‘Super Modo’ is the real ‘Black Panther’

Several weeks ago, ‘Black Panther’ opened in cinemas across Nairobi and people flooded auditoriums. We called it “the first epic black superhero film”. One that “finally represented our Africa positively…”. Days later, some of us even went back to the cinemas a second time. We dressed in our traditional African fashion, painted our faces as if Marvel had finally given us a license to feel pride in ourselves.

It’s sad.

It’s sad that this past month, Kenya’s own super-hero film titled ‘Super Modo’ opened in cinemas and only about 20 people watched it with me this past weekend.

I’m not going to debate which movie is better, that’s up to perspective and taste. But the one thing we cannot deny is that ‘Super Modo’ is blatantly and wholeheartedly KENYAN… it has the one thing that Black Panther does not. And that is CONTEXT. Whilst the miracle land of Wakanda is far, far, far away from our current reality here in Nairobi, the village of Super Modo is where most of us grew up. Whilst the people of Wakanda are poorly adapting accents of African tribes, the actors in Super Modo are purely Kenyan; they speak our language, they look like us, they are not acting, nor pretending, they are depicting a story which we can all relate to.

That begs the question why? Why are we packing cinemas to watch a film that is not ‘ours’ — and does not truly represent us — whilst forsaking the beautiful films which are made in our image? What has happened to us that we would lack so much pride ourselves and what we produce? Why do we put our faith so strongly in that which comes from outside ourselves and not that which is within?

But maybe this is only one facet of a more serious problem. What pillaged us so heavily of our self-love and patriotism that we find solace and comfort in the ideas and stories of the western world and forsake our own?

Why do we hate ourselves?!

But I suppose one could use this premise to question many things that happen in this country, like;
Why are the Chinese building our roads for us… don’t we have engineers here in Kenya?
Why are our youth listening to American Trap Music?
Why are the best schools in the country the ‘white schools’?

Colonialism was bad. But to think it is over and that we are an independent country is just as delusional as believing that Wakanda actually exists. We need to empower ourselves. We need to see pride in who we are. We can’t wait on some fictional Black Panther to show us that we are actually special, powerful, strong and that we have always been superheroes…

Just consider, Black Panther is not the first time ‘We’ — as Africans — have been represented well, it’s just the first time most of us have noticed. We have Kenyan actors giving their lives to tell our stories here at home… it’s time we put our faith and pride in them. Go and watch Super Modo. Trust me.

–Yours Truly (Kimathi Kaumbutho) is a Spoken Word/Poetry writer/performer, and a Hip-Hop artist from Nairobi, Kenya.

The Real Truth about ‘Wakanda’

What is ‘Black Panther’ Really?

 My family and I went to watch ‘Black Panther’ this past weekend; the ‘marvelous superhero drama’ that the world’s been raving about. The one that “depicts Africans and African culture in a positive light, for once,” or so they say. I think I had mixed feelings about it.

The truth is I couldn’t help but feel pride when I watched ‘my people’ (or at least people that looked like me) appear so powerful and breathtakingly admirable. It was so refreshing to see our Africa depicted as rich and beautiful for once — such a stark contrast to the impoverished and poverty-stricken image of our continent we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Hollywood films. As my family and I sat in our cinema chairs spewing over the credits at the end of the film, we had this tangible aura of positivity radiating off us. The fantasy world of Wakanda had inspired us.

But that feeling didn’t last though. As we exited the cinema, walked out into the foyer and looked through the tall glass windows of Prestige Plaza, I came to the realization; we are not in ‘Wakanda’. We are in Nairobi. And on that day, my city looked much like it did the day before. Tall buildings, walking ‘wananchi’ amongst the rich people’s cars that float above the pockets of poverty we’ve learned to live with.

I want to feel inspired by Black Panther, I truly do. I hope that children watch that film and carry that sense of pride with them wherever they go — God knows we need it. But at the same time, I have removed my rosy sunglasses and seen that movie for what it actually is.

A marketing power play.

“Why would the same people of the west — the ‘wazungus’ who continue to pillage and impoverish our countries — want to tell our story all of a sudden?”

“Why should they care about us at all when they haven’t in the past?”

This isn’t the western world trying to empower Africans, this is them profiting from the appropriation of our culture. Making Millions of dollars that don’t go into the betterment of African people, but rather into the pockets of the same countries that steal from our nations.

Its quite clever on their part — I’ll credit them for that. They’ve managed to take a people who have been bitterly misrepresented in the past and generate a story that those same people want to believe in (despite how far-fetched it seems from our current reality). And now the world has turned out in droves to see something ‘new’. A new narrative about a ‘new Africa’. And whilst the Africans see a picture of inspiration and empowerment, the west gets the profit and all the credit.

Oh, how it reminds me of a time when we closed our eyes to pray to Jesus, whilst the white man stole all our land from us. It begs the question, who’s really benefiting from this story of Wakanda?

