Two weeks ago, at a political rally to popularise the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) in Narok, former prime minister Raila Odinga was invited to the podium to the sound of Bob Marley’s “One Love”. Last week, in Meru, he hoarsely added the Jamaican legend’s “iron like a lion, in Zion” to BBI’s repertoire.
He finished his address with a pronouncement he first made on January 25 at a BBI rally in Mombasa — “Nobody Can Stop Reggae”. It is the title of a 1989 song by South African musician Lucky Dube. As soon as Raila utters it at these rallies, the DJs play the song, and the assembled political class performs its best reggae dance, including 75-year-old Raila.
In February 2015, Oliver Okoth, a Kisumu-based artist, staged an exhibition of paintings under the theme “Nobody Can Stop Reggae” at the Nairobi National Museum.
In February 2019, the lyrics were used to market a concert at Nairobi’s KICC, featuring Jamaican dance-hall legend Richie Spice.
In between these two events, Kenyans on social media turned “Nobody Can Stop Reggae” into an idiom of shifting meaning(s). They have used it to commemorate Dube’s October 18 death; to express their personal ambition; to praise or demand justice from oversight authorities like Nema; and, sometimes, to mock the misplaced zeal of government functionaries, like the Kenya Film Classification Board.
The idiom was given new momentum in August 2018 when Peperuka, the “socially conscious” company that curates Kenyanisms, released an icon and, later, memorabilia like fridge magnets.
As it has journeyed through various platforms, some people have been surprised to learn that the idiom is taken from an old song.
Now that it has become a metaphor for BBI, and reggae is the new site for political competition — Deputy President William Ruto forgets he once danced to it and thunders “we will stop this reggae” — we should map the genre. What are its local histories? Is it a captivating soundtrack for a government-authored revolution?
Reggae’s journey to the heart of Kenyan social and political life starts with Jimmy Cliff and Johnny Nash. In the 1970s, their soft reggae tunes — “Wonderful World”, “Beautiful People” and “I Can See Clearly Now” — were staples on Voice of Kenya’s English Service shows. We heard Cliff’s commitment to the protest ethos of reggae in Vietnam, but on the whole, VoK stuck to “feel good” reggae of the lovers rock variety.
In the early 1980s, reggae lagged far behind Congolese rhumba, aka Lingala, benga and American RnB, which fed nightlife in clubs around the country. In Nairobi, a reggae fan base started gathering at Starlight Club on Sunday afternoons under the tutelage of Andrea Tapper, a German journalist.
At Uhuru Park’s Inn the Park, Peter Giraudo, an American safari operator, started screening reggae videos. Music journalist John Kariuki says that is where Bob Marley’s “Exodus” and “Buffalo Soldier” exploded before making their way to radio.
Marley never performed in Kenya, but on April 17, 1980 he stopped in Nairobi. He was on his way to Harare to perform at the independence celebrations. “Zimbabwe”, his song for that occasion, was on the album “Survival”, which was adorned with flags of all independent African states.
Radio Producer Bill Odidi explains that contrary to abundant rumours and a newspaper article by Tom Mshindi, “there was never any ban on reggae, not in 1982, not in 1986. Topi Lyambila, who was presenting “Reggae Vibrations”, just dropped the show because he was fully engaged in sports commentary.”
In 1983 the British Council sponsored a countrywide tour of Aswad, a UK-based group. A growing number of bands were experimenting with the genre — The Survivors, Them Mushrooms and Professor Namaan. Reggae clubs caught on in Nairobi’s CBD at Brilliant, Hollywood and Monte Carlo on Accra Road. Meanwhile, TV shows like “URTNA” on KBC and “Rastrut” on KTN grew the fan base. The catalogue of visiting acts grew — Alpha Blondy, Ras Kimono, Chaka Demus and Pliers, Morgan Heritage, Gregory Isaacs and Lucky Dube, who performed to great raves at Ngong Racecourse in December 1998.
Reggae’s movement from the edgier parts of town to upmarket spaces better known for elite sports like horse racing was partly made possible by KBC’s August 2005 decision to launch a 24-hour reggae station. Metro FM had the ratings, but as Odidi explains, it could not raise revenue. In 2011, it sold out to Ghetto FM, which has followed in the footsteps of Metro’s Jeff Mwangemi and his “airee” salute in adding Jamaican Patois words like “respect”, and “youtman” to our urban lingo Sheng. Incidentally, in Jamaica, “irie” (pronounced airee) means cool, not high on weed!
