The Unbwogable NARC

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					                                                                                 Sarah Hillewaert
                                                                            The Unbwogable Narc

                                The Unbwogable NARC
         A case study of popular music’s influence on political discourse
         Paper to be presented at the 2006 ASA Annual Conference (San Francisco)

1. Introduction

Nairobi, September 2002. The Kenyan hip-hop duo Gidgidi MajiMaji releases their new hit

single: “I am unbwogable”. Gidigidi MajiMaji has been extremely popular since entering the

Kenyan hip-hop scene in 1999. The fact that their image combines traditional Luo rhythms

and fashionable hip-hop styles, and that their lyrics combine Luo, Sheng and English in their

lyrics, strongly contributes to their popularity. “I am unbwogable,” however, took the country

by storm and surpassed their previous successes. In about two weeks the song was listed as nr.

1 in the local charts, it was playing on the majority of the matatus [public transport in Kenya],

and Nairobi’s youth enthusiastically sang along. “Unbwogable”, derived from the Luo word

‘bwogore’ or ‘bwogo’ simply means “to be shaken”. Placed within an English grammatical

framework and changing its meaning to “to be scared”, “unbwogable” came to mean

“unscarable” and hence the sentence “I am unbwogable” – I am not scared any more. It is this

linguistic structure that places “unbwogable” undoubtedly in the lexicon of Sheng, Nairobi’s

controversial youth language.

       While Sheng developed in the slums of Nairobi in the 1970s, it recently spread

throughout the city and became the means of communication among the majority of Nairobi’s

younger population. More importantly, because of its usage in hip-hop music, youth in other

Kenyan cities familiarized themselves with the language, and nowadays Sheng can be heard

among youngsters throughout the country. Despite this spread, Sheng remains controversial.

The older generations – parents, teachers, etc – despise its usage as they continue to link it

with ghetto-life, lower education and profanity.

       2002 was also the year of Kenya’s first real democratic elections since Independence

in 1963. Danial Arap Moi, the country’s dictatorial leader for 24 years stepped down from

                                                                               Sarah Hillewaert
                                                                          The Unbwogable Narc

presidency, and all opposition parties pulled together to form NARC, the National Rainbow

Coalition. This party, now combining all of Kenya’s 15 opposition parties, based its campaign

on the promise of real change and structural reforms. During one of the rallies leading up to

elections, Mwai Kibaki took up the phrase of the new Kenyan hit and shouted to his audience

“We are unbwogable!” “Unbwogable” became the campaign slogan of the opposition, and

soon the majority of Kenyans old and young incorporated “unbwogable” in their repertoire. It

was incorporated in advertisement, religious discourse, press reports; it appeared on T-shirts

and was featured in cellphone ringtones.

        In December 2002 Mwai Kibaki was directly elected to be the next president of

Kenya, and even in his inauguration speech on December 30th 2002 he stressed the

“unbwogable” character of the Kenyan people.

       The story of Unbwogable’s remarkable success forms the topic of this paper. How did

a popular hip-hop song become the slogan of an election campaign? More importantly, how

can we explain that the majority of the Kenyan population by December 2002 had

incorporated a word clearly related to the youth language, Sheng? Why was it this phrase that

was able to mobilize people against KANU [Kenyan African Democratic Union]? In this

paper I attempt to formulate answers to these questions.

1. Previous discussions of Unbwogable’s role in the elections

The success of Unbwogable has not gone unnoticed and several papers have been written on

the role Unbwogable played in the 2002 Kenyan elections (e.g. Hofmeyer 2003;

Nyairo&Ogude 2003&2005; Ndegwa 2003; Samper 2004; Wekesa 2004). While they

provide interesting discussions on the increasingly important role of popular culture in

contemporary African politics, the papers generally focus on the mobilization of popular

music in the election campaign. The explanations offered point to the demographic

                                                                                 Sarah Hillewaert
                                                                            The Unbwogable Narc

implications in contemporary African politics and the need for Kenya’s politicians to appeal

to Kenya’s youth, who constitute a large part of the voters. On the other hand they point to the

long standing tradition of using music to express disapproval and opposition in African

societies. In his discussion of Unbwogable’s success Wekesa (2004) points to “the complex

and vital role of popular music as a system for the enactment and negotiation of emergent

patterns of identity under conditions of pervasive social, political and economic change”

(Wekesa, 2004: 95).

       I do not in any way deny the role of music to fulfill political functions of reporting on

current affairs, exerting political pressure, spreading propaganda and reflecting and molding

public opinion. It is, however, not the use of popular music that stood out in the 2002 Kenyan

election, but rather the specific song that draws my attention and deserves in-depth analysis.

