Nairobi’s hip hop scene asserts its African identity in the face of the bland imports of the global music industry.
Kenya’s demand for music and television can’t be met by under-funded local industries, so a flow of pop culture from the West, a culture of brands and products, fills the gap. It isn’t a lack of talent that stops broadcasters from going home-grown: it’s simply cheaper for broadcasters to buy the entrails of television from the West than it is to commission indigenous programme-makers or encourage a self-sustained music industry. Radio is judged for the speed it serves the latest Eminem, Will Smith or Britney Spears, not for introducing new, local artists. Record shops, magazine stalls and nightclubs are no different, their fodder shaped by the idea that current means playing catchup with the West.
Wayua Muli, a young Nairobi journalist says: ‘We’re not quite sure where we belong, so our greatest influence right now is from the States and from Britain. That’s what teaches who we should be.’
At the core of this cultural crossfire, Nairobi’s blossoming hip hop scene is the most visible example of how young urbanites are latching on to the styles, symbols and language of imported music, television and film. Its genesis, during weekend jam sessions and talent contests in Nairobi’s clubs, was simple mimicry: rappers were hailed for their skill as a parrot, not their ability to invent new rhymes and sounds. You had to look and act the part too: baggy jeans, sports shoes, baseball cap and an imitation American accent.
In response, a group of journalists, musicians and television producers in Nairobi is searching for ways to counter the biased flow of pop culture into Kenya.
‘What we’re trying to do is encourage the young people to maintain the culture and morality that Africa has,’ says Jimmi Gathu, a television producer who has turned the spotlight on local talent through a string of music shows. This self-conscious attempt to create local icons for young Kenyans to identify with is paralleled by the recent launch of East Africa’s first youth culture magazine PHAT! The title is an acronym of Pamoja Hip Afrika Tunawakilisha, Swahili for ‘Together we represent hip Africa’. ‘There’s never been a Kenyan musician on the cover of any magazine in the world,’ says Blaze, assistant editor of PHAT! ‘Talent in Kenya doesn’t get a chance to be seen.’ It hasn’t proved easy for the likes of Jimmi Gathu and Blaze to convince financiers, venues and broadcasters to focus on new groups and music made in Kenya. ‘You’d literally have to pay DJs to play your records,’ recalls Gathu from his own musician days.
Not until 1995, when artist Poxi Presha released a single Total Bala (Total Chaos) in Luo, one of Kenya’s 44 ethnic dialects, did people realize the potential of rapping and singing in local languages. Total Bala ‘just hit the country like bushfire’, says Bruce Odhiambo, the record’s producer. ‘It crossed all language barriers and people realized they could do it in their mother tongue.’ A realization that struck a chord with rappers from Nairobi’s Eastlands slum estates, who formed the Mau Mau collective – named after Kenya’s freedom fighters from the 1950s.
Mau Mau group Kalamashaka’s song Tafsiri Hii – which means ‘translate this!’ – evoked life in the Nairobi slums and became a major hit. Another Luo act, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, released their debut album earlier this year, Ismarwa (It’s Ours).
Gidi Gidi Maji Maji researched the album by returning to their home province on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, where they collected Luo myths and sayings, instruments and sounds that defined what Tedd Josiah, the producer of Ismarwa, says was a re-statement of identity: ‘If you’re an African there are certain cultures, certain traditions that you’ve grown up with – our language, our musical styles – and we have to actually go back to those things.’
The seeds that a new generation have scattered to define and encourage Kenyan culture are a direct response to the saturation of Western pop culture. Umbia, another track on a new compilation of Kenya’s rising stars quotes the words of the late President Jomo Kenyatta: ‘Flare up as the flames of a fire. Consume the nation with your passion. Let the Kenyan culture sing loud and clear, echoing over the hills and ridges.’
Indymedia – wired dissent
‘Independent media has a life-work, a political project and purpose: to let the truth be known. This is more and more important in the globalization process. This truth becomes a knot of resistance against the lie. It is our only possibility to save the truth, to maintain it and distribute it, little by little, just as the books were saved in Fahrenheit 451 – in which a group of people dedicated themselves to memorize books, to save them from being destroyed, so that the ideas would not be lost. This same way, independent media tries to save history: the present history – saving it and trying to share it, so it will not disappear, moreover to distribute it to other places...' Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, whose words inspired the Indymedia network.
Indymedia – the Independent Media Center (IMC) – made its remarkable debut during the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization in November 1999. Since then over two million people have accessed its website to get a grassroots view of events receiving biased and unreliable coverage in the corporate media.
The initiative was born out of frustration with the way mainstream media sensationalizes or ignores the almost daily anti-globalization protests occurring around the world. Media activists created a forum for continual up-to-the-minute reports as well as local perspectives on the issues.
Over the past year IMC has grown exponentially. It now has an international network of over 44 ‘people’s newsrooms’.
Power is decentralized. Indymedia uses free software that allows anyone to instantly self-publish content on to its internet newswires. While connected to a vast international alternative media network, each centre is autonomous.
The New York City IMC, for example, has highly active newswire on its website, a monthly newspaper and a video team that compiles footage into several documentaries. Now it’s about to launch the first permanent Indymedia web radio station.
In Israel, media activists are providing critical perspectives on the army’s abuses of Palestinians in the Middle East crisis. While in Chiapas, Mexico, a new indymedia centre has been set up to report on the indigenous Zapatista struggle.
A myriad of visions and missions make up the indymedia mix, which is largely defined by who decides to participate, how much time they have, and what they want to make of it. Those working on the international network are still working out how to put the pieces of the Indymedia puzzle together. A major issue is that in the North access to the web is easier than in the South.