I must admit though; most Africans are loving all this new attention. Even us who live in the cities of this continent are smiling at this “new narrative”. But let’s take off our blinder for a bit. Is this really a new narrative?

We make films in Nairobi. There are films in Uganda, in Tanzania, there is Nollywood in Nigeria — we tell our own stories all the time. So the question we should be asking is why — why is it that only when Marvel brands a story that is not our own, that the world turns out in droves to watch ‘us’Why does it seem that our culture is now in fashion but only cool when someone else ‘wears it’? Why is the African story only selling when someone else tells it? Why did we need the West to tell us a fake story about a magical land named Wakanda, for us to feel empowered and inspired when we have filmmakers of our own telling us real stories?What’s really going on here?

I noticed a few weeks ago that Kendrick Lamar made on of the soundtracks for Black Panther and it plays through the credits. The video is on YouTube and its got over 60 MIllion Views. Watch it and maybe you’ll have the same reaction I did. Like… “wait… Isn’t this guy from Compton, California? How has he suddenly become African? Why’d the pick him to do the soundtrack, we have artists here in Africa too?”

But I suppose when you really think critically about this film, it all makes sense. If I could make 100 million Dollars from pretending to be African, I would do it too (and I wouldn’t be pretending). But we don’t get the same publicity, nor profit that these artists get from being African.

I feel like I need to affirm that I’m not mad. I just want my people to see this film for what it actually is. Go ahead, feel inspired, feel empowered, feel that African is cool now, but at the same time, realize that we always had the ability to empower ourselvesWe don’t need the west to represent us. We can tell our own stories. Being an African isn’t suddenly cool, it’s always been cool, it’s just a shame we needed the west to prove that to us.

Escaping the ‘Fences’ of Africa

“Some people build fences to keep people out, other’s build them to keep people in.”

‘Fences’ is a Hollywood film I recently watched for the second time. Partly because I was forced to, but also because I love Denzel Washington.

For me, any movie with Will Smith or Denzel Washington in a lead-role is a “must-watch”… and that’s not just because they’re both Black — though that is a major factor. But also because of how relatable their roles tend to be to me as an African man. The truth is, the Hollywood movies aren’t particularly good at telling the African narrative. So I, like many other Africans have had to ‘see myself’ in Black American stories. And though they are not always relatable, they are often close enough to spark my interest. I suppose that’s where my love for Will Smith and Denzel Washington stems from.

Anyway, Denzel’s Character in Fences portrays a black family man in 1950’s America. At face value, the movie could be considered completely foreign to me. Honestly, what does 1950’s America have to do with me as a Kenyan living in Nairobi?

My answer is; “Everything”.

There is a very strong metaphor in the film which I didn’t catch the first time. A metaphor that brings the movie closer to home. Denzel, though he is a black man in the 1950’s, reminds me of the many African fathers (or even mothers) I have come to know in my lifetime. The one trait that I have seen in many African parents, which is so reflective in Denzel Washington’s character in the movie, is this innate belief that they are being victimized.

Africans, just like black Americans, especially the older generations tend to believe that someone or something is always against them. They will blame the government, the environment, the past, anything and everything when things don’t happen the way they should. They will complain solely for the sake of complaining because to not complain is to have nothing to say at all. They will tell you stories of all they’ve have overcome, all the struggles they went through, just to prove to you how hard it has been for them, and how hard it continues to be.

Truth is I don’t blame them.

When Denzel spoke of how the ‘white man’ took everything from him, how he couldn’t play baseball because of the ‘white man’ or how he’s been paying back a loan to the ‘white man’ for 15 years, it reminded me so fervently of my own family. Though we are thousands of miles away on a different continent altogether, our complaints and our grievances echo back and forth so much so that Denzel’s character could easily have been my father.

Let me back-track a little.

My parents and grandparents grew up in a world that wasn’t about options or possibilities. “Go to school, excel, get a job, work hard, get money and provide for your family,” that was it. They grew up in survival mode. I suppose when you’ve lived through the colonization of your people and the pillaging of your “possibilities”, it’s hard to see life through any other lens.

Whereas white families, or Euro-American kids may have grown up believing in mass opportunity, plush possibilities, and parents throwing around phrases like “you can be whoever you want to be”, for us Africans, it has been very different.

I, like many other Kenyan kids, grew up in a ‘survival mentality household’. Study hard, finish school so you can make money — that was ‘life’. Now I give credit to my parents for somehow escaping from that mentality a few years back, but today I see many African people, households, families, kids, still stuck in that same mentality. And I’m not talking about ‘poor’ people: poor people have to survive before they can dream big or see opportunities. It’s a different life when you’re are solely worried about where your next meal will come from. I have no bone to pick with the poor.

Instead, I’m talking about those of us who grew up like I did. The Africans who went to school; who had food on the table when they came home, and a fresh pair of socks to wear in the morning. The Africans who were afforded the possibility to “dream big” and “be whoever they wanted to be” — even though it was never explicitly said. It hurts me to see Africans who are oblivious to the opportunities that not only they have but their sons and daughters too. I want today’s Africans to strive for something greater than ‘survival’ even if we are used to a culture, society, or environment that dictates a different narrative to us.

