Scholars, State should help artistes overcome ethnicity

Musician John Ng'ang'a, alias John De Mathew. [File, Standard]
Nationhood is inseparable from popular culture. There is no nation where popular cultural output pulls in a different direction from national agenda. America is always a good example because it travelled an agonising path in pursuit of racial equality since 1619, the year that the first ship bearing African slaves docked in Virginia.

Popular music played important roles in defusing trivial sexual fears and prejudices that still inform institutional racism in the US. Kenyans ought to address the weaknesses of their own popular culture in this regard, now that musician John Ng’ang’a, alias John DeMatthew has died.

The link between Kenya and America is negative ethnicity and its attachment to sex. Myths and stereotypes that anchor negative ethnicity on the male genitalia are so pervasive that one worries when popular art (especially music) will honestly confront this Kenyan illness.

Popular music challenged deep-seated fears that American racial ideology had made white males believe about the need to lynch, castrate, hang, and burn the black male as a means of defending the supposed sexual purity of the white female.

American law prohibited interracial marriages from 1619 till June 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled Richard and Mildred Loving’s interracial union legal. Popular music in America made history by demystifying white perception about race and sex on April 9, 1968, when the white British songstress, Petula Clark, did a duet with the African-American Harry Belafonte, in which a white woman (Petula) publicly touched a black man’s (Belafonte’s) arm on TV for the first time in America’s history.

Infamous examples

Death is always regrettable. Even more important are the wise messages that DeMatthew passed to his people immediately before his death. It is only unfortunate that such visionary words never count in a strictly textual analysis of any artist’s lifetime work.

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He did not sing them; they fall outside his creative oeuvre. Yet death need not kill Kenyans’ right to know what their departed singer’s contribution to discourses on nationhood was, especially in the context of Kenyan popular culture’s tendency to animalise leaders from other Kenyan communities. Luo and Kikuyu producers of music are infamous examples in this area.

Perhaps it was by accident that this same fate befell the late artiste when he, Muigai wa Njoroge and Kamande wa Kioi released three interesting songs in 2012. My friend Joseph Kanyi Thiong’o did some hero-worship research at the University of Nairobi on the nature of the popular singer’s music, and only he can effectively judge its themes.

But such a verdict would not erase the fact that DeMatthew was prosecuted for ethnic hate speech seven years ago on account of one of his songs. This truth ought to be stated with as much clarity as the South Africa-based Kenyan scholar, Prof James Ogude, does the ethnic weaknesses of DO Misiani’s music. Only this way are we able to defend the canine alacrity which the Kenyan state deployed against Koffi Olomide in 2016, after the Congolese singer’s violent disregard for women. Olomide’s two shows in Johannesburg and Cape Town this year have been cancelled on similar grounds.

Collective existence

My position above does not imply wholly blaming Kenyan musicians for what Dr Godwin Siundu rightly identifies as the nativist character of our cultural productions – the fact that writers and musicians elevate their tribes above the nation. It only bares the old truth that producers of African popular culture, like all those African migrants who drown in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Lampedusa in Italy, resort to costly and illegitimate means of earning sustenance if the State fails in its mandate to build structures that let them earn from their trade.

Both Graeme Ewens (Congo Colossus) and Gary Stewart (Rumba on the River) refer to this danger in African music. Ewens even suggests that Franco trafficked drugs across his nation’s borders. This is better than the rumour that some Zairean musicians dealt in human organs in the face of Congo’s economic meltdown during the Mobutu years.

I write ‘costly’ because genocidal ideas that are communicated through what I call “hatred art” take generations to erase from communal memory. Such invalid art is clearly ‘illegitimate’ because the whole idea behind popular art is its proven ability to make human beings aware of their collective existence and sense of a common destiny.

This explains why black South Africans still take white singers Paul Simon, Johnny Clegg, PJ Powers and Claire Johnston as their own. I cannot tell what share of DeMatthew’s music engaged with some of our most enduring problems; much less know what Thiong’o’s obviously overexcited research thinks of the deceased artiste’s music in this regard.

Many Kenyan singers subscribe to ethnic nativism. The words ‘Congo’ and ‘Africa’ have circulated in Congolese music since the days of Joseph Kabasele. Senegalese singers utter ‘Senegal’ in an ‘African’ context. A good deal of Kenyan musicians spend entire lifetimes composing songs about tribal leaders in contexts that construct other communities as enemies sent by the devil to finish their people.

But the Kenyan State’s age-old inability to make life bearable for its creative people does not take all the flak. Some blame should be levelled at scholars of Kenyan popular culture themselves. They collect research data on national cultural products, use theories to analyse it, and draw conclusions based on evidence.

Theoretical heroin

Most of these interesting people already inhaled theoretical heroin smuggled from Karin Barber’s University of Birmingham. They swear by thunder that the only characteristic of African popular culture is its subversion of ruling class ideology.

Even outright calls to genocide and American-style lynching are still often dissected for subversive analysis by Kenya’s equally nativist cultural analysts who subscribe to Karin Barber. This one-legged interpretation of Kenyan popular culture would deem John DeMathew a vigorous rebel when his music leaves little doubt as to where he falls in relation to Kenya’s ruling elite.

[The writer is a PhD candidate in South Africa]

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EthnicityCultureKenyan musiciansJohn De Mathew