Academic journal article Africa

Lip-Synch Gospel: Christian Music and the Ethnopoetics of Identity in Kenya

Academic journal article Africa

Lip-Synch Gospel: Christian Music and the Ethnopoetics of Identity in Kenya

Article excerpt


In recent years there has been an outpouring of Kenyan scholarship on the ways popular musicians engage with politics in the public sphere. With respect to the rise in the 1990s and 2000s of gospel music--whose politics are more pietistic than activist--this article challenges how to 'understand' the politics of gospel music taken from a small speech community, in this case the Meru. In observing street performances of a new style of preaching, 'lip-synch' gospel, I offer ethnographic readings of song lyrics to show that Meru's gospel singers can address moral debates not readily aired in mainline and Pentecostal-Charismatic churches. Critical of hypocrisy in the church and engaging with a wider politics of belonging and identity, Meru gospel singers weave localized ethnopoetics into their Christian music, with the effect that their politics effectively remain concealed within Meru and invisible to the national public sphere. While contesting the perceived corruption, sin and hypocrisy in everyday sociality, such Meru gospel singer groups cannot rightly be considered a local 'counter-public' because they still work their politics in the shadows of the churches.


Ces dernieres annees ont vu une effusion de travaux de recherche sur la maniere dont les musiciens populaires kenyans s'engagent en politique dans la sphere publique. Concernant l'essor de la musique gospel dans les annees 1990 et 2000, dont la politique est plus pietiste qu'activiste, cet article remet en question l'<< interpretation >> de la politique du gospel au sein d'une communaute linguistique restreinte, en l'occurrence les Meru. A travers l'observation de performances de rue d'un nouveau style de predication appele gospel << lip-synch >>, l'article offre des lectures ethnographiques de paroles de chansons pour montrer que les chanteurs de gospel de Meru peuvent aborder des debats moraux qui ne trouvent pas facilement leur expression dans les eglises traditionnelles et pentecotistes-charismatiques. Critiques de l'hypocrisie presente au sein de l'Eglise et engages dans une politique plus large d'appartenance et d'identite, les chanteurs de gospel de Meru entrelacent la musique chretienne d'ethnopoesie localisee, avec pour effet de dissimuler leur politique au sein de Meru et de la rendre invisible a la sphere publique nationale. Meme si ces groupes de chanteurs de gospel meru denoncent la corruption, le peche et l'hypocrisie percus dans la socialite quotidienne, il serait faux de les considerer comme un << contre-public >> car ils continuent de pratiquer leur politique dans l'ombre des eglises.


A number of Kenyan scholars have recently linked popular music and other media forms with an expressive political activism as citizens of this East African country, many of them economically deprived and frustrated by the hardships of everyday life, anticipate changes in the way they are governed (Gecau 1995; Joseph Odhiambo 2007; Mwangi 2006; Njogu and Oluoch-Olunya 2007; Ntarangwi 2007; Nyairo and Ogude 2005; Ogola 2005; Parsitau 2008; wa Mungai 2007; wa Mutonya 2007). This is welcomed research, coming at a time when Kenyan citizens are grappling with questions about the future of national identity, unhinged by the elite-sponsored and ethnically mobilized, but deeply gendered post-electoral violence of 2007. Emerging from many decades of censorship, Kenyan musicians have tactically exploited the fine lines between entertainment and protest, working within an industry the Kenyan state has at times treated with antipathy (Njogu and Maupeu 2007).

In the past decade, however, the consumption of popular music has undergone a remarkable shift towards Christian 'gospel music', with numbers of musicians re-inventing themselves as the recording industry's market has turned to the lucrative wave of commercial, Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity. …

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