Ethnic scholarship impedes genuine nation formation

Friday March 20 2020

A Nyeri resident enters St Peter’s ACK hall in Nyeri town during Building Bridges Initiative validation hearings on February 26, 2020. The forum brought together the county leadership and the public PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Fairly small nations sometimes beat much larger states in cultural production.

This fact must worry the intelligent observer of popular culture and its role in forging nationhood. Croatia (four million people) dominates football in South-eastern Europe, which culminated in her competing at par against France (66 million people) in the 2018 Fifa World Cup finals.

Kenya (53 million people) remains hopelessly inferior to both Senegal (16 million people) and Mali (20 million people) in both football and music.

Only exceptional cultural analysis would blame this trend on the age of opposition politicians in Africa.


Jamaica is the most remarkable case. It is a tiny Caribbean Island nation of just 2.9 million descendants of African slaves, but whose music and sports continue to dominate the world.


It is not too difficult to see how this happens, unless one chooses not to for some reason, which is often the case every time Kenya’s many cultural analysts arrive to offer ethnic soundtracks of Kenyan popular culture, such as reggae and the BBI, and how both relate to age and political transformation.

It is true that age determines one’s performance in almost all fields. Jamaica’s first black Prime Minister (Alexander Bustamante) entered office at 78. He served for only five years from 1962 to 1967.

Therefore, there was little time for his old age to hurt the laying of the foundation of Jamaica’s national culture. We can compare that with our first president, who entered office at 72 and served for 15 years. Anyone who appreciates the reality of the burden of old age would not have expected much from our founding president. I think this explains why old Jomo forgot to have a ministry of Culture, although it problematises how he remembered that Mr Jackson Angaine had to remain the minister for Lands and Settlement for the entire period of Jomo’s prebendal rule.

Reverse examples abound elsewhere. Joseph Mobutu hijacked power at only 35, Julius Nyerere entered office at 39, Kwame Nkrumah at 48, Tafawa Balewa at 48, and Leopold Senghor at 54. The five presidents’ relative youthfulness compared to Jomo probably played a role in why they left lasting national cultural foundations in Zaire, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal respectively.

President Uhuru Kenyatta would have scored higher for Kenya’s national culture than Mzee Moi did had Uhuru begun attending to the cultural sector when he first took office in 2013 as our youngest president ever.

Moi, who entered office at 54, outdid both Jomo and Mzee Kibaki, who became president at 71. In short, a president’s – not an opposition leader’s – age determines national cultural performance.


Kenya’s cultural analysts believe in the myth that reggae is the only music genre capable of a real revolution. We might swallow this lie until we realise that Tanzania is our neighbour.

Tanzanians were (and still are) too patriotic to have sustained their Socialist revolution using music borrowed from a small Caribbean Island. That sense of national pride is tied to founder President Julius Nyerere – not to Tanzania’s opposition then.

It is part of the reason contemporary Tanzanian music still dominates the Kenyan mediascape.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was anchored on music – but not on reggae. The false sense of racial superiority that most Arabs feel whenever they see a black person could not have let Iranians borrow the music of black Jamaicans.

This insensitive racial arrogance, based largely on the domineering memory of centuries of slave trade, is also often easy to see whenever a black Sub-Saharan African country meets North Africa in the soccer field.

The same mental illness still informs the dark stories that Kenyans narrate about domestic work in the Middle East, as well as modern party politics along our Kenyan Coast.


Reggae, then, has no monopoly over revolutions. Any part of the world can rely on its own music to trigger and sustain a class revolution, provided the music has an advanced call-and-response formula, which is the one thing European and Arab domination could not erase from the African mind.

The weak formula above, in my view – and barring our government’s historical neglect of Kenyan culture – is the curse of benga music in regard to popular subversion.

People who yearn for a revolution want something to repeatedly hold onto when their singer performs. Yet benga, be it in Kambaland (its present home), Kipsigisland, Kikuyuland, or Luoland, consists of only a number of vocalists singing in unison from start to end, without a chance for the audience to respond to their call in the chorus. The poorly developed call-and-response structure is visible even in ohangla music.

Perhaps this is a musical reflection of the ugliness of patriarchal Luo cultural arrogance; men insensitively impose their crotch on everybody else.

Analysts are right that reggae and dreadlocks go together. But they are naked wrong to assume that all dreadlocks represent a revolutionary gesture, specifically in Kenya, where the mere site of such hair crawls with all kinds of socio-political conservatism.

Two religious sects that I am aware of in Luoland borrowed the overrated bush of hair from Dedan Kimathi, but their treatment of female members of their congregation leaves no doubt as to where they stand in relation to gender modernity.


Kenyan popular culture scholarship often confuses between two simple nouns: ‘subversion’, and ‘extremism’. To know the difference, you ought to have asked Mzee Kenyatta about the ethnic extremism that side-lined him and other moderate subversives from KAU in the run-up to Mau Mau.

There used to be a Kikuyu journal that insisted on its writers wearing such hair bush as a sign of subversion – which the journal was very far from. And this does not mean we cannot have community-based popular culture. We can, because most of our FM stations really are.

The Kikuyu journal I just referred to did not espouse any kind of subversion despite the ropes of hair that its writers grew on their heads.

It stood, with generous American funding through the Ford Foundation, for the darkest kind of ethnic extremism that drove a wedge between the Kikuyu and other Kenyan communities, but mainly the Luo, by circulating an exclusivist text that not only dated back to pre-Mau Mau times, but also hacked back to the 1966 Cold War rift between Jomo and Oginga Odinga.

A perceptive eye could have told this by doing an inter-textual reading of The Unbearable Heaviness of Comfort by Rasna Warah, The Somalification of James Karangi by Abdul Adan, The Gentle Man from Iten by Kiprop Kimutai, An Ex-Mas Feast by Uwem Akpan, and Dirt People by Brian Cooper.


These are some of the stories where the journal recycled age-old stereotypes and myths that Kikuyu popular culture, as do most Kenyan communities’, often deploy to entrench the illusion of ethno-political superiority.

Yet all the above writers are not Kikuyu. One is even a Nigerian while another is an American. It must have been the journal’s three dreadlocked editors who insisted on a policy that prioritised such divisive ethnic propaganda.

Another handful of twisted hair that the journal actively promoted belongs to an extremist cult. Ours is not really a ‘sect’ as some scholars claim. The Mouride Sect in Senegal and The Gambia, to which singer Youssou N’Dour belongs, is a harmless brotherhood of Islam known for its role in political peace and the groundnuts trade.

Mouridism does not support ethnic violence, the levying of taxes on dowry, and even female genital mutilation, which Senegal criminalised in 1999.

The presidency is responsible for national cultural development. Its failure to grow Kenyan music does not allow possible termagants to dictate how Kenyans consume music borrowed from Jamaica. A more informed analysis of a 75-year-old man dancing to reggae at a BBI rally would be interested in the reason behind the drama. The old man may be only filling up a cultural vacuum that the Kenyan presidency has sustained since 1963, but which most small nations know how to seal.

Such an analysis would have restated its earlier point that hip-hop and rap are the other music genres which Kenyans ‘successfully’ appropriated in the past. Our analysts spent three fruitful years of their PhD studies confirming that the ‘success’ happened even though the usual Kenyan political class hijacked youth music in 2002. There is nothing different between today’s BBI reggae, and 2002, when 71-year-old Mzee Kibaki used Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s 'Unbwogable' to climb to State House.

Cultural analysts did not blame age then. Tribal scholarship could be the reason.

The writer is a PhD candidate in South Africa