The meaning of protest art to society By Karest Lewela and Humphrey Sipalla

montageProtest art exists across all the genres of art. In visual and audio arts, from stand-up comedy to paintings and rap music, protest art is unified by its socially conscious message and bold challenges to injustice and malgovernance. For African musicians, cartoonists, comedians, novelists and playwrights, there is hardly a lack of material to comment on. From Ivorian reggae artist Alpha Blondy through the apartheid struggle songs to young Kenyan rap artists like Juliani, satirical cartoonists like South African Zapiro and Tanzanian Gado – as they are publicly known, from Ferdinand Oyono’s ‘Old man and the medal’ to recent musings in the literary journal, Kwani?, art never fails to protest at the injustice and malgovernance that pervades Africa’s recent history. Yet for all this eloquent recording of the struggles and protestations of African folk, there is very little of tangible social change to celebrate.

Back in 1986, Ugandan writer Okot p’Bitek argued that the place of art in society is not one to be gainsaid. In Artist the Ruler, p’Bitek asserted that through their craft, artists promulgate laws and order society. In their descriptive – what society is – and prescriptive – what society should be – art, artists hold the power to craft society. A significant part of this power lies in the classic nature of their musings. For instance, British singer Sting’s 1985 song ‘Russians’ is true today for a number of international concerns: North-South Korea, US-Russia over Ukraine, Israel-Iran.

In a world that insists on empirical returns ad infinitum for all consumption: quarterly profits, GDP growth and so on, it is very tempting to defend the dismissal of the value of art and its protest variant by a rejoinder showing empirical results. Such a temptation confronted us at a conference at the University of Pretoria on multi-disciplinary approaches to international human rights law, when, over a cup of coffee an eminent scholar in the field, wondered aloud why any value should be attached to what his son called “pub talk”, that is, the less than analytical rumblings of ordinary folk in various stages of sobriety. We were presenting a paper on human rights and law enforcement in Kenyan popular art whose main thesis was that the human rights situation in any society can be reliably gauged not by its constitutional and statutory provisions or international treaties ratified – as state reports to international treaty bodies recount ad nauseam – but through a survey of its popular art, audio and visual, from hardcore rap to comedy.

Protest art is not good at tangible results. Even when empiricism can be shown, as in Bob Marley’s One Love Peace Concert in April 1978 that brought together warring Jamaican political parties, such results are ephemeral. But protest art does have returns, and invaluable ones at that, if only we resist the temptation of empiricism. One key function of art is educational, and just like education, health, security and other social goods, its value to society cannot always be judged by returns per capita. In such matters, the principle of synergy best describes value. The whole is greater than the sum of the constituent parts.

Protest art keeps the discussions termed subversive or seditious alive during the times when state suppression is at its highest. In such times, protest art is forced to use allegory and caricature, like the precious Kenyan weekly column in the 1990s of the late Wahome ‘Whispers’ Mutahi or Tanzanian Shabaan Robert’s Kusadikika novel, British George Orwell’s Animal Farm; or to the periphery of public discourses like the very irreverent beer-drinking parodies that took a poke at the personality cult of former Kenyan President Moi. At such times, the centre of public discourse is inundated with politically correct praise songs – many of which were the subject of the irreverent parodies mentioned above, innocuous dramas on any other social matter other than malgovernance and injustice, like ‘Plot 10’ and ‘Vitimbi’ in Kenya and state broadcaster produced reportages showing ‘development efforts’ that were as entertaining and informative as Vogon poetry (A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
When protest art begins to move towards the centre, it signals the opening up of democratic space, a phenomenon we saw in Kenya with comedies like ‘Redikyulass’, which, in our view, did more than any political rally or constitutional review process, to demystify the edifice of Moi’s personality cult, paving the way to Kenyan society’s imagination that change could truly come.
The problem with evaluating protest art’s meaningfulness lies in no small measure to the matters it treats. It is not only speaking truth to power but speaking of matters that themselves have no easy solutions. Kalamashaka’s Mungu wangu niokoe, Mashifta’s Majambazi or recently Juliani and Sarabi Band’s Sheria treat social ills so entrenched and injustices so close to the powers-that-be that their solutions cannot be expected in a couple of election cycles. It is nevertheless great to see younger artists like Juliani take on the speech that need be said. He, like Isaac Newton, stands on the shoulders of giants.

