Oaxaca native, Mare Advertencia Lirika, who’s been rapping for nearly two decades, along with fellow musician and activist Vivir Quintana, wrote the song ‘Árboles bajo del mar’ (Trees beneath the sea) about defending territories and the rights of native people.
The song is now part of the soundtrack for the new Marvel feature, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, sharing the spotlight with artists such as Rihanna, Burna Boy, Stormzy and more.
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.
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.
This article was originally published by Inside Indonesia and written by Julia Winterflood. You can view the original here.
The history of music, though constantly being rewritten, is inseparable from that of social movements. From revolutionary symphonies to punk rock, folk to political hip-hop, most genres feature artists who’ve created works to condemn injustice and inspire change. In Indonesia, the Bali-based rock band Navicula has spent the past 25 years tackling some of the country’s biggest social and environmental ills — corruption, human rights abuses, religious extremism, pollution, deforestation — through powerful, gritty, anthemic tracks.
It was this quarter-century milestone that inspired development expert and long-term fan of the band Ewa Wojkowska to produce and host A Soundtrack of Resistance, a podcast series exploring 12 Navicula songs and the stories of why and how they were made. Along with the band, she collaborated with other music industry members, researchers, writers, and colleagues on the project. The first episode was released in mid-2021, and a few months later A Soundtrack of Resistance reached number one on the Apple Podcast charts for music interviews in Singapore and Indonesia.
As the series’ tagline goes, it’s ‘a social history of Indonesia through the songs of Navicula, the best band you’ve probably never heard of.’ If you are among those who haven’t yet heard of Navicula, comparisons could be drawn with America’s Rage Against the Machine, or in terms of lyrical content, Australia’s Midnight Oil. Navicula’s style is influenced by alternative ‘90s rock, particularly seminal groups such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains, while also incorporating indigenous influences and psychedelic rock. Many Navicula songs feature the elements of an anthem: a simple yet potent chorus, steady beat, and lyrics that unite those singing along at the top of their lungs — an integral part of the band’s live performances.
Navicula follows in the footsteps of Iwan Fals, a singer-songwriter who, as Rebekah Moore writes, was instrumental in defining the rock musician’s role as social activist in Indonesia. Vocalist and guitarist Gede Robi says in Episode 1, ‘As artists, I feel we have the ability to challenge the status quo. For me and my band Navicula, we love music and we care about social and environmental issues. We believe every generation has their own revolution — I think social and environmental issues are the crucial issue of our generation.’
Ewa speaks with Robi and his fellow band members — guitarist Dadang Pranoto, bassist Krishnanda Adipurba, and drummer Palel Atmoko — about their activism on and off the stage, along with the people behind the movements they support: prominent activists, academics, and development leaders. This is what makes the podcast a first in Indonesia: socially conscious musicians sharing a microphone with those who have also dedicated a large part of their lives to improving Indonesia, albeit using different methods.
Each podcast episode focuses on a particular Navicula song. Episode 4 explores Aku Bukan Mesin (I Am Not a Machine), which the band recorded in response to the terrorist bombings that shook Bali and Jakarta in the early 2000s. It’s an angry, frustrated track, with a propulsive guitar hook and erratic instrumental sections. Robi tells Ewa the lyrics were ‘just the pure reaction as a human being, as a Balinese.’ He was ‘thinking about the people who have losing (sic) their heart, losing (sic) their entity as a human to do such a cruel, unimaginable action. It just destroys everything. The effect of the destruction is affecting everybody.’ Ewa is also joined by Sidney Jones, Director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, who many consider as a ‘rock star’ of her field. She examines the role religion played in the bombings, what makes people turn to violent extremism, and whether it continues to be a threat in Indonesia.
Episode 6 features Mafia Hukum (The Legal Mafia), one of the band’s most popular songs, which became the anthem of Indonesia’s anti-corruption movement. The episode includes a cast of heavy hitters in the civil society and development space: international development expert and former World Bank lead social scientist for East Asia and the Pacific, Scott Guggenheim; award-winning documentary filmmaker Dandhy Laksono; former deputy commissioner of Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, Saut Situmorang; and Indonesia Corruption Watch’s Sely Martini.
Reaching new audiences
Many of the topics at the heart of Navicula’s songs are also addressed by the Indonesia-based non-profit Kopernik, which Ewa co-founded in 2010. A research and development organisation, Kopernik works with diverse partners — including musicians and artists — to find solutions to social and environmental challenges across the archipelago and beyond. Recognising that music is a means to reach wider audiences and a key component of social movements, for the past six years Kopernik has collaborated with Navicula on various initiatives, the biggest of which is a campaign to reduce single-use plastic consumption. This collaboration culminated in the feature-length documentary Pulau Plastik (Plastic Island), which was picked up by Netflix in June this year. Alongside Tiza Mafira and Prigi Arisandi, the film follows Robi as he investigates Indonesia’s plastic pollution crisis and what can be done to fight it.
The Pulau Plastik campaign features in Episode 7 of the podcast, which delves into the song Saat Semua Semakin Cepat, Bali Berani Berhenti (As Everything Gets Faster and Faster, Bali Dares to Stop). Released in 2016, the gentle acoustic folk ballad is the band’s love letter to Nyepi, the Balinese Hindu annual ‘day of silence’, and an ode to the island’s bravery to continue celebrating its customs in the face of globalisation. During the episode, Ewa and Robi point out that Nyepi isn’t the only example of Bali’s bravery to buck the trend. In 2019, the province became the first in Indonesia to pass a regulation banning the use of certain single-use items including plastic bags, styrofoam, and plastic straws in restaurants, cafes, shops and markets, and inspired other locations in Indonesia to follow Bali’s example.
Navicula may not yet be that well known outside Indonesia, but the band’s music does connect with foreign listeners, even though most of their lyrics being in Indonesian. The band’s first major international exposure was with the song Metropolutan (Episode 2), which decries overdevelopment and pollution in Jakarta. The song took out the RØDE Rocks! International Band Competition in 2012. Their prize was a session at the legendary Record Plant Recording Studios in Los Angeles with the band’s ‘dream producer’, Alain Johannes to record its Love Bomb album. A viewer of the Metropolutan video, which Navicula submitted for the competition, commented, ‘I do not understand what you are singing, but I feel this song. I love it. Awesome voice, awesome grunge sound’.
Just as a foreign listener who could not understand a word of Indonesian was able to connect with Metropolutan, those who’ve never heard the band’s music will find much to engage with in the podcast. For those with little knowledge of the world’s fourth most populous nation, each episode is an accessible introduction to a particular period in contemporary Indonesian history, soundtracked by the band that has been at the vanguard of Indonesian music activism for much of its career. As Robi says in Episode 4, ‘As an artist, it’s really important to capture a moment. I see Navicula as a journalist using music as the medium, so it’s really important to capture the original feeling of what we feel at the time, like a historian writing a journal through music.’
Julia Winterflood (email@example.com) is a freelance writer, editor, and translator who has called Indonesia home since 2014. She contributed to the writing and production of several episodes of A Soundtrack of Resistance.