“Young Artistic Leaders Rising from the Slum”: 2013 Finding Big Ideas Winning Essay

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By Narissa Iqbal Allibhai

This essay was one of two winners of the 2013 Finding Big Ideas Essay Contest. The other winning essay was Courtney Mullen’s essay “Belenpampa Clinic.” The winners of the 2014 competition are Shrey Goel’s essay, “Rendering the Private Public: A Collective Approach to Slum Improvement,” and Jennifer Fei’s “The International Rescue Committee’s New Roots Program: Uncovered Terrain in US Refugee Resettlement.” 

“Don’t let where you come from determine your destiny,” declares bright-eyed 14-year-old Moses Mwithi, in the prelude to the catchy music video “Destiny Up,” filmed in Mathare slum, his home in the heart of Kenya’s capital. Next up in the young group’s song is Penina Njeri, 12, a talented rapper and dancer. As these young musicians sing and dance, their joyful faces and ambitious hopes will bring you inspiration and a sure smile.
Like many other inhabitants of Nairobi’s Mathare slum, Mwithi and his family sometimes spend days without food. Living in an illegal settlement, he could be forcibly evicted any day. His good friend Masteba is an orphan who is lucky when well-wishers offer him a place to sleep for the night. Many of their peers are already drug addicts or part of criminal gangs, wanted by the police.

The Billian Music Family is a CBO that works with musically talented youths from Mathare slum, empowering them not only musically, but ensuring their education and fostering responsible leadership. Artistic talent in the slums usually comes to nothing, as survival comes first, not to mention the fact that slum dwellers are marginalized voices in the Kenyan population. Each week, 30 musical children, between the ages of 4 and 17 meet, gather to express themselves though song, dance, and rap. They collectively decide on the song themes and all have the chance to compose verses. They are given opportunities to be professionally trained, create studio recordings, collaborate with other local artists, and perform to large public audiences (such as at a UNEP gathering). Such a musical group is a one of its kind in the Kenyan slums.

Billian Music Family (BMF) has grown to become an incubator of responsible educated leadership. The group prioritizes above all ensuring that every member completes high school and maximizes that opportunity. Donations and funds from performances go toward paying for the neediest children’s school fees. BMF recently opened a centre that the children use to do homework in a quiet environment, which is not always possible at home. These promising youth are given many chances to hone their leadership skills, such as through heading the group during music practice and other activities. A mentality of community giveback is cultivated, and the kids lead several community-building activities including community cleanups, tree planting, and peace marches.

Billian Music Family was founded by Kenyan musician Billian Okoth, who was orphaned back in high school and had to move to Mathare slum. He knows the struggles of slum life and has seen much artistic talent go to waste. 3 years ago, Billian was walking through the slums and rapping to himself. A couple of kids started following him and some began to rap along with him. Billian paused and listened with amazement to their freestyle rapping. The idea suddenly hit him. He organized auditions, identified 6 musical children, and the Billian Music Family was born. Billian works side by side with Jeff Andare, another emerging local artist from the slum, to empower these talented children from the slum. I came into contact with the energetic duo behind Billian through my old music teacher, while on a trip back to my home in Nairobi.

Billian explains his choice of “Billian Music Family” as the group name: “We are all equal and are a growing family of musicians—more are constantly being born.” Indeed, BMF is a family and a haven of comfort, fun, free expression, and open minds. During tense political times like elections, for example, BMF’s weekly gatherings give the children relief from the chaos, violence, protests, and ethnic tension that are accentuated in the slums. Children of different ethnicities, genders, and financial situations come together for a common cause, with equality as a core group tenet.

