Can artists bring social change ?

Friday April 18 2014

Writers, poets, musicians at Soma Cafe. PHOTO |

Writers, poets, musicians at Soma Cafe. PHOTO | COURTESY 

By Amanda Lichtenstein

Is there really a relationship between art and social change? Writers, poets, journalists, arts educators, and cultural activists based in Dar es Salaam and its vicinity convened on Saturday March 8 at Soma Book Cafe to explore this question. 

The one-day workshop was organised by Twaweza Tanzania, a citizen-centred initiative,  Soma and Maneno Express, an initiative to promote creative expression in Tanzania. Guest speaker Billy Kahora, editor of the critically acclaimed KWANI literary journal based in Nairobi,  flew to Dar es Salaam for the event to spark new thinking on the role that artists play as change-makers in society.

The history of KWANI itself reveals the possibilities and tensions between the arts and public life. In 2001, a small group of writers such as Binyavanga Wainaina and Yvonne Adhiambo Owour had returned to Kenya from extended stays abroad and began to debate the political and social climate under then President Daniel Arap Moi.

By 2003, Wainina was determined to publish the eponymous anthology of Kenyan writing that provoked new thinking on social realities rarely expressed in Kenyan literature. KWANI challenged traditional notions of quality literature by publishing writings in Sheng, a mix of Swahili and English, and featuring writers addressing social issues and personal experiences rarely shared in public.   Between 2007-2008, when Kenya broke out into post-election violence, Kahora describes this time for KWANI as a time to “grow up” and claim KWANI’s right to “write what it wants,” against all odds. Kahora insists, however, that the aesthetic should never be sacrificed for the sake of social change. “Writers deal with the human — we have to ask ourselves, what kind of narrative do we want to tell,” and how can we tell it best? Never surrender art — or questions of beauty — for the sake of changing the society.”

After listening to Billy’s provocative talk, participants broke out into small groups to address four framing questions on the arts, community, youth and change. Tanzanian artists and writers seek validation for their work and often struggle to share alternative voices or viewpoints because of a lack of creative space and alternative media. It was agreed that artists and writers want and need to collaborate to promote new initiatives like Moto: A Writer’s Circle, La Poetista/Poetry Tanzania, Hip Hop Darasa, Poetry Addiction, Lyric Lounge, Waka Poetry Consortium, and advocate for more spaces and initiatives in Dar es Salaam and beyond. Risha Chande, of Twaweza, says “public space is a huge opportunity to disrupt patterns and trends to create new dynamics. This includes social media to promote new collaborations and organisations.”

The question is, what are the stories in Tanzania that are not yet being told? Vitali Maembe, a socially-engaged musician and arts educator who founded and leads the Jua Arts Foundation in Bagamoyo, insists that “artists interested in social change must be willing to make sacrifices.” Writers and artists must deal with the paradox of struggling against systems that they depend on to make a living.


They face competing pressures from the tourist industry, commercial media, government legislating agencies, and even their peers to produce work that satisfies the status quo.

To create new narratives, Kahora encouraged Tanzania’s writers and artists to “harness youth energy” and encourage stories that are created using collaboration and shared across alternative and mainstream media. At the same time, the creative expression community must be able to develop their own voices and talents, learn new techniques, critically debate social issues, and rebel against structures and systems that silence or inhibit. Neema Komba, a poet who organises Woman Scream International Poetry Festival in Dar es Salaam, insists that poets “must develop their inner voice and trust in its value to society,” to create authentic, inspiring works of art that reflect a myriad realities.