Teardrops performing on stage live at the Unchained Voices 3 in Nairobi. Photo: Immortal Moments

Unchained Voices: Giving Voice To Voiceless

Top poets- Teardrops and Mufasa- in Kenya are following the footsteps of their predecessors in using their art to speak about the ills in society.

I had just entered the office minutes after four in the afternoon, tired and dreary from running the chalk on the chalkboard. My hands as white as snow, I quickly wanted to rush to the washroom to get the dirt out. That was when I caught one of my colleagues ravenously enjoying an article in the paper. With the way he was reading, there was no doubt that he had landed on a story goldmine. I moved closer.

A paragraph into the story, I noticed there was a familiarity about the tale. My eyes darted on the top of the page and that is when I realised that my colleague was enjoying the leftovers of events that happened in 2016! The truth is, he was reading an August 2016 newspaper, well…!

Mufasa on stage photo: Immortal Moments

To his consternation, he had been reading the paper an hour before I pointed out the anomaly. He laughed blaming it on a fellow colleague who had duped him that it was the day’s paper. Nevertheless, this is the situation with modern day news. Events are very similar that what happened decades ago could as well have happened a day before.

The sameness of news speaks a lot about how stuck we are in the past that it is very difficult to deface it. In Kenya, the country is stuck in the murk of corruption coated with regional politics. In order to cement this relationship, the sensationalism in the mainstream media is pervasive to the level that it inflames political rivalries in order to create news for tomorrow’s paper.

Teardrops on stage Photo: Immortal Moments

It is within this paradigm that the top news in Kenya, except for occasions where there is breaking news, is about politics and corruption. The headlines are tailored towards creating political alignments and forging rivalries. It is no wonder-if I may be rudely obvious as a Kenyan politician-that the country’s head of state called newspapers ‘meat wrappers.’

Despite the mushrooming corruption, the civil society and the general public seem okay with the status quo. There has been little progress in the fight against corruption and at the same time, little public outcry about the same. Do not get me wrong, indeed, when you log into twitter, you are likely to come around a lot of heated debate about how the leadership should resign or be fired. Twitter marshals armed with hashtags and trends quickly and without prejudice condemn the rot in the society. Kenyans on Twitter or KOT as they are called are excellent at expounding the rot in the society that at times, the mainstream media picks on thus posing hard questions on the government.

Since 2017, the Government of Kenya declared protesters as looters and therefore, police were empowered to use their might to stop ‘looters’ from disrupting local businesses. 2017 was an election year, and with the opposition crying foul about the August elections, the situation on the ground would have become ungovernable. The period between August and October would see heightened police brutality that more than demoralized street protests. Some were relegated to twitter where they still reside.

MC Gufydox Photo: Immortal Moments

However, there is inaction on the streets with minimum protests against the government. But this does not mean that most Kenyans support the government’s misdeeds. In fact many currently abhor those in power and can’t wait to vote in a bunch of new leaders. Besides, beneath the calmness of Kenyans, there is a brewing revolution.

This revolution has taken the form of performance art for example poetry. At the helm of the revolution are two phenomenal poets; Teardrops (Mark Joshua Ouma) and Mufasa (Ken Kibet.) These poets have created a brand for protest art called Unchained Voices. Protest art is not new to Kenya. In the late 1970s, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii ran a group called Kamirithu Community Education and Cultural Centre which ran an open-air theatre. The aim of the theatre was to connect Kenyans with their culture and traditions through performance. The two accomplished thespians staged for the first time a play ‘Ngaahika Ndeenda’ (I Will Marry When I Want) that was well received by over 10,000 spectators. This spurred fear in the government of the day due to the group’s initiative of enlightening the masses leading to the closure of the center in 1982.

Most recently, Kenya’s leading young activist Boniface Mwangi has employed a series of street art to lament about bad governance. The activist together with his band of like-minded individuals began with the use of graffiti art. The art would render Kenyan politicians as vultures who prey on vulnerable Kenyans. Throughout the country, the activists managed to splash their brand defiance keenly followed by government officials who would immediately deface the art.

Mwangi has also employed photography where he has condemned immaturity among leaders and Kenyans. Using Photoshop and other tools, the artist would dress adults in diapers to show their premature nature. From overloading touts to passengers who board an already full matatu (passenger buses) or riders who carry more passengers than their motorcycles can hold, Mwangi spoke about change among the members of the public. Leaders were also not spared in this series.

Part of the Audience at Unchained Voices. Photo: Immortal Moments

Besides Mwangi and the poets, authors too have employed fiction to speak about bad governance. Many of these writers ended up being exiled like Katama Mkangi the author of ‘Walenisi’- a Swahili utopic book about the growth of humanity while others like Francis Imbuga stayed behind despite sharp criticism to the government. Newspaper columnists like the late Wahome Mutahi were never left behind in the struggle against bad governance. Using his Sunday column Whispers’, Wahome would use humour and satire to condemn the vices in the government. Some of his articles managed to land him in the hot soup but he never relented until his death in 2003.

Singers like Juliani, H-art the Band and Sarabi Band represent musicians who are on the forefront in speaking about social injustices. These musicians have worked closely with civil rights groups focusing on fighting graft and teaching Kenyans about integrity in leadership. Using platforms like the ‘PAWA Festival‘, ‘Unchained Voices‘ among others, the artists use music to elevate exemplary leadership and point the direction towards development and inclusivity.     

Unchained Voices‘ traces its origins in 2014. Having witnessed the 2007/08 Post Election violence, Kenyan Creatives decided to come up with platforms on which they could lament the rot in the society. In as much as they realised that the government was on the wrong, this group of Creatives also observed the rot in the general population. Armed with wit and charm, creative energy flowing through their heads, the poets decided to attack what they felt ailed the Kenyan society- the mind.

