Artists are a clear reflection of our society. In a community rife with corruption and sabotage of legitimate artistic ventures, the creatives would rather sing popular “dirty” club bangers that will get them continuous revenue streams as opposed to mainstream music that will not pay their bills.
BY DENNIS NDIRITU
The world of African music is never complete without the mention of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti whose musical life spanned through a period of almost four decades, from the 1960s through to the 1990s.
During his musical lifetime, Fela had a history of political activities throughout, always a rebel defying societal norms and revolutionalising the world of African music. An Afro-beat servant and musical genius, he produced some of the most unorthodox, jarring yet downright groovy, funky music bound to get any lover of African art on his feet.
Initially Fela sang songs that were generally not political, in his native Yoruba tongue and in English (albums like “water e no get enemy” and “A Lu Jon ki Jon”) but he soon started to sing anti-establishment songs, which very quickly brought him in collision with both imperialism and their local agents in power at home that would make him a perennial victim of pro-Obasanjo forces that would eventually claim his mother’s life and his own from the beatings sustained during raids conducted in his house. But notwithstanding these threats and intimidation, Fela continued his criticisms of the military dictatorship. Fela used his music to expose the military dictatorship and wanton plunder that rocked Nigeria in an age where no individual could rise up against the government. Through such albums as “Army Arrangement,” and “Suffer Head”, he revealed the mismanagement of the economy and the terrible living conditions of the working masses.
Social morality did not evade the scope of Kuti’s music as through albums such as “Lady,” Fela criticized the orientation and appellation of a new generation of women, campaigning for the retention of the past ‘virtues’ of African women including complete subordination to the male-folk, and detested the bleaching of the dark skin by Africa ladies. Even with his strong Pan-Africanist views, Fela, like all other humans is seen to have failed with his disregard for the white man medicine and his disbelief in AIDS among many other things. In spite of all these, Fela made his mark as a true musical icon and son of the soil. It is no doubt the task of every conscious African and musician to internalize, and the youth to understand both the progressive aspects of Fela’s works and his limitations.
From Fela’s days to now, worldwide, the creative economy has been defined as the ultimate economic resource within a nation. It is the umbrella under which art, architecture, film, television, music, poetry, sculpture and writing exist. Kenya’s creative sector is a vibrant one, brimming with talent and possibility, especially when looked at through the opportunities it affords the youth. With the cultural sector viewed as a vital aspect of the sustainable development of a nation, and one of the fastest growing sectors in the world, it is worrying to note the languishing trend of the creative sector in Kenya.
This can be attributed largely to the lack of seriousness by Government towards the industry. Until very recently, most artists and the Government did not view art as a path to a successful and lucrative career. This disregard has resulted in poor policy and legal framework in the country that have allowed piracy to flourish, lack of funds for art exhibitions, and draconian regulations imposed on the content, and payment of peanut royalties to artists.
Further, the CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), Dr Ezekiel Mutua, has made free expression through film and television markedly more difficult. At the helm of KFCB since 2015, he has often been at the centre of controversy, with Kenyans expressing mixed reactions to his directives. The position gives him the power to rate and classify films and no film can be shown in Kenya without being classified. Mutua, a staunch defender of morality, flaunts the ignominious Films and Stage Plays Licensing Act that was used in the late 80s and 90s to stifle political and creative expression in Kenya.
Today, few people will recall that this law was used to shut down Ngugi wa Thiongó’s Kamirithu Arts Centre, ban performances of Maitu Njugira (Mother Sing for me), Ngahiika Ndeenda (I will marry when I Want) and Trial of Dedan Kimathi. The same law was used to stop performances of The Fate of a Cockroach by Tewfik el Hakim, Animal Farm by George Orwell, Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! by Dario Fo and Drumbeats on Kerenyaga by Oby Obyerodhyambo.
This law was vigorously fought by artists and civil society just as much as the Chief’s Act and Preservation of Security Act (Detention Act). Mutua has been at the forefront of supporting increasingly draconian censorship legislation to give power to the Film Classification Board so that free expression is curtailed.
Mutua also fashions himself as a moral crusader allegedly protecting Kenyans from decadence supposedly promoted largely through creative expression – film and music. On the basis of protecting morality and curtailing obscenity, he banned the public viewing of the award winning film, Rafiki, until the courts intervened in Wanuri Kahiu & another v CEO, Kenya Film Classification Board – Ezekiel Mutua & 4 others  eKLR and playing of Diamond Platinum’s song Kwangaru.
Mutua’s hard-line position, ruled illegal by the court as contradictory to the constitutionally protected rights and freedoms of expression, association and conscience leads us to question the platform upon which he pontificates. Beyond his public criticisms of “gay lions” and cutting the release timeframe of Rafiki, down to less than a week, Mutua has enacted steep license fees that have reduced the industry’s ability to operate independently, including the hoop-like requirement of filmmakers needing multiple licenses to film in multiple counties. It has become common for Kenyan-based films and content to be filmed in South Africa.
Indeed, Mutua’s attempts to enforce his dictates on theatre as well as the film industry have led content creators to further eschew any connection with the government. This, coupled with his strong insistence on banning songs portends bleak future for upcoming creatives in Kenya. Despite the backlash, he is unrepentant about his decisions. Has he however, in the wake of the digital era, achieved much with the bans? The songs and films actually got more recognition as the move to ban them piqued the curiosity of majority of the Kenya population.
There has been a debate on Mutua’s powers, with some critics arguing that it is not his role to censor music and protect children while others praise him, saying he works hard and gets results. In 2018, the Betting Licensing and Controlling Board that oversees betting broadcasting criticised the KFCB for issuing guidelines on the airing of adverts, saying the board’s mandate was limited to rating broadcast content and not controlling it.
There’s always however two sides of a coin. Listening to and watching the videos of some of these songs banned recently such as Tarimbo by Ethic, Vitamin U by Timmy T Dat, I couldn’t help but agree with the decision taken by Mutua.
Different people have different reasons of turning to music with majority for entertainment. Unfortunately majority of the lyrics in the songs sang by our artists are vulgar warranting the ban. Nonetheless, can we really blame the artists for the type of music produced? Artists are a clear reflection of our society. In a society rife with corruption and sabotage of legitimate artistic ventures, these artists would rather sing popular “dirty” club bangers that will get them continuous revenue streams as opposed to mainstream music that will not pay their bills.
At the end of the day, the music industry is still a business and money has to be made and so just like the vulgar attracts most consumers, the vulgar will sell. Unfortunately, it is time we agreed that the days when music was deployed as an agent of political or moral change as Fela Kuti or Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mutukudzi’s music are long gone.