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Kenyanhood; Identity and Being: A Tracing of Kenya’s Identity and Belonging in Manner of Speech, and Music Forms

Kanyi Thiong’o


This paper examines the palpability that ‘Manner of Speech’ and textures of the music and songs that are popular with a given people can aid in understanding a facet of their Identity. An examination of speech patterns common with Kenyans, and the songs Kenyans sing and listen to both local and foreign can reveal aspects of their identity. Drawing from the works of John Austin Speech Act Theory and George Lakoff theory of metaphor, the paper examines practices which a being engages, to constitute the Self, in its constant engagement with music, song, dance and performances as cultural products. Aspects of self, Identity and belonging are hereby explored with the aim of understanding how sound sources, as cultural tools govern the self along cultural ideologies whose philosophies continue to act upon the consumers of artistic works but in a way they are not aware. The paper examines the nature of our being that remains subsumed and in most cases unspoken about in artistic forms, which exist not only to articulate the message inherent in a work of art but in addition to construct aspects of our being and Identity. It is hereby argued that songs can be listened to, to try and trace the various shades of our identities that happen to escape our attention mostly as a result of an inability to think of manifestness of ourselves in our music, poetry, performances and narratives. Works of art can be examined to see what they reveal of ourselves, our ideologies, identities and sense of belonging. Good artistes compose their works from the centrality of a clear conscience of their message on one hand and on the other hand with a serious focus on the sensitivity the impact of their style of composition is likely to have on their audiences, about themselves as audiences and the world around them.  Works of art are about human life and human values. The text is a messenger. Examination of styles of song compositions and production can reveal an aspect of our identity and hence the need to develop a style of underpinning audio techniques and the effects they bear upon us. Works of art are emblems of the society that is responsible for their creation. We can, therefore, examine an aspect of the selves in us which is reflected in the artistic works we create or consume. This is of essence in policy making and in moral stock taking of ourselves, if we were to remain relevant as stakeholders in the shaping of our future generation. All artistic works are metaphors, saying something, about something else. The metaphor in the song, in the spoken word, in the performed arts, defines who we are and haunts how we think of ourselves.

Keywords: Identity, Self, Being, Belonging, Speech, Music, Song


This article examines the question of Identity Kenyahood and belonging. The paper deviates from the sociological norm of identity construction along ethnic lines and probes a rarely taken approach of examining Kenyan identity(ies) in the people’s manner of language and language usages that define aspects of multiple identities of most Kenyans. In this approach the paper takes on a linguistic approach to forge a possible proposition that we can understand Kenyaness by critically examining what our manner of speech practices reveal about our unique identities.

The paper argues that to create a more united Kenya we can embark on cultural practices of celebrating the beauty in each others linguistic features aiming to understand and appreciate members of every race or ethnic community by tapping into the beauty of their manner of speech and music forms. To achieve this, the paper argues that we can create a sense of belonging for all Kenyans if we create a positive way of appreciating Kenyans of all backgrounds, if we spare our time to cultivate a mechanism of appreciating the fact that our identity as Kenyans is MULTILAYERED and that it keeps changing as Kenyans continue to interact with one another and with the world at large. The paper, therefore, argues that identity is not a fixed thing but a dynamic process through which each individual practices BEING.

The paper in this context examines: identity (ies) in phonoaesthetics, manner of speech and writing and how most Kenyans write can be harnessed to create greater self awareness and of the other. Finally, the paper highlights characteristics of Kenyan music to show how characteristics and patterns of music consumership can be adopted to define a greater sense of belonging for all Kenyans.  


A historical examination of forms of music, songs and dances that have been popular in Kenya since pre-colonial era to date reveals the contribution song music and dances have played in defining Kenyan identities. Songs, music and dances in Kenya have not only served as a source of entertainment but they have played a major role in the development, propagation and popularization of Kenyan identities which have been popular within particular historical epochs. Scholars might not have enthusiastically taken up their role in studying unorthodox cultural phenomena, but popular culture practitioners have actively taken up the work of reflexive self-documentation (Mungai 2008: 57). The categories of songs in the Gikuyu community, for instance, reveal the philosophy and aesthetics that is subsumed in Gikuyu song (Kabira and Mutahi, 1993:20). The artiste in this context is a mouth piece of his or her community. An examination of the different shades and attributes that have formed our identities can be examined by taking a stock of particular themes of self and personhood that define major concerns of music artistes on a given period.

