Daily Archives: June 12, 2012

Nairobi’s Smart Graffiti and Sheng Hip Hop

For the past few months, a group of Kenyan artists have been decorating Nairobi’s street-facing walls. Their series of graffiti-splashed murals makes the case that street art can also be essential political speech.

It’s pretty easy to overlook graffiti as a serious form of speech. It’s often little more than illegal, scatalogical  public nuisance.  But there’s far more than that going on in Nairobi. The images and slogans are overtly political– they’re full of criticism of “arrogant” and “corrupt” elected politicians who mock the “idiot” voters who re-elect them.

There are lists of scandals: “Pyramid schemes…post-election violence…tax evasion.”  And lists of attributes that a political leader should have: “courage…doesn’t buy votes/bribe…ready to declare their wealth and source of wealth.”

The timing is significant. Kenya holds a presidential election next year. And these street artists are clearly worried about corruption and petty tribalism among the candidates, and apathy among the electorate. There’s so much sharp political commentary in the murals that they seem more like satirical magazines than street art. Perhaps that underscores a lack of confidence in Kenya’s mainstream news media. Whether or not that’s the case, these mainly anonymous artists have turned a few corners of Nairobi into colorful hotspots of free speech.

The BBC has a slideshow with more images of the murals.

Also in the podcast this week, Kenyan pop star Juliani, whose tactics somewhat resemble the street artists. Juliani raps about climate change– not a usual subject for hip hop stars . And he does it in a slangy English-Swahili mash-up known as  Sheng. As with the street artists, the message is political,  it’s is aimed at young people, and it sidesteps more conventional forms of delivery.


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