The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kenyan candidates turn to music of the street in their bid for youth

Raila Odinga and William Ruto are in a tight race ahead of the presidential election on Tuesday

Campaign posters for Raila Odinga and William Ruto in Nairobi on Aug. 4. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

NAIROBI — The election jams play at nightclubs and on YouTube, at gas stations and on the minibuses speeding through traffic.

Ahead of Kenya’s presidential election on Tuesday, the catchy songs are an ever-present soundtrack. With the contest projected to be a neck-and-neck competition, former prime minister Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto have both turned to Kenya’s young musicians for a boost.

“Politicians need ground game,” said Malaak Ayuen, 25, a member of Mbogi Genje, a popular hip-hop group supporting Odinga, “and musicians, we are on the ground.”

In seeking to replace outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, the contenders are especially eager to reach Kenya’s massive youth population. Those under the age of 35 make up more than three-quarters of the population, and people ages 18 to 35 make up a whopping 40 percent of the registered electorate.

As Ayuen walked through Eastlands wearing sunglasses and an Mbogi Genje hoodie, fist-bumping kids who recognized him in the poor Nairobi neighborhood where the group’s three members grew up, he listed the problems he hears from peers. Joblessness. Public corruption. Police violence. Lack of opportunities.

When it comes to choosing Kenya’s next leader, many young people, he said, “have given up.”

To capture their votes, politicians are turning more than ever to music — including groups like Mbogi Genje, who are part of a genre of Kenyan hip-hop called gengetone — said Patrick Monte, a musicology lecturer at Kabarak University in Nakuru who studies the intersection of politics and music. Whether the strategy will succeed, given the extent of youth disillusionment, is an open question, he added.

But what is clear, Monte and artists said, is that this campaign season represents a financial opportunity for artists, many of whom are struggling. While musicians sometimes genuinely support the politicians they promote, other times they say it’s about the money. Often it’s a combination of the two.

“The relationship between the artists and the politicians is symbiotic,” Monte said. “Both are profiting.”

Sitting outside his mansion in Kisumu in Western Kenya, Odinga, 77, smiled when asked about his campaign’s use of young musicians. The veteran opposition leader, who is on his fifth bid for Kenya’s highest office, said he recognizes “a generational gap” between his campaign and the youth.

Young people, whose unemployment rate jumped in recent years to 14 percent, are experiencing a crisis, Odinga said. He said he has a plan to boost employment, including more effective job training, but communicating his plans to younger voters has been hard. Music proved among the best ways. “That’s why we went in that direction,” he said.

Both campaigns have focused on improving the lives of Kenya’s poor, who have been devastated by rising food and fuel prices. Despite recent economic growth, about 35 percent of Kenyans live on less than $2 dollars a day and the top 0.1 percent of Kenyans own more wealth than the bottom 99.9 percent.

Ruto has promised a “bottom-up” economic approach and blamed Kenyatta, his onetime ally and partner in government for the past decade, for many of the country’s economic woes. On the campaign trail, he has framed the election as a fight between “hustlers” like himself and “dynasties” like the Odingas and the Kenyattas. (Odinga’s father was the country’s first vice president, and Kenyatta’s was its first president. Kenyatta is now backing Odinga, though they were adversaries for years.)

Odinga has countered that Ruto is trying “to create a class war.” Odinga highlighted his plan to give monthly stipends to the poorest Kenyans and said he offers the best chance to crack down on government corruption, adding that Ruto is not the champion of the poor he claims to be.

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Abubakar Mohamed, a 21-year-old singer, said he only had about 900 subscribers on his YouTube channel before members of Ruto’s party approached him. The prices of ugali, a stiff porridge made from maize, and cooking oil had soared in recent months, and he’d struggled financially. He said he had been frustrated that he often did not have enough money to produce music videos. But as his video for Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance gained traction, with more than 200,000 views on YouTube, Mohamed hoped his star would rise.

“He is a hustler just the same way that I am a hustler,” said Mohamed of his support for Ruto.

After being approached by Ruto’s party, Mohamad, who goes by Abush Chininto, and his band went to visit the deputy president at his house. He said Ruto gave them about 400,000 KSH, or $3,355, which they split among seven people. But Ruto hurried off to church, Mohamed said, before the group could detail their other requests, including a studio and funding for cameras.

Eric Wainaina, who was raised under the repressive regime of President Daniel arap Moi, became one of Kenya’s most famous singers and anti-corruption activists after taking aim at the government with the hit song “Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo,” or “Country of bribes” in Swahili.

Wainaina said the proliferation of election-related songs this season — with everyone from the presidential candidates to local parliamentary hopefuls adopting songs — is “a recognition of the power and the value” of the music industry. After he was indirectly approached by Odinga’s campaign, Wainaina gladly agreed to let them use his recent release, “Mama Luka,” about a woman who remains hopeful despite all the broken promises. He had supported Odinga and his running mate for years. While Wainaina said he wasn’t paid for the song, he doesn’t fault musicians who profit off the campaign.

He said he hopes Odinga would address poverty and other issues described in “Mama Luka.”

“Let them use the song, ” he said, “and when they get into power, can we have a conversation about improving this stuff?”

One of the most popular election songs this season started as a nightclub banger. “Sipangwingwi” — which roughly translates to “I cannot be controlled” in Sheng, or Swahili slang — was not intended to be political, said its creator, the rapper Exray. But he didn’t object when Ruto started dancing to it at rallies, and the two eventually formed a partnership, appearing together at events and making a remix.

Kenya’s national cohesion and integration commission, which was created in 2008 following post-election violence, said “Sipangwingwi” could stoke division and banned it in public. Critics said the ban was politically motivated and toothless.

Even as their popularity has exploded, members of Mbogi Genje continue to live in Eastlands, the neighborhood where they grew up. They make money by selling clothes and branded gear and have invested in a small plot of land where they care for chickens and ducks.

Group member Antony Odhiambo, 26, said they know how hard their peers have it. “It’s hard to find a way to live,” said Odhiambo, who used to DJ on the side to pay the bills.

When they were approached by Odinga’s camp about creating a song, they were attracted by a promise of help building a music studio and a sum of money they declined to detail. But they said they also believed he will be the best advocate for young people.

The band members, who have serious faces but quick smiles, are each from different tribes, and they said their top priority come election day is avoiding a repeat of the violence, rooted in tribal divisions, that has marred past elections.

They are confident that Kenya’s young people care less about the divisions among tribes that shaped past generations. The group’s emblem — a two-handed fist bump — is a symbol of that unity.