Original article was published in OkayAfrica on March 17, 2016
By: Alyssa Klein
Last month the rapper Macklemore and his bandleader, the Kenyan-born trumpet player Owuor Arunga, were at a soundcheck somewhere in England when the conversation turned to the state of LGBT rights in East Africa. A cover of their 2012 gay rights anthem, “Same Love,” was suddenly at the heart of a nationwide discussion over LGBT rights in Kenya, and the video was blowing up.
“Ben [Macklemore] is the one that showed me the song,” Arunga tells Okayafrica, of how he found out about the Kenyan version. “He was picking my brain about it, trying to get a feel for what Kenya was like.” Their conversation was not unlike thousands of others prompted by the YouTube video that has Kenyan censors up in arms.
On February 15, a Kenyan art and rap collective by the name of Art Attack put out the music video for their “Same Love” cover that’s since amassed 190,000 views. The song’s lyrics are changed to reflect the day-to-day realities of the gay and queer-identifying Kenyans who make up the group. The video portrays the struggles of East Africa’s LGBGT communities and intimate moments shared between Kenyan same-sex couples interspersed with newspaper clippings and television reports from around the world.
“We’re trying to create a message whereby people will just talk defiantly, people will stop the hate, the vilification, the criminalization of these kinds of things,” the leader of the Kenyan collective, who also goes by Art Attack, tells Okayafrica.
And not just in Kenya. “We wanted to bring about change. We wanted to bring about a change in attitude toward gay and lesbian people in Africa,” says the rapper.
Though they originally recorded the song when the group first formed in 2014, they were always afraid of the reaction. “The situation in Kenya as far as the LGBT community is concerned has always been consistent,” Art Attack tells us. “These people have no voice, no one has time for them here. Nothing changed between 2014 and 2016.”
In the new year, they decided to put the video up on YouTube. It spread fast. It’s also been extremely divisive.
Selly Thiam, Founder and Executive Producer of the Nairobi-based LGBT organization None on Record, says a lot of the Kenyan LGBT community was happy to see it. “It’s something that you don’t really see in a lot of the produced media,” Thiam tells Okayafrica from Nairobi. “It’s not such a clean representation or antiseptic representation of LGBT life. It’s serious issues around families, being kicked out of your families, violence, suicide.”
But Thiam adds that it’s important to consider the social repercussions of putting these images out into a society in which the conversation on LGBT rights isn’t exactly the healthiest. At the same time that the LGBT community welcomed the “Same Love” video with open arms, there was a great deal of backlash within Kenyan society at large.
“In mainland Kenya the reception has been ‘this is horrible,’ ‘this is pathetic,’ ‘it should be banned,’” says Art Attack.
According to Thiam, the 2014 Kenyan LGBT drama Stories Of Our Lives generated a similar sort of backlash. The difference this time is that more people are able to see the video and join the conversation simply because of the fact that it’s streaming on the web.
The YouTube factor also has implications for the issue of censorship in Kenya. By uploading their video directly to the streaming platform, Art Attack bypassed the red tape of the country’s restrictive regulatory body, the Kenya Film Classification Board.
But although YouTube may have leveled the playing field, since Art Attack uploaded the video without waiting to obtain a film license—a feat nearly impossible for a project advocating for same sex rights in Kenya—the KFCB is doing their best to put their homophobic bureaucratic red tape up anyways.
Restricting the “Same Love” remix on a combination of legal and “moral” grounds, the board wrote to Google asking for the video to be blocked in Kenya–although for their part, Google’s Kenya office refused the KFCB’s request.
“The video consists of lyrics that strongly advocate for gay rights in the country, complete with graphic sexual scenes between people of the same gender as well as depiction of nudity and pornography. The video also promotes irresponsible sexual behavior,” the KFCB wrote in a February 23 statement.
“We believe that this sort of behaviour should be eradicated because it is against the moral values of the country,” the KFCB concluded.
Art Attack tells us he doesn’t quite understand what that means. “These guys are acting like a moral police.” The group’s leader maintains that the band hasn’t been contacted by the Board.
According to Thiam, there’s at least one positive to the press and the negative reaction towards the video: more people are watching it.
Arunga tells Okayafrica that he and Macklemore are definitely paying attention. “Let them [Art Attack] know that we’re watching them and we see what they’re doing and we’re absolutely aware of it,” he says. “Mack’s aware of it, Mary’s [Mary Lambert] aware of it, everybody’s aware of it. We’re all really proud of that… They’re the reason the song was made.”
The Kisumu-born musician tells us he’s “a billion percent” behind it. “Any artist who’s making work like that, I want to collaborate with. I want to support them. I want to retweet them. Whatever I can do to contribute. That’s my mission in life. That’s the reason I make art. That’s the reason I do this every day.”
For Arunga, it’s important that people look at what the law actually says. “If you look at the constitution it does not explicitly address homosexuality,” he tells Okayafrica. Instead, the artist insists people need to address the cultural element behind homophobia in Kenya.
Language aside, LGBT Kenyans have a lot to fear from a homophobic legal system. Human Rights Watch notes that existing Kenyan law criminalizes same-sex conduct with up to 14 years’ imprisonment, although these laws are rarely enforced.
“It’s important to shed light, to turn up the volume and visibility on that issue in East Africa,” Arunga says.
For Thiam, 2016 is an interesting time to be working in LGBT media in Kenya. “To look at how LGBT organizations, artists and communities are now saying ‘we’re going to make this despite this intense censorship that we’re all facing.’ It’s the beginning of seeing a lot more of these kinds of things being produced.”