My fear is that we, as Africans, though being “freed”, still struggle to see the possibilities that our ‘new world’ is giving us — the possibilities granted by the sacrifices of our ancestors.

The movie Fences spoke to me so deeply because Africans — be it parents, kids, culture, or communities — are much like Denzel Washington’s character.

We are building fences around ourselves. Not the types that keep others out, but the types that keep us and our people in. It is about time that we emancipated ourselves and grasped that we do not need to feel victimized. Opportunities and possibilities exist. The colonialists and the white men left a long time ago, we cannot take off the shackles on our ankles and strap them voluntarily on our minds.

There are no fences anymore. Only the ones we have built ourselves.

We Must Unlearn to Look Down on Africa

When I was in high school we spent 3 months of the academic year learning about ‘Hard Water’.

Let me start by saying that when the topic of hard water was initially introduced to us — a classroom of teenage Kenyan students — we were gripped not by our interest in the subject, but by our curiosity as to why our teacher did not just say “ice”.

Little did we know that ‘Hard Water’ was actually a real ‘thing’. “Water that has a high mineral content and forms limescale in kettles…. Blah, blah blah”, as our school textbook would say.

Now, I don’t dismiss the importance of learning about hard water. And even though I much despised chemistry as a subject in my teens, I suppose it was important. ‘Important’, for the same reason my father sent me to school; “because education is the key…” Not because of any logical reason I could bring myself to believe as a young teenager.

Hard water is relevant — perhaps to students who have grown up seeing limescale in their kettles or experiencing this “strange water” first hand. But to kids from Kenya who are more likely to see Giraffes through the windows of our houses, than hard water spilling through our kitchen taps… it was all irrelevant. Learning about hard water only served to turn our education into an abstraction; a collection of lessons that were beyond our frame of reality.

There is a quote in Nelson Mandela’s very insightful book named “Long Walk To Freedom” that says;

“The educated Englishman was our model.; what we aspired to be were “black Englishmen” as we were sometimes derisively called. We were taught — and believed — that the best ideas were English ideas, the best Government was English government and the best men we Englishmen”.

The book was written over 20 years ago, but I struggle to see how anything has changed since, at least in my native country of Kenya.

As a teenager, I went to a British international school — what many, not by coincidence, would call one of the best schools in the country. And though I was the beneficiary of resources and means of education that few others got in Kenya, I don’t think I learned much. Not anything of real relevance anyway. Nothing that really ‘helped me’.

When I sat in that chemistry classroom as a teenager, listening to my English teacher ramble about hard water, I absorbed his words like I was sitting in the pews of his church; with unwavering faith, writing in my notebook as hastily as I could. Though, what I never noticed then, that I have been enlightened to since, was that I was actually a victim — a victim of colonialism in its most contemporary form.

A Voluntary Slave

Learning about subjects like ‘hard water’ in school, in Kenya, I was no longer learning about ‘my reality’, but someone else’s. As I scribbled in my notebooks in chemistry class, it never occurred to me that the things I spent night’s revising and cramming into my absent mind actually had no value to me. They did not serve to enable me to better navigate my country or better exist in Kenya. Instead, I was stuck in a system. A system which required me to seek the validation of those at its helm if I wished to get ahead. Instead of my education introducing me to an affixation with my environment, it taught me about somewhere else… somewhere far, far away, where the white people came from. I learned about the world from their perspective, and saw my country through their eyes…

“As I grew up and advanced academically, my reality was further separated from my education… I just knew my education was preparing me to go somewhere else… and give to another environment that it belonged to, it was not for my environment when and where I grew up.”

 Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu

We are Taught to Hate Ourselves

When I first learned about Mount Kenya — Kenya’s tallest mountain — I was a little boy, listening to my father’s words in the village where he grew up, at the foot of the mountain itself. Years later in primary school, I recall learning about Mount Kenya once again. Only this time, our textbooks told us of a man called Dr. Johann Ludwig Krapf. ‘They’ say he discovered Mount Kenya on the 3rd of December 1849. It was written and stated as a fact by our teachers, and somehow, when I was a child, I did not think to question it. I probably scribbled it in my notebook like it was chemistry class, struggling to engrave the date in my memory just to pass the next test.

Though what never occurred to me at the time is that my grandparents — and my great-grandparents — had grown up right at the foot of the mountain. So, what the teacher was effectively saying was that it took a white man from Germany to travel thousands of miles to “discover” a mountain that was right in front of them…?

No chance.

This was one of many of the paradoxes of my education. I grew up not believing that answers came from within the borders of my country or continent, but from outside. From the more intelligent white men who knew ‘everything’. From the ‘first world’ that we hoped to one day exist in.

