One musician traces his ancestry by playing his nyatiti while another uses his powerful vocals to express his frustration toward Kenya’s politicians. A storyteller makes the crowd giggle and roar as she shares timeless tales of domineering lions and clever hares. These were three Kenyan artists who gave visitors a virtual trip to Kenya during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer.
Eric Wainaina: A Million-Selling Musician Who Tells It Like It Is
Songs of Struggle
Eric Wainaina, one of Kenya’s top musicians, often sings about the political and social injustice that plague the country.
Dressed in ripped jeans, T-shirt and fedora, Eric Wainaina quietly slips into the seat behind his keyboard. His smooth, powerful voice soon silences a chattering audience as he moves into his first performance at the festival – a song aimed at the politicians of Kenya.
“You wind up your window of your fancy car/ Turn on your AC/ You can’t feel the potholes/ You can’t feel the heat.”
He’s definitely not shy about making politicians feel the heat. “Fancy Car” is about Kenyan officials who use taxpayers money to buy luxury goods.
The 40-year-old singer is one of the most popular musicians — and political activists — in Kenya. His songs are often banned on state-run radio but remain widely requested on private stations. And his award-winning albums are among the country’s top-selling records: His first sold more than 2 million copies. He’s even been appointed Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations Environmental Programme.
While studying at Berklee College of Music, Wainaina wrote “Kenya Only,” which became the country’s mourning song following a 1998 terrorist attack that killed more than 200 people in the capital city of Nairobi.
Since then, his music – a fusion of pop and benga, a Kenyan genre known for its fast-paced rhythmic beats and upbeat guitar riffs – has caught international attention. The lyrics reflect Wainaina’s social and political indignation and resonate with the millions who disapprove of Kenya’s authoritarian and corrupt political culture.
But he says he hasn’t received strong reactions from the government – just the occasional polite requests to stop playing certain songs, particularly if the president is in the audience.
Number one on the “don’t play” list is his 2001 hit that criticizes the government for taking bribes. Kenyans, on the other hand, loved the song so much they’ve adopted it as their unofficial national anthem.
The song’s title, “Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo,” means “land of small things,” and in Kenya, “small things” is slang for bribes. Police officers, state officials, even health care workers and school teachers often demand a little something – maybe some tea or soda – from citizens. What they’re really thirsty for is money.
Wainaina says that people initially used the phrase to request a small tip, usually some sort of beverage, for their work. “But people began to demand that for essential services that the government should be providing,” he says.
When the police found his lost ID card, Wainaina had to bribe the officer to return it. He recalls her warning: “‘If you don’t give me 200 shillings [about $3], then it could get lost again.'”
“I’m happy to say that that was the last time I paid a bribe,” he says. “My wife said to me, ‘When you pay a bribe, you give people more power than they have.'”
The song pokes fun at greedy officials, telling them that if they want tea, they should go to the town of Limuru, where tea leaves are grown. If they want soda, they should drink Fanta.
Not all songs are anger directed at politicians; Wainaina wrapped up his performance with “Revolution Time,” a ballad that serves as a peaceful rallying cry for political reform and an encouragement for Kenyans to take action through protests and elections.
“Should we shrug our shoulders in indifference/ Should we sit there and suck our teeth/ Throw up our hands and surrender/ And take opposition on the fences/ We cannot sit down when the ground is shaking/ Trembling from below, the earth is breaking / It’s time to put on our uniforms / Sign up for the revolution.”