Blog: Kaya Hip-Hop and Religious Co-Existence at the Kenyan Coast

23 May, 2019

This blog was originally published on ‘Religion in Public’, the online platform of the Centre for Religion and Public Life, which is a research and public engagement centre based in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds. See:

This video is made by the Kenyan musician Katoi wa Tabaka, and features a song in the so-called ‘Kaya hip hop’ genre. This subgenre of hip-hop refers to the sacred Kaya forests of the Mijikenda, and differs from ‘secular’ and ‘Christian’ forms of hip-hop that are widely popular in Kenya and East-Africa more generally (Barkley 2007; Malesi 2014). While Kaya forests originally functioned as fortified forest settlements in which political and ritual power was concentrated, most Mijikenda are believed to have moved out of their Kaya settlements in the course of the 19th century (Spear 1978; Brantley 1979). Nevertheless, Kaya forests continue to function as burial grounds for important ancestors, loci of sacred power and ritual practice, and potent symbols of Mijikenda identity and unity (Parkin 1991; Ciekawy 2009; Giles and Mitsanze 2013).

Exemplified by the above video, ‘Kaya hip hop’ music videos often prominently feature traditional Mijikenda dancing, musical instruments, language, domestic practices, and dress, while artists sing and rap about traditional Mijikenda ways of life, and challenges and experiences common to Mijikenda youth. This particular video is shot at Mida, about twenty kilometres from the coastal Kenyan town of Malindi, where I did research on modes of religious co-existence between Muslims, Christians and Traditionalists between September 2016 until August 2017. In and around Malindi, the Giriama are the most populous Mijikenda subgroup. Most Giriama in Malindi self-identify as either Christians or ‘Traditionalists’, while a few Giriama also self-identify as Muslims (McIntosh 2009a). In Malindi, the Giriama co-exist with Swahili Muslims and various ‘upcountry’ ethnic groups who are mostly Christians, and have moved to the coast from various other parts of Kenya. In this post, I will explore how Kaya hip hop provides Giriama youth in Malindi with a platform to generate a sense of pride in their being Giriama, and to negotiate their position vice-versa their Swahili Muslim and ‘upcountry’ Christian neighbours.

Since 2004, Giriama elders in Malindi have organized themselves in the Malindi District Cultural Association (MADCA), to promote the ‘culture’ and ‘traditional religion’ (dini ya jadi) of the Giriama (cf. Nyamweru 2013; Udvardy 2013; Giles and Mitsanze 2013). This is relevant, as Muslims, Christians, and state actors have long denigrated indigenous Giriama religious traditions as backward, idolatrous, and connected to witchcraft, with some even questioning whether Giriama Traditionalism is worthy to be considered a ‘religion’ at all (Tinga 1998; McIntosh 2004; 2009a; 2009b; Parkin 1991). Furthermore, Mijikenda Traditionalism is sometimes seen as a potential source of political opposition, ‘tribalism’, and violence (Ciekawy 2009; Giles and Mitsanze 2013; Nyamweru 2013). During my fieldwork, I noticed that Giriama elders in MADCA aimed to counter such stigmatizing associations by using the Swahili loanword ‘dini’ (from Arabic, din) to claim for Giriama Traditionalism the status of, and recognition as a ‘religion’, even though the Giriama language, like many other African languages, originally does not have an easy equivalent for the term ‘religion’ (Brenner 1989). Furthermore, Giriama elders in MADCA often argue that Giriama Traditionalism is a peaceful religion that is similar and (morally) equal to Islam and Christianity, a claim they wish to strengthen by regularly promoting peace and national unity when they organize cultural events and annual ‘peace walks’.

