The Criminalization of Youth in Popular Art in Kenya.

Author:Kebaya, Charles
Position:Report
 
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Introduction: Conceptualizing Popular Art and Crime

"Criminal" youth as a trope permeates popular cultural productions in Kenya today. Much of these cultural productions take the form of media reports and primetime news items about youth activities that are considered criminal. Sectarian violence and mayhem meted on innocent citizens in Kenya by outlawed youth groups (1) is often a subject of focus in the Kenya media. Some of these criminal activities feature as fictional narratives, lyrics and burlesques embedded in various popular arts such as film, music and comedy respectively. Most of these popular arts, however, espouse critical stances taking swipes at state operatives that label the youth as "criminals". Anchored within the realm of popular culture, this paper examines the figuration of youth and crime in popular art.

Karin Barber in Readings in African Popular Culture (1997) points out that one of the ways in which popular culture functions is by foregrounding aspects of culture often ignored in formal spaces, which are, however, very definitive of practices and relationships that take place in different segments of society. Such cultures can be quite revealing of undercurrents that mark relationships between members of a society or define codes and ideologies that shape a people's lives. Examining aspects of popular culture that feature in alternative spaces allows one to engage with the manner in which the general public deals with everyday concerns such as crime. It, thus, enables one to interrogate various responses and attitudes toward particular social occurrences in society.

This paper argues that popular art forms provide spaces for the underrepresented to articulate their concerns, express their displeasure, present the unsaid, and negotiate meanings of issues affecting their everyday lives. Cognizant of popular arts' possibilities to articulate various issues, this paper engages the selected arts from the prism of cultural criminology in examining "crime" among the youth showing the complex ways in which these popular cultural productions can be read not merely as being oppositional to power, but most importantly, on how they reveal deep-seated anxieties among Kenyan youth towards the label "criminal" and/or "radicalized" youth.

Cultural criminology emphasizes the centrality of meaning and representation in the construction of crime as a momentary event, sub-cultural endeavor, and social issue. Jeff Ferrell (1999) points out that cultural criminology transcends traditional notions of crime and crime causation to include among many other aspects popular culture constructions of crime and criminal action. Transcending traditional notions of crime allows scholars to understand crime as meaningful human activity and to penetrate more deeply the contested politics of crime control. In this regard, cultural criminology relies on textual, semiotic, and visual analysis as ways of elucidating on representations of crime in popular culture. This unravels the shared meanings and perceptions of crime in popular culture such as the arts, and in the process, situates the meanings within larger historical patterns in society. While accounting for crime within the dynamics of the everyday lives in popular arts, cultural criminology allows one to highlight the carnivalesque, pleasure, and risk-taking that animate everyday life as embedded in the popular cultural productions.

Focusing primarily on meaning and perceptions of crime among the youth in popular arts, this paper questions the truth of crimes that youth are accused of, the workings of the Kenyan police, and the relationships of the police and civilians, particularly the youth, in Kenya. In this regard, it reveals underlying sets of complex relationships that youth in Kenya have towards those in power and government agencies, particularly the police. To do this end, the paper embraces popular art as an alternative media, which is made of "contested spaces constructed and reconstructed anew, according to the needs, experiences, and aspirations of specific groups (particularly those otherwise underrepresented, ignored, or trivialized elsewhere in the mediascapes)" (Allen 2008, p.x). Indeed Stuart Allen (2008) reflects that, "alternative media are part and parcel of the daily life of individuals, at once 'banal' and 'political' in their significance" (p.x). The focus on the everyday becomes key towards unpacking meaning in popular culture as mediated through popular arts such as comedy, film and music.

One of the defining characteristics of popular arts is that they are situational in nature. Put differently, popular arts are fashioned from a particular situation which they seek to address. Everyday experiences that characterise life in society form the subject of popular art. Through art, a people's fears, misgivings, pains, joys and convictions are depicted with authentic accuracy. Often such depictions are bold, direct, appraise, and openly express dissident to power and systems of governance as reflected in public discourses in society. In this way, and as Barber (1997) aptly observes, popular arts seem to have a better claim to speak with the authentic voice of the people. Indeed, this article taps into these nuanced messages in popular art as it explores the representation of crime among the youth in Kenya.

This article recognises that popular art is diverse because it is open to different uses and interpretations by different people in society. It also concurs with Dominic Strinati (2004, p.35) who adumbrates that popular culture itself has to be seen as a diverse and varied set of genres, texts, images and representations that can be found across a range of different media. In this regard, popular songs, cartoons, parodies, and anecdotes among many others may be principal channels of communication for people who are denied access to official media. This is so because they are endowed with greater dynamism, vitality, and are at the centre of representing cultural outputs of a people. Because of these characteristics, popular art is generated from a wide range of societal actors and cannot be restricted to a number of socio-cultural, economic, political or any other sub-societal groupings. For this reason, it can be viewed as a versatile art form, capable of generating and maintaining presence in the gamut of public discourse, from the centre to the periphery.

It is with this background in mind that this article interrogates the representation of crime and/or radicalization in popular art in Kenya. It reads popular art as one such alternative space where "unofficial" cultures in Kenya are conceptualized, imagined, performed and reconfigured. Unofficial cultures, following Barber (1997) and Allen (2008), are read as popular art forms that are representative of muted, under-represented, trivialized, ignored or misrepresented aspects in main stream media. The idea of the unofficial is understood as fluid and uncategorized precisely because it defies and/or traverses known boundaries.

This paper hinges on Johannes Fabian's (1997) methodology which teaches that in order to read any popular culture form with thoroughness, one must take cognisance of the context in which the form is produced and re-enacted. Analytical foundations of this paper are, therefore, built on Fabian's insistence on understanding the contexts of production of popular cultural forms because they are inextricably linked to their contexts. They are not only byproducts of their contexts but also echo and shape these contexts. Most importantly again, popular cultural productions must be understood for their multi-media capacities and interrogated for the social referents that they invoke (Wanjala and Kebaya, 2016). Thus, purposively selected popular songs, comic strip and film are discussed, issues raised concerning youth and crime analyzed, and conclusions drawn on how the popular arts articulate meanings and perceptions of the youth and crime in Kenya. While analysing the contexts of the selected popular arts, this article is mindful of Taussing (1994) who cautions that contexts of popular cultural texts do not necessarily offer stable, inscrutable truth or factual vision of the societies in which they are made and about which they speak.

Criminal Youth as Spectacle...

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