenagers, excluding children.
For his part, Dr Fred Mbogo discusses the role of comedy in East Africa and urges against the commercialisation of this form of entertainment. Other contributors in this volume, include Rachael Diang’a, Tee Ngugi, Keith Pearson, Dr David Ndii, Ndanu Mung’ala, Yvonne A. Owuor, and Njuki Githethwa. Topics range from break dance to film.
Because the articles are short, they do not enjoy enough space to critique in detail the works they discuss. There are readers who might feel that the authors, writing from elitist positions, tend to over-correct themselves and end up romaticising popular culture in a way that is condescending.
There is a lot of nonsense that passes itself off as popular culture in Kenya. It especially needs to be criticised for its ethnic and gender chauvinism. Even some of the things my idols, Sauti Sol, sing about are anti-women, anti-democracy, and unnecessarily nationalist.
Contrary to the view promoted in this issue of Jahazi, some popular culture entrenches hierarchies. The other day, children of the rich in Kenya were featured in newspaper articles that declared them celebrities interested in “modelling and design.” To me, those so-called models and designers are just mediocre tailors.
The media that we cheer as expanding the democratic space are actually owned or controlled by the big kahunas. When push comes to shove, they will reveal their true colours. We’re slaves forever.
The moment the scholars in the journal try to moralise, they completely lose the plot. For example, Dr Mugubi says that a children’s text “should be based on the familiar.” Really? I argue with everything I read, and when I meet John next time, I will want to know: John, aren’t children’s books, including Alembi’s, the most anti-realist and fantastical, operating in an ethereal post-human realm? What would you say if you encountered futuristic and science fiction stuff for children?
Inappropriate and repellent
John says that “a play based on snake-gods, cooking of felines, cannibalism and transsexual gender identity will definitely be as inappropriate and repellent to an African child as scatological (toilet) humour.”
But aren’t some of these motifs already present in traditional children’s literature? I’ve just read some beautifully written children’s books on the West African mami wata, including Veronique Tadjo’s Mamy Wata et le Monstre.
John is also wrong in his prescriptions on gender. As kids in rural Kenya (where I was an agile dancer), maybe to safeguard us from suffering positional vertigo, we were warned that going round and round the same spot more than seven times would cause gender change. The idea of gender reassignment is, therefore, not foreign to African cultures.
And, John, isn’t it already proven by scholars such as Marina Warner that most of children’s stories, including the most deceivingly innocent ones (for example, Red Riding Hood), are meant to offer subtle lessons in sexual propriety?
In traditional Kenya, the notion of immutable categories that Dr Mugubi tries to prescribe for the modern artiste is contested. Boundaries among animals, genders, gods, plants, and humans are breached all the time.
Fortunately, the society is less doctrinaire than our dear university dons. Outside the narrow confines of creativity-sapping school drama festivals, what should be emphasised in the assessment of art is the message of the work, whether the language used is appropriate for the audience and occasion, and the involvement of the children in creating their own art — not an adjudicator’s list of areas that writers should leave for only angels to tread.
If the child-artistes are interested in animations of the “Doodie Man” doing his thing, that is their business, as long as they do it in the appropriate spaces and not for adult audiences. They might learn a thing or two about hygiene from their references to faeces.
Although the editors have worked hard to offer a representative issue of the journal, one still wishes more young writers could seize spaces like Jahazi to try out their ideas and styles. It is in magazines similar to Jahazi that our now established writers like Ngugi, Armah, Soyinka, wrote their first pieces.
There is also a tendency in most of the articles to use the West as the ideal model Kenyans should aspire to. Except the pieces by Fred Mbogo, David Ndii, and Terry Hirst, there is a subtext in most of the articles that accepts money-making as an important mission of the artist.
It is because of this mindset that our artistes have become perennial beggars at foreign cultural missions in Nairobi, centres that have no time for good art and are only interested in burning their annual budgetary allocations by promoting local trash that would be laughed out of town in the donors’ home countries.
Other artists have had put themselves at the service of corrupt politicians and corporate capitalism for cash. In the same line of thinking, some artists in this journal are dreaming of making billions out of art as happens in Hollywood. Good luck!