It is this habit of thought that I have continually tried to remove from my mind but, at the same time, I’m terrified to I see it so deeply engraved in the minds of fellow Africans. We continue to see the ‘western world’ as ‘right’ or ‘superior’ or ‘further ahead’; we drink of their ‘hard water’ like we will one day taste it and never questioning why. It’s this same habit of thought that has kept us looking down upon ourselves, undermining our power and being told what to do.

It is about time that we, as Africans, empower ourselves!

The great Julius Nyerere once said;

“You cannot develop people. People will have to develop themselves.”

We as African’s cannot continue to voluntarily bow to the west. We cannot continue to see ourselves and our world through a ‘white’ lens. Let us see each other and our surroundings for who and what they are. Let us aspire to be ourselves and no longer need to be like ‘them’. Perhaps once we find pride in ourselves, we can slowly mold our continent into something that is really and truly our own.

Yours Truly (Kimathi Kaumbutho) is a Spoken Word/Poetry writer/performer, and a Hip-Hop artist from Nairobi, Kenya. Click here to see more of his work.

The Beauty of Just ‘Being Present’

It was December 2013, the sun was slowly setting beneath the glaring horizon, and the balcony we sat on had this magnificent orange glow that garnished the smiles on our faces. Staring at the vibrant landscape, lost in empty thought, we didn’t talk much… like the silent sounds of nature stole our words from us. It was quiet. It was peaceful. It was perfect…

As papa, my brother and I lounged and gazed wondrously at the horizon, there wasn’t anything inherently special about that moment. The sun set, just as it did the day before, and the day before that… our family was together, just like we had been for most of my life, and the savannas of Nakuru were just as magnificent as any other park in Kenya’s rich countryside. Yet for some reason, that evening plays in the forefront of my mind when I recall one of the happiest moments of my life.

What made that moment so special, was not the emphatic beauty of the landscape, nor the amazing company of my family… Instead, what made that moment great, was that, for one of the first times in my life, I was completely and wholly content.

I wasn’t trying to change anything, I wasn’t wishing that any cloud in the sky looked different, nor was I trying to shade the glare of the sun from my face. I wasn’t thinking of the past, or recalling any memories, nor was I peering into the future with anxiety… I was just completely and absolutely present.

Knowing myself now, it’s no surprise that such a memory is so deeply etched into my mind. For, to this day, I still recall that beautiful afternoon. Yet even years after its passing, I still wonder why such experiences continuously escape me. Why does it take a trip up country and a beautiful sunset to make me be content with life? Can’t there be happiness, joy, and contentment, even in monotony, even right now?

We’re so Ungrateful

What I believe has become an integral part of our human condition is the ability to take things for granted. If I lived in that cottage in Nakuru, woke up to an emasculate sun rise every morning and gazed over the savanna every evening as the sun set, of course, I would feel that strong sense of contentment and joy — at least in the beginning. But just as all humans do, eventually, my mind would turn what was once a breathless view into just another sight in the banality of life. What was a thrilling and memorable experience would soon look to me like ‘just another day.’

And I believe, that is what we have done with the rest of our lives.

Imagine the first time you cooked the perfect breakfast, read your first novel, or built your first Lego. Those were amazing experiences. Yet today, these moments hold little relevance in the vast array of newer and more exciting things we do. It seems that somehow, we have turned, what were once blissful, exciting and happy moments of life into commonalities that feel benign and tedious.

But does it have to be like this?

What if we could experience all of life, even its monotony? What if we could see the hidden beauty in every experience we have? What if we could feel the banalest parts of life, just like I felt that sunset in Nakuru?

How Meditation Changed my Life…

Now a lot of people grapple with the idea of meditation. They tend to picture a Buddha sitting on top of a hill, completely still, cleansing his mind of all emotion… But I believe it isn’t that complicated.

I describe meditation as being mindful and being completely present in whatever you do. It’s that simple.

Be it having a meal, driving a car, or even doing the laundry, being completely mindful and present almost makes you lose yourself in the experience; it makes you see things that perhaps were always there, but you never really noticed them. It’s running through the woods and listening to the birds’ chirp and the crickets’ hiss, it’s driving and listening to the symphony of traffic, or having a meal and truly ‘feeling’ the food you’re eating… that’s what meditation is.

So, in a world where people eat whilst scrolling through Instagram, imagine how uniquely different it would feel to just do one thing and be completely present whilst you do it; not conscious of the past and not anxious about the future… just complete ‘here’. That, for me, is the true essence of meditation. And with that power of mindfulness and presence of mind, we can begin to see, even a dreary office space, just as beautifully as a sunset over the landscapes of Nakuru.

Yours Truly (Kimathi Kaumbutho) is a Spoken Word/Poetry writer/performer, and a Hip-Hop artist from Nairobi, Kenya. Click here to see more of his work.

It’s finally cool to be an ‘African’

Up until the 1980’s, it wasn’t cool to be black in America. Years of racial oppression and subjugation had ostracized black culture. And even though the late 1900’s was far removed from the days of slavery; black America was still reminiscent of a very dark time in their past; ‘White’ was still ‘right’ and ‘black’ was still ‘wrong’.

