Mwenda Ntarangwi on his book, The Street is My Pulpit

Christine Chalifoux: By focusing your ethnographic attention on the hip hop artist Juliani, you were able to weave together so many important facets of life in Kenya: socioeconomic precarity, self-expression, the influence of the burgeoning youth population, and most significantly for your work, Christianity. Your ethnography especially stands out because it not only takes Christianity seriously as a subject on its own, but you engage in anthropology at home in the religious sense, too. How did your position as a fellow Christian affect the relationship you cultivated with Juliani?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: First, my focus on a single person allowed me to use Juliani as the minimum unit of analysis and work ‘backwards” to establish what made him who he is as a Christian and as a musician. I kept asking myself, “what have been the key influences in Juliani’s life that have led him to become who he is today?” It is this analysis that helped me generate the kinds of questions that allowed Juliani to reflect and share some of the experiences and incidents that shaped his identity at the time that I was carrying out an ethnography on his music and life. It also gave him a chance to identify certain individuals and incidents that had had major influences in his life. Second, as a Christian myself, I was very much aware of many of the possible blindsides of carrying out the study of a Christian artist and had to constantly keep checking on my own biases (against or towards Christianity). I remember once having a deep conversation with Juliani about some of the church members at the congregation that had been exposed as following a preacher who claimed to remove evil in their bodies by duplicitously applying potassium permanganate to look like blood. I told him that they were too gullible and followed without question the preacher’s gimmicks. Juliani shot back saying that each one of them was getting something more than what we can discern intellectually. He insisted that the congregants were not fools but rather strategic players who knew what they wanted from the preacher and were getting it. Third, I came into the ethnography with a specific bias towards Christianity, having edited another book with a focus on the social significance of Christianity in Africa, whereby I juxtaposed the rapid spread of Christianity in Africa and the corresponding expansion of social ills represented by high levels of corruption, disease, poverty, and focus on the occult. At the back of my mind, I was skeptical about any positive role Christianity was playing in Africa and was therefore interested in Juliani because he tended to challenge Christianity and especially the way it was mobilized publicly. He, for instance, challenged certain expected silences towards areas of Christianity that did not make sense such as how Christians would seldom challenge certain ideas about God, especially the idea of God’s power over everything, meanwhile many attending church and professing faith in God were languishing in poverty and abuse. Growing up in a Christian context where we did not have many opportunities to challenge certain narratives about Christianity, I was naturally drawn to Juliani’s messages that engaged critically with Christianity as he understood it. I was straddling the two worlds of curiosity toward Juliani’s challenges of Christianity and my own biases towards Christianity. I had to be very careful not to look for Juliani’s messages that would validate my own biases. Being a fellow Christian further provided a shared position from which to engage but not a shared set of interpretations that would miss the complexity of life of Christians.

Christine Chalifoux: The names of some of the hip hop groups and artists you wrote about, such as Camp Mau Mau and MajiMaji, reference powerful anti-colonial movements in East Africa. Are such references common among youth in Nairobi today? And, if so, are young people able to reconcile violent rebellion with Christianity?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: A number of young people who are politically sensitized do use references to Mau Mau and colonial experiences, especially the fact that Africans were taught the wrong type of Christianity. Their claim is similar to the one articulated immediately after independence when Kenyan political leaders claimed that Christianity made Kenyans docile, allowing colonialists to take all their land while they shut their eyes to pray. There are, however, fewer Christians who combine the political with the spiritual because they often assume that they are incompatible. It is thus quite surprising that in early 2021 well-known Christian artist and preacher Mr. Reuben Kigame talked about Jesus being a social activist and that there should not be a dichotomy between faith and living. This is quite a departure from his earlier songs in which he focused on personal piety and preparation for life after death. The Mau Mau have not been viewed mainly as violent in much of Kenya, but rather as agitators for what is rightfully owned by Kenyans. But the memory of their influences has slowly faded away. There might be some affinity between Christianity and Mau Mau in that they both seek radical change in people’s quest for a better life.

