No role models: sex, crime, and drugs

“There’s more to doing good than hating evil.”


Early last week, I found myself in an interesting conversation with a long time buddy, Harry. Being a little bit older than me, a computer geek, and always cheerful, we talk about anything. “Kids nowadays display sex acts and other explicit content boldly in their rap videos, I’m shocked. What’s up?”, Harry asked while a gengetone hit song played in the background. We argued that we probably experienced a similar phase in our teenage lives, maybe without noticing or not being as underlined as today. We also jammed to Nonini’s hits and other songs like Freak Like Me by Adina Howard which had some naughty lyrics. I think what’s more shocking today is the boldness to display things we couldn’t dare do or say back then at the same age-group.

Undoubtedly, as internet penetration gets deeper into remote areas, cheaper mobile devices in the market, computer literacy improving, and people getting interconnected via social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter; most of the things considered as a catalyst for moral decay gets amplified and exposed. However, when we only focus on the secondary aspects of the negative behaviors (like the explicit rap videos) portrayed by teenagers and ignore the causation (the primary aspects), we chase the shadows. We keep talking about these topics and often neglecting the social questions arising from identity crisis and poverty.

By law, any person by the age of eighteen years is considered an adult. In essence, a teenager joining highschool will graduate after four years as an adult. Students who excel in sports while at this phase of their life, eventually get sports scholarships or tend to be great sportspersons. The same can be said about students who practice drama in high school. It is mostly at this stage where the young guys try to discover themselves. To get a sense of belonging and seek answers to tougher questions about life. If they don’t get proper guidance or role models at this phase, the corruption of minds might happen.

I’m convinced that values exposed to a teenager at the age of thirteen to seventeen modify their social behavior and shape their decision-making as they turn to adults. For instance, if they are misinformed about sex and drugs, they make poor life choices about these things… The urge to appear “cool” or “mature” while at this phase in life leads teens to mimic the things they watch in music videos, hear in the streets, and picking other things from people they would like to personify. They will smoke a joint, drink alcohol, indulge in sex, grow a goatee, whatever makes them feel “cool” or a rebel. Also, just having strict parents who don’t create a channel for open discussions might lead to a young adult practicing the same things while on campus when they have more freedom — a delay is never a strategy.

It gets worse when a teenager is in a social setup of abject poverty, like slums in the urban centers. Going to high school for some is a luxury they can’t afford, there is a high level of illiteracy hence misinformation about things like sex, and poor societal values are trickled down to the teens from adults in their surroundings.

Identity crisis is a broad term. In this case, Erik Erikson’s (a German psychologist and author) description fits well — an identity crisis as a period of intense exploration of different roles and aspects of the self. There are social and cultural factors that form the fabrics that intertwines personal image and what others think of us. Where we draw our sense of meaning and purpose is important, it determines the quality of our lives.

When teens are given smartphones and spend most of their time texting, playing games, and surfing the internet, they become more reliant on peers and the media for guidance on how to live. They draw their values from these sources rather than getting guidance from their role models. Parents are usually our first role models followed by our teachers. The quality of a parent-teen relationship somehow determines a teen’s absolute standard of right and wrong and their general discipline.

Most, if not all of the gengetone artists draw their inspiration from hardcore dancehall and gangster reggae artists, the likes of Vybz Kartel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of good quality reggae music for entertainment but their love for these reggae and riddim music influence their worldview. The reason why other young guys dance to the gengetone tunes it’s because they relate with the lyrics and graphics of the videos, they all look up to the same pool of artists for direction; they try to personify them. Violence, crime, and drug abuse are normalized. Crime goes hand in hand with poverty, there is a lifestyle they would like to mimic but they cannot afford it… flashy clothes, trendy shoes, fashionable hairstyles, and party life.

Some of the local gengetone artists e.g. Ethics Entertainment (sounds like a pun) have been called out on social media concerning some of their outrageous lyrics that glorify rape, molestation, crime, and drug abuse. These artists are usually shocked that other people are alarmed by their lyrics. They are rapping about things they see in their neighborhoods and there is a specific audience that will appreciate their music! And I see where they are coming from, I can imagine their justification — if these things are happening in our neighborhood, the actual reality of our communities, why does it stir up a controversy when we rap about them? Which to say the least, nothing can give grounds for the things they rap about or how they rap...

