A sad state of affairs for young politically minded artists in Kenya


Art can be a disruptive form of expression and a powerful tool to shift existing political and social realities. However, in Kenya, the creative industry is often corrupt, and the government ignores many young artists, especially those who speak up for democracy and human rights. The Kenyan psychologist and human rights defender Salima Macharia shares some insights gained through her daily work with young artivists (artist + activist) from informal settlements in Nairobi.

Group of Young Kenyan Artists

The creative industry is one of the world's fastest-growing sectors, providing new and high-growth opportunities, particularly for developing and emerging economies. In Kenya, young artists are taking a different approach to many in the creative industry and using various forms of art to influence social change. The right to freedom of assembly, in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is guaranteed both offline and online, and as a result, there has been a resurgence of art and activism (artivism) as both an alternative and complement to physical street marches; in the online space, citizens can freely and effectively express themselves, as well as exercise their right to protest, albeit virtually. Young artists in Kenya are using art, music and creativity as a way of freely expressing themselves and strategically pushing back against the shrinking civic space, while also actively enhancing participation in governance. Due to the nature of their work and the challenges that come with it, they are at risk of being labeled as enemies of the state, as well as succumbing to massive mental health issues.

In Kenya, young grassroots artists from community-based organizations take it upon themselves to respond to all forms of violations, including sexual and gender-based violence, arson, police brutality, health emergencies and other inter- and intra-locality violence. Without a doubt, for those who dwell in Nairobi's poor urban settlements, which are home to more than 60% of the city's population (despite the city's population accounting for barely 6% of its surface area), the absence of essential utilities, such as water, sanitation and proper shelter, form the backdrop for other human rights violations. These are committed by both community members and the state, including extra-judicial executions, forced disappearances and torture on such a scale that they have become a morbid and routine occurrence, and for which residents are habitually unable to get redress. These artists, who identify as human rights advocates at times, take up lobbying on behalf of their communities on a more regular basis as a deliberate decision to address the sad state of affairs in the country. Young artists in Kenya are turning the tides, amplifying their voices to push back against the ills that bedevil their peers and the community at large. Unfortunately, despite using their talents for the greater good of the community through their art, young artists are also challenging an authoritarian regime that is adamant about silencing its citizens and escaping accountability for its questionable actions. This puts young artists at risk and poses many challenges for them as professionals.

One of the greatest challenges young Kenyan artivists face is misrepresentation. The lack of a platform for the kind of conscious artistic outputs they create is evidenced by minimal or no airplay from many local and mainstream radio and TV stations, which are often not keen to advocate for human rights and speak truth to power. A lot of these young artists are misrepresented as troublemakers whose aim is to bring division and chaos in the community, whereas their work aims to do exactly the opposite. This often creates a lot of bias and prejudice towards them. Due to the uniqueness of their combination of art and activism, the young artists create quality content but are unable to get airplay due to the controversial nature that their work represents. The government, via the Kenya Copyright Board (KECOBO), a state corporation in Kenya under the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice that is mandated with the administration and enforcement of copyright and related rights, has played a huge role in suppression of the artists’ rights. Lack of licensing and denial of airplay or the opportunity to showcase their content, as well as late royalty payments and withdrawal of their broadcasting rights, are just but a few of the tactics the state uses to silence the activism these young artists are passionate about.

The pressure to be providers as well as create politically relevant content without the financial capability takes a toll on many of these young artists in informal settlements. Some of the artists are parents, wives, husbands and heads of households, who are looked upon to take care of their families but are hardly receiving support from the government, which opposes their advocacy and passion for social change. Most of these young artists rely on personal savings and funding from family and friends to finance their enterprises and put out content. The rest work multiple jobs to facilitate their artistic endeavors. Some of these artists give up their passions when income from royalties does not meet their needs. Generally, creatives receive little to no support from the government or relevant associations as many of the artists report not benefiting from government initiatives, and most are unaware of any government initiatives that drive growth within their professional sectors. It becomes even harder when the content put out is politically inclined and is labeled as setting out to attack the government. As much as the work the young artivists do is commendable, namely holding officials accountable through constructive criticism, the financial strain and lack of support interfere with their work.

Local organizations in Kenya expose young artivists to a lot of exploitation as well. Many organizations underpay the artists as they consider them amateurs, hence taking advantage of the work they do. Since they have a burning passion for promoting human rights and access to justice, as well as, importantly, standing up for vulnerable groups’ rights in their communities through their art, they end up taking these jobs with little to no pay. Local organizations take advantage of their lack of experience in the field and exploit their passions for their own gain. They also lack any interest in providing more support for the artists when it comes to their mental health and seldom outsource psychologists or create mental health programs that improve the well-being of these artivists.

What’s more, many of the young artists who are politically minded use their art to express their dissatisfaction whenever there are human rights violations. This means they are putting themselves in the forefront when it comes to holding officials accountable. Due to this, their lives tend to be at risk. The nature of their art means that they end up working in very hostile environments. They face physical attacks by hired assailants, arbitrary arrests, judicial harassment, surveillance and character assassinations. This trend of excessive use of force against the young artivists points to a quickly shrinking civic space, courtesy of a government with no regard for the right to assembly enshrined in the constitution of Kenya. Such incidents, coupled with the failure of the government to conduct independent investigations with regard to such violations, indicate a normalization of censorship and a continuing crackdown on dissent. This results in a decline in the content they put out for fear of their lives, as well as for the safety of their families.

Most enraging of all is the sexual exploitation experienced by creatives, especially for women. One of the artivists who sat down with us was a young lady in her early twenties, who narrated how hard it is for her to showcase her art in galleries due to the relentless sexual favors that are demanded from her in order to get jobs. Male artists also face sexual exploitation, as another artist recounts how hard it is for him to get his music on the airwaves due to female DJs and music producers expecting sexual favors in order for him to climb the ladder. The financial abilities and connections of these DJs enable this abusive environment because the artists need to put food on the table. The psychological effects of sexual harassment are significant in a field where new and innovative ideas are the mainstay. A victim of harassment may do significantly at work.  Statistics indicate that women are more likely than men to experience sexual harassment, although both men and women are exposed. Anyone, regardless of their gender, can become a victim of sexual harassment.

As a young artivist, there is an understanding and knowledge that better structures can be created to allow creatives and artists to thrive in their industry. This would also help the upcoming generation of politically engaged artists to find better systems than today. Due to the trauma that comes as a result of their work, having avenues that can be safe spaces for them to enhance their mental well-being would be a great contribution to enhancing the quality of their artivism. The global civil society community can play a huge role in mobilizing, lobbying, and advocating to assist young Kenyan artists, who selflessly hold the government to account. International organizations have the capacity to offer support and to contribute to much more safety and security for these brave young artivists, whose rights of political and cultural expression have been consistently curtailed and infringed upon. 

The Kenyan government perceives these young artists, and the work they do, as a threat to their rule, consequently distancing themselves from offering any kind of support that could enhance their lives. Lacking support from home means these young artists rely heavily on the support of international organizations for their survival. We are calling on more international organizations to offer their support and stand with them in solidarity for taking these risks and speaking up about democracy and human rights. These young Kenyan artists have the passion to be culture changers, and are ready to use their talents and gifts to push for social change, the rule of law, respect for human rights and a truly democratic nation.

This piece was produced with the support of the Global Support for Democracy Unit of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union. It is part of the dossier "Youth & democracy in Africa. Young voices on the rise".