Christine Chalifoux: Basing your ethnography in the urban setting of Nairobi, you were able to avert the temptation of many anthropologists and historians of sub-Saharan Africa, which is to break up the country of study into regional ethnic groups. Despite this, readers can see how ethnic concerns continue to be at the forefront, even in the nation’s cosmopolitan capital. In Chapter 3, in particular, you write about the ways in which Christian missionaries had different conversion tactics for particular ethnic groups. Do you think a Christian identity, or ‘performing Christianity’, to use your term, allows the youth to be more amenable to a larger Kenyan nationality?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: Ethnicity has been mobilized to define identity in Kenya for a long time to such an extent that it is the default mode of defining individuals. When this is combined with political processes that amplify ethnicity, then one can see how ethnicity becomes such a key part of the social fabric of the nation. The idea that Africans were organized around tribes was extended to Christian missionary work and colonial boundary-making processes in forming administrative areas in Kenya. This has now been assumed to be the default standard for leadership in certain locales, even in churches. There is a tendency up till today to have certain church leaders be seen as belonging while others don’t belong, and this is based on their ethnic identity and the denomination involved. The Methodist Church, for instance, remains a church associated with the Meru so much that it is almost expected that the presiding bishop of the church will be from the Meru ethnic group. It is quite telling that only the first presiding bishop of the Methodist Church was not Meru, the other five have all been Meru. Interestingly even cosmopolitan churches such as the Christ is the Answer Ministries, a Pentecostal church that was started by Canadian missionaries in 1918 in Nairobi, has been led in the last twenty years (2002-2021) by men from the Luo ethnic group. Despite these patterns of continuity in perpetuating certain ethnic ideologies, I am convinced that the Church in Kenya has the best shot as bringing about a change in ethnic identity. This is for two reasons: first, the Church is, especially in urban areas, a space where new communities are formed and many of those communities are multiethnic. When there is a critical mass of such community building, ethnic identity will no longer be the primary organizing factor in social relationships. Second, many weddings still take place in church and as more and more interethnic marriages take place the church will be an important space to demonstrate a changed social reality regarding ethnicity. Many younger people (those under 30 years of age) are not all too wedded to the idea of ethnic identity especially if they are exposed to a more multiethnic social context compared to their parents’ generation.

Christine Chalifoux: Juliani asserts that “Kenyan youth mostly recognize two tribes–the rich and the poor,” (15) a claim that foreshadows the lyrics in his music criticizing corrupt politicians. Yet, the campaigns to improve communities described in chapter 4 suggest that he embraces a neoliberal vision for the youth. Throughout the ethnography, you convincingly stress that Juliani’s music focuses on Christianity in this material world, rather than heaven and the afterlife, but there seems to be some contradictions in his vision of political economy. Does Juliani have a clear vision for a more egalitarian economy, and if so, what does it look like for him? Do you think Juliani’s faith and music have the potential for more radical forms of politics?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: For Juliani, society is not fully free until everyone has a chance to follow through with their dreams. He believes that such freedom does not come from political benevolence but that it must be constructed and demanded by the electorate. Making the right choices at the ballot box and holding leaders accountable is an important step towards achieving the kind of society Kenyans need. Juliani is also clear that no one will be given free stuff and each one has to work for the things he/she has. He believes that the youth have an opportunity to change their circumstances through honest hard work supported by the right economic and political structures. This belief is what propelled his song and movement he termed “Kama Si Sisi (if not us)” which is about the youth taking on leadership and owning property today (not tomorrow, as is the common idea that youth are leaders of tomorrow). This kind of hope is not far-fetched because, as I show in my other book on East African Hip Hop, many of the businesses revolving around popular music within East Africa were run and owned by young people. The kind of politics that Juliani espouses through his music (the politics of radical faith) has not quite caught on among many Kenyans because of the enduring assumption that politics and faith are like water and oil, they do not mix. It will take a few more years of consistently breaking such assumptions and norms to get the masses to see the value of using faith to engage with the politics of the day. But given the culture of deceit corruption and outright mudslinging, it is difficult for a Christian to be engaged in fruitful politics in Kenya today. As they say, culture will eat strategy for lunch. Unless the political culture changes to accommodate people of Christian faith, there still will be spaces where Christians will feel like outsiders in politics.

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