How can protest art as a change agent account for the apathy Kenyan society, for instance, finds itself in? Although legally more empowered than ever, we find injustices and malgovernance cohabiting quite comfortably at the centre of public discourse with free speech enjoying protest art. True, every so often, there is a backlash, such as the one experienced by South African satirical cartoonist Zapiro, but cohabiting is the norm. Such cohabiting is insidious as it gives the impression that protest art has lost its sting or worse, that injustice has reverse engineered an anti-venom from that very sting. The answer may lie in the words of former Kenyan anti-corruption czar, John Githongo: corruption fights back. Injustice and malgovernance and the powers that perpetrate these can and have changed tact. They now give slick speeches, attend court sessions and obey some rulings, but employ the same beguiling behaviour of utopian promises and burying substance in procedure.

Protest art, however, need not change tact. Its value as a change agent lies not in spurring revolutions, for nothing could be as disastrous as rapid uncontrolled change – and Egypt and Libya stand testament to this. Value is to be found rather, first in recording injustices and malgovernance for posterity. The wheels of justice turn slowly after all. Protest art precedes human rights monitoring, which in the words of former UN Special Rapporteur on ExtraJudicial Executions Prof. Philip Aston, is “not required to demonstrate guilt as a prosecutor must, or judge as a court would. But that does not mean that their contents can be ignored…” In other words, protest art raises suspicion and human rights monitoring establishes ‘reasons to believe’ for the relevant state organs to investigate, prosecute and judge.
Protest art is also cathartic and empowering. The power to name that which oppresses you is central to justice seeking. It gives back the dignity that injustice strips away from a victim’s humanity. It is not only in exorcisms and trauma counseling where this method is useful. Truth commissions from Peru through South Africa to Kenya bear witness to this fact. At the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, allowing the victim to speak from the heart to the court and not just as material witnesses recounting facts for lawyers, is an indispensable and the most powerful part of its hearings. It is for this reason that suspicions are heightened when a seemingly law-abiding government seeks to gag the media or raise obstacles to speech that is neither hate inciting nor child pornography.

But true to its educational function, protest art finds its greatest value as change agent in opening closed minds and awakening dormant ones. We remember quite vividly (we were in high school then in 1998) our thoughts and emotions when we first heard Kalamashaka’s Mungu wangu niokoe on radio or when we, each Sunday, waited impatiently for the next episode of Redikyulass. We could scarcely believe our ears. In fact, even now, we can scarcely believe the accompanying video in Jliani’s Sheria to the lines “machozi ya perpetrator inaeza dilute damu ya victim ilimwagika?(the tears of the perpetrator can dilute the blood of victims; did it even pour?)” And we still cannot get enough laughter from the piercing truth in Eric Omondi’s parodies Ocampo and Mapenzi ya kura and XYZShow’s political hits.
In a time when mass detentions are done, despite the entrenchment of the rights to fair trial and habeas corpus and the prohibition of inhumane treatment as non-derogable rights in the Kenyan Constitution, not in remote airfields but in the nation’s flagship stadium, the value of protest art to speak that which cannot be easily spoken cannot be gainsaid.
Maybe we are closer than we think to a time when protest art and its creators are once again driven from the centre into the periphery of seedy bars and seemingly harmless allegories. When that dark day comes, we can always rely on protest art to keep up non violent non-confrontational dissent.

– Karest Lewela and Humphrey Sipalla are authors of “Policed perceptions, masked realities: Using popular art to uncover and monitor human rights violations by the police in Kenya” published in Beyond the Law: Multi-disciplinary Perspectives on Human Rights (Pretoria University Law Press, 2012)