The Democratizing Characteristics of Art

At the beginning of the year there was an article written on that discussed the Kenyan music/art collective that call themselves Just a Band and how they got their start with a couple music videos they created that went viral throughout Kenya as well as becoming popular in other countries in Africa and elsewhere outside the continent. The author of the piece, Nicholas Kulish, gave it the title, “African Artists, Lifted by the Promises of Democracy and the Web”. It discussed how the group began to change their subject matter once they went viral and turned towards a more political message in their most recent videos. It is noted in the piece that, “The political video would have been impossible under Mr. Moi, who kept an iron grip on the country for more than two decades. Just a Band formed in 2003, the year after he left office at a time of creative ferment following years of repression.” The band has gone on to make multiple studio albums and was even featured in aTEDtalk event last year. There has been a flourishing of African artists, as the article mentions, that have used newly opened artistic spaces including the internet to explore their own political realities in Africa. Are these more politically centered displays of art indicative of the political openings that have been occurring in many African countries? And if so, can artists who create in these spaces and gain wide audience recognition through the internet serve as civil society actors that lead to further and deeper democratic consolidation in their countries?

There are many out there who think that performing arts can be seen in some contexts as an expression of democratic values and can encourage democratic openings and help, even if in seemingly subtle ways, to consolidate democracy further in countries that are democratizing. In fact, these beliefs are held by enough people that they have garnered the attention of some of the larger organizations involved in international democracy promotion, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, who have integrated performing arts agendas into their strategies. These facts really give credence to the power of music and art as important vehicles for ideas with the ability to effect the way people view themselves and their environments.

As further proof of the validity of these ideas, one can also point to the attempts by many authoritarian regimes to severely curtail internet access among their populations, often under the guise of national security, in order to control access to a democratic space where a multitude of ideas can flourish and be seen. Every time there have been attempts to tighten censorship on the internet they have been accompanied by mass protests of citizens who see them as fundamentally anti-democratic in their motivations. Despite these concerns from populations of many different nations and cultures, the more authoritarian governments of the world continue to seek out these massively unpopular measures in order to gain more control over domestic dissent. These types of measures are surely not as prevalent in Africa as in other parts of the world, but this may be due at least in part to the relative lack of internet access in many African countries as compared to countries outside the continent. As development continues in Sub Saharan Africa and internet access is expanded, will there be attempts by authoritarian leaning governments in the region to censor it? Or will ideas and political statements such as those made viral by groups like Just a Band proliferate and serve to use art as a means of further democratic consolidation? Hopefully it is the latter and the lyrics of Just a Band’s song “Usinibore” that “I can change the world” will be given validation.


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2 Responses to The Democratizing Characteristics of Art

  1. etomatore says:

    Sometimes I really hate technology, but then it allows for opportunities for individuals like Just a Band, and my feelings begin to change. I believe that as the movement of the world moves father into technological advancements, we’re going to see a lot more of this. I completely agree with your assessment that, government censorship is met with citizens protest, because its hard to take away something that the citizens have already enjoyed. Take away people’s rights, and then governments have a riot on their hands. I really enjoyed your article, it presents a nice change from governments doing the actions, to giving an example of people taking charge. I also hope that this will lead to MORE democratic consolidation- hopefully extremist parties won’t get creative and try this in order to gain support for their side.

  2. This is a really interesting and unique post. I had no idea that NDI considers the performing arts as a key part of their democratization strategy. During the Arab Spring, the international community put so much emphasis on the critical role of social media (which some scholars have questioned was as “defining” as assumed). But I did not hear as much about the use of social media to “viralize” political music videos/artistic expressions, as you talk about here. Music and art are deeply embedded in so many African cultures, which only increases the likelihood that politicized art can play a defining role in democratization across the region.

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