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Contemporary Musicians and their Songs

Volume 13, Issue 3  | 
Published 04/04/2017

Stanley Gazemba, Kenya’s well known author, writes:

‘The overriding theme is PROTEST. They all speak out against social and political injustice. Most of the songs speak out against an oppressive political leadership that undermines the downtrodden, mostly the urban poor. Others champion the rights of women and protection of the environment. The songs represent the restlessness in a society characterized by a vast and growing chasm between those in authority and the masses, the inequality between the elite haves and the majority have nots.’

Unbwogable – Gidi Gidi Maji Maji

‘Unbwogable’ (Unbeatable) became the official campaign song that propelled the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) to oust the former President Moi from power in 2002 after 24 years of strong-arm rule. The song whipped up emotions among the massive crowds that turned up at the campaign rallies, instilling a sense of invincibility. It drove home the message that change was inevitable, and that if people stood up against the ills of the system as one, then they were unstoppable.

Gangsters in Parliament – Jabali Afrika: Album: Rebellion 1963 to the Future, 2012

Kenyan legislators have through the years earned themselves the dubious distinction of awarding themselves extravagant salaries and other tax free perks in the same country where the majority of the population can barely afford a decent meal a day.

‘Gangsters in Parliament’ is an uncompromising protest song against officially sanctioned greed. The song wonders why the ordinary Kenyan has to toil and pay taxes to support the profligate lifestyles of their leaders. It says the country can only discard its dependence on foreign donors when corruption stops and all those entrusted with public posts are made accountable for their official actions.

Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo – Eric Wainaina: Album: Sawa Sawa 2001

The song shines a spotlight on corruption and how it affects the everyday lives of ordinary Kenyans who are forced to carry the burden of sustaining a government that is bent on bleeding them for even the little that they have. It reminds the corrupt government officials – from crooked cops to procurement officers who steal supplies meant for public hospitals, of the pledge of our founding fathers at independence to build a country that works for all. It speaks for the voiceless masses who are frustrated by this sad state of affairs.

So strong was the message in this song released in 2005 that the microphones were turned off at a national function where Wainaina was performing in the presence of the country’s Vice- President at the time.

Lunch Time - Nairobi City Ensemble: Album - Kaboum Boum, 2002

Originally recorded by Gabriel Omolo in 1972 but reworked to a modern beat, ‘Lunchtime’ is a commentary on the levels of inequality apparent in modern Kenya, using Nairobi’s Uhuru Park at lunch time as a case study.

While a casual visitor to the city might assume that all the people lying in the popular park at lunchtime are resting, the truth is that a good number of them are forced to pass the lunch hour there because they can’t afford lunch. They are literally sleeping over their problems as they long for payday at month’s end when they will all depart for the big restaurants to have a proper lunch like their more affluent fellow city dwellers.

It reminds the listener that the urban working poor are not happy with their lot, that they merely tolerate their miseries as they dream of making their big break so they can migrate to the other side of the fence where the grass is green.

Nindaraona Njiira - Zingamoto Afrika: Album – Spotlight on Kenyan Music Vol 2, 2006

This song questions the alarming levels of insecurity, the loss to drugs and crime of young people who are expected to take up the leadership mantle, and also the loss of traditional values that used to hold the society together. It wonders where the country, and Africa as a whole, is headed to with all this malaise.

Bwana Serikali - Necessary Noize: Album – ft.Bryo and Jerry Doobie

This piece recorded in 2000 by one of the pioneering hip-hop groups in Kenya, is a protest about the injustice meted out to the ordinary and defenseless Kenyans by the government they depend on to protect them.

The artists express dismay at rampant police executions of mostly young and innocent citizens whose only crime is being jobless in a society that offers them few opportunities. The song questions where we are headed to as a country with this state of affairs.

