In my traditional Lubukusu idiomatic parlance, we have a popular saying that loosely translates to, “He who walks with a king is better than a digger”.
Like many wise anecdotes, this saying alludes to the idea that those who keep the company of royalty are likely to reap from the trappings of such positions by design or default.
A deeper reading of this oral axiom reveals its allusion to the general African cultural contempt associated with handy farm work, and is also a clever statement pointing to the role of musicians, artistes, orators, and poets in the realm of political leadership.
Last Saturday, Kenyan musician and award-winning gospel sensation, Kevin Bahati, was literally gifted with a rare moment of fame and a ‘walk with royalty’ when he did a headline performance at President Uhuru Kenyatta’s much-hyped Jubilee Alliance Party launch.
His energetic, ebullient and certainly boundary-breaking stage act at the Kasarani Stadium, Nairobi, is now the subject of public discourse.
There are those who argue that the young man, who has never hidden the fact that he grew up from a poor background, overreached himself, was ‘disrespectful’ and crossed lines of protocol.
Other people, most of them the youth, have congratulated Bahati for his dare-devil feat of subverting the political power matrix and for ‘normalising’ the presidency. The youth have said this on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook .
The disjuncture between the two sides provides a rare chance for creative scholars and society to interrogate the role of music in political campaigns and voter mobilisation.
From the Greek classical times of Cicero to the royal African courts of Kings like Shaka of the Zulu, Sundiata of the Mali, and the Kabakas of Uganda, history is replete with narratives of leaders who depended on musicians and creatives to legitimise or validate their authority.
The late Zairean leader Mobutu Sese Seko effectively used musical legend Franco Makiadi to rejuvenate his one-time plummeting popularity.
Kenyans literally sang through Daniel Toroitich arap Moi’s 24-year reign, and Mwai Kibaki owes it to Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s song, Unbwogable, for winning the 2002 elections.
Across the seas in America, Hilary Clinton has been mobilising the women’s’ vote using musicians like Kate Perry, while Donald Trump has carved himself into a Benito Mussolini-like fascist leader by playing rock music at his political rallies.
In many ways, there is incontrovertible evidence that music can, indeed, pull and sway crowds and even win votes.
The election of President Barack Obama has proven that a combination of music and social media is the best recipe for mobilising the youth vote. Because of increased voter apathy among youths, politicians have taken to musicians and social media platforms to help them appeal to and engage with millennial or the xaxa YouTube generation as opposed to mbuyu old analogue generation. President Kenyatta and his Jubilee team clearly know that youths form the largest section of voters and little wonder they had to invite a celebrity youthful Bahati to perform at their launch. The President himself has always fashioned the demeanour of a xaxa leader and social media enthusiast. And this was clearly evident at the launch.
Sporting what the urban youth would call a hip casual look in faded light blue jeans, T-shirt and a college jacket with stripped collars, the President certainly looked at ease in youthful company of performer Bahati who donned a trendy all-white outfit.
In the heat of the occasion when Bahati summoned the bravado to invite the President to join him on stage in youthful dance moves as he took over the ‘royal seat’ to effusively serenade the First lady with love-like ballads, the ‘lucky’ singer was in charge of his performance. In that short moment, ‘the artist became the ruler’ as the late Okot P’Bitek would put it, and even the President and his deputy were reduced to ‘ordinary citizens’ eating from his palms. By “unseating” the President and his deputy in dramatic fashion reminiscent of a well-choreographed stage act, Bahati playfully deconstructed and subverted political power as we know it.
Meanwhile, the President, who was taking no offence, was enjoying every second of the whole act and was relishing a chance to be as xaxa and youthful as he could be. On his part, Bahati was astute and strategic like most modern hip-hop artists who are always aware that a modern musician feeds on such moments of fame, controversy and publicity. Remaining true to his name, he rode his luck by milking maximum premium from the occasion by stretching the boundaries.
For me, the incident was beneficial to the both politician and musician and in many ways everybody got what they wanted. Bahati is now a bigger and larger-than-life gospel celebrity with immense media traction among youths after trending on social media as the shortest serving Kenyan President.
He will be the next hottest gospel act for some time to come in Kenya. President Uhuru on his part remains the most appealing leader among youths and he might just have consolidated the xaxa vote come 2017!
Dr Chris Wasike is a visiting research fellow at Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam. Email: [email protected]