Ruto, Raila split Mt Kenya benga industry down the middle

Entertainment campaign rally

A man entertains a crowd during a campaign rally for Kirinyaga Woman Representative and gubernatorial candidate Wangui Ngirici at Kerugoya stadium in Kirinyaga county on June 4, 2022.

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi I Nation Media Group

Political divisions pitting supporters of Deputy President William Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza Alliance against those of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja coalition party have split the Mt Kenya benga music fraternity right down the middle.

The differences between artistes supporting either side of the political divide are so entrenched that a running joke in the region has it that the two camps cannot agree on the right way to ‘dance’ to the national anthem.

While the normal posture that all should strike whenever the national anthem is playing is to solemnly stand at attention, with the right hand either saluting or placed over the heart – on the left side of one’s chest – the two sides are said to be so divided that they can’t agree on this.

The joke has it that one side would insist on gyrating to the tune of the national anthem as one does with Lingala (rhumba) music while the other would aver that one should dance to the national anthem as one does with the one-man-guitar genre of music, or mugiithi (train), as it is popularly referred to in the Mt Kenya region. In a word, the Benga musicians in the Mountain region are nearly politically irreconcilable, three days to the August 9 General Election.

“It is true that we are divided along political lines. That is not a bad thing per se, as some are in it for the money. They have been recruited and will be paid…it is work. But there are those of us who have gone overboard and released totally divisive songs, some bordering on defamation, slander and hate speech,” said Talented Musicians and Composers Sacco Chairman Epha Maina.

This goes against the spirit of unity envisaged and encouraged by the founders of the benga beat, who included the late Joseph Kamaru and Joseph Wamumbe.

The two founding artistes regarded musical talent as a tool for shaping social mores. Benga, at least in the minds of its founders, aimed at giving the gikuyu community a unifying beat, a voice and communal ideals.

Divisive electoral campaigns

The music was back in the day use to rally the people behind common causes. This initial vision now seems to have been ruptured by the divisive electoral campaigns which come to a close tomorrow.

Mr Maina himself has publicly endorsed Dr Ruto. The United Democratic Alliance (UDA) presidential candidate has also been backed by popular ‘radical’ crooner Muigai Njoroge.

Muigai has been pulling no punches. He insists that the succession politics playing out in the Mountain region is about restoring the dignity of the common Mugikuyu “away from colonisation by the big family”.

Talented Musicians and Composers Sacco treasurer Lois Kim is contesting the Kiambu woman rep seat as an independent candidate after she flopped in the UDA primaries.

Even older artistes who would ordinarily be expected to exude some sense of political sobriety seem to have taken sides.

The younger generation of crooners, led by Samson Muchoki aka Samidoh, Jose Gatutura, Martin wa Janet, Kuruga wa Wanjiku, Gachathi wa Thuo and Ng’ang’a wa Kabari and Joyce wa Mama have cast their lots with Mr Odinga and Azimio la Umoja coalition.

These artistes have teamed up with veterans like Ben Githae, Peter Kigia, Joseph Kariuki wa Kiarutara, Kimani wa Turacco, Wangari wa Kabera and George Wandaro, who are also traversing the Mt Kenya region selling the Raila Odinga-Martha Karua presidential ticket.

On the other hand, Kamande wa Kioi, Ngaruiya Junior, Kawhite Mwana wa White, Epha Maina and Muigai have come to distinguish themselves as Dr Ruto’s supporters in the Mt Kenya music industry.

Ka-White’s new sensation, Ngombo cia Wiyathi (Slaves in Freedom) has come out so powerfully it is considered the region’s ‘Hustler’ anthem.

So strongly worded are some of the artistes’ new releases that they are seen as courting trouble.  Ng’ang’a wa Kabari’s songs, for instance, are under review by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, which monitors hate speech.

A song by John De-Mathew, who died in an accident near Thika Town on August 19, 2019, is still popular in the ongoing political campaigns.

Pass on the baton

De-Mathew, whose real name was John Ng’ang’a Mwangi, released the track titled “Twambe Turihe Thiri” (‘We first pay the political debt”) in which he called on the Mt Kenya people to honour President Uhuru Kenyatta’s promise to Dr Ruto.

The President had reportedly promised to pass on the baton to his deputy in his famous ‘Kumi yangu na kumi ya William (my 10-year rule and Ruto’s 10-year rule) clarion call.

The artiste had organised caravans to popularise the song in the Mountain region. He had already been to Embu and was organising Nyandarua and Nakuru shows when he died in a road crash.

Three years after De-Matthew’s death, another politically charged song has emerged online, which the artiste is said to have been about to release.

Career administrator Joseph Kaguthi has cautioned against the divisions in the Mt Kenya music industry.

“It is not good for us as a community. As an elder, I think soiling our musical culture is tantamount to killing our hearts,” the former Nairobi Provincial Commissioner said.

He says music is the forte where downcast souls run to for consolation, adding that it thrills and gives people a reason to wait and fight another day.

“When our gospel and secular crooners are strongly divided, our heartbeat as a community becomes erratic,” he laments.

He refers artistes in the Mt Kenya region to the words of former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan on “Why Music Matters”.

Mr Annan is on record as saying that music has to do with everything, “from the first lullaby sung to us as newborn babies, music provides the soundtrack of our lives. So much so that I think many of us take it for granted – just as we do the soundtrack of a film, which we often hear without listening to it. That is, we enjoy the film without realising how much the music conditions our reaction.”

Mr Kaguthi adds that music, as a gift from God, permeates all aspects of life, “to a point where playing it while milking a cow soothes it to release all the milk in its teats… it shapes our entertainment, education and worship…”

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