       Wekesa (ibid) explained Ubwogable’s success in terms of its glorification of historical

Luo heroes while he simultaneously claims that NARC’s success was based on a national,

interethnic appeal rather than a focus on one particular ethnicity.(ibid: 104)The question then

becomes why an ethnically colored text becomes a template for national politics. Should one

then not try to explain Ubwogable’s interethnic appeal despite its clear praise for Luo history?

Nyairo&Ogude (2004) state that it is Unbwogable’s voicing of shared experiences, memories

and socio-economic immobility that distilled into the Kenyan people the common voice of

defiance and determination to institute change. But why then did other songs used in the 2002

Kenyan elections not acquire the same popularity? The fact that KANU banned the song from

national radio is another explanation offered for Unbwogable’s success. While censoring the

song undeniably generated curiosity, and gave it a political interpretation, it only adds to the

question of Unbwogable’s success. Why did the ruling party, KANU, feel the need to censor

Unbwogable? Where lies its public appeal? How can we explain the song’s appeal to Kenyans

old and young despite its usage of a youth language that is usually disapproved of? It is

                                                                                  Sarah Hillewaert
                                                                             The Unbwogable Narc

exactly in the usage of Sheng that I find an explanation for the successful mobilization of


       2. Why is it so remarkable? The status of Sheng in Kenya

An innovative mix of English, Kiswahili, and predominantly Luo, Luhyia, Kikuyu and

Kikamba, it is generally believed that Sheng developed in the 1970s in the slums surrounding

Nairobi (see also e.g. Osinde 1986 and Spyropoulos 1987). Its emergence has been explained

both as an invention of thugs, who attempted to communicate without police understanding

them, and as innovation of siblings, who needed to converse beyond their parents

understanding in the one room shags of the slums. Mainly due to its usage in local music,

Sheng slowly penetrated the higher echelons of society, to become today the main means of

communication among Nairobi’s youth.

       In her 1999 book Ideologies in Action, Language Politics in Corsica Alexandra Jaffe

discusses the concept of “radical resistance” in relation to language practices. And it is in this

theoretical notion that I found a partial explanation for Sheng’s success, and more

importantly, for its eventual mobilization in the 2002 Kenyan elections.

       Heightened migration to the city and a constantly increasing gap between the

privileged rich and poor masses in the Kenyan capital make Nairobi an island, an “urban

space” in sharp contrast with rural communities. This distinction, in combination with many

elements of global culture present in Nairobi, intensify and reinforce the experience of

“otherness” for urban youth in general. As previous research indicated, it is this sense of

otherness that lessens importance of ethnic identity and thus reduces the significance of the

vernacular for the expression of identity. As a new youth language, mixing English and

Swahili with ethnic languages, Sheng offers a means to articulate this collective urban

experience. More importantly, Sheng acquires its specific meaning through the wider

                                                                                     Sarah Hillewaert
                                                                                The Unbwogable Narc

society’s recognition of its existence. It is the external recognition of Sheng as a language of

youth, and more importantly, the metadiscourse of the older generation and authorities (such

as teachers) that disapproves of its use, that allows Sheng to function as a representation of a

new youth ideology.

        As Jaffe (1999) points out, in countries like Kenya, where languages have featured

centrally in the construction of national, ethnic and elite identities, language use is never

neutral but carries implications about one’s social background, and often political viewpoint.

Language use and discourse about language can then become forms of “social agency”. Jaffe

hereby implies that social identities are proposed and negotiated in interaction. In order to

understand the implications of an interaction, and the choice of language in which it is

formulated, social actors however have to understand what Irvine calls the “topology of

linguistic differentiation”, i.e. the culturally specific ideologies that link social identities,

ideological and political stances and linguistic alternants (1989: 252) To understand the

functioning of Sheng within Nairobi one needs to have a grasp of the ideologies against which

it is opposed.

        While this research paper does not allow me to go into full detail, Kenya’s linguistic

policies have been dominated by a diglossic language ideology. Two stances have been

prominent. The dominant ideology promotes the use of English in every domain of life and

assigns ethnic languages a subordinate position within this ideology. On the other hand there

is a strong reaction against this predominance of English in the public sphere that promotes

the usage of the vernacular languages, the most famous of its representatives being Ngugi wa

Thiong’o. The attraction of Sheng lies in the simultaneous rejection and embrace of English

and the vernacular by allowing the usage of both in one code. It forms an alternative symbolic

marketplace in which a value is placed on plural, heterogeneous language practices. It is this

refusal of a diglossic model and the focus on mixed language use which Alexandra Jaffe calls

                                                                                  Sarah Hillewaert
                                                                             The Unbwogable Narc

“radical resistance”. In distancing themselves from the idea of diglossia, speakers index their

reluctance to accept the unequal status of the languages in the multilingual context. It is

exactly this blurring of linguistic boundaries through language use that stands in radical

opposition to the dominant ideology. By speaking Sheng, youth in Nairobi deny the

prominence of both English and Swahili in the definition of identity. They hereby accentuate

the importance, not of adhering to western values, nor of the embodiment of an ethnic

identity, but of the hybrid combination of both.

