Tag Archives: Kenya

Nina Ogot on forging her identity and the role of music in society

This article was written by Peter Choge and originally published by Music In Africa. The article is republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial CC BY-NC licence.

Poised is the word you want to employ when describing Nina Ogot’s stage bearing. Perhaps the reason the Kenyan songstress eschews over-the-top displays and the fiery militancy of some of her contemporaries is that she has a more powerful tool at her disposal; a special gift she can deploy the instant she steps on stage.

Nina Ogot.

For many, it is the voice that soars effortlessly over auditoriums, gently caressing both body and soul. It could also be the lively arrangement, the delicate blend of strings and percussion, or the quiet activism of her work – all a product of solid musicianship built in a career spanning over a decade and distilled into three masterfully crafted albums.

Give her music a listen and you will soon discover an artist in control. There is a deliberate attempt to create a sound that is truly representative of her traditional Kenyan roots and urban upbringing. An attempt, if you will, to bottle and preserve the cultural essence that is in danger of being lost.

Whether she was thrust into it by accident or design, Nina Ogot finds herself occupying the position of the high priestess of the Kenyan Afro-acoustic movement – entertaining, educating and even chastising the faithful around the world.

So it is not surprising that the age-old debate on the indivisibility of the artist and society came up in a recent one-one the celebrated singer had with Music In Africa.

MUSIC IN AFRICA: Describe your musical journey

NINA OGOT: I would say my musical journey has been as true as it can be. This is because when I was a child, I already knew that I wanted to make music. So I started with piano lessons at the age of 11 and then shortly after that, at the age of 16, I started to get more curious about the guitar and it became my instrument of choice in my mid-20s, when I chose to take music as a profession. My band started as a trio – two guitarists and a percussionist – but now it’s grown into an eight-piece band.

Who is Nino Ogot the artist and Nina Ogot the individual?

Nina Ogot the artist and Nina Ogot the individual are exactly the same person. I try to ensure that my art reflects my essence 100% and that the people who come to watch me on stage get to know me to some degree. They will know me on a platform that is not necessarily part of my everyday life but my stories are about my everyday life. I try to present that as honestly as I can so that the audience gets the true version of me on stage.

How would you describe your music?

My style is certainly a fusion of elements of tradition and urban sounds from Kenya. Initially, it was called Afro-acoustic and the title stuck. I like modern instrumentation and modern ways of singing injected with components of my urban upbringing in Nairobi and my tradition. So I use a lot of my native Dholuo language in my lyrics. I also use Kiswahili and references from other parts of Kenya.

What do you hope to achieve through music?

If you’re a priest, you use your pulpit to indoctrinate people in a certain way, and when you’re a musician, you have the stage. This stage enables me to connect with people that I would ordinarily never interact with – people of different backgrounds, origins or even generations. So my music is a bridge. It’s a generational bridge. It’s a cultural bridge, and yes, it’s a bridge of emotions and of universes.

What is the current state of Kenyan music?

Kenyan music has certainly grown over time. If you compare the trajectory it’s taken over the past 20 or 30 years, you can see some significant progress. You can also see the role that women are playing in the industry and the fact that they are now acknowledged as peers to their male counterparts. Additionally, artists are able to earn money from their craft.

I would, however, say Kenyan music still has a long way to go because if you look at how we’re represented internationally, we are not really there yet. The systems are also still largely flawed if you consider issues like royalties collections and privacy threats.

What would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?

I think it is hard to tell because there are so many things that we take for granted yet there are big accomplishments. There are so many challenges we face as artists that make it difficult to sustain a career in the first place. So, to be able to have a career that spans at least 13 years and to still feel hopeful about the future is a great accomplishment to me.

Who do you look up to musically?

That’s a tricky one because I’ve had a lot of influences that are not necessarily Kenyan. And what I realised is that I have to be me to find my own way in order to be a participant and a contributor to the music scene.

I have to be unique and I have to stand up for something that’s authentic. The only way I’ve found to be able to forge my own identity is to sometimes silence other people’s voices and listen to my own voice. Listen to the music that comes from me so that then I can see Nina Ogot. Not Nina trying to be Miriam Makeba.

