[URBANTH-L] REV: Lukalo, Extended Handshake or Wrestling Match? Youth and Urban Culture Celebrating Politics in Kenya

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Tue Apr 10 13:29:03 EDT 2007


Fibian Kavulani Lukalo. Extended Handshake or Wrestling Match? Youth and 
Urban Culture Celebrating Politics in Kenya. Uppsala: Nordiska 
Afrikainstitutet, 2006. 65 pp. ISBN 91-7106-567-9.

Reviewed for H-Urban by James R. Brennan <jb2 at soas.ac.uk>, 
Department of History, School of Oriental and African Studies, 
University of London.

Youth and Urban Culture in Contemporary Kenya

In this idiosyncratic little book, Fibian Kavulani Lukalo examines how 
urban youth carve out niches of social inclusion within the unwelcoming 
political landscape of contemporary Kenya. The author does this by 
paying close attention to the sorts of cultural innovations in music and 
satirical print media that enable young urban men and women to create 
political space denied them by a heavy-handed and largely corrupt 
government. The music of Kenyan youths in the late 1990s was not simply 
an exercise in hedonism, the author argues, but something that clearly 
addressed and emphasized "the paradoxes in the lives of ordinary 
Kenyans", and worked to create a popular culture "as a counter-hegemonic 
process"(p. 9). Youth agitation thus sought to hold political leaders 
accountable. It is an attractive argument, but one that is asserted 
rather than demonstrated.

Lukalo begins with the observation that much of Africa's political 
protest in the 1990s emerged "primarily in urban settings" (p. 9). The 
author contextualizes this stormy period in Kenya's history, when 
then-President Daniel arap Moi came under withering criticisms for 
endemic corruption and stoking ethnic tensions, with a useful overview 
of the period's grim political history since independence. As media 
controls loosened in the 1990s, the arena for public dissent grew in 
like proportion, providing the new spaces for young urban artists to 
articulate dissent. The book's first and longest chapter provides a 
sharp synopsis of the music scene in Kenya's capital of Nairobi, and the 
decisive role that political patronage played throughout its history. 
Lukalo also shows how youth have driven the city's linguistic 
innovations, in both the regional lingua franca of Kiswahili as well as 
specifically Nairobian "Sheng", a mixture of Swahili grammar with 
several English, Kikuyu, and Luo loanwords. While the material discussed 
here as elsewhere is nearly always interesting, the guiding argument 
generally is not, for it comes down to variations on the manta-like 
assertion that "youth popular culture and music presents [sic] a 
distinct youth identity" (p. 34). This constant retreat into assertions 
about youth identity prevents the reader from judging just what 
significance Nairobi's urban youth culture actually poses to political 
power. The final two chapters offer short portraits of how Christian and 
hip-hop musical artists have increasingly taken up the issue of 
government corruption and ultimately proved themselves willing to 
confront Moi, yet it is not clear what direct role they played in the 
2002 electoral victory against his chosen successor. Nonetheless the 
book does give a strong sense of the ubiquity of urban youth's anger 
with corruption, and the creative and often humorous ways in which this 
frustration gets expressed.

This is a book about urban culture rather than urbanization, with the 
latter mainly understood as an abstract process that precipitates ever 
more interesting cultural and political developments. "Urban" here 
simply refers to geographical location, in this case the city of 
Nairobi. The book is more useful in dissecting the patronage networks 
that create, sustain, and tear apart relationships between Kenyan's 
national political elite and its artists, a subject of great importance 
that calls for more research. The book imparts a flavour of Nairobi's 
vital music and print culture, which hopefully will inspire interested 
readers to pursue this subject further. In summary, this book will be 
useful for those interested in the relationship between popular culture 
and politics in contemporary East Africa, in particular the role and 
work of Kenya's creative young artists.

Copyright (c) 2007 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be 
copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the 
author and the list. For other permission, please contact 
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