But around the late seventies, things began to change. You could say that there was some form of ‘black revolution’.

Riding on the wings of Hip-hop and rap culture, black Americans began to change their narrative. What was previously a strong DJing culture had made way for the birth of an entirely new genre of music called ‘Hip-hop’. And suddenly everything changed.

Black people were telling stories. Stories that had never been told through music before. They had a voice and all they needed was a microphone to share. Through rhythm and poetry, Black American’s created a movement. It was bigger than rap and a testament to black pride. Through Hip-hop, Black America was restoring the dignity that was once pillaged from them.

By the early 90’s, the Hip-hop and black culture revolution had transcended itself. Black Rap artists such as Tupac and Notorious BIG were some of the famed bearers of the torch that ignited a global phenomenon. Suddenly, even kids—like me—growing up in Kenya were dressing and acting like black Americans. We’d wear baggy pants and basketball jerseys of teams we’d never even seen play.

For the first time, black America was cool and everybody wanted to be like them. Somehow being “from the hood” or “hustling” or being a “nigga” was really, really cool.

Today, I see the same trend happening… but much closer to home.

African history is dark with stories of oppression and subjugation from the days of European imperialism. And though many African countries consider themselves independent nations, the remnants of colonialism are still heavily ingrained in our cultures.

Kenya, for example, got independence from the British in 1963. Yet over 50 years later, I believe that our minds are still very much colonialized.

When the Europeans came to Kenya in the late 19th century, they exploited us and pillaged our culture. Though what I believe was worse, is that they crippled our minds. They removed our sense of dignity and self-pride. Which is one of the most effective ways to enslave an entire people?

They made us believe that their ways were right and ours were backward and we, as Africans, still struggle to overcome that.

Today, we still see the western world as the ‘first World’; a place and people that we should aspire to be like. We continue to conform to their culture because we believe they are ‘better’. The ‘West’ is right and ‘African’ is wrong. But things are changing…

Welcome to the Revolution!

Times are changing. Africa is beginning to reinvent herself. A new narrative is being told that we, as Africans, can take pride in. We are much like the Black America of the 1970’s.

African Artists like Davido and Wizkid are making Afrobeat songs with American and British artists.

Artists like Sarkodie of Ghana is now internationally acclaimed—and he doesn’t even rap in English.

The likes of Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé are using strong African themes in their music.

The world of fashion is being revolutionized by African culture.

Even black Americans are appropriating African culture; wearing Dashikis and kanga-like garments like they grew up in our continent.

It feels like the world is beginning to celebrate Africa, even before we have learned to celebrate ourselves.

For the first time, it’s beginning to feel ‘OK’ to be African. No longer must we conform to the western world. We can take pride in ourselves, our art, our people. It is our time to be celebrated and appreciated. The chains on our minds that once kept us in such deep self-loathing, and envy for the ‘white’ world are finally breaking, and now we have a chance to tell them a different story.

Welcome to the African Revolution!

Africans Matter Too! (Open letter to French Montana)

At the Grammy’s in 2016, Kendrick Lamar posted a picture of the African Continent with bold letters in its middle that read ‘Compton’. The whole world watched in awe as the live audience rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation.

A few weeks ago, French Montana released the music video for “Unforgettable”, his latest song. The video shows some of the children of Uganda dancing joyfully to the song. In fact, when you watch it, you can’t help but wear a smile on your face. The video has over 15 million views and has been raved about all over the internet.

But what do these two events have in common?

Both events are a deeper depiction of cultural misappropriation and misrepresentation. Kendrick Lamar and French Montana have taken the concept or idea they have of Africa and represented in a way that neglects the same African people they claim to be representing.

Let me explain.

Now some people may say that there is nothing wrong with French Montana’s and Kendrick Lamar’s appropriation of Africa in their art. In fact, even African’s themselves may state how great both acts were at depicting Africa.

But let’s take a deeper look.

Of late, there have been numerous debates between Africans and the rest of the world on the subject of cultural appropriation. Some Africans have gone as far as condemning people who wear African clothing without being able to prove their knowledge of the history and traditions behind what they’re wearing. Some Africans have even ranted on social media about how other races should not be allowed to wear African clothing.

Now I would not go as far as saying that nobody should borrow or appropriate from another culture. That would be absurd and only clarify the lines that divide us by race, culture, ethnicity etc. in a world that is seeking equality.

Instead, I believe the contrary. We should all be allowed to appropriate different cultures that are not our own. We should all be able to use and identify with the art of cultures that are foreign to us. But only to a certain extent and within certain parameters.

So, where do we draw the line? How does one tell whether they are stepping over the boundaries of cultural appropriation or borrowing too much from a certain culture?

It’s hard to say. But for me, it all boils down to one simple question;

Are you representing the culture you’re appropriating in a way that that culture would be proud of?

This is the sole question that can quell the issue of cultural appropriation.

