Kenya: Improved space for political lyrics



Improved space for political lyrics

Popular Kenyan singer and songwriter Eric Wainaina, who adresses issues of corruption and social injustices, compliments the government for not trying to strain his freedom of expression, although he has been kindly requested not to sing about corruption while the president is present

By Morten Bonde Pedersen, MS, reporting for Freemuse from Nairobi

He sings about ethnic conflicts, racism, poverty and basic human rights. And he is one of the best selling and most widely known musicians in Kenya.
Eric Wainaina set his profile as a political songwriter in cement, touching upon sensitive issues such as corruption, oppression and tribalism, when he released his second album, ‘Twende Twende’ (‘Let’s Move’) in January 2007.
After releasing his first album ‘Sawa Sawa’ (‘Okay Okay’) in 2001, he experienced the democratic limitations set by the then president Daniel Arap Moi who was known outside of Kenya for corruption and oppression of political opponents. In those days the most popular song of the album, ‘Nchi ya kito kidogo’ (‘Land of Bribes’) about corruption was prohibited from being played on state radio and was only aired on the private FM stations.

“We have come far”

The Moi era ended after the elections in 2002 when voters rejected his appointed successor and voted for the present government under president Mwai Kibaki.
Since then, according to representatives of the civil society, the democratic space has widended in Kenya. Today its possible to critise the government publicly without fearing the consequences, and the leading newspapers have published political satire featuring the president and his wife.
A Film Censorship Board does exist in Kenya, focusing mainly on restrictions on adult content. But when it comes to music, Eric Wainaina has not experienced any kind of censorship on his lyrics, and all his songs are back on the playlist of state run radio.
“In terms of freedom of expression we have come far. At least we can thank the government for that. We can say whatever we want, but we don’t always have access to saying it where we want it to be heard,” the 33-year-old musician explained.

Limitations on access to public space

Eric Wainaina’s desription of the state of musical freedom in Kenya is supported by Grace Kerongo, sub-editor of Kenya’s leading music magazine ‘Insyder’. She has never heard of musicians being held responsible for their lyrics by politicians or authorities. But some musicians are given limitied access to the public space.
“Some songs may not be played on state radio, for instance if the lyrics are too pornographic. But the private stations can air what they want. Our politicians don’t care,” Grace Kerongo said to Freemuse, adding that she does not know of any other Kenyan musician who write as politically loaded songs as Eric Wainaina.

Touched on taboos

In his writing, Wainaina has touched upon most Kenyan taboos, including double standards within the church on sexual behaviour and HIV and AIDS and the implications of inter-religious marriages. All that without meeting any reactions from the people in power.
On the other hand, still on certain occations he has to be silent about certain issues. During the present government, Eric Wainiana has performed four times when the president has been present. On all occations he has been kindly requested not to play he song ‘Land of Bribes’. So far he has consented to the request.
The only time Eric Wainaina has actually played the song in front of senior governemt representatives was in 2001 when the then vice president was the guest of honor at a music festival featuring rising stars. The performance led to a direct confrontation as the organisers tried to stop him from playing.
“I don’t know whether the decree came from the vice president himself, or whether the organisers tried to do what they thought would please him. That kind of self-censorship in front of our leaders is very common here in Kenya,” the young singer and keyboard player told Freemuse.
“A man signalled to me that I should step down from the stage. But I agreed with myself that I would not stop singing once I had started a song. The man kept signaling to me. On my other side was my choreographer who encouraged our dancers to go on. At that point the crowd was beginning to realise what was going on, and they started singing the chorus.
After the song was finished, two men in suits came back stage and asked: ‘Who of you is Eric Wainaina?’
My brother Simon, who is also my manager, pushed me away and said that he was me. Nothing more happened, but we decided to rush away in our car as soon as we could.”

International attention

The social indignation that drives Eric Wainaina was founded already when he grew up in one of Nairobi’s upmarket estates and got to know the street children who were hanging out in the neighbourhood.
Since then political and social indignation has become his musical brand, and on several occations his lyrics have drawn international attention.
After ‘Land of Bribes’ in 2001, Transparancy International offered its support, and the non-governmental Kenyan Human Rights Commission and the government-run Kenya National Commission on Human Rights both appointed him their ambassador.
And last year the production of ‘Twende Twende’ was supported by Danish NGO Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke (MS). The financial contribution of approximately 20,000 US dollars was given as part of the organisation’s advocacy work. By influencing the political climate in Kenya, MS hoped to fertilize the ground for political change in one of the world’s most economically unequal societies.
Supporting a popular musician is a new way of advocating, MS Kenya programme officer Adan Kabelo explained:
“However I am sure the money are well spent, since Eric Wainiana has a very broad audience in Kenya. The popularity of Wainaina’s first release shows just how much Kenyans long for social and political messages as those of his songs. ‘Nchi ya kito kidogo’ is still being played everywhere, and I don’t think it is due to the tune. Many good hits have been released since, but that has not made people forget that one,” he said.



Eric Wainaina’s official home page:

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia – biography and discography:

Eric Wainaina (musician)

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