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Kenya’s biggest Afropop band gets political—and stirs up controversy

Bien-aime Baraza (L-R), Delvin Mudigi Savara, Willis Chimano and Polycarp Otieno of Afro pop group and 2014 best African Act at the MTV Europe Music Awards, Sauti Sol performs at 'Ndovu Zetu' concert (in Swahili meaning 'Our Elephants') being the first concert for Kenya wildlife festival held in Nairobi, Kenya, 28 February 2015. The concert was aimed to support the efforts of protecting and advocating for anti poaching of Elephants in Africa through music. Kenya will mark this year's World Wildlife Day by hosting a week long Kenya Wildlife Festival in celebration of her unique wildlife heritage and beauty from 28th February to 7th March. The festival seeks to give the public an opportunity to learn about wildlife through music, citizen science projects, debates, films, and theatre.
Sauti Sol enters Kenya’s murky political field.
By Abdi Latif Dahir
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

At the beginning of Sauti Sol’s new song Tujiangalie—“self-reflection” in Swahili—the Kenyan band poses a question in epistolary form from the nation’s founding fathers: “Is everything fine in Kenya?” The answer, damning and swift, is a resounding no. “In Kenya, we have a disaster.”

The track, which launched this week, is the popular Afropop band’s first major politically-charged song and signals a shift toward social commentary and activism. Recorded in collaboration with Kenyan rapper Nyashinski, it offers a poetic appraisal on the problems currently plaguing Kenya—including corruption, mounting debt, economic inequality, a crisis of leadership, and the troubling connection between the clergy and the political class. The official lyric video visually celebrates Nairobi’s dynamism, but also notes that in Kenya, democracy is just a “word we say for fun.”

The single’s release comes at a pivotal time in the East Africa nation. Officials are vowing to stamp out graft once and for all. Both current and former politicians have been arrested on charges of corruption in recent weeks, and thousands of buildings alleged to be illegally built on riparian land have been marked for demolition.

Crucially, the song also comes exactly a year after Kenya’s much-contested and expensive election, which was dogged by electoral malpractice and violence. The band says that Kenyan people can bring about change through introspection, and by finding ways “to speak power to the reality that we are living in.”

“It’s not about the people on the ballot but about the people who vote,” Bien-Aime Baraza, the lead vocalist of the band, told Quartz, alluding to the heated elections that feed off tense tribal divides. “And so we need to create a movement of young people who know that they are the change and who value their votes and who follow up on local leadership.”

Sauti Sol’s venture into political protest has attracted a mixed reaction from Kenyans. Some criticized the song’s timing, arguing it would have been more impactful had it been released last year. Critics lamented the group’s ties to the powerful political class—former US president Barack Obama has grooved to their tunes—while others pointed to the group’s 2017 comments blaming “uneducated” Kenyans for voting incompetent leaders to power.

Wandia Njoya, a prominent language and cultural commentator, wrote a takedown of the song’s lyrics, concluding “these musicians are giving us a vent, but they are not really calling for change.” On the other hand, some have noted that while artists play an important role in society, we shouldn’t expect them to “make us care about our country with a melody.”

Sauti Sol says they are aware of their own shortcomings, writing in a message accompanying their YouTube video that “None of us are exonerated. We have all contributed to and benefited from the flawed systems.” But that, Baraza says, shouldn’t stop Kenyans from discussing and seeking solutions on issues like health, education, better infrastructure, and improved governance. While questioning leaders and holding them accountable, Baraza said Kenyans should also take personal actions to improve their nation.

“It’s the little things that we do around us that make us all and Kenya better,” he said. “The conversations around this song must never die.”

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