By Dr Wandia Njoya
So now the Kenya Schools and Colleges drama festival is adding a category of spoken word because, according to professors in charge, “young people today simply love the spoken word.”
A few years ago, the Music festivals added a rap category.
There’s no problem with the expansion of the schools and colleges festivals. My fear is that professors are supporting the neoliberal restriction of arts to entertainment and talent, and are not taking arts as a serious field of study. For example, do any of these professors adding these categories to the festivals actually teach appreciation classes on spoken word and rap in their universities? Do they invite artists to their classes? Or are they just going to role play as Simon Cowells at the festivals and judge people’s “talent”?
The other day, I tried to get Kenyan artists to take this talk of “talent” by KICD as an insult to arts education. The reception was lukewarm. It’s really strange to be asking artists to see ahead because we in the arts are the “see-aheaders” per excellence. We imagine and paint the pictures of the future with our colors, words and tunes.
So let me just say it again here. The new curriculum will kill the little arts education we have. By talking of talent, we are allowing the arts to be removed from the school and be subject to Tusker Project fame and school festivals, where all people do with art is compete for pay and glory.
But art also needs a space where people do it and appreciate it for more than just the market. We need art because art carries our identity and our history. It’s not just about money and fame.
Many decades ago, Kenyan writers were traumatized when Taban Lo Liyong called East Africa a literary desert. A few years ago, we had a disagreement with Prof Tom Odhiambo in the Nation after he complained about the quality of Kenyan novels. A few days ago, Kenyan musicians were angry that DJ Pinye said that Kenyan music recordings are of poor quality.
I don’t subscribe to these blanket condemnations of Kenyan artists. But, I think we have to consider that the critics may have a point. To have good art, artists must invest in knowing the arts of their ancestors. We have to know where we are coming from artistically, and who came before us. We have to understand our people so that our art reflects and speaks to them. We have to study our artists so that we add them to our Kenyan canon. Our art today must have echoes of the past, so that by consuming art of today’s artists, we are also being linked to the past and we are leaving a legacy for the future.
And yet, I have jazz students who don’t know who Hugh Masekela is. Every semester, I have to pep talk music students to accept the assignments of their lecturers to perform compositions by Thomas Wasonga or songs by Maroon Commandos, because the students think that doing that work is “irrelevant.” Some even admit that they don’t know or listen to African music. As a teacher, I cannot condemn them for thinking this way. I understand where they are coming from, and that’s why I have to pep talk them every semester.
Sometimes some students ask me how to become good writers, and I tell them that they have to read Kenyan novels to get a sense of what they can write about. They tell me, with no sense of irony, that they don’t see the point of reading Kenyan novels.
Students often send me requests to support their “talent” and self written plays. I tell them: to improve your craft, try also performing a play written by someone else. But no. Their point is their own talent. Not art. Not us, the people who must come and be tortured by their performances and clap politely because we want to “acknowledge that they have talent.”
As for film students…they talk about festivals and Oscars. When I ask them why they don’t put any Kenya novel on film, or why our oral narratives are not in cartoons so that kids are no longer hooked to cartoon network, they give me a blank look. Why are Elijah Masinde, Mekatilili, Syokimau, Wangari Maathai and other historical figures not on film, I ask? But they don’t read history, and one film maker told me that Kenyan stories are boring. The film students only start to get what I’m driving at when I remind them that most of the best actor and actress Oscars go to movies adapted from biographies and other historical books. They dont know that Lupita got an Oscar for playing a character from a real man’s life story.
So Kenyan artists: you can’t keep guilt tripping us into consuming your work. If you want us to listen to you, you must also listen to your artist elders and encourage us to listen to them too. And if you condemn me, guess what. We will never invite you to come talk with our students, and never stock your work in our libraries, and never force students to write term papers about you. (This semester, I had to compel a student to do a study of artists like Esther Wahome and Mercy Masika, because she was going to write for me an abstract paper about gospel artists without any reference to actual Kenyan artists). And when you’re fifty years old, no one will care for your work because the next hot thing is now playing on the radio, is liked by the Ian Mbugua’s of the day and is the winner of “Kenya’s got talent.”
And professors in the arts – please say something about KICD’s alienation of arts from the new system. Stop settling for competitions. Fight for a coherent arts education and for coherent arts institutions. KICD is not talking about arts. It has no plan for the arts. It talks about “talent” because this neoliberal government wants to kill arts education and leave the arts to the vulgarities of the market. And you know that if we have no arts for people’s sake, then we will stop being human.