Eric Wainaina is popular in Kenya for his songs with strong social messages. But tragedy seems to give new life to these songs. The song Kenya Only, for instance, tops the charts when a tragedy strikes the country. Indeed, it is Kenya’s unofficial mourning anthem.
This trend started in 1998 after terrorists bombed the US Embassy in Nairobi, killing tens of people. The song was then used to galvanise Kenyans into nationhood at the time of grieving.
Last year, when post-election violence ravaged the country, Kenya Only hogged the airtime in all the country’s radio stations.
While most musicians of his Afro-fusion genre are popular for love ballads, Wainaina is best known for social messages.
He says the messages are inspired by the need to tell the truth and the craving for social justice. This comes with the belief that he has to address the issues that affect the common person. He calls this social commitment.
“As an artiste, society bestows on you the role of telling people when things go wrong,” he says.
While he also sings about love and romance, he uses music for social commentary. He, for instance, tackles issues of faith and religion quite commendably in his lyrics.
“We have a situation where people are committing serious crimes in the name of God and their religion,” he says.
Referring to teachings from the Bible, Wainaina says love for God in itself is not sufficient without the love for fellow man.
Some critics consider the messages in his music revolutionary, but he sees it in a different vein.
“I just try to pass messages on encouragement and inspiration. I urge people to stand up and be counted, to make wise choices and choose leaders of integrity,” he says. He adds that a revolution that does not have love at its core can never succeed.
Love and social protest are the subject of his third album set to be released next month. The album is aptly titled Love and Protest.
“The music in that album tackles both issues of love and protest. I believe that genuine protest is inspired by love.”
The album features celebrated Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and Kenyan Genge rapper, Jua Cali.
Even with his messages of social justice, Wainaina says he pays great attention to packaging it so that his listeners receive and understand his message.
“Whenever I am making my music, I have to strike a balance between the beat and the lyrics,” he says, adding that a song with a danceable beat might overshadow the message. “At the end of it all, I need to have discerning listeners.”
Kenya Only, off his debut album, Sawa Sawa, is basically a patriotic song.
If radio stations were seeking from him a song that calls for unity, then that song should have been Twende Twende, off his second album by the same title. The song is done in collaboration with Zimbabwean legend Oliver Mtukudzi.
In this song, Wainaina counsels that hatred brings about trouble and calls for unity and harmony.
Seeing as the Twende Twende album was released in December of 2006, one might say that Wainaina’s words are prophetic.
Interestingly, it was Orange mobile that adopted the song, close to a year after its release, to promote its telephone services. Apparently, that is when a majority of Kenyans came to know of its existence.
When it comes to music with messages on social consciousness, Wainaina is in a class of his own. Many Kenyans will recall his 2001 song, Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo, which decried the rising corruption in the country. That song is as relevant today as it was eight years ago.
Such were the powers of the song that when he performed it at a public function, the aides of a powerful minister frantically tried to stop him.
But, instead of slowing him down, he seems to hit hard at the people’s conscience.
In the song Dunia ina Mambo, he sings about how justice seems to go to the highest bidder. He gives the example of a poor man who steals a loaf of bread and gets a long jail term while the big shots, who impoverish the country through corruption, get off with a slap in the wrist.
This song comes in the form of a conversation between Satan and St Peter, where Satan laments that humans have “rendered him jobless”, as they have perfected the art of fomenting religious hatred.
Perhaps it is the song Fungeni Macho that sums up the Kenyan experience right from colonialism through the Kenyatta and Moi regimes to the present day.
This song, which features Kamaa of Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, talks about how the white man asked Kenyans to close their eyes in prayer, while their land was stolen.
Come independence in 1963, Kenyatta and his Harambee slogan asked Kenyans to bear their burdens gracefully, while Moi ordered people to fuata nyayo (follow footsteps) – blindly.
Today, the result of all those years’ exploitation is huge gaps in social classes, slums and tribal clashes. Kamaa sums it up as kunajisiwa kisiasa (being raped politically).
Still, the average Kenyan is looking skywards hoping to find a saviour. Wainaina rebukes such Kenyans and asks them to look in the mirror, as therein lies salvation.
In the past few days, the streets of Nairobi have become a battle zone as hawkers and mechanics take on police with a fury previously unknown.
Well, Wainaina makes reference to this in the song Dek, dek, dek, where people tired of years of having their rights trampled upon, refuse to budge even in the face of tear gas and army tanks.
“The people would not listen/they were not listening anymore/they lost too many children/in a stupid war… they said come and get me/you bloodsuckers/I won’t move,” sings Wainaina.
Wainaina’s activism is not just confined to Kenya. In 2003, he was invited to perform at the annual Harare International Festival of the Arts in Zimbabwe.
After giving a particularly powerful performance, he gave media interviews where he tore into Mugabe’s repressive regime.
The media there, mostly state-run, were not amused and gave him bad press.
And there is a softer side to Wainaina. The song Adhiambo is an ode to beautiful Adhiambo, whom he plans to marry but her parents do not trust him. He makes a difficult journey to Kisumu, where he eventually wins over the parents, and they consent to the union.
The wisdom of Wainaina’s words is immense but one will rarely get it on radio as local FM stations seem to prefer American music.