This past weekend marked the first half of the 48th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an international exposition held every summer on the National Mall in Washington, DC. This year’s program, “Kenya: Mambo Poa,” celebrates the people and culture of Kenya, including performances by Kenyan musicians and dancers.
However, the events of Saturday, June 28 did not run according to plan. A group of musicians scheduled to perform at 11 a.m. suddenly refused to play, disappointing audience members who had traveled from far and wide to see them. The refusal turned out to be a boycott, one specifically targeted at Kenya’s Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts. According to the protestors, the government denied them the payment they had been promised which would cover daily living expenses for the festival.
The strike lasted a total of eight hours. After a series of discussions between the Kenyan government, the Smithsonian festival directors and themselves, the musicians agreed to reschedule their show into Sunday’s programming. Tabu Osusa, music curator and producer, explained that while the commitment they were able to get from the government was not a firm one, it was the audience to whom they owed their performance.
Though the setback was short-lived, its strategy was effective—the musicians brought the issue out from behind the curtains and into the fore of international public consciousness. It wasn’t just about the money, but more about the demand for respect from the government, which failed to hold up its end of the agreement. And according to the musicians, this non-payment stunt isn’t the first of its kind that the Kenyan government has pulled on its artists, another reason they felt they had to take such drastic measures. Their voices need to be heard in the struggle against corruption on a systemic level.
While we can’t help but sympathize with the plight of the musicians, we do worry that incidents of this kind might imperil future gigs. For now, it seems the best way we can help is to let them–and their government–know how much we appreciate their cultural contributions. And how do we do this? By continuing to support their music, of course! Check out the playlist below, which includes songs by some of the artists who partook in Saturday’s strike.
The free, public Folklife Festival resumes on Wed., July 2 through Sun. July 6.