The initiation and growth of Billian Music Family has not been an easy one. It took time to gain parents’ trust to leave their children with Billian and Jeff every Sunday afternoon. Often family members do not see the value of sharpening musical skills and would rather see the children engaged in more directly useful activities. Availability of resources has been the biggest constraint so far, starting with physical resources. BMF’s small music speaker is donated, their drum is shared, and their guitar is broken. However, they do have access through Jeff to a good piano and a fully equipped music studio. Billian and Jeff plan to invest future funds into acquiring more musical equipment. Finding a practice space has been another hindrance to BMF. In their initial stages, the entire group would have to walk several kilometers to Jeff’s studio or try to use school classrooms that were usually unavailable. Then, they managed to share a room on the edge of Mathare slum with another community organization. They have been working on putting together their own studio, which finally opened as a multi-purpose centre earlier this week. As the group expands and more funds come in, such issues arise and are gradually overcome.

The young members of Billian Music Family are part of the 60% of Nairobi’s population who live in slums, which extend over a mere 6% of the city’s land.[i] Most of these informal settlements are on unutilized government-land or privately-owned land, and many tenants pay rent to landlords who do not actually own the land. With no security of tenure, residents constantly face the threat of forced eviction. Kenyan land and housing law does not adequately address the housing needs of the urban poor. It simultaneously allows forced eviction for government projects or private development.[ii] The number of people in Nairobi’s slums (currently almost 2 million[iii]) is on the rise, aided by increased rural-urban migration.

The settlements of the BMF kids and other slum dwellers are usually on low quality land (such as around open sewage), with little, no, or overpriced access to clean water, adequate sanitation, electricity, garbage collection, toilets, and other basic needs. Amnesty International reports that “people living in poverty not only face deprivation but are also trapped in that poverty because they are excluded from the rest of society, denied a say, and threatened with violence and insecurity.[iv] Indeed, many slum inhabitants harbor a feeling of inferiority due to their lower living standards, financial struggles, seclusion from the rest of society, and lack of education. Being illegal settlers, they are unable to demand their basic rights, and are basically ignored by and seen as a nuisance to other city-dwellers.

Billian Music Family is creating a cohort of young, conscientious leaders from within the slums. Finally given a voice and a public platform for expression, these young artists spread awareness of slum life, issues, and their hopes for the future. They come together from different tribes as one force dedicated to uplifting their community. The kids take ideas of ethnic unity home and forward in life, passing them on to friends, family, and community leaders. Educating the children ensures they will be on a level playing field with more privileged citizens. The musical and leadership training open up a plethora of opportunities that slum kids rarely have. A musical performance group is an alternative activity to crime, drug usage and violence—that is simultaneously fun, healthy, and an investment for their futures.

The possibilities for taking forward this concept are exciting and boundless. Currently, Billian Music Family focuses on rap, dance, and song. Billian and Jeff envision a community youth arts center where children can nurture a range of skills including playing instruments, acting, drawing, painting, and more. Given the eager participation of youth in Mathare slum, there is potential to expand this idea to other slums in Nairobi. Even beyond Nairobi, there are many latent voices of young leaders in other areas of Kenya, in other African countries, and beyond. Starting within Nairobi, if similar groups are created in other slums, there will be endless possibilities for collaboration—jamming, learning from each other, mass performances, creating a larger social network/extended family, a bigger social change movement representing the voices of slum dwellers, . . .

Billian Music Family means that musically talented children from Mathare slum can dare to dream. These 30 young musicians are just the start of an empowered, self-reliant generation of socially conscious leaders with roots in the slums. It has the potential to become a powerful movement of creative youth using their talents for positive social change. This young and vibrant force, united in cause, is the start of a cycle of social empowerment of slum communities. 

[i] Kibera UK – The Gap Year Company (2007). Facts and Information about Kibera. Retrieved from http://www.kibera.org.uk/Facts.html
[ii] Amnesty International (2009). Kenya The Unseen Majority: Nairobi’s Two Million Slum Dwellers. Retrieved from http://www.amnesty.org.uk/uploads/documents/doc_19453.pdf
[iii] UN-Habitat (2013). Country Programme Document 2013-2015 Kenya. Retrieved from http://www.unhabitat.org/pmss/listItemDetails.aspx?publicationID=3479
[iv] Amnesty International (2009). Kenya The Unseen Majority: Nairobi’s Two Million Slum Dwellers. Retrieved from http://www.amnesty.org.uk/uploads/documents/doc_19453.pdf