Latin American communities, for example, face difficulties finding computers, accessing the internet and even securing a permanent physical space out of which to operate. However, they have already-existing strong grassroots media coalitions which are plugging into the Indymedia network. Many use its web newswire to download content for rebroadcast, for example, on to local radio.
In this way Southern Indymedia centres have reached those most Northern ones fail to – people without internet connection. As Ursula Oswald, an agriculture expert working with the Landless Movement of Brazil, says: ‘Don’t patronize us. We may not have the money and technology that the North has, but we are quite effective at fighting for our rights and creating the alternative world that we would like to see for ourselves, even without those luxuries.’
Meanwhile, the new Chiapas Indymedia centre ‘dedicates itself to the dissemination of las palabras dignas – words of dignity, of truth and forgotten perspectives, by relying on inclusive, progressive and honest reporting on and by those most affected and involved in today’s struggles’. As Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas says: ‘It is the word that gives form to that walk that goes on inside us. It is the word that is the bridge to cross to the other side.’
Haiti’s poor take to the airwaves.
In Haiti – where the poor are not supposed to hold opinions – Jean Dominique was a dangerous man. Father of the country’s grassroots radio revolution and ferocious defender of free speech, he was gunned down in April 2000 after denouncing the rigging of elections on air.
Dominique, director of Radio Haiti Inter, pioneered news bulletins in the local language of Creole in the early 1970s. In a country with 80-per-cent illiteracy where the rich and powerful control public discourse and speak exclusively in French, this was in his words a ‘revolutionary process, making the Creole-speaking audiences familiar with what was going on in Nicaragua in terms of the Sandinista revolution; what was going on in Iran in terms of the fight against the Shah; what was going on in Haiti in terms of striking workers at the factories around Port-au-Prince and the farmers in the Artibonite Valley fighting against the Macoutes’.
For the first time ‘the poor people of this country, whether workers or farmers or jobless people, were able to speak through the radio – to make people know what was their life, their daily fight’.
Where Haitians gather for dance, worship or community meetings, the vibrant tradition of teledjol – word of mouth – means that illiterate peasants in remote areas are often conversant with the current political issues of the day. Unleashing this rich oral culture on to the airwaves has been an explosive act of empowerment.
The radio revolution led by Jean Dominique played a major role in the popular mobilizations that led to the overthrow of the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986.
In a similar vein, pirate radio stations that broadcast clandestine news during the coup regime of 1991 to 1994 have since blossomed to become community radio stations run by peasant organizations and social movements. Located in rural areas, they broadcast between 4pm and 9pm when the peasants have finished their work in the fields and marketplace. The stations often rely on local people donating furniture and food and local fundraising events, and given the lack of electricity, many run off petrol generators and solar-powered batteries.
The motto of Les Cayes-based Radyo Vwa Klodi Mizo is: ‘A different kind of communication for a different kind of society.’ Its founders explain: ‘We don’t just want to talk to make people listen, but we want to listen to people too. We don’t say that we are “the voice of the voiceless”. We will not speak for the people. We will be their megaphone.’
Around Port-au-Prince, journalists wear the face of Jean Dominique on t-shirts, to commemorate the man who understood that for the poor and disenfranchized everywhere, the cheapest, most accessible and revolutionary medium is radio.
Theatre of optimism
Where the audience become spect-actors
Brazilian director Augusto Boal has an anecdote he likes to tell: as an idealistic young dramatist he went to work with landless peasants in his country. Intent on social change and revolution, he performed short plays in which the actors declaimed: ‘Let us spill our blood to free the land.’ The audience cheered, but were angry when they realized that Boal was not planning to join in. ‘So,’ they said, ‘you mean we should spill our blood to free the land.’ Boal was ashamed and vowed never again to exhort someone else to do something he was not prepared to do himself.
Thus he developed ‘forum theatre’, the technique at the heart of what became an international movement of the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’.
Forum theatre has at its heart the dual meaning of the verb ‘to act’: to perform and to take action. As stories of valiant defeat are acted the audience of ‘spect-actors’ can halt the action if they disagree, take the place of the protagonist and act out a different course of events. Deliberately transgressing the distinction between actors and audience, producers and consumers, this theatre becomes an incredible democratizing force.
Boal worked in exile in Paris for many years after being tortured for his cultural activism by the military junta that ran Brazil in the 1960s. He has used the techniques of forum theatre in a series of innovative social-change projects around the world – from mental health in Calcutta to legislation in Brazil where he was elected Mayor of Rio.
In London, Boal’s friend and translator Adrian Jackson has formed a company called ‘Cardboard Citizens’ – all of whose actors are, or were, homeless. For Jackson theatre works as the catalyst for debate because it is ‘compounded of memory and imagination’. Maxine, 25, an actor with the company, puts it another way: ‘With this, you never have to be satisfied with what you see.’
There is a real optimism to this kind of theatre: ‘Theatre of oppression, not depression,’ Jackson reminds us. And for Boal it is an antidote to the homogenizing power of the global market: ‘The market takes away our desire and puts another one in us. They try to put in us the desire to eat the food they want us to eat, think the thoughts they want us to think, read the literature they want to produce. But theatre is a way of making people feel more alive.’
‘Hamlet says, in his famous speech, that theatre is a mirror in which may be seen the true image of the nature of reality. I wanted to penetrate this mirror, to transform the image I saw in it and to bring that transformed image back to reality: to realize the image of my desire.’
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7