Local reggae hits like JahKey Malle’s “Dhluma” (2002) stormed the liberalised airwaves in the millennium. Nazizi of Necessary Noiz is important for bringing women to the forefront of the sound with the hits “Bless Ma Room” and “Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy” (2004). These artistes reminded us that dreadlocks were part of the culture of reggae.
They polished its revolutionary reputation, which had been raised by Dedan Kimathi, Bob Marley and Zimbabwe’s freedom fighters, only to be tarnished by the likes of Bernard Matheri, the (in) famous gangster who was shot by police in 1997.
But what has really renewed this hairstyle as an emblem of protest and dropped the negative connotations of “dread” from the locs, is the rise of the natural hair movement in the 2000s. It protests the western notion that beautiful hair is straight and urges Blacks to take pride in their inborn tangled textures. As locs become respectable, so has reggae.
The emergence of local Christian/gospel reggae acts like Rufftone and Daddy Owen of the “Mbona” fame has also taken some of the sting out of reggae’s reputation for seediness. So has the spread of the dance-hall variety played by Wyre in “She No Wah Love” and “Nakupenda Pia”.
While roots reggae and ragga focus on the old ethos of spreading Black consciousness, defying capitalism and protesting against racial and other oppression, dance-hall is about extravagant partying.
Dance-hall has had huge commercial success worldwide, and here it draws well-heeled youth to concerts featuring Jamaican greats like Konshens and Cronixx. Ironically, gate-crashers, pickpockets and thuggery — those old stereotypes about reggae — have found their way to dance-hall shows while roots reggae has built a community and entrenched an ethos of peaceful assembly.
In September 2019, the High Court in Nairobi ruled that a secondary school could not expel students who wear dreadlocks in keeping with their faith. The case had been filed by John Wambua Mwendwa, aka “Prophet”, and the Rastafarian Society of Kenya. It was a landmark moment for this misunderstood religion.
The tenets of Rastafari are unknown to many reggae lovers, but that has not stopped the faith — just like the music — from being associated with dreadlocks, marijuana-smoking, idleness, rowdiness and allied antisocial practices. But in the face of catchy rhythms, memorable lyrics, and legislators’ calls to legalise medical marijuana, demonising the music will prove as difficult as ostracising the legally recognised Rastafarian faith, whose traditional music, by the way, is Nyabingi not reggae.
Raila’s pronouncements, and his appearance along with President Uhuru Kenyatta at UB40’s “Real Labour of Love” concert at the Carnivore grounds on February 1, crowned reggae’s ascendance to national acclaim. These gestures of inclusion carry more weight than Kalonzo Musyoka’s October 21, 2007 stunt when he posted a newspaper notice mourning the death of Lucky Dube, “a positive icon to the youth”, to boost his presidential bid.
Should we be in a hurry to celebrate reggae as a catalyst in the dissolution of sociocultural differences and politics of exclusion? What happens to radical social change when politicians hijack the people’s idioms of resilience and invincibility and turn them into metaphors for their competitions?
Traditionally, reggae is the music of the oppressed. Our political leaders are not the downtrodden, but there is something apt in the way the monotony of their interminable intra-elite power struggles are now playing to the repetitive rhythms/riddims of reggae. Reggae’s beat is so predictable, it is an everlasting earworm. Our politicians are equally predictable and inescapable.
In hijacking this reggae idiom, they imagine they are echoing popular sentiments that will endear them to the public. But in fact, they are magnifying the impotence of various movements for social justice, mocking people’s inability to stop them — the same old cast of entitled actors — from retaining power.
POWER OF MUSIC
There are worse anthems than “One Love” that we could pick for our looming transition. Bob Marley wrote that famous unity chorus on the eve of the violence-ridden December 1976 general election in Jamaica that pitted Prime Minister Michael Manley against the conservative Edward Seaga. Marley didn’t heal Jamaica then, but he gave it hope.
Away from the predatory behaviour of politicians, we must underline the power of music. It has taken three decades for Lucky Dube to strike an enduring chord with Kenyans. The most mundane line from one of his songs has become the most poetic one for us, generating its own meanings in new spaces.
Art’s capacity to outlive the artist, and affirm life, never fails.
Dr Nyairo is a cultural analyst; [email protected]