And this is the same question I would ask to the likes of Kendrick Lamar and French Montana. When they depict elements of African culture in their art, are the representing Africans the way that they want to be represented?

Let’s consider Kendrick Lamar’s labeling of the African continent as ‘Compton’ in 2016, and ask ourselves the same questions. Firstly, is this a worthy representation of Africa? Is the Africa he depicted the same Africa that we, as Africans, want to show the rest of the world.

NO. It isn’t.

And I trust I speak for other Africans when I say this.

What Kendrick Lamar showed us at the Grammy’s in 2016 was the Africa that we African’s don’t like to see. It was the barren borderless land of fable, the indigent subject of stereotype, the mythical Africa, the poverty-stricken block of 54 countries that form one… “country”.

So, despite how well-intended Kendrick Lamar was, his audience is still likely to have the same misconceptions of Africa and African culture from watching his performance.

This is cultural appropriation at its worst.

When French Montana portrayed the kids of Uganda dancing happily to his new music video, I felt proud. I liked that the kids were depicted in a positive light. The joy on their faces was so contagious.

But when I heard the lyrics of the song… everything changed.

“I’m gunna catch the rhythm while she push up against me…. A f%&ing good time never hurt nobody If you loved the girl then I’m so, so sorry I got to give it to her like we in a marriage… No, no I won’t tell nobody…. Tryna do what lovers do…”

These are the lyrics of the song.

Evidently, the song promotes lust, promiscuity, and sex. Yet, there are little African children dancing to the song in the video. Where is the correlation?

The truth is the kids probably have no idea what they are dancing to. In their minds, they see the video as good publicity, perhaps a chance for them to share their art with the world. But what if they knew what the song was representing? Would they still dance? Is this how they would want to be represented?

NO. It isn’t.

The truth is, the video is not about representing the kids. It is about using them to further a mainstream agenda. Using them to get more views and more likes, and more money. That’s the only reason the kids are in the video. In fact, it is obvious that the song was not written for them. They are merely tools that French Montana uses to promote his music.

What French Montana and Kendrick Lamar depicted in their art was probably not intended to be malicious in any way. But I believe their acts are evidence of a deeper and more displeasing truth about the appropriation of African culture.

Today, despite how the world is becoming more cognizant and inviting of African culture, at times we are misused, misappropriated and badly misrepresented. In recent times, as evidenced by artists like French Montana, Kendrick Lamar and even Beyoncé, throwing ‘Africa’ on western art has become somewhat ‘retro’ or ‘cool’ and ‘unique’. And honestly, I have no issue with this. I personally don’t mind if African culture is appropriated by the western world.

All I ask is that when you appropriate our culture, show us the way we like to be seen. Represent Africans the way that we want to be represented, and not solely how you prefer to see us. Stop Misrepresenting Us! African’s Matter too!

The Day My Big Brother put me in Jail

It was a beautiful afternoon. One of those days when the Nairobi sun shines brightly in the sky and everyone just feels happy.  I was driving into the city to pick up my brother in my mother’s old Volkswagen Passat. With my windows rolled up to keep the hot air out, and the music loud, I was trying to make the most of what was a boring and tedious journey.

My brother was waiting for me in Westlands, an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of the city that is usually dense with traffic. Luckily, that day it wasn’t so bad. It was the 23rd of December, a day away from Christmas and the roads were pretty clear.

As I got closer to my brother’s location, I called him and we agreed to meet at a nearby petrol station. But just as I exited a roundabout, about 150 meters from my brother, everything changed. My whole day just turned on its head.

A policeman. A stocky angry policeman whose face I will never forget, stood in front of my car signaling me to stop. I was surprised and genuinely confused.

I turned down the music and rolled down the window as he approached me. “kijana unaendesha gari kama huku ni Southern Sudan” he said. Meaning, “young man, you’re are driving like you’re in southern Sudan.” He was obviously hinting that I had made a mistake.

“Nimefanya makosa gani?” (what mistake have I made?) I asked him. Which I’m sure is a frequently asked question to Kenyan police. Anyway, he went on to tell me that I had blocked the traffic to my left coming into the roundabout.  A serious offense in his eyes. He signaled for me pull off to the side of the road where he continued to castigate me. But after what was a very one-sided conversation, he suddenly opened the passenger door and jumped into the car.

WHAT?! It surprised the heck out of me.

So, there we were, sitting side by side, with this aura of tension around us. It was awkward. The policeman then commanded me to drive to the police station.

Still bewildered and confused, I asked him why. He just looked at me angrily and dismissed my questions. Eventually, I reluctantly followed his command.

Now, before I go further with the story. I must explain that at the time, I had just come back from the United States. I was still relatively new to driving in Nairobi, justifying my complete confusion at the policeman’s actions.

So, we began driving to the station.

Somehow, even in all that tension, I remained calm. I told him that I still needed to pick my brother from a nearby petrol station because he had been waiting for me. Somehow he agreed and after driving only a few minutes, we stopped close to my brother’s location. My brother saw the car and began walking towards us.