Bahasha ya Ocampo - Juliani: Album – Pulpit Kwa Street, 2011

The song’s title is a reference to an envelope that was handed over to the International Criminal Court containing the names of suspects alleged to have masterminded the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya. Here, the singer says he is lucky to have evaded that dreaded list of suspects but he admits he is even more scared of God’s finger pointing accusingly at him because of his misdeeds.

The politically outspoken rapper castigates politicians for their excesses; misappropriating funds meant for free education and living a lavish lifestyle at the expense of the taxpayer.

Nakuja - Sauti Sol: Album Spotlight on Kenyan music Vol 2, 2006

Here the narrator is coming back to Africa to claim his birthright. He is fully aware of the enemy standing in the wings, waiting for him to flounder. He reminds him that it won’t happen, that he is determined to accomplish his mission. He calls on Africans to stand up as one and fight those bent on plundering the continent.

Teachings - Makadem: Album – Teachings 2005

Singing over a popular Jamaican reggae riddim, Makadem takes a stab at politicians urging the electorate to open their eyes and see the politicians for who they truly are: cheating opportunists who are only interested in sustaining their own lavish lifestyles at the expense of the taxpayers. It urges the voters to stand up for their rights and stop the endless abuse by a political class that rarely works towards the betterment of society.

Rais Wangu - Wangu: Album – Rais Wangu, 2012

Here the singer talks directly to his President, telling him that he is no longer interested in voting or listening to politicians. He says that his true friends are his immediate neighbours who are of more use to him than politicians, who only mess up the country with their utterances and deeds. He laments how everything the citizens build through toil and sweat can be destroyed in an instant because of bad politics.

Tafsiri Hill – Kalamashaka: Album – Tafsiri Hii, 1997

A massive radio and club hit at the time of its release in 1997, and arguably the most influential hip-hop track in Kenya, this song reflects on life in urban ghettos and what young people in urban slums have to cope with.

It expresses their aspirations and how they are forced to constantly find ways to navigate the complicated urban tapestry that makes it extremely difficult for jobless young people from the ghettos to survive. It cautions those in authority, the cops who harass young ghetto hustlers and the entire system that makes it impossible for them to find work and make a decent living. That, despite all that the system throws at them these youth are not criminals but hard-working people looking to be given half a chance to prove themselves.

Mapambano - Makadem: Album: Mapambano, 2007

This song borrows from a popular campaign song that the Orange Democratic Movement used to work up the crowds during their 2007 election campaigns. It observes that Kenya is a country made up of insiders and outsiders, and urges the listener to fight for a reversal of this polarizing order. The song
reminds us of the importance of participating in the electoral process to bring about change. It says that the country deserves leaders of integrity who can unite the country and make it work for all the citizens. It reminds Kenyans that the struggle for social justice and equality for all is still on and continues to be widely used as a rallying cry by employees on strike.

Urithi - Iddi Achieng: Album: Weapon Of Mass Reconciliation, 2011

This song reflects on the state of the Mau complex, the most important water tower in Kenya. Iddi recorded the song at a time when there was a national debate over a decision by the government to evict those people who had settled in the Mau to protect the forest from destruction. The singer warns of the consequences of the destruction of the ecosystem making up this complex, reminding us that our children may inherit a desert if this environmental degradation is not checked.

Utawala - Juliani: Album: Utawala, 2013

‘Utawala’, Kiswahili for ‘Leadership’ won over a cross section of listeners, becoming a must-play song on radio almost overnight. Juliani hits out at corruption in high office, reminding the authorities that as an ordinary, struggling Kenyan, he cannot achieve his goals in life, as long as corruption still dictates how people make it up the social ladder. He is ready to pay the ultimate price to make a difference.

The overriding message in the song is that the downtrodden will overcome, whatever the challenges thrown at them, and that eventually justice will prevail over evil. The government is reminded that the youth do not need hand-outs, but rather, access to opportunities to empower them both socially and economically.