Culture is not static but instead it is always in a state of flux. Our music, songs and dances as part of our culture have also been changing with time. This can be said not only of the music and the respective artistes but the states of our identities as well. This is because music songs and dances function as emblems of ourselves, our values and ideologies. In tracing our identity, citizenship and personhood, in music, this article adopts Brubaker and Cooper’s approach to the study of identity. In this context, identity is conceived as an analytical category. I want to argue that studies on Kenyan identity, personhood and sense of belonging cannot be tied to a particular historical moment it nor can it be examined with a logo centric perspective but instead identity as posited and as our music reveals defines forms of discursive practices. In this context the concept of identity is not a single state of being but it is a condition that exists in multiple forms.

Fearon summarizes identity into the following propositions, to mention a few: “Identity is “people’s concepts of who they are, of what sort of people they are, and how they relate to others” (qtd Hogg and Abrams 1988, 2). As a description of the way individuals and groups define themselves and are defined by others on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language, and culture” (qtd Deng 1995, 1), the ways in which individuals and collectivities are distinguished in their social relations with other individuals and collectivities” (qtd Jenkins 1996, 4). National identity describes that condition in which a mass of people have made the same identification with national symbols have internalized the symbols of the nation …”(qtd Bloom 1990, 52). Identity as relatively stable, role-specific understandings and expectations about self” (qtd Wendt 1992, 397). Social identities as sets of meanings that an actor attributes to itself while taking the perspective of others, that is, as a social object. And identity as a kind of unsettled space, or an unresolved question in that space, between a number of intersecting discourses. …[Until recently, we have incorrectly thought that identity is] a kind of fixed point of thought and being, a ground of action … the logic of something like a `true self.’ … [But] Identity is a process, identity is split. Identity is not a fixed point but an ambivalent point and the relationship of the other to oneself” (qtd Hall 1989).

As the definition above reveals the concept of identity operates from an idealized position. It is therefore necessary to question the process through which we define the procedures of self constitution. Kenyan music, song and dances as constitutional frames for constructions of selves can be traced from the role these genres played in the pre, during and after colonial era. In this context music song and dances have not only functioned to state how we have defined ourselves but the process of performance becomes the agency through which the very construction it posits brings to bear the aspect of self it purports.

The way everybody speaks is melodious in some way. We however, never take much of our time to record our voices and hear how we sound from the outside. The manner we appropriate sound in speech say much about us and consequently function to define an aspect of our identity which we carry with us wherever we go. An identity that we use and reaffirm almost every day when we speak, an identity that is known by our listeners but an identity which we arguably don’t know much about. We can trace this identity to take stock of an aspect of our selves, and much more with an aim to learn something about ourselves from the way we speak. As Austin observes,

To determine what illocutionary act is so performed we must determine in what way we are using the locution: asking or answering a question, giving some information or an assurance or a warning, announcing a verdict or an intention, pronouncing sentence, making an appointment or an appeal or a criticism, making an identification or giving a description, (Austin, 1962: 98)

A refocusing of our voice(s) towards our inner selves may reveal something about us which we never knew and may be it would reveal something about us that we need to work on in order to improve the influence we have on the world around us. We can tell much about people from the way they speak. A voice reveals much more than the speaker’s intentions.

One danger this awareness may pose is that some may use the awareness to hide their real selves and hence entangle the society around them in hypocritical discourses without the society’s awareness in the judgment the society may pass about the liar as a result of basing as a result of interpreting the speaker in the context of how one sounds. It is however, not possible for an entire society to entangle in the same form of hypocrisy in their manner of speech appropriation. We can however, access the knowledge of how we sound, the melody in our voices to improve our human relations amongst ourselves, with our neighbors and with the world at large.

