From the Margins

The album ‘From the Margins’.

| Pool

Spoken word album dwells on living on the margins

What you need to know:

  • The performances – spoken word art is best enjoyed when it is actually performed – in From the Margins are simply candid.
  • The album will be launched at the Kenya National Theater today from 5pm to 8.30pm. 

What is life like on the margins of the society? What does it mean to wake up in the morning knowing that even hoping for a better life – decent life, really – is hopeless; as if the cycle of poverty, disease, violence, discrimination, or death will never end? How do the people that the NGOs and even the government calls underprivileged, poor, or on the marginalised feel about their fate?

These, among other such questions, make up the theme of a new spoken word album, From the Margins (Sanctuary Music, 2021). This is a collection that reminds listeners of stories of struggles for survival by millions of Kenyans on the margins of mainstream society.

From the Margins has eight performances, — Pingu za Maisha, Kuwa Boy Ghetto (a skit), Miaka ya Mbwa, Tunakam Kukam (a skit), Tumechoka, Pipe Dreams, Aspirations (a skit), and Home. It features performers such as Murathe Ngigi, Liboi, Lexas Mshairi, Karembo, Kikete FM, Omondi Ochuka; with Mathai Njama playing the lead guitar; and Jelsa Chemutai and Henderson Kiruri as additional vocalists. It is produced by Ras Amor and was directed by Mutuma Mutua, also known as Dorphan. 

The performances – spoken word art is best enjoyed when it is actually performed, rather than listened to – in From the Margins are simply candid. They do not pretend to be saying something ‘deeper’ than what the artists speak and what the titles of their speech suggest. They speak in plain language, more or less suggesting the urgent need to communicate than to entertain or educate. One would say that they speak from the heart. In some sense, even the accompanying music to some of the performances really lessens the intensity of the spoken words. The listener is sometimes left wondering why the accompanying music?

In its original form, the spoken word performance was just that: spoken. 

But what makes this album urgent is its engagement with, or should one say, speaking the truth of life on the margins of mainstream society. What does it mean to be a ghetto boy in Kenya today? What is the life of an uneducated or semi-educated, unemployed and poor boy in the slums of Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, Eldoret or Kisumu? How does his family see him? What does the government think of him?

The media often report about ‘suspected robbers gunned down’ in some slum in the city. Or they sometimes report about drug addicts in the poor neighbourhoods of our towns. What these seemingly innocuous reports don’t tell is that the ‘suspected gangsters’ are probably just poor young men executed for precisely being poor. Yes, there are incredible stories out there of young men who are executed in extrajudicial killings but whose families have to pay for the used bullets before they can bury their sons!

Slum life can feel like dog life, especially an African dog’s life. It is often a daily struggle to get potable water, or water for bathing. It is an unending fight for accommodation. Demolitions of neighborhoods as has recently happened in Mukuru kwa Njenga is a lived reality. One is never sure if they will have a roof over their head in the evening when they come back from hustling for food. Even when the food is found, it is of poor quality most of the time and very expensive for the poor. This is the dog’s life that Miaka ya Mbwa reminds one of. When politicians talk of hustlers, the real hustlers of Kenya are found in the hundreds of poor neighbourhoods that encircle Kenya’s mainstream towns, some of them literally toiling in the waste dumps every day for crumbs from the waste bins of wenyenchi. 

Indeed, poverty can tire one – many times Kenyans complain of being tired of endless increase of prices for basic commodities, of police harassment, or joblessness, or poverty etc. ‘We are tired’ (Tumechoka) of this or that is Kenyan-speak for the alienation from mainstream society that a majority of Kenyans experience. This is not mere lamentation. This is one way of stating the fact of life for millions of poor Kenyans. We see consequences of this estrangement in men battering their wives and children; women killing children that they cannot feed and committing suicide; young men stealing from their families; young women forced into prostitution; the youth abusing alcohol and drugs etc. One can only imagine an apocalyptic scenario; it is as if the majority of Kenyans are living in the end times. 

Well, the tired young women and men make some declaration, a very hopeful one in the skit, Tunakam Kukam. Here they warn their leaders that time is up; that they are ‘coming for them.’ This is a political statement. It is a call to action for the led, who have really been misled. Is this the real thread that should be running through this album? The call to engage politically? In some ways, yes. Why? Because it is politics that determines who joins mainstream and who remains on the margins of society. It is politics that influences the sharing of the economic cake. 

From the Margins is a political act. It is both a script and an archive of the endless stories of poor, oppressed, repressed, underrepresented, marginalised Kenyans. It attempts to capture the voices of young Kenyan women and men who seem to have been abandoned by the society, but who sometimes get harassed most of the time by the agents of the state or get jailed or even killed, for staying on the margins of the society. It is an irony that mere art can’t unravel. The spoken word can only start to scratch its surface. And by doing so invite, provoke and call the youth to political action. 

Because the spoken word is a performed art form that brings the speaker and the audience together, it offers immense opportunities for informing, educating and entertaining. The close contact between the performer and the audience is a strategy that politicians use all over the world. Performing artists always have such opportunities. But they usually don’t see it as a moment of political engagement. Yet, the context of the spoken word performance is one where the performer has the opportunity to speak the ‘truths’ of the society. This is when and where young people should speak about miseducation, unemployment, crime, violence, poverty, homelessness, alienation, killings etc. Sometimes art needs to act politically for it to remain relevant. From the Margins is such an act. 

The album will be launched at the Kenya National Theater today from 5pm to 8.30pm. 

The writer teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]