Hip-hop artist Juliani, born Julius Owino, is one of contemporary Kenya’s major music figures. In the new University of Illinois Press release The Street Is My Pulpit, Mwenda Ntarangwi explores the Kenyan hip hop scene through the lens of Juliani’s life and career. A born-again Christian, Juliani produces work highlighting the tensions between hip hop’s forceful self-expression and a pious approach to public life, even while contesting the basic presumptions of both. To quote the author, the book is:
[M]uch like many other prior scholarly works I have undertaken, a combination of subjective and objective analyses of cultural practices and expressions that I have observed and experienced. It is a book about youth participation and production of hip hop as a productive medium through which to explore multiple practices and meanings expressed within contemporary Christianity in Kenya. I see a kind of expressive glue bonding these two otherwise seemingly different genres of public life.
The author offers insights into Juliani’s art and goals even as he explores his own religious experience and subjective identity as an ethnographer. What emerges is an original contribution to the scholarship on hip hop’s global impact and a passionate study of the music’s role in shaping new ways of being Christian in Africa. Able to watch Juliani onstage, in the studio, and in everyday life, Ntarangwi also offers a rich portrait of the person:
What drew Juliani to gospel music was not just his personal decision to commit his life to Christianity and make these important personal choices but also a desire to make a socioeconomic difference in his community. As he says, however, he quickly realized that he did not have the power or resources to do so, which led him to wonder how his spiritual life reflected his lived experiences. He wanted to sing gospel music that was different, the kind that reflected the realities of his own life and of his immediate social environment. Juliani articulates the reason for this approach to gospel music: “Growing up as a ghetto boy, gospel music was just Sunday music, it never made sense the rest of the other 6 days”. For him, music that dominated the gospel fraternity at the time was about Sunday things that seemed disconnected not only from the general but also individual daily realities. Juliani says that the singer in such music would often say things about God that were removed from his or her life, such as:
Tumshukuru Mungu but amedhulumiwa
Tumshukuru Mungu but hana kitu
Praise God but he/she slept hungry
Praise God but he/she is oppressed
Praise God but he/she has nothing.
This disconnect between the song texts and social realities of the singer is what convinced Juliani to pursue a different kind of gospel music, a music that reflects his own lived experiences and identity and one that makes public the inner socioeconomic struggles with which the musicians and their audiences jostled.