He looked happy to see me because he’d been waiting for some time. But as he approached the car, you can only imagine what was going through his head; “What? why, in hell, is there a policeman in the front seat of the car? …Kim, what is going on?”

Without saying a word, he slowly entered the car and sat behind the policeman with this look of complete bafflement on his face. It was almost comical. After an awkward silence, he finally asked us both; “ni nini kimefanyika?” (what is going on?”)

The cop went on to explain the situation in the most ambivalent way possible. Even I didn’t really know what was going on. My brother, not being a very passive person, began to question everything the policeman said.  I just sat quietly and kept driving to the police station.

For my brother and I, it became obvious what the policeman wanted. He wanted me to bribe him. “Alikuwa anataka kitu kidogo”. A common Kenyan phrase meaning “he wanted something small” in exchange for my freedom. Knowing this, I tried to treat the situation with integrity. My father always taught us never to give a policeman anything. Never! So I didn’t say it, but I made it clear that I was not going to bribe him.

As we got closer to the station, it was as if the policeman realized that he wasn’t getting anything from me. We parked the car at the station as he began to speak softly to me. It felt like he had given up. I suppose the hassle of arresting me was not worth his effort anymore. It felt like he was going to let me go.

Then my brother snapped.

Filled with anger, he told the policeman; “You can’t do this! My brother hasn’t done anything wrong! How dear you…”

I felt some pride in the fact that my brother was standing up for me. But it was crazy.

It’s like he just suddenly turned into Denzel Washington in ‘Training Day’; in that scene, near the end, where the hood confronts him.

The policeman did not like this… not one bit.

He turned to my brother with rage in his eyes; like he was about to turn into Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction. And then unexpectedly, like he’d suddenly gotten a new idea in his head, he just paused. He didn’t even argue. He just told us to get out of the car and follow him. So we did. We walked into the police headquarters. My brother was still talking angrily to the policeman. In fact, it felt a little inspiring. So I, following the example that my older brother had set, began arguing with the cop as well.

“I was on the roundabout, I had the right of way, I didn’t block anyone… I didn’t make a mistake…” I said angrily. The policeman knew I had done nothing wrong, but he just calmly watched us, unable to prove otherwise. He was writing something in his log book as two other policemen came to see what was happening.

That’s when he said the magic words. “Weka huyu ndani!”

As fast as anything they grabbed me and ruthlessly threw me into a cell behind them. Suddenly all my brother’s screams faded, the light dimmed and a big metal door shut loudly behind me. I was in Jail… locked up, like Akon in his song with Young Jeezy, except it wasn’t a music video. This was real-life. I was behind bars for my very first time.

I didn’t just write this story to entertain. For me, this story underlines a very profound truth about human behavior in different cultural settings.

If this same thing happened in America. My brother would have probably pulled out his phone and filmed the whole thing. And if the cop was white, there would have been campaigns in all the black neighborhoods and I would be an internet sensation.

But this kind of thing happens every day in Kenya.

Here, the police are known to lock people up for the pettiest of things. Simply just being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have you thrown in jail like I was.

But I know what you’re thinking, where are the legal systems that should prevent this kind of thing. How can a policeman do that??

Let’s go a little deeper, why did the cop do that? Where is his sense of fairness or integrity?

What you’ll come to realize is that there is a profound lesson in human behavior from this situation. The policeman who locked me up is not a bad person; in fact, he is merely acting as a product of his environment. He doesn’t see anything wrong with what he’s doing because it happens all the time. On that day, it was Christmastime and he needed the extra money. So, what better way to get it than to solicit a bribe from an unsuspecting teenager.

In his eyes, I am rich because I have a car, I am also vulnerable because I’m young. He needed the money and I was the perfect opportunity.

I remember when I was a growing up in Kenya. We didn’t have a lot of access to music. We heard it on the radio but we could never listen to our favorite songs when we wanted to because we couldn’t download them. Then, life changed. We got the internet and LimeWire (software to download music from p2p sharing sites).

Even with our slow dial-up internet, my brother and I got thousands of songs from the internet. Obviously, from a moral standpoint, this was wrong… in fact, it was illegal. But my brother and I would never consider that. In our minds, we were just taking what the world was not giving us. We were acting from a mindset of lack and poverty. It did not hurt our integrity to ‘steal music’ because the “rich white men in America have enough money anyway.”

It’s ironic that this is the same mindset that the policeman had when he arrested me. He was just taking advantage of an opportunity. Using his power to get the money he felt he deserved.

This is what poverty does. It removes integrity. We all talk about having enough integrity to never do anything wrong, but just wait until there is no one around to judge you. Wait until everyone else around you is also ‘stealing’ or taking bribes. Then maybe, just maybe, you will be doing the same thing…

 

PS. I got bailed out several hours later by my family, and it never went on my record. I’ll take the “street cred” though.

