The Necessary Nexus between Kenyan Literature and the Rise of an Authentic Kenyan Rock Sound
There are a lots of things that can be said about Dani Filth. He is a British poet/performer/artist. He is best known for his music though. He is the main vocalist for the symphonic black metal band ‘Cradle of Filth’. He has made great contributions to extreme metal. Despite his music being surrounded by controversy for the alleged influence it has on impressionable and naïve teenagers there is much that can be taken from him in way of lessons for the growing rock scene and the general music scene that we call our own here in Kenya. We have indeed made great strides in coming up with something that is our own. But it is a moot point that there are lots of problems with the Kenyan music scene and rock music in particular. To begin with, the local market has proven very unresponsive to the music we churn out. It has been more drawn to foreign content. And the reason for this is that local music lacks identity. Apart from the fact that we sing partly/wholly is Swahili or its slang counterpart sheng’ and sometimes perchance in local dialects there is nothing particularly Kenyan about it. It is easy to love something because it stands in its own sense as authentic. Whether its kwaito, Nigerian or even Tanzanian. Its easy to sell because it’s different. That is not to say that Kenyan artists aren’t talented. Nay, far from it. But listening to it, there is nothing that sets it apart from what is British, American or even African. We have borrowed without innovating I would hazard to say.
Is the problem easily solved? Well no. But I can make a suggestion that we try learn from Dani Filth and how he has made extreme metal almost mainstream and palatable. Whenever you listen to his music you can easily tell it is European and immediately identify it with him. Reason being that there is a foundation which he can so easily borrow from. And with that foundation he can then apply his talents and apply work to mould content that is vendible. What do I mean when I talk of foundation? Well this is nothing else but poetry, art, folklore & music and literature. Elements that coalesce to form part of popular culture. Celebrated material from identifiable icons and anonymous composers that are part of a people’s heritage. When extreme metal first started out it was part of an underground movement, popular among a few circles and getting very limited air play. Eventually it caved in on itself because everything coming from various bands sounded the same and unprogressive. What took it to the next level was the music of Cradle of Filth and their Norwegian counterparts Dimmu Borgir. They borrowed significantly from the Goth sub-culture, literature, film (particularly horror films such as ‘Hell raiser’), drama and mythology.
During my formative years newly released from high school with no Pay TV and no internet connectivity my only access to the rock world was ‘The Fuse’ on Capital FM and ‘Str8up’ on Wednesdays. The latter rarely played any of the heavy styled rock songs let alone metal. On occasion they played a bit of Slipknot or Mudvayne. I remember on one of the shows they played a strange music video with an eerie atmosphere about it, unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It was pretty doom laid and morbid with a slight bit of symphony and rhythm to it. The front man was short but really charged with and he wore some real shocking make up. His harsh growled vocals were conveniently balanced by a lady’s voice. That was my very first introduction to Cradle of filth. To tell you the truth the song and the video were revolting at first but still beautifully crafted. With time my ears learned to pick out the carefully placed stanzas and the story behind the mirk that is the distorted guitars and the growling. I came to discover later that the song (named ‘The Death of Love’) is almost entirely an adaptation of the epic story of ‘Joan of Arc’ (or Jean D’Arc) if your French. That song came to be the most profound motivation for me to read up on the epic and subsequently led to a frenzied study of the geography of France particularly the Lorraine region. And Dani Filth has remained instrumental in crafting this band’s lyrical content. The album ‘Dusk and her Embrace’ was based on the writings of “Sheridan Le Fanu”, their 1998 album ‘Cruelty and the Beast’ was based on the “legend of the Bloody countess”. Midian released in 2000 was based on Clive Barker’s novel “Cabal” and their most famous connection to literature and film being with reference to their song ‘Her ghost in the fog’. Even the highly acclaimed novel ‘Paradise Lost’ by John Milton has formed the conceptual basis for their music. Of course they have also borrowed largely from Egyptian and Sumerian mythology.
It isn’t them alone that have done the same. Other mentions that have benefited greatly from popular culture is Marilyn Manson, symphonic metal band Nightwish and a host of others.
My jurisprudence lecturer once challenged my class to consider whether in fact Kenya as a country had a cultural identity. As a country we are indeed blessed with a rich cultural heritage but there hasn’t been enough done in the way of popularising it. Talent in these areas are overflowing but it can hardly be said that anyone of us identifies with any of them. We aren’t taught to identify with it from a young age and even school curricula is riddled with so much of that which is foreign. For our Kenyan rock scene to really benefit from our rich culture, there needs to be a radical paradigm shift in dissemination of Kenyan cultural ideology. I would love in future to find references to David Ng’ethe’s ‘love is lust in line’ in a Doveslimme track or Fadhili Williams inspiring the riffs to the new wave of Kenyan heavy metal.
But unless and until our heartbeats play to the rhythm of our cultural identity, until our children learn about it and we learn to love it then even if Reeva of Murfy’s flaw borrows from her Kenyan- Asian heritage and makes a song about it, it will remain something alien to us. And the concerts will continue to attract modest crowds, if at all modesty can be attributed to crowding. And our radio stations will continue to play Nigerian, South African and whatever else that is indigenous to other regions of the world.
by Daniel Kobimbo