Other similar artists have survived the public scrutiny because they are not as famous or their lyrics are hidden in the deep shenge slang they use. For instance Wakadinali — “Chinja Uwa” and Bloody War — Mbogi Genje. They portray what happens in their hoods while exaggerating a little bit. One can start to identify the same pattern as seen in the U.S. in the mid-’90s. There were other factors like institutional racism affecting the Black communities hence in response they opposed most of the government administration. However, one cannot ignore the fact that Blacks embracing gangster rap which they also referred it as reality rap, gangsta rap artists played a role (using their music as a mark of criminality) to subvert state logic of law and order even while also reinforcing dominant typecast of Black criminality through their “profit-driven motives”. Reference: The Mark of Criminality: Rhetoric, Race, and Gangsta Rap in the War-on-Crime Era by Matthew Houdek.

This kind of culture, where an artist is using a few select in the society to paint a picture of everyone in their society, breeds out stereotypes. It’s part of the reason why a Black person is more likely to be shot by police than a White person. Extending the comparison to Kenya, someone from the slums of Nairobi ( judged by their style of clothing and hairstyle) is more likely to be shot by police than a person from the suburbs of Nairobi.

Bloody War —

There are social and cultural factors that affect how we behave. Times are also changing, how kids were raised in the ’90s is not the same way how kids are raised today. There is a proliferation of the Internet, which means kids can easily access information, which can be considered right or wrong depending on the content... Parents need to understand these changes, for instance, if talking about sex with your kids was a taboo back in the days, reconsider that. Stop masking the subject of sex and reproductive health as “tabia mbaya”, someone else will teach your kids about these topics.

The only consistent idea our government has for youth support is cleaning sewages and dirty streets for a week or two. Let’s stop entertaining such kind of pettiness and mediocracy. Build social facilities and amenities for the communities where our kids spend most of their time. For instance, what happened to the boxing hall at Muthurwa that once served the youths of Eastlands? Can we have more local soccer leagues like the annual Koth-Biro football tournament? With the social amenities in place, youths can get access to recording studios and guidance on how to make good music from artists that have already gained experience in the industry. It’s a delight seeing the Communication Authority working with Flaqo for a TV advert, these are the kind of support we are talking about. Give artists like Ethics Entertainment the right guidance and they will make better music for everyone, provide more opportunities for Wakadinali and Mbogi Genje and they will make a positive influence on their communities through their music. Not just trashing their art.

For the celebrities who have made it in their careers, mentoring young women and men is priceless. These young guys yearn for the best out of their lives. No one wishes for an average life, it’s the constant struggles without any sense of breakthrough that makes us abandon hope. Taking time to inspire someone can change their lives for the betterment of their future. Mentoring Mondays with Steve Harvey is one of the best examples I can draw. When we make the right choices when we are younger, we lead a life of inner peace and fulfillment. We can not eradicate all the poverty in this world in a single day but our combined acts of kindness have the power to make a big difference.

Some NGOs treat slums as their cash cows, numerous projects and research are carried out in these slums but with zero direct positive impact on the livelihoods of the slum-dwellers. My advice to anyone thinking of starting yet another [insert name here] program for women or youth empowerment in the slums, to consider ways to measure the success of such a program and most importantly, ask themselves this critical question: would our program have made a much bigger impact if we approached our target groups when they were a bit younger before it’s too late? For instance, instead of focusing on running numerous programs that only target teenage moms, we should equally focus on targeting vulnerable teenagers who might become teenage moms. Proactively tackling the roots of the problem.

Lastly, the media has the most powerful resources to influence teens and youths. Other than ennobling socialites and picking up whatever is trending and serving it out to bigger audiences, the media has the power to impact change. It is a business for profit but their role in society far supersedes that of just making money. The media can help to hold our leaders accountable when they fail to play their part in the eradication of poverty. I think having members of society who don’t have access to clean water, toilets and basic resource like sanitary towels is far below poverty. It is to be deprived of human dignity. We shouldn’t allow such things to happen. The media can use edutainment to disseminate general knowledge. Let’s put the lenses on the actual issues that affect us and be courageous to talk about them. We shouldn’t dwell in perpetual societal problems, let’s advance one step at a time towards an improved quality of life.

I picture a country where one would wake up and plan using the Public Service Vehicles for their transits. Where one can get all necessary medical services at their nearest public hospital, all at a high quality and cheaper rates. A country where public schools have all the facilities to compete with private schools. A country that doesn’t take pride in mediocrity and having access to basic needs isn’t a privilege but equal to all.

My country is Kenya, and we can do it!

Opinion by John Ombagi — jayombagi{at}gmail{dot}com

If I was a writer I’d have nice words to put here :) Purple Teamer.

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