So I look at other musicians just as samples, however great or small they are. The contribution is still significant if it’s inspirational. And so I’ve had a lot of musicians who’ve not only inspired me but have also given me the desire to be authentically me.

What are some of the challenges facing a Kenyan female artist?

When you look at a lot of platforms you see very few female artists who are playing an instrument or contributing beyond the vocals. It is because people always believe that a man who plays an instrument plays it better than a woman. I’ve been lucky enough that I sing and play instruments, but I know a lot of women who struggle being just instrumentalists. There is also the issue of family. If you want to start a family as a female artist, how do you structure a career around children and a husband and still have a solid career that doesn’t get interrupted?

Do you consider yourself an activist and what is the role of activism in Kenya music?

I certainly consider myself an activist, just not a political activist. Maybe a social activist because I use my music to instigate change to some degree. It’s true that I do have audiences that don’t always understand my lyrics but the intention is that for those who eventually get to be curious enough to want to know, I use my songs to tell stories about society and to reflect the condition of the society. This allows people to really reflect if it’s something we want to change. That is activism.

How can Kenya grow its creative industry?

I think first it’s important to establish what a creative industry is. Does it exist? Absolutely yes! So how do we harness this creativity? That is the question because we have a lot of talent out there but not much is being done to harness it. We first need to develop hubs where artists can go – places where creative talent can be identified, developed and showcased. We also need mentorship programmes to show young people what to do and how to manage their artistic careers. Then we need systems that manage talent ethically and professionally to enable artists to benefit economically from their work – not the flawed and corrupt ones currently in place.

Banned Songs From Nigeria And Uganda Which Represent The Voices Of The People

These songs challenged governments and oppression alike

Fela Kuti Birthday Tribute” Image by Lucy Anne, October 15, 2010 (CC BY-ND 2.0).

This article was originally published by Global Voices on 21st of March 2022 and is republished here with permission of the authors, Richard Wanjohi and Nwachukwu Egbunike.

A little over 6o years ago, African states gained independence from their colonial masters. It was assumed the wind of change would bring with it a new sense of nationalism, common good, and identity. However many of the heads of state and governments almost immediately broke their promise to promote a different form of governance.

Music has always been integral to Africa’s liberation and freedom struggles. In South Africa, anti-apartheid music faced significant censorship Similarly, in Nigeria, musicians stood in solidarity with South Africans, calling for the release of Nelson Mandela or calling out police brutality, while being the voices of protests. These African musicians felt they could not go on dancing when everything around them was not worth celebrating.

They felt a responsibility to use their voice to speak to the times they were living. In the same vein, many countries found their voices with popular groups and musicians, though initially accepted by the authorities, they ended up being sanctioned and/or banned altogether.

In this two-part series, we go into the history of various musicians around the continent whose music was deemed too political and explore why their music was considered so ‘dangerous’ by their governments.


In his lifetime, the late Afrobeat legend, Fẹlá Aníkúlápò Kútì witnessed quite a number of sanctions, court cases, police brutality, and a radio ban on his revolutionary music. Despite the state pressure, he never ceased to dish out the melodies that many Nigerians and Africans all over the world relate to.

In the then military era of Nigeria, it was forbidden for any radio station to play Kútì’s songs and any citizen seen associating with the revolutionary musician either in person or through his songs was deemed an enemy of the state. Once upon a time, Fẹlá’s residence, in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, known as the Kalakuta Republic was attacked by a thousand soldiers, who committed various wicked acts like raping, stealing, and beating citizens. During the assault, his elderly mother was thrown from a tall building, an incident that led to a broken leg and eventually her death. After that military invasion of his house, Fẹlá released “Zombie” and “Unknown Soldier” in 1981, both songs, dedicated to the soldiers that invaded his house. 

An artistic representation of Fẹlá Aníkúlápò Kútì. Image by Danny PiG uploaded to Flickr on September 11, 2012. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 2004, former Nigerian president, Olúṣẹ́gun Ọbasanjọ́ banned the popular themed song of the poverty-stricken nation titled “Jàgà-jágá.” In Jàgà-jágá, a song that went viral even outside Nigeria, Eedris Abdulkareem sang in anger, lamenting the state of the suffering of Nigerians and also the social ills that ensued as a means of survival in the face of abject poverty. The controversial album led to the ban of the song on radio and television, it secured him an invitation to the presidential villa (Aso Rock) in the Federal Capital Territory where the president warned him to desist from releasing songs that ridicule the country and place it in a bad light to the outside world. The artist remained obstinate and aired the president’s request in another song titled “Letter to Mr. President” released the following year.  


