The Powerful, Political Music of Joseph Kamaru, Kenya’s King of Kikuyu Benga.
By Megan Iacobini de Fazio · February 27, 2020
Joseph Kamaru was only a teenager when he moved to Nairobi from rural Kenya in the late 1950’s, with a dream of one day becoming a musician. A quickly evolving city still a decade away from independence, Nairobi attracted musicians from all over East and Central Africa, and the sounds of Benga, jazz, Congolese Soukous, and Gospel could be heard blasting out from clubs and open windows.
Kamaru made money working as a street-hawker, a house-help, and a fruit seller, saving enough money to buy his first guitar. Within a few years, he’d added the accordion, keyboard, and traditional karing’aring’a and wandindi instruments to his repertoire. By 1965, two years after obtaining freedom from Britain’s colonial rule, Nairobi had become the region’s musical hub, home to countless independent music labels, recording studios, and even the region’s first legal vinyl pressing plant. Competition was tough, but Kamaru’s unique sound, which merged traditional Kikuyu melodies with the distinctive bass guitar riffs and high-pitched vocals of benga, quickly became popular among the city’s revelers.
Amid Kenya’s optimistic yet complex post-colonial years, it was Kamaru’s sobering themes that set him apart. Expressing himself through ambiguous metaphors and Kikuyu proverbs, the young musician sang about sexual harassment, morality, love, and—most strikingly—about politics. Over the next four decades, Kamaru would aim both high praise and bitter criticism at the country’s ruling elite, a habit that resulted in him falling in and out of favor with different Kenyan presidents; Kamaru was both a powerful ally and an enemy to be feared.
“He grew up during the Mau Mau rebellion [the uprising against British colonial oppression], so with so much political stuff happening, it really affected how he wrote his songs,” says Kamaru’s grandson, himself a successful producer and field and sound artist who goes by the name KMRU. After his grandfather’s death in 2018, it was KMRU who decided to reissue his work via Bandcamp, with the aim of using the profits to one day repress the music on vinyl.
Kamaru’s songs often touched upon issues that were considered taboo at the time, treating them with surprising sensibility and nuance. In “Tiga Kuhenia Igoti (Don’t lie to the court),” he tells the story of a young woman who bravely faces her attacker in court: “When we got to your house you tricked me and told me you’ll take me to work tomorrow / At 9pm, I won’t be shamed by men to say that you touched and strangled me,” sings Kamaru, duetting with his sister Catherine. “Lets stop lying to the court, Young man.”
“Having been raised under colonialism and experiencing all those struggles, he felt that it was right for him to use his music to tell stories that really connected with people,” says KMRU.
He once caused outrage with his song “Ndari Ya Mwarimu,” in which he plays the part of a young student who rebukes the advances of a male teacher. In the song, the girl criticizes the Kenyan education system, saying it tolerates sexual harassment, and demands that the teacher be tried by a court of elders. Kenya’s teacher’s union was so enraged by Kamaru’s lyrics that they threatened a nationwide strike, forcing parliament to debate the issue, and President Jomo Kenyatta to intervene and calm the situation.
Kenyatta, who ruled Kenya from independence in 1963 until his death in 1978, understood that having Kamaru in his corner was a powerful asset. But while the musician was happy to lend his support, he wasn’t willing to compromise his principles. “During political campaigns, politicians wanted him to write songs for them,” says KMRU. “He had close relationships with them, but he would also sometimes turn against them.”
By 1969, Kamaru’s musical career was in full swing, but the country around him was in chaos. The country was preparing to hold its first general elections since declaring independence in 1963, but Kenya People’s Union—the only opposition party—was banned, and its leaders arrested. Ethnic tensions flared, and the shooting of popular politician and independence activist Tom Mboya—widely believed to be a politically-motivated assassination—sparked rioting across the country. Kamaru stood by the president, praising him and vehemently criticizing his detractors in the song “Arooma Ka.”
