A New Generation of Kenyan Artists

The oxymoron did not escape us. It was just softly ignored, tapped against the creative energy that engulfed the event. Similar to how it’s treated in every other event, it was not until we had sufficient alcohol in us that we loosened up and tackled the beast.

A couple of nights ago, smacked in the middle of American Thanksgiving, I went to a friend’s launch of The Nest in Nairobi. The Nest aspires to be a creative space for emerging Kenyan artists, such as writers, bloggers, musicians, and designers, to collaborate and support each other’s work. I decided to go primarily to support my friend and because I was nostalgic for the creative crowds I used to run with back in Chicago.

In the backdrop of good music and the primarily Nairobi-born and -bred middle to high class Kenyans, I struck up conversations with a group of writers and artists, some emerging and others established. One is an aspiring poet, another was the former manager of Binyavanga Wainaina and the current festival organizer of the famous African literature magazine, Kwani?, and another is a former marketer turned indie musician. All were raised in Kenya and come from comfortable families.

After a couple of drinks, the conversation shifted to the already-prevalent violence and menacing atmosphere surrounding the presidential election to be held in March, 2013 (the last presidential election killed over 1000 and displaced 300,000 Kenyans). They talked about tribalism and how because they were raised in Nairobi, they never cared too much about tribe affiliations until the last presidential election, when violence and curfews forced them to retreat and defend their own tribes. They could no longer be Kenyans together. Rather, they were either Luos or Kikuyus or Luhya, or one of the other 39 tribes. This begs the essential question to which emerging Kenyan artists mule over everyday, “what is Kenyan?”

Mostly perceptively, a lot of the emerging artists face a conflict. What they are doing- creating various mediums of art- is considered by most Kenyans as “frivolous” and “useless”. It is not that Kenyans do not like dance or music. For most Kenyans, how can the middle and upper class Kenyans waste precious resources to do art when 50% of Kenyan live on less than $1.25 per day and people starve on a daily basis? Why can’t they do something more practical to help Kenyans, such as engineering? This argument is not unique. Everywhere in emerging markets, especially in cut throat countries such as BRIC and Nigeria, there is the prevalent view that the liberal arts education heralded by the West is for weaklings who are not good enough to make it to law, engineering, or medical schools.

I posed this question to my new group of friends. Their answer astonished me and rid of my personal guilt. For them, they are helping the Kenyan cause on a long-term macro-level. They see the problem of tribalism and subsequent feuds and violence not in terms of corruption and the way people are brought up. Rather, they see it a consequence of cooping up 40 million ethnically different people in a country that has no national identity. Even war, typically a national unifier, has not helped Kenyans come together. Rather, the Kenyan-Somalian War has increased the separation of different groups of people as demonstrated by the recent violence in Eastleigh. National identity, or rather the lack thereof, is the pandora’s box.

And these emerging artists are the answer to the problem of lack of identity. Because they are raised in urban environment where tribalism is almost invisible except for the mother tongues spoken, their work, based on their personal experiences, reflect a more unified front. Their creative works, whether it is creating a distinctly Kenyan genre of literature, similar to how Chinua Achebe put the Nigerian lit scene on the map, or using visual art to exemplify Kenyan history, are collaboratively inventing the national Kenyan identity and values. And the artists are contributors to this cause. They are energized and enthusiastic in sheparding this change. They are full of ideals, hubris, ambition, and dedication.

Creating a national identity does not happen overnight. It is gritty work that overlooks every other societal problem. Because it is slow and progress is not as obvious and quantifiable as “1 million children are fed every day due to our work”, it becomes a vital problem that gets tossed to the side whenever politics and policies are involved. In political philosophy, we learn that liberal nationalism takes decades and centuries and is one of the primary reasons for the strengthening of Western nations in the 19th century. This class of emerging artists have fearlessly taken on the challenge.

These artists are young, and in a society as traditional as Kenya, they face numerous hurdles. They need to battle sexism, ageism, and the daunting status quo. But they are the right people to affect change. They are passionate, flexible, creative, intelligent, and know how to work around the problems. And they are Kenyans. At the very least, they have the tools to go viral and reach millions with whatever message they come up with at a low cost. They are tech savvy, likeable, are Twitter and blog ninjas…literally.

I guess I should have called this post, “In Defense of Kenyan Artists”, but I wanted  to open up this dialogue. Perhaps, as a devil’s advocate, they are simply using a noble cause to justify their work and their hearts are not actually in the movement.

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7 thoughts on “A New Generation of Kenyan Artists

  1. Why is national identity seen as a panacea to Kenyas problems. Is not possible/better to foster multiple identities without causing conflict? In the same way i’m a sister/daughter/mother can’t i be kenyan/kikuyu/kamba?

    • A national identity is not singular. Having a national identity means that people from different backgrounds are accepted, whether they are Kamba or Kikuyu or even from other ethnicities, i.e. Indian. A national identity serves the purpose of saying, “I am Kenyan first and Kikuyu second”. No one is saying that you should shed your other identities, but there needs to be a unifier. S o instead of replacing your identity, a national Kenyan identity adds on the facets you already have. For example, there is an American identity, but the majority of Americans are of different heritage and ethnicity, yet we are still able to call ourselves Americans first and foremost.

  2. It could be said that a culture’s traditions and stories are what define it. Kenya, rather than being one culture, is currently a mass of lots of little discrete cultures. Each has their own unifiers, but the country as a whole has none. National government seems mostly to be an opportunity for self-enrichment. The flag is the symbol of schools and not much else. Remember when they used to play it in cinemas before the movie, and everyone, but everyone, would stand? Hardly anyone knows all the words to the Loyalty Pledge any more. This is why I support the efforts creatives are making at giving us wider, more encompassing ideas and experiences that will include all of us, at once.
    I put down my own thoughts on national identity some time ago, if you’re interested. http://wp.me/p1iV0V-G

  3. I think that the example of the U.S. national identity you gave above is spot-on. It proves that it is possible to identify oneself as a member of an ethnic group (or describe by hertiage) AND still consider oneself a national of a given country. But I also believe that in case of the US this stems directly from the country’s history- after all, apart from Native Indians, everyone else was an immigrant. So this kind of “double nationality” is something natural.

    It looks completely different in countries that were “created” in lands that hosted different ethnic groups since “the beginning”. Take the Balkans, for instance. Take Turkey. Take Greece and Cyprus. Sometimes ethnic sentiment dominates the national identity (not sure what that even is).

    Finally, I am also familiar with the idea that people studying humanities contribute “less” to the society, in terms of economic development. And…I kind of agree.

    Look at it using Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs. For me, art in that context fulfills the “Belonging” and “Self-actualization” needs. Those needs are higher up, more sophisticated luxuries compared to the “Physical” and “Safety” needs that developing societies should focus on first to improve the lives of the citizens. So, yeah, engineers and doctors play a more important role than musicians and writers.

    • I would then counter with religious folks. They play a major role in history, whether it is establishing the roots of countries or inflicting violence and war against the minorities. They have huge influence even though they are in a sense artists like musicians and writers. Artists influence our mental and spiritual beings. Without a central inner balance, society goes haywire, and that’s why art has been preserved for so long. Every culture is proud of its music, its art, its films, etc.

  4. As a young emerging artist, thank you so much for coming to our defense. We are the keepers of memory, we are the ones who stand up and take the difficult task of trying to affect change where it is needed. It is a thankless job but it someone has gotta do it!!!

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