A screeching yell ripped through the house that Wednesday evening, “Ahhhhh, we’re being invaded! “. My mother rushed into the living room. I pointed to the flickering television screen. “Look,” I whispered in disbelief. A few seconds of silence followed. There they were, the words I never thought would appear on our 29 inch Sony screen: “Sizzlin’ Hot Country”. The appearance of American country music on the Kenyan airwaves was the latest sign that American culture had penetrated the borders of my country.
The airing of Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton on the local television station is not the only evidence of the rapid spread of American culture in Kenya. One look at a large portion of its youth and this cultural invasion will become apparent. Baggy pants, Nike, pop music and malls, symbols of American youth culture can now be associated with the Kenyan teenagers. The Nike phenomenon hit Kenya several years ago. My classmates in primary school were obsessed with the American brand name that had rocked the global shoe industry.
Their school desks had the Nike name and logo painted on in every color imaginable. Not being able to afford some of the merchandise, many resorted to drawing the logo on bags, clothes, shoes and other visible possessions. Turning up to a class party with the trademark tick appearing on one’s footwear simply made one the center of attention. My favorite pair of shoes, I have to admit, were a pair of black Nikes which raised many brows and turned just as many heads. Secondary school had its fair share of examples of the cultural invasion.
In most schools in Kenya, students dress in uniforms. For example, in my school it was compulsory to wear a white shirt, gray pants, black leather shoes, a green tie and green sweater. The American influence was still evident despite this homogenous look. Pete was an example of a victim of the culture invasion. He would often be seen with his pants held precariously at his hips only by a belt. Sagging soon caught on with many students and yet again, I admit, with me. Sagging probably had its origins in the popular American hip hop that appears on many local channels.
While walking around in school, I would find students mimicking the popular ‘2 Pac’ and ‘Dr. Dre’, with a “Wesssaaid” sounding in the air occasionally. A friend was also nicknamed Krayzie Bone, after a member of the Bone Thugs- N- Harmony group. Baggy jeans that could have fit two people at a time were also the order of the day at many parties and get-togethers. Donning DKNY, Karlkani, CK and Adidas attire made one hip. Jeans had become such a popular article that during our school’s annual Cultural Day, the only day when one could or would show off one’s cultural attire, they were banned.
School dances and parties rarely featured traditional songs. Instead, American icons like Aaliyah, Dr Dre and Britney Spears dominated the playlists. Roaming the grounds of my secondary school, I would find a girl singing out “What a girl wants, what a girl… ” in a desperate attempt to mimic pop idol Christina Aguilera. For some reason, emulating American youth was trendy. Rakim, another one of my friends, was popular for putting on an American accent when talking with girls. This act of putting on a fake American accent was so popular that the term “twanging” was coined for it.
The American sport of basketball has also become popular among the Kenyan youth. I remember posters of Michael Jordan and Grant Hill hung on the classroom walls. The world famous Kenyan runners Moses Tanui and Wilson Kipketer had no place on our walls, however! The mall has become a popular hangout among Kenyan teenagers. Like our American counterparts in television shows, we would frequently visit the mall to have a meal, watch a movie and ‘chill’. Fast food is just as popular. Nandos, Steers and Southern Fried Chicken, all MacDonalds clones, are popular dining locations for teens in Kenya.
This cultural invasion has taken place in the main cities. The rural areas are not shielded from it, however. While visiting a remote location in Kenya, I once came across a ‘matatu’ (passenger mini van) boldly bearing the name Monica Lewinsky. ‘Matatus’, a popular means of transport in the country usually attract the youth with blaring western music. Many ‘matatus’ are characterized by themes. These themes are highly indicative of the American culture storm that has hit the country. American musicians, brand names, and basketball teams often serve as themes.
America has undoubtedly extended its image abroad. American films, television shows, and music make up a large portion of the Kenyan television and radio broadcasts. American products and culture are not blatantly advertised on local television, however. Instead, they are intricately incorporated into the various shows aired. Via a show like Beverly Hills 90210, the Kenyan teen is subconsciously informed about the latest trends in fashion. American music videos also contribute to this subconscious cultural invasion. Hip hop is the most popular genre of music aired.
Many local artists have risen to popularity through rap. The popularity of hip hop and rap, in my opinion, is in part due to the common racial roots of African Americans and Kenyans. These genres are popular among the indigenous Kenyan youth. A wide consequence of this invasion is the snubbing of local culture and traditions. As a youngster, I would often watch Indian movies and programs with my parents. However, on growing up, I abandoned these for American shows. Another example of the effect of the cultural invasion is the adoption of a street language by Kenyan youth.
Although the slang has no American ‘ghetto’ language incorporated, its introduction was, in my opinion, most likely influenced by the presence of the American version. The language is a mixture of various languages. The youth’s preference of this slang to the national language could result in the demise of Kiswahili. Why are countries like Kenya so vulnerable to American influence? Why is the American culture adopted so readily while the Japanese culture, for example, is not? The United States, being the only superpower, plays a significant role (desirable or not) in many world affairs.
It is regarded in many ways as an ideal nation and is thus held in high regard in many countries. America is associated with success. Few countries can boast such prosperity. Hip hop, MacDonalds, Nike and even baggy pants serve as symbols of American culture and hence by association as symbols of success. While hip hop and baggy pants may not epitomize American success, Kenyan youth adopt this aspect of American culture perhaps because of the common roots and racial background the majority share with African Americans. Wearing Nike shoes or sagging one’s pants may seem to be meaningless gestures.
However, wearing shoes that many popular, rich American sporting icons don or sagging pants like the famous hip hop artists makes one different from the rest. It allows one to adopt an American identity, one defined by success and importance. While some would argue that such a spread of American culture would be beneficial because it would, in a sense, create a global village, I think this cultural invasion creates more harm than good. It would result in the demise of local cultures and languages. And this is certainly not a good thing.