How a Kendrick Lamar Song Became a Main Theme of the Kenyan Protests
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How a Kendrick Lamar Song Became a Main Theme of the Kenyan Protests

Like many Africans colonized countries in the 20th century, Kenya has struggled to find diplomatic footing in the decades since independence. The East African nation successfully broke free from British rule in 1962, and a small circle of wealthy and influential Kenyans quickly took power. They relied on their ties to Western superpowers and the harmful effects of colonialism to maintain their power. While this strategy has worked — Kenya has yet to see a president who is not connected to this circle — it has not been without conflict. The nation has been in a state of civil unrest as the divide between the country’s ruling bodies and its citizens continues to grow.

It has now become unbearable and Kenyan Gen Z has had enough.

Last month, young Kenyans took to social media to voice their opposition to the country’s 2024 Finance Bill, which proposed increasing taxes on an alarming number of everyday items, from tampons to bread. Using the hashtag #RejectFinanceBill2024 to rally together, it was an unprecedented approach to Kenyan activism that inspired both international attention and national unity—and spawned a viral protest song that samples Kendrick Lamar’s diss track “Not Like Us.”

Local rapper Sabi Wu’s song “Reject Hio Bill” has become the talk of a movement demanding a change in the Kenyan government.

“This song expresses the feelings of young Kenyans like me who are living in difficult economic times,” says Wu Rolling stone via email. “Gen Z has always been ignored, but we have shown that we have a voice through the mass protests that I have participated in and supported.”

Wu says the “belligerent and accusatory nature” of Lamar’s “Not Like Us” provided the perfect backdrop for his own version, capturing how Kenyans really feel about their government. “I improvised the chorus and the first verse in less than 15 minutes and put it on social media without expecting anything,” the rapper explains. “People loved it so much that I finished it and released it.” The song has been used by thousands of people in their posts about and from the protests.

The protests began a few weeks ago when young Kenyans, outraged by the finance bill and already grappling with the country’s deteriorating currency situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, marched to Nairobi’s central business district to take part in maandamano (a Swahili word for protest) as Kenyan President William Ruto and members of parliament prepared to vote on the bill.

Although the protests were initially peaceful, tensions quickly escalated as the number of participants grew, and Kenyan police responded with a brutal crackdown. Some protesters broke the blockades and stormed parliament, in an eerie resemblance to the events of January 6, 2021, in the United States. The Kenyan Human Rights Commission said 39 people were killed and hundreds injured or teargassed, including the sister of former US President Barack Obama, Dr. Auma Obama.

“It was scary, to be honest,” Ezra Ruto, a young Kenyan who was on the front lines, says in an email. “Many of us, myself included, suffered tear gas and rubber bullets from the police for exercising our constitutional rights.”

But with Wu’s “Reject Hio Bill” soundtrack playing, the protests apparently had an effect: President Ruto, who had initially been indifferent to the negative reactions, finally came clean and announced on June 27 that he would not sign the bill into law, the BBC reports.

How a Kendrick Lamar Song Became a Main Theme of the Kenyan Protests

In June, Kenya protested against proposed tax increases: a local rapper highlighted the protests with a song that sampled Kendrick Lamar.

LUIS TATO/AFP/Getty Images

It was a remarkable victory, but young Kenyans say the fight is not over. Haunted by the lives lost and the deeper issues ingrained in Kenya’s democracy, Gen Z now wants to oust President Ruto from power and are prepared to continue to raise their voices until their government reflects their needs and ideals.

“Politics in Kenya has always been tribal,” Wu says. “It has always united people, but we, the youth, chose to be unified and not tribal. That has made us stronger. It is truly for the people, by the people. All of this has created real change and has cemented a new era in Kenyan politics.”

According to Tom Osborn, CEO of the Shamiri Institute, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide access to mental health support in Kenya and across Africa, any new political era in the country must include youth and support efforts that will allow them to recover from years of neglect.

“Many young Kenyans feel they do not have a fair chance to achieve their life goals,” Osborn says. He recommends investing in youth development, “merit-based” access to education and career opportunities, and addressing the mental health crisis as necessary steps forward in bridging the gap between youth and government.

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“For Gen Z, validation and recognition of their struggles is key. It’s not just about solving problems; it’s about recognizing and empathizing with the struggles they face. The lack of that validation has exacerbated their feelings of alienation and neglect,” Osborn says.

No tuna, no tuna,” Wu rapped on his rebellious track. What was his translation? “We choose, we vote.”