I want to argue that President Barrack Obama’s campaigns as the first Black President of United states for instance were not only successful because of what he was saying but also because of how he used his voice. This convinced the majority Americans to vote for him. Little credit has however gone to the team that is always operating the sound system to ensure that every speech president Obama makes leaves a trace of its power and significance in the minds of the listeners. The timing of the echo, the ratio of the amount of compression, the setting of the release and the attack time which the engineers calibrate to give his voice the effect it has on the audiences functions to refine the quality of his voice for maximum effect in the delivery of the intended message. The beauty of the unprocessed voice which characterizes ordinary uses of our voice is that it is a clear indication of our character, especially when one uses the voice without any conscious intention to modify it. This could mark an element of one true self. There would then be need to ask the question: “What does my voice and manner of speech say about me?” “How do I judge and interpret people as a result of how they sound?” and the bigger question, “What does our manners of speech say about us as a society?

Our speech rate may reveal the speed at which we react to situations and hence reveal something about ourselves and our character. Kenya is a state of multiple identities as speech patterns of various ethnic groups may reveal. A focus on cognitive oral linguistic practices of ethnic groups may create better ways of understanding members of each group. This is on the understanding that speech patterns of each group are to be examined in order to reveal their patterns of discerning and cognitive procedures they employ to construct meaning of themselves and the world’s around them. Speech patterns may reveal our temperament and much more about members of a group. An understanding of each group from the revelations of their cognitive processes as evidenced in their speech techniques can help harness our strengths towards better integration and hence built a state whose persons and beings have a sense of belonging. This is on the assumption that we focus on the strength of our unique identities. This can be of essence in the creation of unity of purpose by tapping into each other’s strengths for the welfare of individuals and the state at large.

Language and stylistic aspects of language can be surmised as pointers of a people’s aspirations, desires, fears, psychological states and ideologies. A practice of listening to our voices and artistic works can reflect something about our souls in addition to reaffirming our cultural identities. Listening to Kenyan popular music may in a way define our concern in order to learn the psychology of our youth. This would give us an idea of the next world my (young and still very innocent) children are likely to inherit. The soundings of the musical structure in the songs we create and play can thus reveal not what we just are but also the question we are begging, arguably to a society that is in its transient forms, which in addition have formed part of its being and part of the identity of its people.

Towards Hypothesis of Concealed Identities in Ethnic Patterns of Speech

From a loose observation I want to argue that we can learn an aspect of our temperaments from the manner we speak. This can be said to psychologically have an influence on our Identity. From a loose observation I would invite future researchers to interrogate the speech characteristics that are common in Kenya and which in my opinion play a part in defining an aspect of our identity. This can have far reaching effects in building our unity by having a better appreciation of the uniqueness that defines our character in our ethnic diversities.

Kamba language can be said to be musical and romantic upon close examination of its avoidance of consonantal sounds. May be this can tell us something about the Kamba people and their nature. Dholuo can be said to be flamboyant when examined from the way in which the common and ordinary members of the community speak. Kisiis and Merus are purposively forceful languages and arguably this could be a reason why young men from these two communities are arguably short-tempered. Cushitic languages tend to be fast in manner of articulation of words with a lot of staccatos and well intended consonants. This could tell us something about members of these communities. In my view they can be said to be formal and businesslike to mention but a few. These temperament speech identities can be probed further by examining Information Structure this is “the partitioning of sentences into categories such as focus, background, topic, comment” (Büring, 2005: 1). “Information Structure doesn’t primarily affect the truth conditions of utterances, but more elusive aspects of their meaning,” (Büring, 2005: 2). There is therefore, in the view of this argument an aspect of our identity that has always escaped us which we can trace in the concealed meanings that inform how we speak as a matter of our cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

While intended speech may do much to reveal and at the same time conceal these inner identities, I want to argue that a constant examination of the effect our music, song and dances have on audiences can serve as a window through which we can peer into the private identities of the composers and song writers. Songs in this case can be said to function to reveal an aspect of the artiste’s identity.

Music genres in this context can be said to be illocutionary acts, where song, music and dance performances as well as the films we make (about ourselves) become philosophical propositions through which the self is defined.  The oral artist should not be studied under a general bracketed group (Kabira, 1983: 1) the same can be said of our music genres. We can, thus, in this case examine the question each genre begs in the manner it tends to construct Kenyan identity. The content and form of the respective music thus becomes a window through which we can peer into conceived identities of selves.

