The question whether musicians (and artists in general) have a political responsibility is a delicate one because the artist is a citizen first and their political freedoms are protected by the constitution just like you and I. Since independence, successive governments have been at war with the arts, the peak of it being the Nyayo era (1978-2002).
In a number of choral musicals that painted a beautiful image of a deeply problematic state, President Moi propagated nationalism and patriotism, with him as the lead patriot. To aid with this was VoK (now KBC), who repeatedly played the songs, especially on national holidays, cementing the Nyayo Philosophy.
Perhaps one of the most popular acts of dissent was by Ngungi Wa Thiong’o. On the morning of 31st December 1977, Ngugi was picked from his home by the Kenyan police. The Kenyan Gazette indicated that Ngugi was been held under the country’s public security regulations. Ngugi’s play, “Ngahika Ndeda” was banned by the government because those in government felt it challenged the status quo. The writer was detained for a year without being charged, tried or convicted of any crime.
At the time, Ngugi was the chairman at the University of Nairobi Literature department. His problems started when he decided to use his art against who he termed as “neo-colonialists”. After an international outcry, the Moi government decided to release Ngugi but he was not allowed to return to his teaching job. Kamiriithu theatre, an open-air amphitheatre where most of Ngugi’s works were showcased was destroyed in March 1982. The then Provincial commissioner, David Musila descended on the place with armed police and wrecked the place down in 30 minutes.
In 2017, Ben Githae came under fire for his political song “Tano Tena” which some saw as the romanticization of plunder. Mr Githae defended himself saying “I also have a democratic right to support whoever I like and I have been doing political rallies since 2011 so it shouldn’t be an issue. I have not lost a fan if I have then those are NASA supporters.”
With this dismissal, Ben Githae’s art lost its autonomy and independence to politics, limiting it to a certain ideology. It is important to note that this is not the first time Mr Githae has come under fire because of politics. In 2011, he released “Mabataro Makwa” to show solidarity with the Uhuruto duo when they were facing charges in the International Criminal Court.
— OCTOPIZZO (@OCTOPIZZO) June 23, 2017
What is the musician’s truth and are they being true to that? As Mbithi Masya argues in this new Benga Book, “in art, the only person you can betray is yourself.” The allegiance of an artist is to the art, and to the truth. It is a betrayal of facts and your listeners trust if you produce art you do not believe in. Every election cycle is a chance for Kenyan artists to cash in which is not necessarily shameful: artists have to eat. Ask Ben Githae, after all, Tano Tena changed his life financially which is not a bad thing if you have not claimed truth as your business.
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— Corruption Tracker (@TrackTheCorrupt) September 20, 2018
Last updated 19-03-2019: Additional information