Let's just agree we dread artistic creativity

Chris Mosioma aka Embarambamba entertains guests at Nyanturago Stadium. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

The need to reform and grow Kenya’s artistic community and the broader cultural and creatives landscape has never been more urgent in the era of Artificial Intelligence.

In a surprise regulatory move days ago, the Kenya Film Classification Board issued a warning, even threatening legal action, against musicians Chris Embarambamba and William Getumbe.

The reason was alleged spread of inappropriate content – ranging from nudity and vulgarity to promotion of violent and imitable behaviour. From online and street banters, the musicians’ massive fan base wasn’t amused. The board claims the artistes contravened Sections 4 (Part II) and 12 of the Cap 222 governing creation, broadcasting, possession, distribution and exhibition of audio-visual content. It has, however, agreed to an alternative dispute resolution mechanism as the row rages. Embarambamba and Getumbe’s songs of ‘Niko Uchi’ and ‘Yesu ninyandue’ may not be popular as ‘Tetema’ by Tanzania’s Diamond Platnumz and Rayvanny and ‘Wamlambez’ by the Sailors that suffered an almost similar fate. Strangely, when songs are banned, they become instant hits!

While Kenyans recognise need for responsible content creation, the looming fear is that in our sustained pursuit of ‘moral’ correctness, we might inadvertently be stifling growth of the country’s burgeoning entertainment industry. It requires a cautious balance.

As I have argued in this space time and again, moral correctness, as important as it is, should not be confused with being law-abiding. We are at a crossroads where the urgency to ban artistic expression must be balanced with genuine effort to support artistes.

Pulling down films, documentaries, TV dramas and music, however well-intentioned, should not overshadow the imperative need to uplift artistes. The Kenyan entrainment industry, estimated to be worth more than Sh200 billion, hold immense potential, and overregulation could strangle its very roots and lead to doom!

To play the devil’s advocate, methinks Embarambamba, Getumbe and others should be allowed space to experiment with their talents. While the push to maintain appropriateness for viewership or listenership is valid, we cannot wake up one morning and trash everything. It’s like throwing the baby with the bath water or instilling fear instead of confidence.

Paranoia, lack of incentives and unnecessary rigidity and conservativeness are challenges we can’t overlook. A film summit in Nairobi on September 29 last year spoke about incentives, access to production equipment and hefty taxation on TV stations airing foreign content over local. However, the forum shied away from the ‘morality’ question.

Instead of the big stick, the State can simply talk to artistes, appreciate their challenges and provide sensitisation for better ‘morality’ outcomes. Can we empower them with a view to preventing rather than reacting to ‘dirty’ content? And how do we handle other sources of ‘unwanted’ content like super spreaders who may not necessarily be performing artistes?  

As we detest content that could breed violence, polarisation, radicalisation, homosexuality and deviancy, we must recognise that blind censorship is wrong in a liberalised world. It impedes free speech. In any case, morality isn’t the only yardstick of gauging vibrancy and suitability. Above all, beware of twisted versions of truth, culture and values. Granted, habits can only change through conversations, not gag orders. Baadai Do, Rafiki, I’m Samuel, Fifty shades of Grey, Wolf of Wall Street, Stories of Our Lives and This is the End are among films that were nipped in the bud in Kenya without honest conversations about their themes.

Kenya’s regulators should be open-minded. DR Congo has produced globally-acclaimed music genres like soukous and rhumba. Nigerian artistes introduced the world to Afrobeats. In South Africa, creatives enjoy broader international appeal. These feats are a consequence of regulatory flexibility and honest experimentation. 

A win-win outcome between artistic freedom and societal values would suffice. Let regulators address piracy, lack of incentives, deficient investment, and limited exposure hindering growth of our music and film industries. We can purpose to empower content producers more and more.