Wayback Machine

Updated: Sep 25, 2019

An historical look at the Kenya artists who took on tribalism in song

By Mariga Thoithi

A British colonial tactic of divide and rule a century ago, left Kenyan divided. The tactic involved the creation and negotiation of smaller categories of people who were referred to as a tribe based on lingual and physical characteristics. The tribes were then separated into administrative units for easier management and they were pitted against each other as a way of limiting unity in opposing British rule.

Tribalism has been an unfortunate part of Kenya’s history since this time and it almost brought Kenya to its knees in 1992 and again in 2007. Music as a form of protest has been one way that artists have spoken out against tribalism. These are some of the songs and videos which have gotten Kenyans addressing the elephant in the room.

Based off Eric Wanaina’s debut studio album, Sawa Sawa in 2001, Daima Mkenya came to the fore during the 2007 post-election-violence. Kenya had gone through countrywide violence where over 1,500 were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. The politically instigated violence had taken place along ethnic lines and Kenyans were looking for something to bring them together and this song did just that. It was fondly referred to as Kenya’s second national anthem. Initially inspired as a song to inspire patriotism for Kenya’s national football team, Harambee Stars, in 1997 when they were in the qualifying stage of the Africa Cup of Nations, it was turned into a more encompassing song that reflected the divided state of Kenya and the continent at the time.

Hatutaki Ukabila Kenya (We don’t want tribalism in Kenya) was composed by Johannesburg-based, Kenyan music producer Dickson Sirawa. The song brings together 10 artists from Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and South Africa in a bid to unify Kenyans. Dickson was at the wrong end of political violence in 2007 when he had gone to visit his family in Western Kenya. He was caught up in the violence and he had to endure the dangerous 360Km journey from Kisumu to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport through a route that had sporadic road blocks that required one to prove their tribe (where being from the wrong tribe would result in violence or death) and others which were extortion centres. The track soulfully moves in and out between song and rap urging Kenyans to be united.

Written right before the 2013 election and based off images off the 2007 post-election violence, Rufftone delivered Mungu Baba as a reminder to Kenyans of the violence. Surprisingly performed with General Service Unit officers, (a paramilitary armed forces unit which was/is used to quell riots and has been continuously accused of brutality and killings) the song calls on Kenyans to love one another. Performed with the National Youth Orchestra, the song became a national hit performed at national events as part of Kenya’s reconciliation efforts.

Composed and released in January 2008, right in the middle of the post election violence, Wakenya Pamoja called on Kenyans to unite in spite of their origins. Created by R Kay, an award-winning gospel artiste and producer, the song brought together over 30 celebrated musicians together to create this masterpiece which received massive airplay for months afterwards. The artists came from different communities and religions and it remains as relevant now as it was at that point.

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