Kenyan musicians cancel Folklife performance in protest of their government

A group of Kenyan musicians scheduled to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on Saturday in the District canceled a 2 p.m. show to protest their country’s Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts, alleging that their members were being denied payment.

The artists decided to boycott after discussions with representatives of their government, dismaying dozens of audience members, some of whom had traveled from cities across the country specifically to support the Kenyan musicians.

The group — which performs a range of Kenyan music — has been rehearsing for the performance for months. According to a statement members released Saturday, they are demanding payment for their travel and living expenses for the festival as well as respect from their government.

Eric Wainaina, a famed musician in Kenya, said he and others wanted to play but also felt as though the ministry and the Kenyan government needed to receive a message.

“This dispute is about us resolving sort of systemic malaise in the government, you know, it’s systemic rot. It’s happened before,” Wainaina said. “And that’s the reason this sort of drastic measure’s been taken.”

Officials with the Kenyan embassy in the District did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.

Sabrina Lynn Motley, festival director for the Smithsonian event, announced the closing of the stage until further notice Saturday afternoon and encouraged audience members to visit other exhibits at the 48th annual festival while the artists worked to resolve the dispute.

This year’s festival, which runs through Sunday and then from Wednesday to July 6, focuses on China and Kenya.

The group said they deeply regret disappointing the Smithsonian as well as the American people.

“Every artist you see here is a master of their craft who now stands slapped in the face by the Government of Kenya,” the Kenyan musicians wrote in a joint statement.

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