Music forms in this case are ‘performative practices’ whose content and form function to name and define and therefore give essence to the state of being of the respective practitioners. Consequently, music forms become the mechanism through which different value systems are entrenched and popularized. The processes of composition in this case posit a cultural production process of self definition in addition to giving rise to an artistic work of art.

Cultural interactions have led to importation of music forms that have served to presage new viewership of ourselves from the traditional perspectives other factors such as education, globalization not to withstand. As evidenced in traditional songs, the idea of self was gender oriented where songs functioned to define the roles of individuals in society. This led to the creation of the different genres into which songs were categorized. Upon attainment of independence, Western civilization led to the emergence of new genres of songs such as Rhumba, Funk to mention but two, as a result of emergence of urban centres where the working class in urban centres opted for music that was in English and Kiswahili. Kenyan identities in the old days, I want to argue as evidenced in music that was in our vernacular languages was ethnic oriented. The songs Kenyans made in this era functioned to define people along ethnic lines. Upon attainment of independence Kiswahili became popular in urban centres and was used as a lingua franca. Musicians in the 60s and 70s as a result, opted to sing their songs in Kiswahili arguably with the aim of reaching a wider audience.

It is wrongly assumed that by singing in Kiswahili the songs of the 60s and 70s functioned to unite Kenyans. I want to take a dissenting position that Kiswahili has functioned to unite Kenyans than English or our ethnic languages. This position is inspired by the need to call upon each one of us into greater reflections into sincerities within which we use Kiswahili on the assumption that it is a uniting language, yet within us, we remain so divided along ethnic lines. I want to argue that despite providing people of different ethnic backgrounds with a means with which they communicated as they transacted their daily businesses Kenyans retained their ethnic attitudes and stereotypes as they were before colonization. The fact that Kiswahili was used as a lingua franca and in music composition does not necessarily follow that it united Kenyans. What Kiswahili did in this context was to provide the nation with a linguistic hypocritical gown with which Kenyans interacted yet holding strongly to their ethnic stereotypes. Kiswahili in this context succeeds in concealing the ethnic stereotypes that define an identity of most Kenyans. This is a weak identity that arguably defines an aspect of the true self of most Kenyans but this identity remains concealed. This can be proven if we look at how we tend to coalesce around our ethnic interests when it comes to matters of national interest such as the national elections. Many Kenyans vote along ethnic lines despite having Kiswahili as a national language. I want to argue that assuming Kiswahili unites Kenyans thus far remains a hypothetical position than a reality. What Kiswahili does is to provide Kenyans with a linguistic veil with which they conceal their true selves.

In this context therefore, Kiswahili provide us with a situation of a linguistic contradiction because it is seen on the one hand as if it is uniting Kenyans yet on the other hand it is functioning to sustain their disunity by providing a hypocritical gown with which they hide their true selves from each other. This linguistic practice again becomes a form of an identity of ourselves which again we would not claim. This is an identity which falls within what Derrida terms as an aporia. This is a Greek term denoting a logical contradiction. I want to bring out this hypocritical position that exists arguably among many Kenyans that we may gunner the courage to address it for better social and national cohesion. This can as a result improve the transparency with which we would claim our Kenyanhood, identity and belonging. This can be achieved if we weeded the ethnic bias Kiswahili functions to conceal and in so doing adapt Kiswahili as a language of inclusion and transcending ethnic barriers but not to use to hide the hatred we have for others.

We can transcend beyond racial and ethnic stereotypes regardless of the language we use if we cultivate an appreciating attitude of language, color and beauty of belonging together because we cannot change our ethnicities, neither can we force the other person to change their race or color. This can be achieved by cultivating a practice of admiring the linguistic apotheosis of the other with a clean slate of sincerity to enjoy the audio poetics in the other person’s language and speech patterns. As Michael Jackson puts it in the song “Heal the World” it starts with the person in the mirror, when we lookup ourselves in the mirror. A creation of positive attitude towards each other regardless of our skin and linguistic differences can work towards building a more united Kenya whose value system encompasses identity and belonging.