In 2017, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu also known as Bobi Wine while serving as a Member of Parliament in Uganda’s Parliament released a song titled “Freedom.” Using his platform as a local leader and influence among the urban youth in the country, Bobi’s song sought to address the country’s challenges of overstaying leaders. He mentioned Uganda’s Bush War of the 1980s that saw current president Yoweri Museveni oust Milton Obote. He asked why Museveni is practicing what he fought against — comparing the current government to slavery and the tension to South Africa’s apartheid system.

Bobi Wine by Mbowasport is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 

Bobi also questioned the purpose of the Ugandan constitution which he calls the country’s last hope. He mentioned the lack of freedom of expression in the country, urging Ugandans to speak up against injustice with freedom being for all — regardless of age, social class, religion, or education.

One of his more popular songs, “Ghetto,” talks about police brutality against people residing in the slums of Kampala and the inadequate services delivered to them. In April 2019, Bobi Wine under went house arrest, and during this time, he composed another multilingual song about police brutality entitled “Afande,” a Swahili word for an officer.

Since 2018, some of his songs have been banned from being performed, or even played on-air, as state functionaries believed he would use his music for political and promotional purposes. Shortly thereafter, he declared his interest in running for the country’s presidency in elections that took place in early 2021.

Joining him in the elections circuit was another popular musician Joseph Mayanja also known as Jose Chameleone. His entry into politics by declaring his candidacy for the mayoral position of Kampala, saw his concerts canceled. In 2016, the artist turned politician assaulted a journalist and DJ resulting in his music being banned by Trace TV, a French-based music TV channel that airs music across the globe.

Please see part two of this series here.

Find Global Voice’s Spotify playlist highlighting these and other banned songs from around the world here. For more information about banned music, see our special coverage, Striking the Wrong Notes.

Powerful Protest Songs From Kenya And South Africa

Music has been integral to Africa’s liberation and freedom struggles

Anti-apartheid protests in the early ’90s” by Nagarjun is marked with CC BY 2.0.

This article was originally published by Global Voices on 21st of March 2022 and is republished here with permission of the authors, Richard Wanjohi and Nwachukwu Egbunike.

Just as artists in Uganda and Nigeria used their music to challenge governmental and military oppression, so did artists around the continent. This is part two of this two-part series story where we highlight musicians around the continent whose music encouraged activism and dissent. For part one, see here. In this article, we discuss protest music in Kenya and South Africa, and the vital role it played in people’s liberation.


Kenya’s music scene has seen great changes since the colonial days, with many local singers finding fame through protest songs. One iconic example is the late Joseph Kamaru, a Kikuyu musician who is believed to have a catalog of over 1,000 songs. Born in central Kenya, he developed a unique blend of Kikuyu traditional melodies, mixed with the guitar, keyboard, and occasionally the accordion. He frequently sang songs relating to social issues, reflecting on the nation’s independence and urbanization.  

However, by 1969 — only six years into independence — Kenya was plunged into political strife following the contentious elections, which pitted the then-ruling party KANU and the opposition KPU. This divided communities, particularly after a popular politician, Tom Mboya, was gunned down in broad daylight. 

In this instance, Joseph Kamaru composed a song, “Aromaka” (“May he be scared”), which sought to praise the ruling party but did not appeal to a larger population due to its perceived bias around the political assassination. 

JM Kariuki Memorial by Mpigapicha is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1975, another popular politician this time from the Central part of Kenya, Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, also known as JM Kariuki, was killed a few months after another hotly contested election. The late JM Kariuki, initially pro-Government, had become one of the most prominent critics of the government’s growing tribalism and corruption, coining a phrase, “Kenya was becoming a country of ten millionaires and ten million beggars.” Due to his public criticism, he was prohibited from campaigning and was forced to resort to door-to-door or home visits. Upon Kariuki’s death in 1975, Kamaru sang a song titled “J.M. Kariuki” to mourn the death of the national hero, as well as give tribute to his personal friend.

