Mwenda Ntarangwi is an associate professor of anthropology at Calvin College. He recently answered some questions about his book The Street Is My Pulpit:
Hip Hop and Christianity in Kenya.
Q: Your book explores the Kenyan music scene through the lens of Christian hip hop artist Juliani’s life and career. For those unfamiliar with Juliani, can your briefly introduce the artist and his role in the Kenyan music scene?
Mwenda Ntarangwi: Born in Dandora, a suburb of Nairobi famed for having the biggest dumpsite in the world, Juliani is one of the most popular hip hop artists in Kenya. He started his music career at the feet of Kalamashaka, Kenya’s pioneering hip hop artists, where he honed his lyrical prowess to articulate social problems facing youth in Kenya. Born Julius Owino, Juliani is known for his electrifying stage performance, dreadlocked hair, and a down-to-earth demeanor rare for artists as popular as he. His name has been used to promote new farming techniques, cell phone products, environmental issues, political change, wildlife conservation, and economic programs, among many others.
Q: How did your interest in break-dancing lead, eventually, to your academic study?
Ntarangwi: It got me connected to not only other youth with a similar interest but to a world far away from me that seemed to grapple with the same challenges I was facing as a young person trying to figure out my own identity and place in society. The breakdance film Breakin’ provided an interesting background to the pursuit of social issues I came to find in hip hop because it had some young people challenging authority as represented in a judge who was blocking a team from entering into a dance competition.
Q: There is a growing youth population in Kenya. Does the hip hop scene take on unique characteristics due to the demographic shift?
Ntarangwi: Because the majority of the audience for hip hop is youth, there is a special connection they have with the music especially the socially-conscious version that seeks to articulate their problems and frustrations. It is also because hip hop as an industry promises the youth (who constitute the majority of the unemployed) opportunities for a better livelihood and a platform to speak their minds without much control from such avenues as the government or their elders. Having the chance to articulate one’s lived experiences as well as aspirations is a powerful thing for youth who live in a context where they often feel disenfranchised.
Q: What is the Kama Si Sisi program?
Ntarangwi: This is a project introduced by Juliani to mobilize youth to become agents of change in their own lives’ circumstances. Kama Si Sisi (nani?), which means “if not us (then who?)” in Swahili is a program that encourages youth to seek economic independence through savings and entrepreneurship, combat climate change through planting trees and reducing trash, and changing the political scenario by being actively getting involved in voting and holding their leaders accountable.
Q: Are the social boundaries of Christianity different in Kenyan hip hop than in Western popular culture?
Ntarangwi: In Kenya there isn’t yet an operating public separation of church and state as it is in the West even though the 2010 national constitution requires such separation. Kenyan Christians are much more culturally conservative than their western counterparts. This has shaped the kind of music accepted as Christian and has led to a number of questions about how much of Juliani’s music is Christian. This is especially so for those who see Christian music as only about verses from the Bible or making references to Jesus. Kenyan Christianity also has shaped much of the public discourse, limiting the level of inappropriate language that can be used in hip hop. This makes Kenyan hip hop (Christian or otherwise) much more clean than its U.S. counterpart, for instance.