       When discussing the success of the notion “unbwogable” we know that the older

generation and politicians were familiar with Sheng through its usage in popular music and

child-to-parent socialization. Familiarity, however, does not necessarily entail uptake and

spread throughout society (especially because of Sheng’s negative reputation as a language of

thugs and uneducated people) and an explanation of the success of “unbwogable” needs to dig

deeper. As a form of radical resistance distancing itself from clear cut ideologies, but finding

value in the ambiguous combination of the two, Sheng is reminiscent of a concept discussed

by David W. Samuels in his study of country music among the Apache from the San Carlos

Reservation. It is to his notions “iconicity of feeling” and “cultural pun” that I turn next for a

deeper understanding of “the unbwogable NARC”.

       In his 2004 ethnography, “Putting a Song on Top of It”, Samuels investigates the

popularity of country music among the Apache of the San Carlos and Bylas Apache

reservations. He hereby endeavors to understand the ability to express “an Apache identity”

through this country music, and thereby introduces two analytical concepts valuable for

studies of contemporary identities: “iconicity of feeling” and “cultural pun”.

       In cultural studies today it is understood that traditions are never simply handed down

from one generation to another. They are, rather, continuously reinvented and strategically

(re)adapted to changing social and political contexts. This has not prevented us from

                                                                                    Sarah Hillewaert
                                                                               The Unbwogable Narc

considering expressions of (cultural) identity as the performance of those practices we

stereotypically consider part of that culture. This is why tourists are disappointed when they

see Kenyan Masaai wearing Nike Airs underneath their traditional clothing, or when they find

the same young men dancing to hip-hop in a nightclub. It is this link between e.g. “Masaai

identity” and practices “identifiable as Masaai” (Samuels, 2004: 4) that Samuels complicates.

       The main argument in his discussion is that, rather than the practices themselves, it is

the feeling evoked by those practices that are essential for them to function as expressions of

cultural identity. Rather than the continuity of traditional practices, it is the continuity of

feeling – the iconic nature of the feelings those practices evoke – that is essential for them to

be considered part of a cultural tradition.

               The concept “iconicity of feeling” reveals the ability to continuously reinvent

traditions, i.e. the ability of cultural practices to carry multiple meanings or to point to

multiple directions. It is in this indexical ambiguity that Samuels finds the motivation to

define culture as “pun”. Important when studying contemporary cultural identities is an

understanding of “the simultaneity of pointing gestures” and the openings this creates for a

redefinition personal and cultural identity. (ibid: 9)

       Samuels’ notions “iconicity of feeling” and “cultural pun” offer an alternative

explanation for the successful mobilization of the hip-hop song “Unbwogable”. When

examining the song’s success we need to ask ourselves two questions: How is it that a term

clearly belonging to the youth language was able to mobilize an older generation of Kenyans?

A second, related question then asks why “unbwogable” was able to mobilize both old and

young. How was it that NARC successfully could incorporate this notion without losing the

support of either the elder generations or the youth? Applying Samuels’ theoretical concepts

to the Kenyan context allows us to formulate answers to both these questions.

                                                                                 Sarah Hillewaert
                                                                            The Unbwogable Narc

          In December 1963 Kenya became an independent state after decades of violent

struggle and ceased to be a British colony. In one of his victory speeches the first president of

Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta looked at the crowd in front of him and said “Is Marwa”, a phrase

combining English and Luo meaning “it’s ours”. Allegedly, the crowd went insane. It was not

only the idea of freedom that provoked cheers among Kenyatta’s audience. The proclamation

of a partly Luo phrase by a president from the Kikuyu ethnicity implied the end of the

rivalries between Kenya’s major ethnic groups and a joined effort to make an independent

Kenya work. Those ideals were however soon forgotten: Kenyatta turned out to be a

dictatorial leader, and his successor Moi continued this corrupt and dictatorial leadership. In

December 2002 Moi needed to hand over presidency as he was too old to stay in power. For

the first time since independence the opposition saw an opportunity to take over from KANU

and all oppositional parties pulled together to form NARC, the National Rainbow Coalition.

