Imagining Canaan: Singing Opposition Party NASA’s Vision in Kenya’s 2017 Elections
Music and songs have been deployed in variegated contexts and for diverse concerns. However, the focus of this article is specifically on the mobilization of music and song in promoting political messages and visions. There are numerous examples of the overt deployment of music and song in politics and civic activism. Interesting instances abound from South Africa during the oppressive and repressive apartheid regime. One is reminded of the song of lamentation, “Senzenina” (translated as “What have we done?”), questioning the reason for suffering of the black population under the brutal and oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. The deployment of music and song were instrumental in drawing attention to the horrors of slavery between the 17th and 19th centuries in the United States of America as well. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “We Shall Overcome” became representative of the desire for liberation and freedom of the enslaved individuals and communities. These songs alluded to the biblical emancipation of the Israelites from the chains of slavery in Egypt, and their journey to the promised land of Canaan.
In the Kenyan political context, history has revealed that music and songs have also been dominant in the struggle for change and freedom. Historians have produced evidence of the employment of music and songs in the process of decolonization and decoloniality both as apparatuses of mobilization and conscientization. However, overt deployment of music and songs in political mobilization became popular in the presidential elections of 2002, when the then-opposition party National Rainbow Coalition (NARC)—vying against the then-ruling party Kenya African National Union (KANU)—adopted two popular songs, one gospel worship song “Yote Yawezekana kwa Imani” (“All Is Possible in Faith”) which was adapted as “Yote Yawezekana bila Moi” (“All Is Possible without Moi) and the other popular song “Unbwogable” (“Unshakeable, Unbeatable, Not Scared, Not Fearful”) by Gidi Gidi Maji Maji. This trend is apparent once more in the 2017 presidential elections, in which the opposition coalition party National Super Alliance (NASA)—comprised of five political parties: Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), Wiper, ANC, FORD-Kenya, and Chama Cha Mashinani (CCM)—are competing against the governing Jubilee Party for votes and have deployed music and songs in the project of voter mobilization and messaging.
The focus of this discussion is restricted to the music and songs deployed by NASA. All of the NASA songs allude to the biblical story of the Israelites’ quest for the promised land, Canaan. NASA has adopted a gospel song by Hellena Ken, “Mambo Yabadilika” (“Made New/Things Are Changing”) as their national campaign anthem. This can be attributed to NASA’s vision that Kenya is moving in the wrong direction as a nation, and as such, there is need for a radical change. NASA has framed its campaign on the allegory that equates the conditions of Kenyans as presently constituted to those of the Israelites under Pharaoh’s bondage in Egypt. Consequently, a NASA win is envisaged as a symbolic journey to the promised land of Canaan. This vision resonates very closely with the material content of Hellena Ken’s song, apparent in the following excerpt from the song:
Huu, ni mwaka wa urejesho (This is the year of restoration) x 2
Mambo, mambo yabadilika (Things are being made new) x 2
Naomba mambo yakibadilika (I see things transforming)
Yabidilika kwa wema wako (They transform because of your goodness)
Mambo, mambo yabadilika (Things are changing) x 2
Walio chini sasa, naona wakiinuliwa (I see the downtrodden lifted up)
Walio nyuma sasa, naona wakiwa mbele (I see the last becoming first)
Wanaodharauliwa, naona heshima zao (I see honor for the despised)
Wanaolia sasa, machozi yanapanguzwa (The tears wiped for the grieving)
Wanaolia sasa, machozi wanapanguza (The grieving are wiping their tears)
Waliokataliwa, sasa wakubalika (The rejected are being accepted)
Wasio na makao, wapata makao yao (The homeless are getting homes)
Wasio na amani, wapata amani yao (Those without peace are getting it back)
Wasio na furaha, wapata furaha yao (The joyless are getting their joy back)
Kwani mambo, mambo yabadilika (Because things are being made new) x 2
There are songs composed expressly in praise of NASA and its leaders, which also convey the vision of the party while simultaneously highlighting the failures of the Jubilee government. One such song is “NASA Mambo yabadilika” (“NASA Things Are Changing”) by Wuod Fibi. This song outlines the transformative vision of NASA while vilifying Jubilee leaders. Wuod Fibi reminds Kenyans of the statement that President Uhuru Kenyatta uttered, declaring: “Sisi tuna kula nyama nyinyi mnameza mate.” This translates as: “We are eating meat while the rest of you will continue swallowing saliva.” This statement was interpreted to mean that the state is a site of eating for a few and the rest are excluded. In the song, Wuod Fibi gives an inventory of Jubilee’s failures: endemic corruption, tribalism, economic degeneration, extra judicial killings, unemployment, nepotism, etc. An interesting dimension of this song is the way Wuod Fibi uses everyday political parlance in his song. For instance, he deploys the political football metaphor popularized by the opposition presidential candidate Raila Amolo Odinga. The song envisages NASA leading Kenyans to the promised land, Canaan, akin to Hellena Ken’s. There are additional interesting songs that follow a similar trajectory of NASA’s vision of emancipation, such as Onyi Jalamo’s “Raila Tibim”. Tibim…Tialala has become the signature chant of the opposition coalition NASA. The other song is Susan Owiyo’s “NASA Dance.”
What I found most fascinating about all of these NASA political mobilization songs is the way they emphasize the transformative vision and agenda, whilst gesturing to the biblical allusion of the liberation of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, and their journey to the promised land of Canaan. Another interesting dimension to these songs is that they are either adapted for political mobilization, or expressly and purposively composed for political campaign and mobilization.