Teardrops and Mufasa, the two poets behind ‘Unchained Voices‘ took it upon themselves to run a campaign which will be geared towards changing mindsets. Teardrops, narrating in pure Sheng (Kenyan slang), would speak to a majority of the youth. Sheng is a beloved language among urban Kenyan youths. In fact, with the advent of the internet, you guessed that right the memes and the growth of young parents, Sheng has spread beyond urban centres to villages. The language’s penetration and its popular funny puns make it a lingua franca for the country’s youth.

Photo: Immortal Moments

Teardrops has mastered the nooks of the new language dishing out puns and idioms that have more than earned him the moniker- ‘Shengspeare’- a coinage from the renowned English playwright Shakespeare. His mastery of the language makes him the trendsetter that is followed by his peers. In this language Teardrops easily condemns the ills in society to uproarious laughter from the audience. His use of sarcasm, irony and satire are well crafted that the audience does not realise what hit them. Maybe it is one of the reasons as to why he has such a huge following.

If you keenly listen to Teardrops, paying closer attention to style and choice of words, you will realise how satirical his pieces are. He not only condemns leaders but also the masses for their complacency and bad choices. However, his carefully chosen wordplay hides his true intention-defiance from the audience who laugh at the artist’s genius while at the same time laughing at their own folly. One thing about Teardrops’ performance is the beauty of the language especially how well he juxtaposes ideas and issues within society into a cleverly yet whimsically created wordplay. He has a way with words as well as a way with swaying the crowd.

In the way his poetry is created, one might construe it as an easily packaged witty wordplay with so much semantics but little essence. However, this is not the case, with Teardrops every line has a meaning and every piece speaks to the core of society. Be it condemning bad leadership or the overuse of the mobile phone, he lets it be known without bias. He is fearless as he is insightful. Despite this, there are few scholarly articles focused on the artist’s general body of work which nowadays have taken a form of a digital archive. So far, he has three albums and has performed on almost every platform in the country.

Unlike Teardrops, Mufasa, who launched his first anthology ‘Raising a Sun’ this year, is an English spoken word artist. One might think that since Teardrops performs in Sheng and Mufasa in English, the two poets have no common ground, but that is not the case, their two worlds mingle swiftly into a body of work that speaks the truth that even the toughest activists cannot handle. Mufasa’s fans are drawn from the so branded middle class that can relate more with the English language and appreciate its expressive use. It is like the two poets established unique niches in the quest to unite Kenyan society into a common battle ground.

In many societies, there is a divide between the educated middle class and the uneducated in the ghetto world. However, if you listen carefully to both Teardrops and Mufasa’s poetry, you appreciate the fact that both sides of the societal divide face the same problems. This is the reason as to why you need to listen to the two poets on the stage.

Like Teardrops, Mufasa addresses modern-day Kenya problems in an elegant yet critical way. His English is simple yet complex in the way he packages his pieces. Whether he is talking about love or gender issues, he makes them come out in a clear way conversant with the majority. What pulls audiences towards Mufasa is not only the creativity within his work but the tone of his voice while on stage. Whether it is deliberate or it is guided by the topic at hand, Mufasa tackles his pieces in a voice that appeals to be heard, seen and followed. He takes the audience’s mind from the seats and sticks it on his stage and within that sacred aura speaks to the mind one person at a time. The mind and the body are shaken into realization that leaves the body with goosebumps and the mind with a resolve. Maybe, this could be the reason as to why Mufasa takes on the moniker ‘Artivist’.

Unchained Voices’ began as a double album launch for the debut albums of the two poets Teardrops and Mufasa.  It featured live musical performances from the artists and guest acts from Sarabi and H-art the band. The poets performed to a sold-out show at Alliance Francaise in 2014. This was the journey that conceived Unchained Voices 2 in 2019.

In 2019, Mufasa and Teardrops would hold ‘Unchained Voices’ 2 and 3 to a charged audience. One would have hoped that the artists will explore newer issues since five years have elapsed since they showcased their inaugural Unchained Voices. However, things have remained the same. Currently, there is rampant corruption coupled with police brutality that has more than spread fear among Kenyans. Nevertheless, the artists were undeterred. Under the canopy of trees at Alliance Francaise, the poets used their pieces to brutally condemn police brutality and the rot in the Kenyan government.

Dressed in military fatigues, Teardrops alluded heavily to the Bible as he delivered his pieces backed by his own band. Mufasa, on the other hand, did not want to show his defiance in a dress but indeed, and that is why he dressed simply in Kitenge fatigues and let his voice do the magic. Together with the band, the poets brandished their swords and once again revealed the essence of poetry- it was a cry for the weak.

Both Mufasa and Teardrops are young people and therefore understand the position of Kenyan youth in society. Mainly, Kenyan youth have been relegated to positions in which they serve the old fogies who now serve in government in senior positions. The trend of late has seen the head of state appoint old men and women to the office with minimum opposition from the parliament which vets senior government officials. Going by this trend, it is plausible that the two poets have found a stage on which they can defiantly speak about these vices.

As Unchained Voices spreads its wings across the country, it will open up the eyes of the majority who still sing the national anthem of ‘serikali saidia’ ( loosely translated to government help!) With the two poets at the helm, the revolution is on. This revolution would not be by might but by the force of the word. The word as it were will be spread on twitter by KOT and on stage by poets who have seen the futility of going on the streets. ‘Unchained Voices’ is indeed the beginning of one big thing.


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