What is Killing African Art?

tAfter living in the United States for the past 8 years, I recently returned home to Nairobi, Kenya, my birthplace and where I grew up. I love this country and I love Nairobi. In fact, I love it even more so now that I’ve seen the ‘other side’ and lived in the western world for some time. So, coming home has been an exhilarating experience. What’s more, is after being away for so long, it sometimes feels like I’m experiencing my country for the very first time, and it is so exciting.

Though I must admit, it hasn’t been easy. I’m learning slowly. And though I consider myself fully and wholeheartedly Kenyan (whatever that means) — I do sometimes feel like a foreigner in my own country. Sometimes this makes me insecure, but other times, it makes life so much more interesting.

Of late, I’m slowly realizing the various ways that my time away has changed me. It’s as if my experience abroad has given me the ability to see my country differently. And now, for the first time in my life, I am experiencing Kenya without bias or partiality and seeing the Kenyan people for who they actually are. It’s extremely enlightening.

In doing this, I’ve noticed some things. Things that weren’t obvious to me before; certain behaviors and traits of Kenyan people that I see as crippling to us as a country and a community. Lately, I’ve been questioning where these ugly habits and behaviors come from, and I believe that they are a result of a much deeper and detrimental mindset that is common to Kenyans and Africans alike; The Scarcity Mentality.

Many people are unaware of what the scarcity mentality is. So, I will explain with a recent experience.

When I tell people that I’ve decided to come back to Kenya for good, they are often surprised. They act like I’ve made a mistake, like staying in the United States was obviously a better decision. But what I realize is that, in their minds, the United States is the ‘land of opportunity’, where talent is allowed to thrive and where anyone is more likely to be successful. Kenya, on the other hand, has no real opportunities and it is very hard to ‘make it’ in Nairobi. It’s from this outlook that they pity my decision.

The crazy thing is until I came home, I believed the exact same thing; it was what was always communicated to me. It was so deeply engraved in my subconscious that “There is just no real opportunity in Kenya”.

This is what the scarcity mentality is. It is believing in lack and poverty; believing that there is just not ‘enough’.


For me, this is the one thing that Americans and people of the western world have over Africans in general. That is, they truly and patriotically believe in abundance. In America, they believe you can be, do and have anything you want. They believe that there is ‘enough’ of everything for everyone and opportunity will never run out. Americans have been taught to believe in abundance.

The opposite goes for countries like Kenya. Here, perhaps because of our past, we are so stuck in believing that there is not ‘enough’. There is not ‘enough’ opportunity, there is not ‘enough’ money, or food, or anything. And this is so reflective in our actions.

We drive like there is not ‘enough’ space on the road for other motorists. We interact with strangers like they are trying to take something from us. We even get afraid to share things; I know entrepreneurs who are scared to share their business ideas because they fear they will be stolen, and there are not ‘enough’ ideas to go around. What does that say about our business environment?

We have politicians and civil servants that steal government money that is meant to better their own people. We have policemen who are willing to take bribes (Kitu kidogo) instead of enforcing the law. We have corrupt systems where Kenyans are willing to cheat and steal from each other to get ahead — again because there’s just not ‘enough’ for all of us.

It’s sad.

The other day I stood before some of Kenya’s aspiring artists, poets, actors, singers, writers etc. We spoke about the country’s education system. They felt like Kenya’s schooling system doesn’t sufficiently support its more artistically gifted students. To an extent, that may be true. There are artists in foreign countries who have been nurtured and supported from very early ages to become what they are today. But the same cannot be said for Kenyans. Here, we are supposed to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and businessmen. Not artists. “You’ll never make any money doing that”.

Why? Again, because we believe there is just not ‘enough’ opportunity to be successful as an artist in Kenya.

But what if we could enlighten ourselves to a new possibility.

What if the belief that “there is not enough opportunity in Kenya” is just the story we have chosen to tell ourselves, and not necessarily the reality?

The truth is there are struggling artists in Hollywood California, at the artistic capital of the world, who also believe that there is no opportunity for them. In fact, whilst I was in the United States, I met artists who had chosen to stop performing because they said it was “too hard to make it” there. So, if they can’t make it in America, what chance do we have as Kenyans living in the “land of No Opportunity”?

We should probably just quit now. Right?

But what I’ve come to realize, is that opportunity is in the eye of the beholder. The opportunities we see are a product of the lens we choose to see the world through. If you view the world with a mindset of scarcity, you will never have enough of anything. But if you choose to view the world through a lens of abundance, then you will instantly change your circumstance.

So, as I stood before all these artists of Nairobi, I tried to challenge their thinking. I told them that during my travels, I began to see the world differently. I realized that we, as artists of Kenya, have a unique voice. A voice that the world has never heard before and a voice that they are willing to listen to. Given that, we have two choices; we can either embrace that opportunity, using our voices to pioneer an art culture that the world can fall in love with, or, we can bury our talents, and choose to believe that there are just not ‘enough’ opportunities in Kenya. Either way, we will choose scarcity or abundance. The choice has always been our own.