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Art and Social Justice

Art is a form of expression. It can be portrayed through music, songs, poetry, spoken word and mime. Art can also be expressed through writing, drawing, on canvas or acted out as drama. Art is powerful, it expresses what we feel at a given time, it is a form of relaxation, it can spur debates about an issue and even mobilise people to act.

Many social injustices are happening daily across many countries in Africa and the world at large. These range from land grabs  by multinational corporations aided by governments , forceful evictions, racism, police brutality, resource based conflicts between ,throwing stowaways in oceans , modern day slavery and human trafficking, illegal harvesting of organs, gender based violence ,lack of access to basic services , unemployment ,children writing on the floor without books, families going without food , mass corruption and election related malpractices, use-of rape as a weapon of war , execution of environmental defenders among other   vices. Kenyan citizens have had their share of injustices, examples include torture, insecurity, police brutality, corruption scandals worth billions of shillings such as the Goldenberg[1] scandal, police brutality, maize importation scandal[2] , mega scandals in the National Youth Service (NYS) [3] , criminalisation of poverty in informal settlements such as Mathare and Kibra, Covid-19[4] expenditures scandal and enforced disappearances among others forms of injustices.

Many a times fighting for justice takes time and for some it may take years before justice is served. Take for example a case in court which drags for years, or a land related such a scenario, art can be used to bring hope to the victims, to give them new energy to fight every day, art can also be used to show displeasure towards an injustice. Art can also be a constant reminder that the struggle continues, lest we forget. In Kenya for example the song Bado Mapambano[5]  and Wimbo wa Mapambano [6] are songs used by activists to show that the struggle continues and that people should not become lax or go to slumber because the struggle continues. It is a clarion call to stay woke.

Art is expressive and can be used as a powerful medium to communicate. For example, using cartoons one can share displeasure with a situation for example corruption in a country, express the rot in leadership, raise attention to poor governance, call people to think about a situation and mobilise the masses to respond. Art can also be used to organise, educate and liberate. Through something presented artistically, people start to think about something, lyrics in a song can be used to talk about an issue affecting society. For example, a song by a Kenyan musician the late Gabriel Omollo popularly known as Omollo Gaby entitled Lunch Time[7], which captured how depressive the situation was for Kenyans after independence. The song says that when people break from work for lunch in the City many of them lie down under trees (mostly in Uhuru[8] Park) because they have no money to buy food, whereas some may have a desire to eat beef stew and chapati[9] , they cannot afford it, while others have to do with cakes and soda. The musician goes on to say that at the end of the month, things change and everyone, casual workers included go for their favourite dishes, some even venturing into hotels owned or frequented by whites. This song speaks about the plight of millions of poor Kenyans and was also symbolic to the fact that independence did not translate into better lives for the masses, that the economic and social yoke is still there despite independence of the flag.

Kenyan musician Eric Wainaina is also famed for using music to speak out against the rot in Kenya. For example, in the song Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo, which talks about wanton corruption in Kenyan society and Daima Mimi Mkenya which focuses on patriotism. Eric Wainaina’s songs also feature inequality, political and social injustices in the county as well as authoritarianism on the part of Kenyan politicians.[10] Other remarkable Kenyans include is Ngugi wa Thiongo’s and the late Ken Walibora who have written about political and social issues. Ngugi wa Thiongo’s books include Devil on the CrossDetained-A Writer’s Prison Diary[11]  –where he writes about his prison’s experience under the reign of Jomo Kenyatta, Weep not Child which talks of social differences and Devil on the Cross which is a critique of capitalism. Among Ken Walibora’s – a Kiswahili icon’s writing includes Siku Njema and Kidagaa Kimemwozea[12].Kidagaa Kimemwozea focused on neo-colonialism in Kenya, an additional example is Shabaan Robert –a Tanzanian author, poet and essayist who wrote the book Kusadikkika[13] – a satire speaking about greed and abuse of power.

Spoken word is also gaining a lot of popularity in Kenya. Kenya has a number of progressive spoken word artistes who speak out against social evils. One is King Kaka[14] with his song Wajinga Nyinyi[15] depicting the rot in Kenyan society and the existing corruption and how Kenyans vote year after year for the same politicians. Another progressive artiste is Anthem Republic[16] who talks about life in the informal settlements in Mathare – Nairobi. In his poetry, the artiste paints the picture of how everybody looks down upon those living in the ghettos while it is the ghettos and Nairobi’s Eastland’s area which has birthed Kenya’s best musicians, sportsmen and entrepreneurs. In his Njoo Utembee Kwetu Ghetto[17], he wonders why persons living in informal settlements are often treated as suspects , that when a person from the Ghetto has red eyes ,it is assumed he or she took bhang( cannabis sativa), and that a person from the ghetto cannot have a new phone ,if they have it must be because they robbed someone.Javan[18] the poet  from the Dandora Social Justice Centre  also uses spoken word to talk about environment justice and the need to divest from coal as well as  pieces on extra-judicial killings amongst other social ills . Dorphan[19] of Dorphanage talks about the plight of those who fought for Kenya’s independence and why despite the flag freedom, Kenyans today  have never been free. Dorphan further speaks about the various oppressions being meted on Kenyan citizens. Cartoonists such as Gathara[20] , Paul Maddo[21] Kelemba and Godfrey Mwapembwa also known as Gado[22] , on weekly basis through the newspapers give Kenyans images to reflect on about issues happening in the country and the world at large. Across the border in Tanzania , Vitali Maembe is famed for his progressive songs which talk about importance of good governance, existing oppressions across Africa and importance of Pan-Africanism , he also talks of Nyerere’s legacy on pan-Africanism .Vitali and artiste and activist  also sings about topics ailing Africa such as corruption  for example in  his song Vuma[23] , in Southern Africa, the late  music icon Lucky Dube sang many liberation and social justice songs , examples are Together as One, Prisoner  and War and Crime speaking about ills happening in South Africa and calling for liberation.

Through art, messages can be packaged on various social justice issues to break silence. There are social justice issues which can lead to one being murdered. Examples across Africa include those who pursue police related brutality or extra judicial killings, those who speak out against corruption, as well as activists who defend natural resources and land rights and those who counter the operations of multinational corporations who are often backed with billions and an army of lawyers. It is through art that complex issues such as spirituality and indigenous forest dwelling people can issue can be spoken out. However, there are incidences when artists get arrested and even killed for speaking out against injustice in society. Examples in East Africa include the arrest of Vitali Maembe of Tanzania, murder of Rwandese musician Kizito Mihigo and Ethiopia’s Hachalu Hundesa, an artiste and civil rights activist whose songs rallied his people to resist oppression. For example his song Maalan Jira(What existence is mine) concerned the displacement of Oromo people from Addis Ababa[24].Huchalu inspired people to fight against oppression and marginalisation.

Art is powerful and a multifaceted way of countering social injustice. Art mirrors what is happening in society and hence a shift to art makes communication better and more understood. The use of art can speak against injustices and at the same time create consciousness among community members that these wrongs must be resisted at all costs.

Cover Photo credits @Victor Ndula





[5] Bado mapambano means the struggle continues



[8] Uhuru is a Kiswahili word meaning freedom





[13] Kusadikikka is an imaginary country , it is a satirical book depicting greed and abuse of power


[15] Wajinga Nyinyi is a Kiswahili word translating to you fools


[17] This means come take a walk in our ghetto








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