That all changed in 1975, when the body of former Mau Mau fighter and popular politician J.M. Kariuki, was found on top of an anthill in Nairobi’s Ngong Forest, where it’d been burned and brutally discarded. All fingers pointed to Kenyatta’s government: after all, Kariuki had rallied against corruption and criticized the elites in a time when dissent was not tolerated. Despite his close friendship with the president, though, Kamaru refused to stay silent. That same year, he responded with “J.M. Kariuki,” a protest song demanding answers from the government and wishing terrible fate upon the murderers. The incendiary track ended up being an unprecedented hit, selling 75,000 copies within the first week.
“During that time that he had this red beat-up car,” says KMRU, “and lots of people knew it was his car, so he had to hide it, because the government was after him.”
When Kenyatta died in 1978, his successor Daniel arap Moi realized that it was better to have Kamaru as an ally than an enemy, so he invited him on a presidential visit to Japan. The musician wrote “Safari ya Japan (a trip to Japan),” in praise of the president, and would pen several other compositions in his honor.
But like Kenyatta before him, it wasn’t long before Moi learned that Kamaru was as quick to condemn as a he was to offer praise. In 1983, when President Moi launched increasingly repressive measures in an attempt to consolidate his power, Kamaru used ambiguous language and Kikuyu idioms to send the president a warning: “If the bees come out of the hive / Somebody will get stung,” he sang on “Ni Maitho Tunite.”
Kamaru kept churning out songs that demanded justice and fairness, whether in politics or personal relationships, until he converted to Christianity in the 1990’s and swapped political songs for gospel. Still, his influence never dimmed, and politicians were keen to keep him on their side right up until the day he died.
“In his last days, he used to come to my mum’s house and talk to me a lot about music, about life,” says KMRU. Kamaru was proud of his grandson for choosing to pursue music, and for making something so unique. Sound-wise, there is little of Kamaru’s Kikuyu benga in KMRU’s experimental electronica, but his impact has arguably been even deeper: “He told me to stay authentic with the music I do, to stay honest with myself,” KMRU says. “And that’s what helped me, in certain moments, to choose my own path.”
LITERARY MEANING IN JOSEPH KAMARU'S SONGS
By Kanyi Thiong’o
Different scholars of Literature have in the past researched on the literary meanings in Kenya’s popular songs where some of these works have been published in local dailies, in international Academic Journals and some have even have been submitted for the award of Masters and PhD in Literature in different local and international Universities. Some of these scholars include, Kariuki Gakuo, Pauline Mahugu, Maina wa Mutonya, Joyce Nyairo, Kariuki Kiura, David Rotich, Kangangi Wanja, Earnest Monte and Kanyi Thiongo, to mention a few. These studies can be treated as confirmation that literary criticism of the literature that is encompassed in songs as critical reflections of society has defined its space in the media and in the academia.
This article revisits literary meanings conveyed in Joseph Kamaru’s songs to reread history, education and entertainment that is permeated in his songs as discourses of literature. Like all committed artistes Joseph Kamaru has a music career that dates back to the precolonial era the political climate of the dictatorship of the first and the second regimes from the 70’s to the era of multiparty democracy, political songs, love songs, religious songs to mention a few of the thematic areas that have defined his music. Joseph Kamaru does not sing for singing sake. Each of Joseph Kamaru’s songs educates, entertains and informs. These are the three main pillars which every credible work of Literature must achieve.
Joseph Kamaru has a music career that dates back to the 60’s. As Craig Harris observes in Joseph Kamaru Artistic biography, Kamaru has been influencing the music scene since 1967. Influence in this case can be taken to mean, how most musicians in Kenya compose and write their songs. This can be cited not only in the melodic structure, (tune) which marks most of the song. Kamaru’s songs have been studied at master’s level and PhD level. This is evidenced in Kariuki Gakuo’s Master’s thesis A Study of Alienation in Joseph Kamaru’s songs and Ernest Monte PhD on the Songs of the Mau Mau Stellenbosch University to mention but two.