Weka Taya – Makadem: Album: Weka Taya, 2007

This song's refrain borrows from an incident when a former Member of Parliament led a demonstration against the Nairobi City Council, which was evicting people from Council houses in Nairobi's Eastlands. During the demonstration the MP urged the angry crowd to 'necklace' (read lynch) any of the Council officials on sight. After an outcry over these remarks, the politician defended himself by saying what he meant was weka taa (light a lamp) not weka taya (light a tyre). Makadem who has a well-earned reputation as an uncompromising social commentator, uses the expression, 'Weka taya', as a chant of defiance.

People's Voice - Jabali Afrika: Album: Mayosi, 2006

This song was recorded in 2007 as a rallying call to get-out-the-vote ahead of that year's election in Kenya that ended up with a contested result and more than 1,000 people dead in widespread violence. Many radio stations in Kenya found Jabali Afrika's message for democracy and justice to prevail over corruption a little too radical and so the song was denied airplay. The lyrics demand that those in authority should respect the voice of the people through the ballot.

Some earlier lyrics: So you killed him?

Clement Arwings Kodhek a foreign minister in the Jomo Kenyatta government was killed in an ‘accident’ on January 29, 1969. This incident heralded a series of ‘accidents’ of prominent politicians like Ronald Gideon Ngala (Xmas day 1972), Kitili Maluki Mwendwa (September 1985) and Bishop Alexander Muge (20 August, 1990).

After the death of Kodhek, George Ramogi recorded an emotional tribute with these pointed lyrics ‘So you killed him. Will his wealth quench your thirst? Will you feast on his body like cannibals?’

Why Tom?

Tom Mboya, a prominent member of Jomo Kenyatta’s cabinet was assassinated in broad daylight in 1969. There was widespread anger and people took the streets to express their anger. George Ramogi captured the mood of the nation in the song ‘Why Tom’?

J M Kariuki

Josaih Mwangi Kariuki, popularly known as ‘JM’ was a Member of Parliament and outspoken critic of high level corruption. He famously described Kenya as a nation of ‘ten millionaires and ten million beggars’. On 25 March, 1975, JM was reported missing as the government attempted to explain his disappearance to a skeptical nation. A few days later a mutilated corpse was discovered in the bushes on the outskirts of Nairobi, it was identified as that of JM. Joseph Kamaru recorded a moving tribute to the slain MP with the title ‘J M Kariuki’.


One morning in April, 1990, bulldozers from the Nairobi City Council descended on the Muoroto slum in Nairobi and demolished it, putting the lives of thousands of urban poor in jeopardy. The whole exercise was captured by TV cameras, revealing to a large audience, the brutality and insensitivity of the Moi regime. The eviction was the theme of a song ‘Thina Wa Muoroto, Kikuyu for ‘The Trouble of Muoroto’ by JJ Muoria which also pointed to the need for multiparty democracy.

The song featured on the first music cassette to be banned in Kenya for alleged incitement. It also became the first to be sold secretly through an underground network.

JJ himself was eventually traced down and arrested by the Special Branch who tortured him to the point of him losing his sexual function and ensured that his career as a musician was well and truly over.


In August 1992, a group of musicians Sammy Muraya, Wamucii Benson, Lady Wanja, Timona Mburu, John Ndemethiu and Mbugua Murage travelled to a refugee camp in the town of Molo to visit and console thousands of victims of ethnic violence in the area who were also fans of the musicians. They took the precaution of travelling individually so as to not draw attention to themselves. Part of their agenda was to source material for a collaborative cassette. This was in defiance of a curfew.

Having successfully accomplished their mission, once back in Nairobi the musicians worked swiftly to release a pro-change cassette which was an instant best seller through an underground street vendors network, despite a spirited effort by the police to find and destroy copies of the cassette. The cassette was instantly banned by the authorities.

Sammy Muraya was identified as the group’s leader and his life was made a misery. After a series of arrests and re-arrests and tortured at every stage, Muraya went into exile in England. His co-conspirators fled to Uganda for a while but returned when things eventually calmed down and the pro-democracy movement proved unstoppable.


All text and pictures in this section courtesy of Ketebul Music 2013