The stub on Wikipedia about the late Jane Nyambura (1965-2010) better known as Queen Jane, is not representative of the space that this heroine of Kikuyu popular music has occupied in the Kenyan social imaginary and the cultural scene. Born Jane Nyambura in 1965, Queen Jane’s stature as a leading female Kikuyu popular musician will forever remain etched in the memories of many a fan of her benga beat.
When she died in July of 2010, different media house in reporting her death had difficulties verifying her place of birth, but all were in agreement that she was born somewhere in the then Murang’a district, now Murang’a County. This is an indication that she was the undisputed queen of Kikuyu music, not only in the area,but nationally as well. When the national broadcaster’s website wrongfully stated that she was born in Gatanga, this aroused in me my earliest memories of Queen Jane.
Regarded as the home of Kikuyu music, the present galaxy of stars from Gatanga has never failed their fans from the division, where they constantly perform gigs in the area. In the mid-1980s to the 1990s, Queen Jane would accompany musicians from Gatanga such as Wamumbe and John Ndichu, in their tours in the constituency. When she performed in Gatura’s Chini Club at the Tarmac End Inn in the late 1980s, Anto Kamau from Houston, Texas, who hails from the area,remembers the day with nostalgia: ‘It was my first time ever to come face to face with a Kenyan celebrity’. Despite many years in the USA, he still remains a fan of Queen Jane’s music. I recall the excitement on my elder brothers’ faces whenever they would attend the regular live performances in my village, Gatura, one of the major stops of most Gatanga musicians. Being roughly 10 years in the mid 1980s, I could only understand their excitement much later when I encountered her music in my research endeavors.
It is extremely difficult to talk about Queen Jane and her music in isolation. Right from where she started with Simon Kihara, better known as Musaimo, to the time of her demise, Queen Jane has commanded respect from musicians and fans alike.This spirit of collaboration has been evident in her music as well with her overt mention of fellow musicians in her songs. While in business sense these would be her competitors, her regular mention of them as colleagues in the business of music showed her great personality in the music world. In fact, one musician, Timona Mburu of the Wi Sumu fame, composed a song in honour of Queen Jane after her marriage to James Kariuki in 2001, saying that those who “had eyed her” should know that she was now queen of Kariuki. Queen Jane herself did a song thanking all those musicians and radio personalities, mostly from Kameme FM, who attended her wedding
Most of contemporary Kikuyu musicians have been products of Queen Jane’s magnanimity. Renowned Mugiithi one-man guitarists, Mike Murimi, Salim Junior and Mike Rua started off with Queen Jane’s group QueenJa Les Les Band. Queen Jane also mentored her younger sisters Lady Wanja and Princess Aggie, as well as Dr Michuki her brother, who are now musicians in their own right.
Having launched her career at the tender age of 19 with Musaimo in 1984, Queen Jane will be remembered as the woman artist trendsetter of Kikuyu secular music. Apart from the Nyakinyua dancers in the 50s and the 60s, the Kikuyu woman’s voice was largely muted, and the female singer was just an accompanying artist.Jane will be remembered as the woman artist trendsetter of Kikuyu secular music.Apart from the Nyakinyua dancers in the 50s and the 60s, the Kikuyu woman’s voice was largely muted, and the female singer was just an accompanying artist. Roman Warigi, a guru of Kikuyu music in the 50s and 60s used to record with his sister Muthoni,but he carried the by-line alone. Joseph Kamaru also sang with his sister Catherine,but Kamaru always got the credits. It was only in the 1970s that Elizabeth Nyambene and Julia Lucy opened the way for recognition of women singers. However, these two artists were purely gospel artists
As things began to change in secular groups, it became increasingly common to hear of Kamaru Sisters, and Chania Sisters (in the case of Peter Kigia’s Chania River Boys Band). Others included Kihara Sisters (of the Mbiri Young Stars) and Karura Sisters(of Karura Brothers). The lifting of the veil off the female voice increased both the volume and the quality of productions, while at the same time helping to expose female musicians to the music scene. Now, one could hear female artistes belting out witty responses to the lyrical accusations that male singers had been leveling against Kenyan womanhood.
Then in the 1980s Queen Jane entered the fray, this time giving the female voice the prominence it duly deserved. Queen Jane was a talented composer, and competently fused the old and the new, both in terms of lyrics and tunes. Like other Kikuyu artists, Queen Jane inculcated the traditional forms into her popular music. In her initial recordings, she would include the traditional folk form Mucungw’a within her contemporary benga. Her albums covers then featured her dressed in traditional attire of the Gikuyu community; in muthuru, which was a skirt made of skin, and huge earrings, known as hang’i. Quite befitting an attire for the queen of Kikuyu music
Where the female perspective was largely suppressed or (mis)represented by the male Kikuyu artist, Queen Jane’s intervention as a secular singer was timely. In most other songs, she has directly attacked the patriarchal hegemony. Her song, Arume Majini(Men are Ghosts) was inspired by an increase in the number of rape and defilement cases in Kenya. This is the same theme echoed in her hit song Muthuuri Teenager,and Guka Nindarega, (I refuse to be married to an old man/grandfather) where she scathingly attacks ‘sugar daddies’; old men that trick young schoolgirls into relationships which end as soon as they start, consequently ruining the young girls’ lives.
Some male fans have felt that she has been too strong in her condemnation against their own. For instance, Sam Mbugua in Johannesburg, South Africa, feels that her choice of words, especially against men, is rather harsh. In one of her songs, Queen Jane stresses that Arume ni Nyamu (Men are Beasts), taunting Casanovas who jump from one lover to the next with reckless abandon. But Queen Jane was never apologetic about this stance, and once declared that ‘the fact that men are among my greatest fans simply means that I am telling the truth’.