In one of his speeches in the rallies leading up to the elections, Mwai Kibaki, the man who

was running for president and a Kikuyu, looked at the audience in front of him and shouted:

“We are unbwogable!” The crowd went insane 1….

          Whether or not the former anecdote is a myth,( i.e. I had several discussions with

friends about who uttered the phrase ‘Is Marwa” ; Oginga Odinga or Kenyatta), applying

Samuels’ “iconicity of feeling” to this contextualization of the 2002 elections, nevertheless

allows us to answer our first question – why NARC was able to mobilize the older generation

through “unbwogable”. The “iconicity of feeling” evoked by “unbwogable” engendered an

indexical sense of historical connection. While instigated by a code generally considered

inappropriate and marginal, “unbwogable” evoked feelings that stood in an imagined

relationship of identity with feelings Kenyan people had in the past (ibid: 175). Recalling the

    Statement made based on own experiences in December 2002

                                                                                 Sarah Hillewaert
                                                                            The Unbwogable Narc

feelings of endless opportunity of 1963, the opposition implied that this time, they were going

to do it right.

        “Iconicity of feeling” however only partly explains why the opposition considered

“unbwogable” a desirable notion to mobilize. While it helps us understand the appeal of the

term for the older generation, “iconicity of feeling” problematizes the attractiveness of the

concept for Kenya’s youth, after all they had no recollection of the moment of independence.

Considering the fact that Sheng’s unintelligibility for parents and authority figures is essential

to its functioning as a youth code, we might even suspect that NARC took a risk when making

“unbwogable” their election slogan. Because youth were likely to consider this an

inappropriate usage of the youth language, they risked losing the support of the youth.

Samuels “cultural pun” offers an explanation why this did not happen.

        Understanding “unbwogable” as a “cultural pun” implies a focus on the inherent

ambiguity of the notion. It explains the possibility for “unbwogable” to evoke the feelings of

independence among the older population, while simultaneously retaining its meaning for the

younger generation. Using a Sheng word, the opposition implied adherence to the ideology

the youth code represents: an ideology of radical resistance. Rather than adhering to the

(ethnic) discourses that had typified Kenyan politics since independence, the use of

“unbwogable” moved beyond the categories cut out by mainstream society; it implied a

modernizing of the traditional. In addition, its status as a Sheng word indicated that what

NARC represented was not ethnic identity as such, but exactly the hybridity of identities; they

stood for a context in which ethnic identities were redefined and indexed the possibility of

controversial changes. It is exactly this ability of “unbwogable” to index both the traditional

and the modern, to appeal to both old and young that demonstrates the value of Samuels’

“cultural pun”. It is the ambiguity of “unbwogable” that permitted a personal, non-

contradictory appeal to the whole Kenyan population.

                                                                                   Sarah Hillewaert
                                                                              The Unbwogable Narc

         What is crucial in an understanding of the appeal of GidiGidi MajiMaji’s music to all

ethnicities is not the fact that they reflect a “strict adherence to Luo identity” (ibid: 199)

through the usage of Luo lyrics. It is rather that they distance themselves from such clear cut

identities through a combination of ethnic and “English identity”. While for older people it

might be that “unbwogable” indicated “a grasping of the connections to history that make the

present (Kenyan) communities possible” (ibid: 199), its meaning for youth lies in the

ambiguity of the identity the term represents, moving beyond the identities that make the

notion important for the older generation.


         The deeper implications of Unbwogable’s success didn’t go unnoticed in Kenya itself.

This summer I travelled back to Nairobi to conduct further research for my dissertation

project. While there, some of my friends working in the top of Kenya’s entertainment

business enthusiastically told me about their new project: a political show conducted entirely

in Sheng travelled throughout the country in an attempt to convince young and old to register

to vote. The project appeared to be a huge success and cities throughout the country had

requested their coming. The successful mobilization of Sheng in this political program not

only demonstrates its rising prominence within Kenya. The usage of the youth language and

the transfer of its values to political discourse indexe broader societal changes. As was

demonstrated in this paper, it was not the referential meaning of the word “unbwogable”, i.e.

what the world literally means, that explained its successful mobilization. It was the indexical

ambiguity of the notion that permitted an appeal to the Kenyan population in general. The

implicit adherence to a changing youth ideology however permits us to propose the impact of

popular culture on contemporary Kenyan politics, and the broader societal changes it might


                                                                             Sarah Hillewaert
                                                                        The Unbwogable Narc


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