One musician traces his ancestry by playing his nyatiti while another uses his powerful vocals to express his frustration toward Kenya’s politicians. A storyteller makes the crowd giggle and roar as she shares timeless tales of domineering lions and clever hares. These were three Kenyan artists who gave visitors a virtual trip to Kenya during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer.
Eric Wainaina: A Million-Selling Musician Who Tells It Like It Is
Dressed in ripped jeans, T-shirt and fedora, Eric Wainaina quietly slips into the seat behind his keyboard. His smooth, powerful voice soon silences a chattering audience as he moves into his first performance at the festival – a song aimed at the politicians of Kenya.
"You wind up your window of your fancy car/ Turn on your AC/ You can’t feel the potholes/ You can’t feel the heat."
He’s definitely not shy about making politicians feel the heat. “Fancy Car” is about Kenyan officials who use taxpayers money to buy luxury goods.
The 40-year-old singer is one of the most popular musicians — and political activists — in Kenya. His songs are often banned on state-run radio but remain widely requested on private stations. And his award-winning albums are among the country’s top-selling records: His first sold more than 2 million copies. He’s even been appointed Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations Environmental Programme.
While studying at Berklee College of Music, Wainaina wrote “Kenya Only,” which became the country’s mourning song following a 1998 terrorist attack that killed more than 200 people in the capital city of Nairobi.
Since then, his music – a fusion of pop and benga, a Kenyan genre known for its fast-paced rhythmic beats and upbeat guitar riffs – has caught international attention. The lyrics reflect Wainaina’s social and political indignation and resonate with the millions who disapprove of Kenya’s authoritarian and corrupt political culture.
Photos (top to bottom): Eric Wainaina, Ayub Ogada, Alumbe Hellen Namai (Ryan Kellman/NPR)