Support art rather than salute artistes after death

We need to mainstream creative arts in the new education system

In Summary

• The arts should be entrenched in elementary, not introduced in senior secondary

The late Kikuyu benga musician John DeMathew
The late Kikuyu benga musician John DeMathew

On August 6, President Uhuru Kenyatta graced the celebrations of the 57th Jamaican Independence Grand Gala held at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica.


One of the highlights of the ceremony was the recognition of music maestro Rita Marley for her contribution to the development of reggae music industry in her country and the world at large. The ceremony was also part of the cultural events marking the International Decade of People of African Descent. Rita is the widow of one of the founders of reggae music, the legendary Bob Marley, who died in 1981.

Uhuru presented the Reggae Icon Award, one of her country’s highest awards, to Rita for her immense contribution to the nurturing of reggae music. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness and the erudite Jamaican Minister of Culture Olivia Grange witnessed the event.


Internationally, Unesco officially recognised reggae music as part of world cultural heritage last year. The musical genre is one of the newest additions on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Reggae is well known for its worldwide appeal to the youth, and in most cases, advocacy for the alleviation of the living conditions of the marginalised.

It is important to note the symbolic significance of our President awarding a musician on the basis of her contribution to nation-building through artistic competencies. By this act, his is a recognition of music and the arts as a central component of any human society, including our own.

Closer home, the recent demise of two icons of contemporary Kenyan music cannot escape our national attention, even in academia. Both Joseph Kamaru and John DeMathew died recently. Their consecutive funerals offer a sombre chance for the country to reflect on the state and status of the music industry in Kenya.

In both cases, Uhuru led top national leaders in mourning their death. He also attended their funeral ceremonies in Muranga county, which were also attended by thousands of Kenyans from all walks of life. The two funerals were also streamed live on television across the country.

Speaking on Saturday, August 24, at the funeral of DeMathew, the President recognised the centrality of the music industry in our society. He announced new government measures to address the plight of our local musicians. He has instructed his government to pursue action that can redress the dwindling fortunes of local artistes courtesy of piracy and wanton theft of their property rights.


Intellectual property rights violation in Kenya is a serious challenge in the arts sector. The government needs to walk the talk and address violations of patents, copyrights, trademarks and designs of artistes and their works. Uhuru’s stern directive comes as a fresh message of hope to the industry. It is hoped that it shall be acted upon swiftly and in a sustainable manner.

Music is intangible heritage, but the property rights associated with its creation and possession have tangible pecuniary consequences. Piracy has seen most maestros dying in poverty or living lifestyles that do not reflect their prowess in artistic contribution to national development in Kenya.

Children performers at the Giriama Cultural Festival in Malindi
Children performers at the Giriama Cultural Festival in Malindi

However, much needs to be done to mainstream the arts in our society in general, music included. This can see us move towards global recognition of our genres such as benga or taarab, as is the case of Jamaica and reggae mentioned above.

For example, the plight of music education and the place of music studies in our curriculum needs to be debated, addressed and redressed. With the new curriculum direction, the government needs to invest in nurturing talents of our children not just in the Stem subjects but in areas like music studies also. Mainstreaming of the sciences in pursuit of our industrialisation goals, as enshrined in the Big Four Agenda and Vision 2030, should not occur at the expense of the arts.

In the new 2-6-6-3 education system, arts education is absent at the lower primary, upper primary and junior secondary levels. It is only in senior secondary, where the learning curriculum splits into three fields, that the arts appear. The three fields are: arts and sports, engineering and mathematics, and social sciences, science and technology. More needs to be done to entrench the arts in the elementary levels.

Music and other performing arts play a big role in our cultural development just like our national anthem. They need to be entrenched in government visions for development and education action plans. This is a more proactive way than saluting our musicians posthumously and eulogising roles they played while alive in our nation-building agenda.

Music in our education institutions should not exist in co-curricular or extra-curricular capacity like in 8-4-4 today. The government should consider mainstreaming the arts and embracing liberal arts like other developed nations do.

As it launches the new curriculum based on talents-enhancement and skills-building approaches to child development, let it train and hire arts instructors to ensure systematic and sustainable government support for the music sector. Invest in and fund the music schools and other art-centred institutions and agenda both at the county and national levels.

Let music do what it does best: educate the youth and foster sociocultural development at large. For, as the saying goes, education to the youth is like engraving on stones. It is a lasting investment. Let our children grow up in education systems and environments that nurture both their scientific and artistic talents/competencies.