Musical Activism: Kenyan artists using music to address extrajudicial killings

Story - 2018-04-20
To survive on the streets, Dash Jonte, as he is popularly known, dropped out of school and had to rely on his six friends, who became his new supportive family.
Juliani, a prominent Kenyan musical activist
Juliani, a prominent Kenyan musical activist, founder and team leader for DHC. Photo: Juliani

He lost his mother at the young age of 15 years. He never knew his father neither did he have any siblings. Barely a week after his mother’s burial, he was kicked out of their one-roomed house in Dandora and forced onto the streets due to rent arrears. Four years later, he had lost all his six friends to extra-judicial killings at the hands of the police.

Uncle G’s story is no different. Born and bred in Dandora, one of the low-income areas of in Nairobi. At 19 years, he has already lost ten friends to extrajudicial killings, largely perpetuated by the police. Both Uncle G and Dash Jonte have found solace in music as a creative platform to address extra-judicial killings. This venture has, however endangered their lives, subjecting them to live in constant fear of retaliation from the police and some community members who regard them as criminal sympathizers.

Extrajudicial killing is a major issue in Kenya with security forces often accused of carrying out enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and torture with impunity. According to an Amnesty report, Kenya ranks top in Africa in cases of police shootings and killing of civilians, even surpassing African countries like Burundi, Chad, Gambia, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan. The report indicates that by October 2016, a total of 122 extrajudicial killings had been reported in Kenya, out of 177 cases in Africa.

Uncle G has teamed up with Dash Jonte to form a group called 2Punch that is mainly doing awareness and educative songs with a focus on youth and extra-judicial killings. The group is currently signed and nurtured by Dandora Hip Hop City (DHC), one of the Wajibu Wetu Partners. The Wajibu Wetu programme has partnered with DHC through ‘Sisi ni wale wasee,’ loosely translated to ‘We are those Guys’ a project that supports youth using music creatively to address injustices and advocating for accountability in Kenya.

Uncle G and Dash Jonte, members of the 2Punch Group.
Uncle G and Dash Jonte, members of the 2Punch Group.

DHC is currently mentoring young artists like 2Punch on making music as a biocultural tool for social change. The organization further provides a platform in which they can record and disseminate their music. The project has also held a number of community dialogue forums in Dandora on extrajudicial killings, bringing diverse actors, including security forces, police and victims of extrajudicial killings. These sessions have provided a stage for young artists like 2Punch to use music to address the extrajudicial issue, further enhancing constructive dialogue between the police and the community on how to combat extrajudicial killings.

Julius Owino aka Juliani, a prominent Kenyan musician, founder and team leader for DHC attests that extrajudicial killing is a major issue not only in Dandora but for most low income areas of Nairobi. Juliani approximates that not a week goes by without a suspected young man being felled by police guns in Nairobi. He states that police have become the judge, jury, and executioner, often ignoring the constitutional rights of subjecting a suspect to judicial processes and thus becoming a law unto themselves.

Dash Jonte laments that if the police are allowed to arbitrary abuse criminal suspects, it opens the door to the same abuses against the innocent, in the name of seeking "justice".

“Some of my friends who died at the hands of the police am pretty confident were innocent, but got caught at the wrong place at the wrong time,” cries Dash Jonte, before emphasizing that even the criminal suspects ought to have been taken through a fair trial.

The prevalence of extrajudicial killings and blatant impunity with which the police conduct manifests through the existence of Facebook pages like Dandora Love People and Dandora Crime Free where suspected police officers under code names Blackest Widow, Hessy wa Dandora and Hessy wa Kayole display gore crime-scene photos of gun-downed suspects.

But how is music a strategic platform to address extra-judicial killings? Historically, music has been a powerful tool for social change and protest. Prominent artists like Marvin Gaye, Patti Smith, N.W.A., Bruce Springsteen, Gil Scott-Heron, Stevie Wonder, Lucky Dube, Bob Marley and countless others made socially-conscious music to spur collective action mostly in the justice and equality struggle.

Music has a huge potential to reach out to a large mass of people, unite them under a common cause and carry meaningful messages that stir conversation on social change. It also has the power to ignite a fire in people that calls for social justice, making it an effective and potent social change agent.

“Music has a unique way of reaching out to people, it doesn’t only entertain, but also paints a big picture of the issue in just a few words”, says Juliani.

2Punch has so far produced a mix-tape album of twelve songs, most of them speaking out on police brutality and extra-judicial killings e.g. Kenya is Bleeding, Stop Extra-Judicial Killings, Answer Me, Wapewe Jobs and Mi naenda.

Dash Jonte holding one of the song 2Punch has produced: Kenya is Bleeding
Dash Jonte holding one of the song 2Punch has produced: Kenya is Bleeding.

The group chose to do mixtape instead of a normal album as mixtape enables emotional self-expression, with the artists having a free range of how they want to organize their mixtapes without the restrictions that record labels and producers sometimes emphasize on commercial albums.

Juliani has also released a song on extra judicial killings titled Machozi ya Jana in collaboration with International Justice Mission. The sombre track served as a wake-up call for the society to speak up for the voiceless victims of extra judicial killings..

Machozi ya Jana sought to spur conversations and creating conscious societal movements on human rights violations and that promotes accountability within the police force,” states Juliani.

Like Juliani, Dash Jonte and Uncle G songs seek to raise awareness on extrajudicial killings and advocate for accountability and fairness by police in application of laws. This has, however, put their lives at risk as they are being perceived by police to be sympathetic to criminals. To underscore this threat, one of the suspected perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, under the code name Hessy, has issued a stern warning to human rights organisations that tend to speak out on extra-judicial killings

This threat has not deterred music activists Dash Jonte, Uncle G and others who are passionate about speaking truth to power by advocating against extrajudicial killings. They believe that when such brutality is perpetrated on young people, it violates the very essence of fundamental liberties.

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