European Conference on African Studies: University of Sorbonne, Paris France, 8-10 July 2015: The use of music and the Internet as a tool of resistance in influencing popular culture away from hetero-conforming power structures in Kenya: Presented at the panel on Same Sex Sexualities and Intimacies in Contemporary Africa: Resistance and Change
Sheena Gimase Magenyasmagenya@firstname.lastname@example.org
The arts, in the form of music, dance, drama and theatre, have been and continue to be a safe site for queerness and gender non-conformity in East Africa generally and in Kenya more specifically. Music and the performing arts especially have been spaces where women and men can safely take on other gender roles, without the threat of being labelled as homosexual or gay. Sports, to a lesser extent, have also served as a safe social space, especially for women non-conforming to gender, whether or not they ascribe to a non-heteronormative sexual orientation or gender identity. Usually, outside the cross-gender performance in the arts, the actors are rarely required to explain their sexual orientation to the public. Often, when men publicly play the roles of women in various spaces, they display a caricature of femininity or being woman in the society. This is done deliberately by overstuffing a bra or panties to show disproportionate buttocks and breasts. Basically, society will allow these men to ‘pretend’ to be women because they are not fooling anyone. Popular thought leader and columnist Oyunga Pala shares:
“Shaniqua, the alter ego of the talented Kevin Mwangi is not the first man to earn a living as a performer dressed in female clothing. Cross dressing for the purposes of entertainment has been alive and well in school theatre stage for decades. In mainstream Kenya, the pioneering duo of Nyengese who performed in public in downtown Nairobi to huge crowds, in late 90s wore skirts, make up, wigs and stuffed parts. The hilarious Redykyulass crew dressed as women on several occasions. Tony Njuguna pulled off a convincing Oprah Winfrey skit and John Kiare (KJ) did a mean Mama Lucy Kibaki impression. While drag is mostly associated with gay men and the gay culture, in Kenya cross dressing for entertainment is tolerated, which paints the country as more liberal than most dare admit. A man can walk around in a tight skirt and heels as long as he makes people laugh. After all, the point of comedy is to push our levels of comfort, take us to places we fear and laugh at our ironies and absurdities. In Shaniqua’s rise to prominence is another social revelation. Some women in the city have become so made up and addicted to enhanced parts that it is really easy for a man with patience to doll up and pass as a woman.” Oyunga Pala, Of Men Who Wear Dresses, March 2nd 2015 http://oyungapala.com/meet-the-fit-fluential-first-lady/.
These conversations however have never spilled over to a space where men [mostly], who drag [perform gender] can talk honestly about whether they actually hold or have some kind of same-sex desire or non-heteronomative leanings and whether this performance in all its hyperbole offers a temporary reprieve from the constraints of gender performance.
Over the years, in East Africa, music has grown, actually exploded, with a multitude of new artistes emerging almost on a weekly basis. There are constant collaborations between Kenyan and Ugandan artists, who sing about a range of issues, from the economy, health issues, of course love as well as sex, sex, and more sex. The emergence of social media and other platforms such as YouTube and the Internet as a whole as game changers for the music industry have made it easier for young people, in fact more people to self-produce and publicise their own music and music videos. Along with YouTube are a host of easily accessible Opensource software, as well as affordable internet access and infrastructure in these two countries.
Without the need for airplay on public broadcasting and mainstream spaces to make their musical mark, more young, and not-so young people are using free, online, social platforms to create and publicise the kind of music that they want to make. This of course has seen the rise in the production of music videos and songs, as well as the emergence of music groups that bend gender, and often deliberately. Like in many other places, images, role plays and performances that depict same sex desire are used.
In almost all cases where same sex desire is depicted, it is shown as female-same sex desire, with two women dancing, kissing or touching each other. Same sex desire is never shown between two men in music videos. The permissiveness of the exhibition of same sex desire between women in music presents and problem, and a solution.
The Problem: is of course the objectification and commodification of same-sex desire between women, which is not seen as a legitimate desire by many people in Kenya. In a conversation with a young, butch identifying lesbian woman living in Nairobi, she said:
“It’s actually a safe space to be a young butch dyke here. Really it is. Because, everyone thinks this is a phase, ati let her try this lesbian thing for a while, and after a few months she’s going to get tired of the pretending and decide to go back to men. So, I just be me. But I worry when ten years later I don’t change back into a straight girl and people realise that this isn’t a phase.”-Rose
The women in the video that will show desire for each other, also show desire for the men in the music video. Whether this is done deliberately to show that the desires are balanced between the sexes or whether it was the script isn’t known. This allows women in the videos some leeway or safety in negotiating their performance in the world. But it also seeks to illustrate the ‘phase’ nature of same-sex desire among young women in Kenya that Rose spoke about. This further cements in the psyche of the audience that women who desire women, can and should also desire men.
The [sort-of-solution]: Another issue that emerges in popular music are lyrics and politely homophobic content. I use the term ‘Politely Homophobic’ because the content in music that others the same-sex desire is presented in an almost harmless way by the musicians. An example is a very popular song by Ugandan artiste Keko, featuring Kenyan rapper Madtraxx. Make You Dance is a party and club anthem that was wildly popular in Uganda in 2012 and 2013. Keko, who is rumoured to be lesbian [because in the context of Uganda and Kenya they can only always be rumours]-is allowed the space to make and publicise her music, even though she allows a homophobic rhyme in her song where Madtraxx says ‘No Obama’ as a reference to the general and public rhetoric denouncing America’s stance on same-sex relationships and more recently, same sex marriage. As a woman that is not completely conforming in her gender identity and who has not tried to defend her presentation as lesbian in tabloid media, being a musician and an artist offers her the opportunity to participate in public life and even to work with musicians that have homophobic tendencies and undertones. Music, in this instance helps bridge perceptions, if we assume that the collaboration between Madtraxx and Keko can be perceived as tolerance on Madtraxx’s part of Keko’s non-conformity. Also reflecting this tolerance, is the popularity of the song across two countries that have rampant public intolerance for gender non-conformity and sexual diversity.
Apart from popular mainstream artists, 2014 saw the emergence of Kenya’s first lesbian music group, I AM. They identify themselves in all spaces as out lesbians who are passionate about music. Their music has received airplay in Kenya, as well as on Pride Radio in the UK. They made it to the top 5 on the Reverbnation charts as well. While their performances in Kenya are largely limited to LGBTI spaces, they still garner enough support and interest in their music to overshadow the fact that they are an all lesbian band.
An interview with a poet that writes for the group:
SgM: When was your proudest moment after I AM released How We Feel?
MM: I was walking down the street [in Nairobi], and I heard someone humming the tune to our song. I was so proud.
The arts, with the help of the Internet, and other forms of telecommunications have an invaluable contribution to encouraging and allowing queer expression in spaces where this kind of non-conformity is not welcome or allowed.
-Sheena Gimase Magenya