As we all know by now, traditional gender roles are incredibly restrictive, and this is particularly true for women. From #FreeBritney to the slow re-examination of female sexuality within the music industry, female artists in the Kenyan music scene have been at the forefront of breaking cultural barriers and owning their sexuality.
There’s a new wave of female artists that are breaking boundaries in the music industry, like Steph for example, an artist proving she can be both heavy on the bars and still sultry on the melodies. Steph released an ode to all sexually liberated females titled “ On Demand” and it was loud, expressive, and blunt about sex in the same way male performers have been for as long as music has been around. While there’s a more mainstream understanding around sex positivity right now, there are definite double standards among fans and within the industry itself. Male artists can openly discuss their sexual experiences, while women are expected to exclusively sing about love and heartbreak
Considering a history where women have rarely been permitted to define themselves, the path towards empowerment is a tricky one, with public figures either viewed as tokens or completely representative of their group.
If you write a lot about sex, that becomes “your thing”, and even within that sphere female artists are not given the option for range that their male counterparts receive. What can start off as an earnest exploration of one’s sexuality often gets commercialised, and while male artists can choose to release music around a variety of topics, female artists often get pigeonholed into easily packaged categories that are then sold to consumers. So how do we tell the difference between self-defined sexual exploration and objectification? How do we, as consumers, support the de-stigmatisation of female sexuality without feeding into toxic industry standards?
As consumers, perhaps we must ask whose message it is behind today’s music, and more importantly, who owns it. In a media landscape that is predominantly run by men, it’s important for women to retain artistic control so they can continue to share their own stories. It’s crucial that women have the space in the media to speak on a range of experiences, offering a diversity that humanises women, non-binary people, and femme-presenting performers without commodifying them against their will. While hearing messages of sexual empowerment is ground-breaking, especially in conservative cultures, it’s a question of power and choice.
In her song “Power,” Fena Gitu along with Maandy and Brown Suga, uses the dreaded ‘p word’, but not in the usual ‘getting pussy’ or ‘giving pussy’, but in a way to encourage women to embrace themselves, singing /A boss in the streets but a freak in the sheets/. They present a more complete vision of the many things a woman can be. They can work hard, love their friends and their family, collaborate, and uplift each other, and like sex all at the same time. Artists like Gitu, Dyana Cods, and Sssaru, are giving a more complete idea of everything women can be, rather than rigid structures of the “good girl” versus the “bad girl”
It’s a slow-going process however, and the structures of the music industry lack oversight and a lot goes on behind the scenes, especially concerning artistic independence. For women to lead their own spaces in music, the continued sharing of their own stories and perspectives is incredibly important.
The only way we can make changes is by having more female representation, and opening doors for up-and-coming musicians. There’s an existing preconception that if you make it, and you’re a minority, you must defend that spot with everything you have, it makes it more difficult for other women to occupy that same position. That’s simply not true, there really is room for everyone, and it’s only through mutual support that we can get to a space where women have more artistic freedom.
Though the politics of consumption are complex, and there is a ways to go in terms of female representation, it can’t be denied that the women who own their sexuality and experiences in the Kenyan music scene have gone a long way in criticising the shame we’re brought up to feel around these topics. Sexually liberated lyrics used to be something that was tolerated with Western women/white women, but not so much when it’s closer to home. Currently, there are women in the industry illustrating a reality that is characterised by power and autonomy and will hopefully inspire new artists to push past boundaries.