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Kenya’s musicians: where are you?

Your holy war, your northern star /
Your sermon on the mount from the boot of your car.
…September, streets capsizing / Spilling over down the drains
Shard of glass, splinters like rain / But you could only feel your own pain.
Please / Get up off your knees.
Please / Leave me out of this, please.

Those evocative words are from “Please” by U2, one of the most powerful anti-politician songs ever rendered. The song itself is dramatic: simultaneously a paean to peace and an angry diatribe against the politicians who ruined Northern Ireland with their sectarian conflicts.

Those conflicts, known as “The Troubles”, lasted three decades and caused thousands of deaths. Irishman took on Irishman, using bombs and guns, simply because one was Catholic and the other Protestant. Northern Ireland became a wasteland, a playground for terrorists, a landscape of vandalised houses, a shattered economy. There seemed to be no end in sight.

By 1997, a protracted peace process was underway, but had stalled several times. In that year, Bono’s legendary Irish rock band recorded “Please”. The band released a special EP with four faces pointedly on the cover: those of the main Irish political protagonists, Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, John Hume and David Trimble.

On Good Friday 1998, a peace deal was finally signed. It was the turning point. Since then, Northern Ireland has been subject to a power-sharing deal (sound familiar?). Of course the troubles did not end overnight, and there have been further outbreaks of terrorism and political bickering. But from that time, Northern Ireland has been on a gentle recovery path.

Did a rock band cause peace to break out? Of course not, that would be a facile conclusion. But there can be no doubt that U2, with their heartfelt lyrics and gut-wrenching singing, made their contribution. They had a big effect on their natural audience, the young, and caused a sway in public opinion about the conflict. And by targeting political apparatchiks in their album covers, concerts and posters, they caused a great deal of much-needed embarrassment.

You know where I’m going with this. Kenyan musicians, where are you when your country needs you? It is the job of the artist to record the pain of the land, and to cause social uplift. This country is at a crossroads: over the next few months, either we make the hard decisions that we need to as a nation, or we stare failed-state status in the face.

Of all the artistic platforms, popular music can have the most dramatic and most immediate impact. It plays directly on the emotions and can send spirits soaring. It can build oneness and unity of purpose. It can affect millions of people simultaneously.

It is not that we don’t know this. We have had some famous songs that have driven social and political movements. The ‘Yote Yawezekana’ and ‘Unbwogable’ songs played a big role in bundling out a rotten regime right here in 2003. Eric Wainaina has done a great deal to heighten awareness of our social ills. But those songs are rare, and those singers plough a lonely furrow.

So where are you, Kenyan musicians? Are you going to stand up and be counted? This country needs pressure from all possible quarters if we are going to complete our rebirth. Most importantly, we need pressure from our own sons and daughters, particularly those with the talent to write the lyrics and produce the tunes that will resonate with the multitudes.

We need songs that expose corruption; songs that mock our awful politicians and their awful politics; songs that lament our lost values; songs that plead for the poor and record their suffering; songs that educate the ignorant and teach them how to be discerning when choosing their leaders. We need songs that will drive those who systematically loot this country into the sea.

So, my dear singing ‘celebs’, you need to take some time out from your songs about sex and hedonism. There is a bigger game to play. You need to do more than attend vacuous awards ceremonies with your booty hanging out. You need to stop gyrating your hips and instead search for your consciences. You have a higher purpose to achieve. Your music must have meaning in the context of the situation of your people.

By all means, keep writing and singing trite love songs. Everyone does that, including U2 and Michael Jackson. Popular hits will give you the success and space to do something bigger and better. But every once in a while, you must produce a song that creates a social revolution.

Your audience is the most populous in the land. You have the power in your fingers and in your voices. Use it! Look beyond stretch limos and vapid lyrics: you could actually go down in history. The artist must rise above ethnic divides and political walls. Art is the great unifier of the world; use your art to transform this divided land from which you sprang.

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