In the song Kambilolo (litt. lizard, referring to the lizard dance commonly performed by Giriama children), Katoi wa Tabaka also promotes indigenous Giriama customs and traditions. Using the Giriama language, Katoi invites listeners to participate in Giriama dancing and feasting, and subsequently encourages them to ‘hold on tight, don’t let go of your traditions, for you will be enslaved’ (hosha haho mwanehu siriche mila ukahumwa). Here, Katoi touches upon the trope of slavery, through which many Giriama often conceptualize their relatively marginal economic, political, and religious positions in relation to other ethno-religious groups. This trope is powerful, as it draws a line of continuity between their present subordination in post-colonial Kenya, and Giriama experiences with colonial subjugation and enslavement by Arab and Swahili in (pre-)colonial times, although the extent to which Giriama were victims of Arab and Swahili slave trade remains contested among scholars (McIntosh 2009a; Benjamin 2013; Willis 1993; Mkangi 1995). In the rest of the verse, Katoi advocates a sense of Giriama pride, as he declares Giriama youth to be proud descendants of the Kaya, and Gohu and Vaya elders, who play important roles in administering ritual power in the Kaya (ni azukulu a Kaya, magohu na mavaya). In one of our conversations, Katoi explained that he considers the promotion of Giriama pride in songs like Kambilolo to be crucially important, as the relatively weak economic position of many Giriama makes youth associate their culture with poverty, leading them to abandon it as they pursue better lives.

In the second verse, Katoi briefly addresses tourists, as he invites them to enjoy Kenya, ‘this most beautiful country’ (Kenya, ntsi oubidzo jeri jeri), a claim illustrated by the beautiful tropical beach and mangrove forests that prominently feature in his video. In order to let ‘hotels be full’ (mahoteli ajeni), Katoi encourages people to ‘maintain peace’ (fuikeni usalama), ‘end tribalism’ (hamcheni ukabila), and ‘let brotherhood reign’ (undugu uthawale). Subsequently, Katoi decries that the Giriama have left the Kaya forests and denied their culture (Yaani makaya kumchwa mila yetu kukaharwa), opening up possibilities for the introduction of ‘your religions that divide’ (kureha dini nyinji za kuthenganisha). Here, Katoi builds on his earlier assertion that letting go of traditions will lead to enslavement, by adding that following the religions of ‘others’ (i.e. Islam or Christianity) will bring internal divisions among the Giriama. By advocating for Giriama unity through the rejection of ‘your religions’, Katoi suggests that internal divisions among the Giriama will most likely only further marginalize their position in relation to other ethno-religious groups in Kenya, such as Swahili Muslims and ‘upcountry’ Christians with whom they co-exist in Malindi. To strengthen his calls for Giriama emancipation, Katoi encourages listeners to ‘sing our national anthem’, and more importantly, to ‘understand it’ (wiri wa taifa fumbe shee fuelewe). As the Kenyan national anthem stresses the importance of justice (haki), peace (amani) and brotherhood (undugu), Katoi suggests here that these national ideals can only be fully realized when Giriama unite and hold on to their traditions, as they strive for their emancipation in relation to other ethno-religious groups.

Through this short reflection, I have demonstrated how Katoi wa Tabaka uses Kaya hip hop as a platform to promote Giriama culture and tradition, as part of a broader aim to strive towards Giriama emancipation, and the realization of ‘justice’, ‘peace’, and ‘brotherhood’ on a national level. This aim is similar to that of Giriama elders in MADCA, who wish to counter stigmatizing views on Giriama Traditionalism by arguing that their ‘traditional religion’ (dini ya jadi) is a peaceful religion, that is similar and equal to Islam and Christianity. Despite these communalities, we can also notice a slight difference in the rhetoric of Katoi’s Kambilolo song and that of MADCA elders. While Giriama elders in MADCA emphasize that ‘Traditionalism’ is a ‘religion’ (dini) similar and equal to Islam and Christianity, I noticed that Kaya hip-hop musicians like Katoi more often categorize Giriama customs and practices as ‘tradition’ (mila), while rejecting the division and ‘enslavement’ (uhumwa) that would result from following ‘foreign religions’ such as Islam and Christianity. I plan to further reflect elsewhere on what this difference means for modes of religious co-existence in Malindi.

I wish to thank Katoi wa Tabaka, who generously provided me with a transcription of the lyrics of his song, and assisted me with their translation to English upon request. His help was crucial, as I only possess very basic knowledge of the Giriama language. Any remaining misinterpretations or deficiencies of course remain entirely my own.


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