Identity as a concept begs the question of what is in our minds, about ourselves and about others. Kenyanhood, identity and belonging begin with individual practice of telling members of every race, tribe, or creed good things which make them dear to oneself. This boosts the sense of belonging, sense of inclusion and accommodation in every one hence building a greater identity that would qualify the term Kenyanhood.

This has been witnessed in today’s popular music where young Kenyans appreciate music of the local industry regardless of the language in which the artiste is singing. The artiste in this context will accommodate everyone during the performance regardless of their ethnic background. The fans on the other hand will define a sense of ownership of the music and the artiste regardless of his or her race, class, religion or tribe. Kenyan Hip hop has metamorphosed into different music genres such as Kapuka, Gipuka, Genge, Benga to mention but a few. The questions this paper interrogates are: what aspects of Kenyan identity do these music genres embody? How do they function as pragmatic shifts in our conceived identities? And what aspects of our identity can we deduce from the current music genres?

I want to argue that the current music genres function to integrate our identity and sense of belonging beyond the ethnic stereotypes. This is because current music genres define their audiences outside the ethnic background of the artistes. Music genres such as Ohangla and Mugithi attract not only members of the Luo and Gikuyu respectively for instance, because of the language in which the songs are rendered, but they attract audiences who do not even understand the language. Other music genres such as Genge and Kapuka appear to define Kenyan identity along age and not necessarily ethnic lines. This is because they appear to be favorite of the youths regardless of the cultural background. Popular music in this case appears to define discourses of social cultural integration and homogeneity which if well tapped and harnessed can function to create greater sincerities with which we define our identities not necessarily using Kiswahili but by appropriation of all languages as tools for building greater national unity.

Music as metaphor in this context functions to institute procedures which we appropriate in the quest to define our identity. Metaphor is not in language at all, but in the way we conceptualize one mental domain in terms of another (Lakoff, 1992:185). In this context the concept of metaphor involves an examination of mapping where “the word metaphor has come to mean a cross-domain mapping in the conceptual system”, metaphor is thought, not language…metaphor is a major and indispensable part of our ordinary, conventional way of conceptualizing the world, (Lakoff, 1992:186). The concept of metaphor in this case becomes a process of mapping practices of being. I want to argue that music practices in this context function to draw aspects of our identity. We can therefore examine aspects of our identity that appear to emerge from current music forms. This can be examined by analyzing the song’s lyrics and music structure as mental images where the message and manner of rendition becomes an epitome of self constitution.

At this point, therefore, I want to observe that music present music forms that inform and institute a social reordering process where artistes have transcended cultural ethnic milieus in their propagation of Kenyanhood and selfhood. This is because the current popular music artistes address social issues that members of different cultural backgrounds can identify with. In so doing, the artistes define aspects of identity and belonging along social cultural spaces. This consequently, ties our human sensibilities of identity and belonging along our nature as social members of the same society. Music in this context functions to unite us and thus serve to create an identity of ourselves that is more responsive to our need for social belonging.  

Form and content that define our music today can be surmised as pointers of a people’s aspirations, desires, fears, psychological states and ideologies. A practice of listening to our voices in artistic works can reflect something about our souls in addition to reaffirming our cultural identities. Sound appropriation in music genres can therefore say much about us and consequently function to define an aspect of our identity. A refocusing of our voice(s) towards our inner selves may reveal something about us which we never knew and may be it would reveal something about us that we need to work on in order to improve the influence we have on the world around us. Music in this case reveals much more than the composer’s intentions.

I, therefore, argue that Kenyan identity can be sought in contexts of multiplicities that exist in transient states as evidenced in our popular music genres. This is evidenced in the audio aesthetic structures that are characteristic of how we compose our music. Current music genres can be said to define attributes of transient where the structural frames of our music reveal a state of a being that is in constant search for its greater essence. Our identity in this case is constituted along temporal states.