Her strong lyrics against men triggered off a continuous dialogue and interplay on gender and power relations in Kikuyu music. As Queen Jane castigates the behavior of men in relationships as sugar daddies in her song Nindarega Kuhikira Guka (I refuse to be married to a grandfather), Sam Muraya’s famous Mama Kiwinya scathingly attacks older women (better known as sugar mummies), who find comfort in young boys as their lovers. The same is evident in Joseph Kariuki’s Nyina wa Turera, where he states that it is wrong for a 40-year old woman to date a young boy of 20. This consistent dialogue between musicians across the gender divide has encapsulated the day-to-day realities in the society. The tensions in gender relations emanate from the myth of origin of the Kikuyu people. Originally a matriarchal society, men revolted against the system and replaced it with a patriarchal one.
Besides the gender debate, her music has been well-known for other social messages that they carry. She not only attacks men, but also wayward women such as the“sweet-time girls” who are out to cause mayhem to the family institution. In her song Tunua Baggy (Loose mouths), she is not polite to gossips and rumour mongers, who are personified in the female characters, Wangari and Wanjiku. Her love-songs are on unfulfilled love. For instance, Ndi Munogu (I am tired of waiting), Mwendwa KK(KK, my Lover), Nduraga Ngwetereire (I have been waiting for you) depict a lover who is running out of patience with a man who is taking forever to commit to the relationship.Her strong lyrics against men have triggered off a continuous dialogue and interplay on gender and power relations in Kikuyu music. In the song, Nyumburira, (Confess to me), she implores her lover to take his stand sooner than later, instead of wasting time doing his calculations. In most of these songs, she depicts herself as the victim, consequently earning sympathy from her audience and fans. Some of her songs attest to the problems she has had to contend with in a career that is male dominated and where female musicians are easily mistaken for prostitutes. In the song Nyumburira mentioned above, she is sad that her lover’s friends are discouraging him from continuing with the relationship simply because Queen Jane is a musician. A running theme in all her music is the message to the youth to respect their parents. In the song John Bull, Queen Jane revisits the theme of the rags-to-riches story of a young man, John Ndegwa, who later rejects his parents and changes his name to John Bull. She warns of the power of the curse of the poor parents whom he mistreats when he gets rich.
Queen’s music has also been most notable in depicting class consciousness. She not only takes the responsibility of being the voice of the women, but also the voice of the voiceless. In one song, Ndereba cia Matatu, she valorises the work of matatu drivers,whom she says are as intelligent and useful in the society as any other professional.This led to her recognition by Matatu Welfare Association as the best Kikuyu lady singer. She has also addressed the plight of orphans in her song Mwana wa Ndigwa,(The Orphan) and widows Mutumia wa Ndigwa. The most powerful one was her song Hawkers, where she cries with them and also lashes out at the then Nairobi City Council authorities. A background to this song clearly shows that Queen Jane did not shy away from commenting on the injustices by the then government.
At the onset of multi-party democracy in Kenya in the early 1990’s, popular music and theatre were useful expressive forms which Kenyans used to voice their discontent at the excesses of the one-party regime. The Moi regime responded by being more stringent on cultural productions, banning plays and music. But artists and audiences alike found new avenues of expressing themselves away from officialdom. Music with political content was mainly played in bars and matatus. Hawkers became very instrumental in the sale and distribution of these cassettes, but were met with brutality from state officials who arrested them, demolished their kiosks and some lost their lives. Highlighting the plight of hawkers on Nairobi streets, Queen Jane in the song 'Hawkers' offered a glimpse of their tribulations, where, striving to free themselves from the shackles of unemployment, they are frustrated by the political dispensation of the day exemplified by Nairobi City Council askaris who endlessly harass the hawkers.She illustrates the social stratum graphically and metaphorically when she queries the humanity of the askaris:
Andu aya nguria maciarirwo ni atumia/Kana ni nyamu cia githaka/Kana niruciaro ruria rwa Cain/Rworagire Habiri/Rukirumwo ni Ngai -Are these people born of women? /or wild animals? Or are they descendants of Cain/who killed Abel/ And God cursed them?
The dehumanising act by the policemen on the hawkers goes beyond the social stratification. To the singer, it is not even an issue of class. She does not expect human beings to treat their fellows in this way. The spineless and ruthless character of the powers-that-be is laid bare. Queen Jane’s lament of the plight of the hawkers was symbolic of the many struggles that a great proportion of Kenyans went through during that time. Such lyrics offer critique to officialdom for the everyday problems of the non-elite listeners and elite listeners alike.
Despite having a relatively short entry on Wikipedia, the same cannot be said of her huge following on YouTube. Her song, Nduraga Ngwetereire (I have been waiting for you) recorded over 260,000 hits by the time of writing this article. On record, this is one of the highest number of hits on any secular Kikuyu song on YouTube to date. Given that Kenyans in the Diaspora regularly fall back to the Internet to access local music, this denotes that she has had a huge following outside Kenya as well.Coincidentally, the song resonates with experiences of long distance relationships occasioned by Kenyans going abroad. The song expresses hope that even after the many years of physical separation, the fire of the love will keep glowing.Queen’s music has also been most notable in depicting class consciousness. She not only takes the responsibility of being the voice of the women,but also the voice of the voiceless.In her death, Queen Jane’s music will continue to command a huge following. As Dr.Fred Mbogo of Moi University comments, ‘what is reassuring is that her body of work which is quite large will continue to be played for a long time to come because it seems to me to speak of life so passionately and objectively’. There is no better wording than this to sum up Queen Jane’s life, music and her contribution to the Kenyan cultural scene.
Photograph: Daily Nation