This particular song was one of his best-selling hits, selling over 75,000 copies within the first week of release. He quickly became a target of the government, and the song was banned on national radio, the Voice of Kenya (now the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation), in June 1975.

Kamaru did not stop there and after the death of the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, he sought out incoming President Daniel arap Moi, who invited him to a foreign trip to Japan. This led to the composition of “Safari ya Japan.” However, it did not take long for him to fall out with the powers-that-be, and he found himself once again voicing criticism. He composed another song laced with ambiguous language and Kikuyu idioms to warn the Moi government of the discontentment and disillusionment among the general populace and Kikuyu in particular. The song was titled “Ni Maitho Tunite” (“We’ve only shifted our Gaze”). This was also banned from the national stations. 

Kamaru’s alliance with the politics of the day did not end there. In 1988, while the country was preparing for another election, he made another song, “Mahoya ma Bururi”(Prayers for the Country), which, though initially with a Kikuyu version, attracted the attention of the state, specifically then-President Daniel Moi. Moi initially perceived the song as an indirect attack at him, with the mention of “guikio irima ta Daniel” translated to “being thrown in the hole/cave like Daniel.”

Kamaru’s explanation suggested the name “Daniel” was a reference to the Biblical Daniel, who was thrown into a cave with the lions for refusing to bow to the King. As a compromise, Moi requested for the song to be translated into the national language, Swahili. Though the song was released by Kamaru, it never enjoyed as much airplay as the Kikuyu version, much to Kamaru’s dismay.

The on-and-off relations of Joseph Kamaru’s songs and the politicians of the day meant that while many politicians attempted to dictate or ban songs, the intersection of creativity, socio-political issues, and common voice of the ills affecting the populace prevailed. The same issues are still resonant with the current state of affairs in Kenya.

South Africa

The Southernmost State of the African continent endured a period of apartheid when the White-minority Boers ruled the country over the Black majority. This was from 1948 to the 1990s. The period saw injustices meted on the latter and a number of their political leaders arrested and locked away for life.

Miriam Makeba 2011.jpg by Tom Beetz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Seeking to become a voice for the voiceless, a number of South African musicians used their trade to draw both national and international attention to the issues of the day. Among them was Miriam Makeba. The musician famous for her different native songs in Xhosa and English had sung a song “Beware, Verwoerd! (Ndodemnyama),” referencing the then-Prime Minister of South Africa Hendrick Verwoerd, who had played a key role in implementing the apartheid regime. The song was banned on national radio due to its anti-apartheid stance.

Makeba had to go into exile in 1960 and was shortly banned from returning to South Africa. She went on to become a global icon in the US and continued to perform and write protest songs that spoke out against apartheid around the world.

Closely following Makeba’s trial, Brenda Fassie drew controversy for the better part of her career. She sang the song “Black President” as a tribute to the then “most famous prisoner,” Nelson Mandela. The song was written by Fassie and Chicco Thwala in 1990. This was at a time when the apartheid government was nearing its end, and Mandela was about to be released. The government had largely banned Fassie songs due to their controversial discussions of sexuality and social ills in South African city townships.

Johnny Clegg & Savuka Third World Child by vinylmeister is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Another South African song “Asimbonanga” sung by Johnny Clegg and the Savuka Band, was banned by the South African apartheid government. The song means “awakening” in Zulu and was released in 1987 in Clegg’s album, “Third World Child.” It invoked both Mandela and Steve Biko who were seen as symbols of the anti-apartheid movement that was seeking justice for native South African communities. Clegg who was born of Scottish-Zimbabwe and Jewish roots had assembled the first multi-racial band in Juluka and later Savuka. He had grown up in parts of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) before his parents immigrated to Johannesburg, South Africa. This brought him face-to-face with the suffering of the minorities in Jo’burg and other major cities. He also learned the local language of Zulu which would become among one of his signatures in his songs.

What most of these songs and musicians signify is the common currency of protest and speaking against societal ills and discrimination irrespective of socio-economic stature. These songs while temporarily off-air, were able to see the day of light and flood our airwaves, allowing audiences across the countries to listen and learn from the musical phenomena.

Find Global Voice’s Spotify playlist highlighting these and other banned songs from around the world here. For more information about banned music, see our special coverage, Striking the Wrong Notes.