The educative value in Joseph Kamaru’s songs has in the past attracted several levels of attention from various schools of thoughts and disciplines. Literature, Music, Historian, Anthropologists, Sociologists, and even political science scholars have all identified various shades of meanings in Joseph Kamaru’s songs. He Poetic richness, one finds in Kamaru’s songs, the artistic creativity he employs to defamiliarise meaning serves to document Kenya’s history by archiving the experiences that have defined Kenya’s memories from the days of Mau Mau arms struggle to liberate Kenya from colonial hegemony, to political atrocities that Kenya faced during the tabulent times of Jomo Kenyatta’s dictatorship, the ups and downs that Kenya faced under former president Moi and to political and religious practices that define our Nation today.
When Joseph Kamaru released a song on the death of Kariuki J. M. it almost put him in direct conflict with the government of the day. Kamaru through the melodic structure that defines his music, the heartrending lyrics from a literary perspective has succeeded in documenting not just our history but literary and artistic practices that define Kenya’s musical aesthetics as philosophical practices. This will be of essence to the current generation as well as to future generations which will want to peer into the development of Kenya’s literary, musical, and Political ideologies. Kamaru can therefore be thought of as a committed artist as well as a detailed historicist who has used music to see the past and the effect it has had on the present and to prophesy the future. In this context Kamaru has not only reports on what is happening around him but in addition offers sharp criticism on sensitive issues that affect our society. In this view Kamaru qualifies as a New Historicism critic. As Malpas observes historicist criticism of literature and culture explores how the meaning of a text, idea or artefact is produced by way of its relation to the wider historical context in which it is created or experienced. In this context Kamaru not only looks at the society as a social mirror but in addition as a text from which he draws his themes to infuse his songs with new genius in terms of artistic creativity.
The Marxist ideologies in Kamaru’s political songs put him at loggerheads with different goverments of the day during Jomo Kenytta’s and Moi’s era. At, one point, he almost found himself behind bars when he was asked to explain the content in songs such as Cunga marima. In this song the persona issues serious warning to an unmentioned person. The persona tells the person to take care of the way he is treading, there are holes he’s likely to fall into on the road he is treading. This song has double meanings but clever Kamaru got away with it because he stack to the connotative meaning. The same war publication of A Man of The People and the coincidence of the break of the Biafran war almost put Chinua Achebe at crossroads with the Nigerian government, Kamaru’s songs have at some point in his singing career made him face the wrath of political despotism. This political commitment to criticize bad governance is witnessed in most of the song's which Kamaru sang in the 70s when political assassination of prominent figures like Tom Mboya, J. M. Kariuki, took place in broad day light. In a song such as Thia ithuuire mumianirii, an antelope hates the person who exposes it, Kamaru warns appropriates the metaphor of an antelope to warn those criticising the government to expedite their mission intelligently failure to which 'the same hyena that ate J. M. Kariuki happens to eat them as well.
