The song “Wajinga Nyinyi” (You Fools), released by Kenyan artist Kennedy Ombima, known by his stage name King Kaka, took Kenya by storm and ignited a fervent reaction that reveals something unique that other protest songs have failed to capture. “Wajinga Nyinyi” is a somber track with minimal instrumentation, underscored by a slow, eerie violin strum while King Kaka engages the listener directly via spoken word. He uses vernacular slang of the youth, a combination of local language and English that resonates with Kenyan youth, the most disaffected and negatively impacted by corruption. The song also attacks a wide range of issues plaguing the East African country, including institutional corruption, tribal politics, rogue clergy, drug and substance abuse, youth unemployment, poor treatment of teachers and hospital workers, and growing public debt to China.
King Kaka doesn’t just attack incompetent leadership, but he also blames Kenyans themselves for continually voting for these leaders, motivated by tribalism and money, and urges voters to hold leaders to account through the power of the vote. Kenya’s ruling Jubilee Party came to power in 2013 on the promise of creating millions of new jobs for youth. Seven years later, the government has failed miserably in this endeavor, with cascading negative effects for the rest of Kenyan society.
The most dramatic result of youth lacking gainful employment is a turn towards terrorism, as has happened with those who have fled across the Kenyan border into Somalia to join up with al-Shabab. This is a symptom of a larger sickness that threatens the viable future of Kenyan democracy. Youth have been systematically excluded from decision making, and used as pawns by elites through exploitation of ethnic and tribal backgrounds, or outright bribery. Rarely do they benefit from economic progress. One of King Kaka’s lines mentions the term “gerontocracy,” which highlights the fact that although the median age in Kenya is 18, much of the leadership are 70 or older.
Protest music thus provides an outlet for youth to rail against their political exclusion. Music isn’t just an emotional outlet, but is also used to galvanize a burgeoning political class, educate them, and help organize themselves into new political units. Bobi Wine in Uganda has found success using this method, propelling him from pop star to viable challenger to President Yoweri Museveni in 2021.
For Kenya’s youth, betrayed by their out-of-touch and aging political leadership and unable to turn towards religious institutions that defend government abuses to remain in its good graces, songs like “Wajinga Nyinyi” offer an alternative way to carve out spaces for civic engagement.