Kenyan Youth Culture Takes Off as Censorship Weakens

By ANDREW STRICKLER Pacific News Service
Tuesday July 13, 2004

NAIROBI, Kenya—From her studio on the 20th floor of an office building in downtown Nairobi, 25-year-old radio disc jockey Eve D’Souza has a good perspective on the tastes of young Kenyans. As she spins CDs for the evening show “Hits Not Homework” on Nairobi’s Capital FM, D’Souza juggles the phones and keeps an eye on the dozens of instant messages on her computer screen from her young listeners.  

From the requests, it is clear that young Kenyans have wholeheartedly embraced American pop culture. Among the hundreds of messages D’Souza receives nightly is a call from Larry in Baru, who requests a track from Naz. Joey in Nairobi writes, “I’d luv any tight trick by Dead Prez going out to my cuz Willy wherever he at.” 

D’Souza says that until a few years ago, her show was filled exclusively with Tupac, Dr. Dre, and other U.S. artists. But Kenya’s music scene has exploded in recent years. These days, D’Souza’s Top 10 countdown includes tracks from Nameless, Prezzo, Necessary Noize, and others from a growing list of homegrown talent.  

D’Souza welcomes the change.  

“We’re finally becoming serious about local music, and being proud of being Kenyan,” she says. 

DJ Adrian, a Nairobi native and a fixture on the city’s club scene, agrees that the last three years have seen a major shift in the tastes of young Kenyans. “You can’t do a party any more without local music,” he says.  

The surge in popularity of Kenyan musicians and the new visibility of youth culture can be linked directly to the recent liberalization of the media scene, which for decades was under the strict control of the government.  

For most of Kenya’s 41-year history, Daniel arap Moi, a giant of African politics, ruled as a virtual dictator. Although Moi was applauded by many as a stabilizing presence in the often-volatile region, his regime was riddled with corruption, and his critics were often arrested and tortured. Many others simply disappeared.  

The news and entertainment media were similarly restricted during Moi’s rule. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, Kenyans had only one choice on the radio, the government-controlled Kenyan Broadcasting Company, which broadcast religious programming and pro-government news. Young voices rarely made the airwaves. Ken Obura, a 23-year-old college student from Nairobi, recalls as a child, “It was all politics, always the same old characters.”  

Moi began to loosen the reins in his final years in office. A few new stations appeared, although political criticism remained risky. But the real change began with the 2002 election of current Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, who appears to be fulfilling his campaign promise to liberalize the media.  

Today, Kenya radio is experiencing a boom. Government officials say Nairobi now has 24 licensed FM operators, most of them less than four years old. Many are eager to capture the attention of young people, and not just through music.  

Among the reggae and Kenyan rap tracks, many of which are sung in the Swahili/English slang known as “sheng,” are frank discussions on topics such as interracial relationships, inequalities among Kenya’s many cultural groups, and AIDS. 

Not all topics are open for discussion, however. 

“There is no mention of lesbianism and homosexuality,” says Luiza Safari, 20, an anthropology student from Mombasa. “People think these things are not happening, but they are, so they should talk about it.”  

And despite Kibaki’s promise to support a free press, government interference remains a threat. In March, after a DJ at a Nairobi radio station mocked a government minister on air, the station’s signal was temporarily blocked by a rival station. Although it was never officially acknowledged, many in Nairobi say the action happened under orders from Kenya’s first lady, Lucy Kibaki.  

Several magazines for young Kenyans, many of whom are raised in conservative Christian and Muslim households, have appeared in recent years and are pushing the limits of customary propriety. The latest entry is The Entertainer, which focuses on East African hip-hop music. Among the magazine’s offerings of celebrity gossip and CD reviews are articles extolling the virtues of late-night clubbing and thong underwear. 

“Sure, some people are disgusted,” says Entertainer Editor Joseph Ngunjiri. “But the culture is here, you can’t just wish it away,”  

Change is also being felt in the offices of the independent student magazine The Comrade at Nairobi University, which was frequently shut down during the Moi regime. Editor Kennedy Mbara, 25, says students overwhelmingly supported President Kibaki’s campaign because he promised to support a free press and create jobs for young Kenyans. “When the regime changed, everyone here was happy, everyone was hopeful,” Mbara says.  

However, Mbara says he is troubled by Kibaki’s recent refusal to sign the new constitution, which would decentralize presidential power, as well as recent warnings from the government-controlled administration that the magazine’s involvement in student protests will not be tolerated. “So far they have not banned us, but we can only pray,” he says.  

But despite the threat of a reversal of recent gains, Mbara says that young Kenyans’ willingness to speak out is here to stay. “One thing about our students, we will always talk,” he says.  


Andrew Strickler is a freelance journalist and a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.›