A close listening to the music we consume in this context, says something about our psychology as a nation and as individuals. This in addition can give us ideas of the next generation. The soundings of the musical structure in the songs we create and play thus reveal not what we just are but also the question we are begging, arguably of ourselves, our identity and our society. I am called to mind about the aspects of our identity as revealed in the language that defines our creative works of arts. This is because as Weedon observes, “Crucial to theorizing subjectivity and identity is the question of language (12)” our music propagates and popularizes speech practices that serve to define who we are. The urban popular music especially whose main language of mediation is sheng should provoke us to examine the nature of ourselves that this music posits. Owing to the very unstable nature of sheng as a pidgin one can then argue that our urban music reveals a society that is wallowing in its own dilemma. As one Allan Aaron a gospel artiste once told me, as a messenger of God, he sings in sheng because it is the language those he has been sent to preach to, speak. The instabilities and unpredictability and the unstable state of sheng in this case serves to define an aspect of our identity along postmodernism and postmodern discourses. Unlike in the past the music genres in this context presage discourses of self examination and self contestations at the same time. Our identity in this case becomes a process not an end in itself.  

The loud heavy kick drum that is common in almost all Kenyan Music genres with the exception of Taraab can, for instance, be said to signify the urgency with which we tend to define ourselves along pressures and do or die aspects of a capitalist state. The loudness that define the sound of our music as semantic texts in this case posits to show that today our ideologies and sense of belonging are marked by subsumed sense of contestation of how we have been made to think of ourselves. This is because; the loudness can be examined as a mapping of self along self interrogative discourses. This can be said to be a reaction to effects of colonial vestiges which we happen to act against in our quest to define our identities and belonging. This in retrospect has functioned to define our identities along traits of aggression as the nature of our being struggles to come to terms with itself.

Onecan argue that the nature of our music in this context identifies with the complexity of art and artistic texts and their ability or power to articulate the embodiments of humanity in a language of art which embody the melodic structures of our music. The natures of our being that remains subsumed and in most cases unspoken about but which are revealed in the artistic forms of our music exist not only to articulate the message inherent in the lyrics but in addition functions to construct aspects of our being and identity. I want to argue that the process of listening to the songs we create in some sort of newness can help trace the various shades of our identities that happen to escape our attention mostly as a result of an inability to think of manifestness of ourselves in our music, poetry, performances and narratives. We can therefore listen to the works of art we create with an aim to see what they reveal of ourselves, our ideologies, identities and sense of belonging.

Works of art in this context are emblems of the society that is responsible for their creation. We can therefore examine an aspect of the selves in us which is reflected in the artistic works we create or consume. This is of essence in policy making and in moral stock taking of ourselves, if we were to remain relevant as stakeholders in the shaping of our future generations. All artistic works are metaphors, saying something, about something else. I guess however, the metaphor is in the philosophical spirit that informs the voice in the song, in the spoken word, in the performed arts, which defines who we are and that haunts how we think of ourselves.

Writers and music artistes in this case create their work bearing in mind, the possible effects their works are to have on members of the society. In this regard, they create their works of art, with a serious focus on sensitivity of the impact their style of writing or singing is to have on their readers, about themselves and the world around them, for writing and song writing and composition are not about the work, but about human life and human values. The literary text or the song in this case is a messenger. A skillful artiste or writer must therefore care about how they deliver the message, most often than not, one may think they are caring while in real sense they are but in the process of further explorations of our identity. Of speech techniques and authorial voice in this case remain subsumed in the text. The problem has however remained how to read the written text with the ears in addition to reading it with the eyes. On the part of music, the problem that will remain, therefore, is one of tracing our selves in our music, by examining not what we listen to in a song but by listening to how we listen to the song. Every act of listening in this case defines gaps in its operation of purported choices which we put into practice in how we will tend to listen and interpret the nature of our identity that any song may imply.        


How often do we remember when we dress in woolen clothes that it was once a covering of a sheep that was once grazing in some green fields, when we dress in silk do we take time to recall, it was once a worm? And when you dress in cotton would it help just to imagine it was once a plant growing innocently in a cotton field. The same can be said of our arts and their histories. With every song we compose, we are writing our philosophies of cultural, poetic, and identity as documentations of aspects of ourselves and our being. I think we would then need to care about what we write and how we shall be read in future as Histories. We shall not be there to respond to the accusations tomorrow’s generations will level against us, but it would be a moment of honour if we shall be remembered in praise songs because we left behind a myriad solution to problems that would mark the challenges of their times in the practices that define the acumen of our music composition and creative writing.


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