Emotional appeal in political anthems

Raila Odinga during the recording.

Written and recorded by British singer and songwriter, Labi Siffre, So Strong (Something Inside So Strong) is one of the biggest R&B songs from the star’s illustrious music career.

The single, produced by Glyn Johns was released in 1987. It peaked at number four on the UK Chart, climbing and staying on top of the chart for months as one of the biggest songs.

The song stands out as one of the international classics of all time.

Now, 35 years on, the single has found fresh life in Kenyan politics. It is in Raila Odinga’s playlist as was witnessed last weekend during the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) National Delegates Conference (NDC) and the follow-up marshalling up of the Azimio coalition birth at the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani.

Also in Raila’s playlist is the late Lucky Dube’s Reggae hit Nobody Can Stop Reggae, Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon, and Lero ni Lero by Emmanuel Musindi, the latter being his campaign anthem.

On Saturday, as the ODM party leader made his way to the podium following his endorsement as the party’s flagbearer ahead of the August 9 polls, the DJ played a poignant sound.

“The higher you build your barriers/The taller I become/The further you take my rights away/The faster I will run/You can deny me/You can decide to turn your face away/No matter, cos there’s…” went the tune, quite popular evidently from the reaction from the delegates who echoed the refrain back with a resounding sense of togetherness.

“Something inside so strong/I know that I can make it/Tho’ you are doing me wrong, so wrong/You thought that my pride was gone/Oh no, something inside so strong Oh oh oh oh oh something inside so strong…”

The tune rent the air again when Raila was joined by President Uhuru Kenyatta at the venue. It was not an accidental or random choice. When the Sunday Standard reached out to a key ODM secretariat member who has insights on that particular moment, he said the number was one of Raila’s favourites.

It was not the only song the sound and technical team had purposed to play on a day when an emotional appeal was key in setting the tone.

From ethnically inclined tunes, dance and speeches were choreographed to show a convention of national image.

Ranging from popular gospel numbers like I Know Who I am by Sinach to funky hits like Brothers and Sisters, culturally certified numbers like Lero ni Lero by Emmanuel Musindi from Western Kenya - whose new rendition features Raila - to the soothing Taarab melodies from the Coast, the fusing of tunes is no doubt a deliberate choice.

“Music has always had a common appeal, locally and internationally, one that makes us feel and respond as well as behave in a certain way. As a language of emotion, it has the ability to influence, change and guide aspirations.

It has always been a tool used for social, political and economic courses,” says Paul Matavi, a music lecturer.

He adds, “Culturally, music was used during social events such as circumcision and wedding ceremonies. It was used during times of war and other calamities. Music has been used to push political campaigns and other agendas as seen in the case in the local context, something that is not new to us. It was key in the movement against apartheid in South Africa and so on.” 

Gospel singer Ben Githae, the star behind Jubilee party’s re-election anthem Tano Tena, says as much as it might be viewed as a cash cow for artistes, the creation of political anthems is a show of patriotism and a rallying call to the electorate towards a preferred direction.

“Like I have said before, my support for Uhuru Kenyatta is unwavering. My campaign songs are a clear voice to all on my stand, one that I would urge people to take as a preferred political direction. It is nothing I am ashamed of. Besides, like any other business, it also puts food on the table,” he says.

Unbwogable, a hit that made the Gidi Gidi Maji Maji duo a household name in Kenya was the biggest tune that led the way ahead of the 2002 General Election – with the then opposition Narc paying Sh800,000 to use the song in a poll it ended up winning.

“Originally, we did not write the song for political gain. As demand grew from politicians to use it during their campaign rallies, the offers that came with this were handsome. We ended up striking a deal with Narc to use the tune,” says Maji Maji, whose real name is Julius Owino.

It is a balancing act for politicians going for political positions as well as parties as they strategise on winning the youthful vote through music tunes and trends that speak to their demography. Among the young tunes and phrases now becoming popular in political rallies is Sipangwingwi, a slang word loosely translated as “I am not one to be compelled”, one coined into a track title by Exray Taniua featuring Trio Mio and Ssaru.

Unbwogable, the hit song by the Gidi Gidi Maji Maji duo moved to take the centre stage in Kenyan politics back in 2002.

Even though it was not originally composed as a political anthem, the music group reworked it after sealing a mega-deal with the Narc (National Rainbow Coalition), one that led to the popularisation of the hit as a political anthem. 

Youthful and oozing fresh energy, the sound was timely and strategic. It was aimed at interrupting a long-serving old regime and changing the political voting pattern in favour of a young population. Still, Unbwogable, a Dholuo word that loosely translates as unstoppable, was a voice of defiance and resistance against an outgoing regime.

Unbwogable had become a popular hit that had made us a household across Kenya. After we were approached to rewrite the lyrics and give the sound a political touch, we agreed. The proposal was in line with our aspirations for change as this was the political wind that was blowing across the country, especially among the young people. We opted to be that voice of change,” says Maji Maji.  

In South Africa, during the apartheid era, music was created as part of the retreat movement by the oppressed ‘Afrikaans’, a move calculated to bring an end to the white regime. Led by song and dance, Africans came together, bonding and what was termed as a brotherhood and pushing towards freedom as the unification goal that began the historic appraisal.

The songs communicated better than political speeches with tunes and chants combining into an emotional assurance never witnessed before as a sense of human dignity started getting restored, that until the apartheid regime came crumpling in 1994.

One can recall the 1992 musical drama film Sarafina, one based on Mbongeni Ngema’s 1987 musical of the same name, a music cry with huge political connotations. Here is Sarafina (Leleti Khumalo) taking the pain of her mother, a domestic worker in a white man’s house. She charges her peers to rise up in protest and even goes ahead to blame it all on, the then jailed, Nelson Mandela whom she alludes has gone for a long time with a nation idolising him at the expense of its freedom.

And how some of the African political activists such as Whoopi Goldberg, Miriam Makeba and John Kani gave this one their all.

“The fact is that music has always been an integral part of the human race. It is part of a people’s culture. It is beyond communication. Music is life, a nervous impulse with the power to break social, religious, racial political and economic barriers. It has the power to influence and determine the destiny of a country. Music gives an awakening call on societal matters when change is needed in a society,” says John Katana, a veteran Kenyan music composer, instrumentalist, singer and bandleader of the iconic Mushrooms band.

As the battle for the numbers intensifies in the current political environment in Kenya, other forms of appeal such as dressing style and use of language are becoming key in winning the electorate.

Politicians have been forced to learn the latest street code – slang – in showing their understanding and support for the youth who make up about 75 per cent of the voters.

Innovation is also playing a key role with the application of social media and other digital spaces as key campaign avenues.