“How many youths will you kill before there is change?”

Story - 2021-05-05
In the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya, one artivist, Javan the Poet, is standing out for the use of poetry and music to address rampant extrajudicial killings and rights violations.
Javan the poet
Javan the poet, an artivist and grassroots changemaker using poetry to tackle extrajudicial killings.
Photo: ForumCiv/Augustine

“How many youths will you kill before there is change?” Javan Omondi ponders desolately. Javan is a young artivist from the low-income suburbs of Nairobi. As a youth who has watched his friends lose their lives at the hands of police, Javan uses creative expressions like music and poetry as advocacy tools to speak up about extrajudicial killings and other rights violations.

Extrajudicial killing is a major issue in Kenya, with security forces often accused of using excessive force, perpetuating extrajudicial killings and torture with impunity, mainly in Nairobi’s low-income neighbourhoods and other Counties in Kenya.

According to Missing Voices, a consortium of organisations working towards the end of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Kenya, 167 people have been killed by the police or disappeared in the year 2020 alone.

Like many young people in the informal settlements, Javan has to navigate the sad reality of young people being the most targeted by the police, especially in the informal settlements.

“I grew up in Dandora all my life. When I was growing up, I saw so many injustices. Police brutality was at an all-time high, and I have lost a lot of friends and people I knew,” says Javan. With this sombre state of affairs, Javan started to reflect and engage his fellow youth on how they could change the narrative.

“I decided I cannot leave the community despite that being the easiest option. Instead, I chose to be a change agent for my community,” says Javan before adding, “I started using poetry to sensitise people about the injustices we were facing.”

Arts as an effective advocacy tool

Javan advocacy efforts have been mainly centred on community organising, focusing on rights awareness and advocacy around issues affecting them. Through community organising, Javan has organised and well-coordinated an artists’ movement under the banner Arts For Social Justice, an arm of the Justice Centres Working Group Kenya.

This vibrant pool brings together over 150 conscious and non-conscious artists from diverse genres such as visual arts, poetry, photography, videography, and community theatres spread all over the Justice Centres.

Arts, creativity, and sports opens up the shrinking civic space

One of Javan’s popular and controversial spoken word pieces was dubbed ‘Killer Breed’. ‘Killer Breed’ was inspired as a response to the many social media pages in Kenya alleged run by rogue policemen, where they post warnings to suspected youth criminals who mostly end up being killed and photos of their dead bodies shared over social media with utter impunity.

Pages such as ‘Hessy was Dandora’ and ‘Dandora Crime Free’ have often been accused of perpetuating such police impunity. “Hessy” is the name the community has coined for law enforcers who act as the hand of justice through murdering suspected thugs and robbers without, according to them, a fair trial. 

With creative pieces like ‘Killer Breed,’ Javan uses art as an effective tool to address human rights violations.

An excerpt from the popular ‘Killer Breed’ roughly translates to

You are not a law enforcer; you are a killer breed!
Your work is to put bullets in peoples’ heads and chests,
It’s a contest on who will put more people down,
Who will defeat the killers because our systems are messed up?

It gives me great joy to see youth who would have otherwise been subjected to a life of crime, now using art to inspire change in the community.

Overcoming adversity

In speaking truth to power through such fiery piece like Killer Breed, Javan takes substantial personal risk. He has faced countless threats and intimidations. When he posted the lyrics of ‘Killer Breed’ on his Facebook page, he met several harassment, bullying and threats from ‘Hessys’ and local vigilante groups.

One of the challenges that Javan highlights is the demonisation of activists by politicians or people with vested interests. This demonisation has affected how communities perceive these activists. Javan has had to defend himself many times that by defending the rights of suspected youths, that does not mean he supports crime.

“I am not doing the activism alone; my community is part of the conversation,” says Javan noting that community interests should precede personal ones. “If you are on the wrong and me saying that you are doing wrong is what will make me your enemy, then I am at peace as long as it carries the interests of the many community members.

In the face of these obstacles, one wonders how activists like Javan keep forging forward. For Javan, it is the fulfilment of knowing that he does the right things that change the community.

“It gives me great joy to see youth who would have otherwise been subjected to a life of crime, now using art to inspire change in the community. Being part of artists who are using art to create social change gives me a lot of fulfilment.”

Amplifying Grassroots Voices of Change

Wajibu Wetu Programme has collaborated with Javan for a long time in several strategic ways. One of these was a support grant to one of the organisations in Dandora that a creative hub using music to address social injustices.

Importantly, Wajibu Wetu has been at the forefront in highlighting and creating a platform for learning and sharing empowering stories of change from grassroots changemakers like Javan. Highlighting and celebrating these grassroots activists goes a long way in not only acknowledging their contributions and inspiring the next caucus changemakers.

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