It appears that music educators and traditional music performers were conspicuously absent from the whole process of establishing the Music policy because the policy was all about the money. And politics. Which is the usual Kenyan story.
So at the end of the day, the policy wasn’t really about the music.
What is even more tragic is that this apparent lack of a Kenyan national conviction about the intrinsic value of music has major implications. As the protesters said, media houses would prefer to pay royalties to foreign musicians and crush local ones with demands for bribes and other favors, probably because they don’t know how important music is for national consciousness. Soon after the demonstration, Eric Wainaina weighed in the issue by stating that the protest was about more than just royalties – it was about an intrinsic Kenyan disrespect for musicians, as well as an identity crisis within Kenyan popular music. Both problems, Eric says, make it difficult for Kenyan musicians to compete on a world platform with musicians from countries like Nigeria and South Africa, and I would add Mali and DR Congo. Eric traces this crisis to Kenya’s history of suppression of culture, thanks to colonial settlers who had not planned to leave Kenya, until the Mau Mau made them, followed by government persecution of thinkers and artists after independence. The absence of Kenyan music from the national consciousness essentially left a vacuum that Nashville and Motown easily filled in.
But the roots of the crisis in Kenya music actually go beyond the political framework that Eric describes.
The problem of music in Kenya is that the value of music has been limited to material gains. In the 80s, the material gains were in politics. The government persecuted musicians who were not praise singers, and it made the Permanent Presidential Music Commission, revealingly housed close to the State House itself to this day, the authority that decided which music mattered. Musicians who composed songs that touched President Moi’s heart received almost immediate jobs, and music teachers who pleased the President got swift upgrades and promotions. As a result, the epitome of recognition for a Kenyan musician was playing for the president in the stadiums or winning in the categories of the Kenya National Music Festivals which would perform at State House. The bar was set very low, and it still remains that low.
With the expanded political space in the 90s, the motivation for supporting music expanded ever so slightly, to now incorporate money. Especially under the economist president Mwai Kibaki, it became easier for musicians to earn a living from hits, not just from radio play, but also from sponsoring political parties, or from corporates who needed jingles or a celebrity face for their products.
So this legacy explains why the composition of the committee that drafted the Music policy was largely defined by power (hence two members of the PPMC) and money (producers and recording artists).
But there’s yet another agent that has limited the space of music in this country: development agencies. The World Bank, especially, has promoted the ideology that Kenya and Africa can only “develop” through the sciences. Fellowships and other forms of funding for education are religiously skewed towards the sciences, and universities and politicians have fallen for this limited thinking. A few years ago, Deputy President William Ruto – then Minister for Higher Education – talked of withdrawing government support for university programs in the humanities because they made no contribution to development. Just recently, he told a crowd in Western Province that bull fighting – a festival prevalent in the area – adds no value to the lives of people:
Hii kupiganisha ng’ombe ni sawa…lakini dunia, watu hawapimi maisha yao kwa vile ng’ombe wanapigana…wanapima ng’ombe kwa maziwa, na nyama ile wanapata…kwa sababu wananchi ndio watapata pesa na maisha yao itabadilika..lakini [haya mambo] ya kuwapatia ng’ombe bhangi ili wapigane… [laughter]
This making bulls fight is alright… but in this world, people do not value of their lives by how bulls fight; what they value is the milk and meat they get from the cows, because [that’s how] the common citizens earn money and improve their standard of living…but feeding cows with bhang so that they can fight…[laughter]
There is no way Kenyan popular music can acquire its identity and gain a global niche with this focus on power, money and” development.” Yet this limited view of music has now been legally reinforced by the Kenyan musicians and the producers themselves. Fine, now local radio stations may play more Kenyan music, but the truth is – and Eric hinted at it – this may mean that Kenyan music will not grow aesthetically and globally, and be limited to a Kenyan ghetto.
The only way to prevent this from happening is to take music education in Kenya more seriously. Right now, music is not an examinable subject in primary school, and few universities offer music programs, and often under very difficult conditions. But more than that, some musicians make unfortunate public pronouncements about education. Some scoff at music education as unnecessary, or even useless, and proceed to lobby for music policy without involving educators. A good number of our students believe that any music training worth its salt can only be acquired abroad.
The hostility to music education is such a tragedy, because Kenyans will not appreciate their own musicians through radio play alone. They also need to be taught about those musicians – just as we’re taught about politicians and scientists. And it is ironical for musicians to shun educational institutions, because it is these institutions that will keep the legacy of the same Kenyan musicians in their libraries, history textbooks and history of Kenyan music classes long after musicians have gone. And honestly speaking, no one will take Kenyan music seriously when our musicians barely have any knowledge of our musical history. There have been awkward moments at previous master classes with international musicians when Kenyan musicians cannot name at least three of their musical role models when innocently asked by the visiting artist.
But our musicians should support music education not just out of this self interest, but also for the good of the nation. The reason we Kenyans have been reduced to ethnic caricatures is because nationhood is solely focused on money, power and development, when we should be thinking CIVILIZATION. No great nation, from Ancient Egypt to the United States, has been built on science alone. European Enlightenment wasn’t about only science; it was also about the explosion in fine art, philosophy, music and publishing. The United States dominates the world not only through its bombs and medicine, but through pop music and Hollywood. That’s why Russia and China do not yet compete as global powers, despite having equal – if not higher – scientific and economic power.
Musicians can only be taken seriously by a Kenya that grows from a state narrowly focused on politics and money into a nation in which knowledge, arts, technology and aesthetics thrive. And that appreciation will not just come through radio play of local musicians alone. It also has to come through music education.