The death this week of one of the most illustrious contemporary benga musician John Ng’ang’a Mwangi, better known by his stage name John De’Mathew, through a gruesome road accident, is not short of coincidences.
The song that shot him into the limelight in 1987, My Dear Nduku, narrates an accident that claimed the life of Nduku as they headed to Gatanga. De’Mathew met his death near Blue Post Hotel, which is at the junction of Thika-Kenol Highway and the C67, the road that takes you Gatanga.
FRIEND AND FOE
Gatanga Constituency, to Kikuyu benga music, is what New Orleans is to jazz, or what Soweto is to kwaito. He was on his way from the charity event of another Kikuyu music guru, Peter Kigia, who also hails from Gatanga.
De’Mathew was the chairman of Talented Musicians and Composers (TAMKO) sacco, a welfare group.
Since 1987, De’Mathew has produced many love songs, including Njata Yakwa and Pin Number. However, it is his commentary on politics that has set him above the rest. Only Joseph Kamaru could match him in this aspect.
Like his predecessor Kamaru, De’Mathew’s adept use of language in the culture-loaded songs has seen him attract friend and foe. In 2012, De’Mathew and two other musicians were hauled to the courts by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission for hate speech. The song Mwaka wa Hiti (the year of the hyena) was seen as throwing barbs at some political figures in the run-up to the 2013 general elections. The song had references to The Hague cases and was also used as a rallying point for Kikuyu unity. He was acquitted two years later.
In 2005, De’Mathew had released a song castigating political assassinations in Kenya’s history. In his song Niguo Kuri (the way things are), he says that those who assassinated Tom Mboya are the ones who ‘messed up the marriage between the Kikuyu and Luo’.
He did not shy away from commenting on the 2022 politics, applauding the handshake that brought Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta together. However, he reminded the Kikuyu community of the gentleman’s agreement between Uhuru and Ruto in Niturihe Thiiri (we must repay the debt).
Unlike DK wa Maria, his fellow musician from Gatanga who became a councillor, De Mathew was not as lucky. In 2007, he ran for the Gatanga parliamentary seat on a Safina ticket and lost to PNU’s Peter Kenneth. His paltry 389 votes could probably be attributed to Kenneth’s development record that made him the only MP in the history of the constituency to be re-elected. Or maybe the name John Ng’ang’a Mwangi on the ballot paper did not resonate with the voters.
He could have been regarded as a controversial musician, but the adoration of his music by his fans was commensurate with the discomfort he caused the political class. Songs like Ciunguyu Nene (big fish), Thakame Yaitirwo (blood that was shed) and Ruhiu rwa Guka (grandfather’s sword) were not kind to leadership.
He equally berated corruption as the bane of the Kenyan leadership. Most of his songs allude to the suffering of coffee and tea farmers.
His songs had a strong resonance with the plight of the youth in Central Kenya. In Kirira, Nengereria Kane and Njohi cia Ibango, he warns them against the consumption of illicit brews. Whether they responded to his message is another matter.
His songs support for the boy child. In Mwaka wa Hiti, he appropriates the proverb ‘a man seated can see further than a boy on top of a tree’.
Arume Kwina Mbu (an alarm for men) and Nindahoera Arume (praying for men) capture the anxiety of the men in marital relations.
In his many songs, he always referred to himself as a prophet who is never listened to by his people. The community likens him to the late Kamaru, because many of his political prophecies and predictions have come to pass.
In 2017, he produced Ngoro Gitina (from the bottom of my beart), thanking all people who have made his career a success. Notable politicians like Murang’a County woman rep Sabina Chege, who appeared in his earlier videos, and Governor Mwangi wa Iria, are favourably mentioned, as well as media personalities like Njogu wa Njoroge, and musicians Kigia and Timona Mburu.
De’Mathew’s contribution to the music industry for over 30 years has opened spaces, and one could credit him for the expansion of a vibrant entertainment environment along Thika Road, in places like Githurai, Kahawa, and Ruiru where he was a regular performer.
Dr Mutonya is a researcher and has published widely on Kikuyu popular music. [email protected] Twitter: @MainaMutonya