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Why Gen Z demos need resonating protest songs

Comedian Eric Omondi arrested as he protested against the controversial Finance Bill outside Parliament, Nairobi. June 21th,2024 [Elvis Ogina,Standard]

A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having. If Gen Z is anything to go by, with their TikTok dances and duets to the lyrics of ‘Gotha tena,’ we are on the brink of a cultural revolution.

On January 27, young Kenyan women marched to defend their right to exist safely in public spaces. With femicide cases skyrocketing, the protest, dubbed "Feminists March Against Femicide," spanned 11 counties and brought together thousands of people from all walks of life.

Incidents of femicide had reached alarming levels, and it was no longer tenable for us to keep the peace in the face of such violence. With placards, whistles, and stylish apparel, young Kenyans, alongside their parents, friends, and supporters, demanded the government take decisive action against the rampant cases of femicide in the country.

These protests were vibrant and filled with a palpable energy of resistance. However, one crucial element was conspicuously absent: protest songs. The chants and slogans, while powerful, lacked the melodic reinforcement that has historically accompanied movements for social change.

Music has always been a critical tool in the arsenal of social justice, providing a shared language for dissent and a means to unify individuals from diverse backgrounds under a common cause.

On Tuesday during the Second Reading of the Finance Bill, young Kenyans took to the streets once again. Both online and offline, they called for the rejection of the Bill in its entirety.

Disgruntled by the indifference of their elected representatives and angry at the punitive taxation measures the Kenyan government relentlessly imposed, they made their voices heard. Online, young Kenyans fearlessly called out their representatives. On the ground, they marched, undeterred by the state-sponsored violence meted out by the police.

Despite the passion and turnout, these protests also lacked a musical backbone. While comedians, MCs, content creators, and artists leveraged their platforms to protest, the silence where our protest songs should have been was deafening. Wasanii, where are our protest songs?

Apart from Juliani’s “Utawala” and a few patriotic songs by Eric Wainaina, our musical arsenal for the streets remains woefully barren. While ‘Gotha tena’ by Breeder LW has a good ring to it, it is hardly suitable for a protest march.

Protest songs are not just about the music; they are about the message and the morale they bring to the movement. King Kaka’s "Wajinga Nyinyi," released in 2019, momentarily ignited our collective frustration with its scathing critique of political corruption and social injustices.

However, it fizzled out, like many sparks, when not nurtured into a sustained flame. Our troubles have not diminished since then. On the contrary, they have multiplied, providing ample material for countless protest songs.

Government corruption scandals, the misappropriation of public funds, and the general state of disrepair in our nation are more than enough to sing about.

A public service vehicle drives through a cloud of teargas lobbed by police within Nairobi's CBD to disperse demonstrators who staged a demo over Finance Bill 2024. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Each politician's speech seems to heap more disgrace onto an already overflowing pile of systemic failure. It's as if Kenya has become a perpetual hotep podcast, with self-serving "podcast bros" at the helm. When people attempt to sing "Wimbo wa Mapambano" today, their voices are deflated, struggling to muster the fervor the song once commanded. We have an abundance of songs celebrating parties and drinking, but where are the songs to accompany us as we march our sorrows away?

Music is an important form of protest and is critical to social justice movements. It provides a shared language for dissent, uniting individuals from diverse backgrounds and generations under a common cause. Social and political expression have always found their place in music.

Protest music serves not only to raise awareness and mobilize for the cause but also to boost the morale of the protesters. As a generation that has a soundtrack for every bit of our lives, the lacking soundtrack for our protest is not sitting well. In Gen Z lingo, ‘it’s not giving’. Protest music sets the vibes right. And boy, don’t we need the correct vibes for a protest.

In reflecting on the power of music in social movements, we can look back to other global movements that have successfully utilized protest songs. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States was marked by anthems such as "We Shall Overcome" and "A Change Is Gonna Come," which galvanized the spirits of activists and brought global attention to their cause.

Similarly, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa saw songs like "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" and "Bring Him Back Home" become synonymous with the fight for freedom. When someone chants "Amandla," you know what follows next. When Mbusiyeni Ndlozi or Julius Malema takes to the stage, we can almost be certain that he will burst into song and the whole crowd will cheer. The South Africans have never missed the moment to break into tunes when they gather for political reasons. The song is both the bait and the substance.

These songs were not just background noise; they were integral to the movements themselves. They were sung at rallies, during marches, and even in prisons, providing a sense of unity and hope. They articulated the pain and aspirations of the people, transforming individual grief and anger into collective action.

In today's digital age, the potential for protest songs to go viral and reach a global audience is unprecedented. A well-crafted protest song could be shared across social media platforms, gaining traction and spreading the message far and wide. Artists have a unique opportunity to use their platforms to amplify the voices of the oppressed and to inspire action.

Protest songs are, at their core, love songs. They require a deep passion and connection to one’s people and land. To craft a protest song is to channel one's love and anguish into a melody that can inspire and mobilize.

If Gen Z has proven anything, it is that we are ready to march for a cause and dance on TikTok while at it. We can turn one word into a song and dance to it. All say ‘Gotha’ We are ready to disrupt the political equation positively and usher in a new brand of politics, accompanied by song and dance. All say ‘Gotha.’

Protest songs are performed by the protesters themselves. Everything is mixed, mastered, and performed right there on the streets. These songs are not passively consumed; rather, they are collective voices in a participatory context. Therefore, the sound of the song as a commercial product is not of great significance.

What matters is the simplicity, the catchiness of it, and the message. Allow me to propose a formula – a punchy slogan, or chant and a catchy chorus. Rinse. Repeat. If the current popularity of bangers is anything to go by, we love our punchy lines and catchy choruses. This is why ‘Cham Thum (Atoti)’ is presently enjoyed across all the country and somehow Gidi Gidi Maji Maji hits ‘Atoti’ and ‘Unbwogable’ made comebacks twenty-one years later.

For the artists checking into the studio to give us our songs for the next protest, it is as simple as this – is the melody simple enough for the least accomplished singer to join? Is there a punchy slogan to it? If the answers to these questions are yes, say Gotha.

To our artists, we say: We need your voices now more than ever. We need songs that will resonate with the pain and hope of our generation, songs that will be the soundtrack to our protests and the anthems of our movement.

The writer is a specialist in development communication

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