We can therefore observe that while Ngugi wa Thiongo criticized the same political ills in works such as Petals of Blood, and Oginga Odinga not yet Uhuru, Kamaru used song as a literary genre to pass the same messages to the Kenyan society. Kamaru's rich application of irony and satire can therefore qualify him as a master of Literature who has refined his art to bite hard without hurting. This can therefore qualify him as a conscious bard who raises to the occasion to save his society from political calamity. The same way good literature foretells what is likely to come even before it has been experienced, Joseph Kamaru political songs of the 70’s and 80’s resonated with the political climate of the day and he foretell the coming of democracy in his songs long before multiparty era. Kamaru foretold the breakup of fore presidend Moi and his then vice president Kibaki the former vice president even before it happened. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o once observed that a writer responds with his total personality to a social environment which changes all the time being a sensitive needle the writer registers with varying degrees of accuracy and success, the conflicts and tensions in his changing society, Kamaru has used the music scene and the power of the microphone to shape new ways of thinking and to forge freedom of thought and expression the same way Ngugi wa Thiong’o among other writers like Achebe and Wole
Soyinka have done using the barrel of the pen. Other artists such as D. O. Misiani, John De Mathew and Muigai wa Njoroge have done the same following Kamaru’s footsteps and their commitment to producing music that addresses social evils has not spared them the wrath of the law as well. The political consciousness that marks songs of Joseph Kamaru has caught the attention of many because of the artistic manner in which he employs metaphor, and tonal nuances to criticize social evil. As Kimani Njogu observes in Songs and Politics in Eastern Africa, the post-colonial government sponsored choirs which composed music to perpetuate hegemonic normalcy and maintain the socio-political status quo. Joseph Kamaru and D.O. Misiani, however questioned this interpretation of patriotism. Kamaru and Misiani instead align themselves with the needs of ordinary people. This did not auger well with Jomo Kenyatta and President Moi during their respective tenure as presidents. At one time Joseph Kamaru’s songs were banned from being played in public places. This is because in all he’s political songs Kamaru employs social political tonal structures that criticize leadership inefficacies that define practices of power of the previous regimes. This in effect, generates emancipative nuances that forge a course for political consciousness on the part of the masses.
In addition to making political statements in his songs, Kamaru can be said to be a social commentator. This is because he has also sang on various social themes such as love, marriage, hard work to mention a few. In songs such as Ndari ya Mwarimu Kamaru critics how those in higher positions takes use their power to exploit the weak in society. Using the imagery of a teacher who passes a female student whom he has been exploiting sexually, Kamaru frown upon social immorality in places of work and in society in general. The persona in this asks the girl, ndari ya mwarimu (teacher’s girlfriend) every time you are number one…what will you do when the main exam comes? While in class I’ll call you teacher but once we get to your house I’ll call you sweetheart…this invocation of an irony is intended to ridicule both the teacher and the girl for their indulgence in immoral acts. The song in this case ceases from just existing as a mere tool for entertainment. Instead the songs becomes a social tool for moral stock taking.
The song in this context transcends beyond its perception as a music or literary genre and in addition it qualifies as a philosophical practice with which people reexamine how they constiture their being. This is a philosophical position which Michel Foucault has examined in Ethics Subjectivity and Truth“The Ethics of the Concern for the Self as a Practice of Freedom”. In his songs Kamaru, guides and counsel both the young and the old. In the song, andu a madaraka, for instance, he warns the young energetic men who acquire jobs in the city from falling victims of women in the city who smile at these young men and finally use sex as a bait to exploit the young men. Kamaru puts it clearly in black and white, 'if you happen to see a smile, just remember, she's smiling at your money not you as a person.
The oral nuances that Kamaru employs as a singing technique transcends the message beyond mere statement. This is because he's appropriation of oral speech techniques creates a sense of immediacy with which the listener is cajoled to treat the message. As a feature of moral transcendence we can thus observe that Joseph Kamaru’s like all great works of literature serve to improve the society by criticizing social rottenness on the one hand and praising the good as evidenced in his songs in praise of Mau Mau heroes such as Dedan Kimathi.
The consciencetizing discourse that marks Joseph Kamaru’s songs therefore, deserves further inquiry because it resonates with the changing time. As Joyce Nyairo observed once institutional memory is, in fact, the cornerstone of real development. Thematic Concerns in songs of Joseph Kamaru, draw cognisance to this fact. This is because Kamaru bases his songs on different issues that affect social stability, and cohesion which if ignored can send the country to the gutters. Upon close examination, Kamaru’s Ideological perspective as evidenced in the aesthetic practices that define his songs draws from Marxism political standpoint, anthropological reading of Kenyan society, mythocriticism practices of constituting meaning that is hybridized with Christianity values. It can therefore be coincluded that Joseph Kamaru songs as literary discourses capture the listener mind by invoking artistic ways in which he invites the listener to interpret the world of reality.