There is no better illustration of the gender barriers that have persisted within the cultural sector in Kenya than the age-old traditions surrounding the playing of indigenous musical instruments. Among the Luo people of Western Kenya, the nyatiti, an eight-stringed instrument, was, until a few years ago, exclusively played by men, and it was considered taboo for women to touch the instrument.
Attitudes have gradually changed, to the extent that a Japanese woman named Eriko Mukoyama (Anyango), who spent a year as an apprentice of a nyatiti maestro in a village in Siaya, western Kenya, now tours the world playing the instrument. The Abagusii community has a similar lyre called Ebokano, which remains the exclusive domain of men. Through generations, it has been used to compose songs that celebrate men’s strength and wisdom while denigrating lazy and immoral women.
Gender disparities in the cultural field are deeply ingrained in traditional beliefs and practices. Women have struggled to break through male-dominated creative sectors, seeking access, participation, and contribution to cultural life. Despite progress in bridging inequalities, particularly in performing arts, cinema, literature, and music, gender stereotypes, sexist representations, and biases persist, hindering equal opportunities for men and women.
The cultural sector in Kenya is not immune to the patriarchal system evident in other social, political, and economic fields. Women continue to face marginalization in cultural and creative industries such as film, music, theatre, publishing, and performing and visual arts, driven by stigma, stereotypes, and male-dominated networks. In the contemporary cultural sector, patriarchy manifests in nuanced ways, including the treatment of female artists by their male counterparts and the normalization of denigrating comments against women artists.
Significant gaps exist in decision-making positions in both public and private cultural institutions, with fewer women holding influential roles as cultural critics, editors, agents, promoters, publishers, curators, festival directors, and producers.
Music, arguably the most influential cultural industry in Kenya, plays a crucial role in establishing an equal society through access to professional training and platforms for artistic expression. A generation of women cultural practitioners has emerged, breaking societal norms, establishing innovative artistic projects, and building platforms for inclusive gender representation in the cultural sector.
Wandiri Karimi, appointed Director of Kenya Conservatoire of Music in 2016, observed a steady increase in the number of girls registering for music classes. In the following year, Wandiri, a guitarist and lawyer specializing in Intellectual Property, founded the African Women’s Orchestra—a collective of over 100 women musicians collaborating annually with female choral groups, vocalists, and percussionists. These musicians are creating a network and supporting careers in music, spanning contemporary to classical formats.
Trumpeter Christine Kamau, founder of Women in Music, draws on the experiences and challenges facing female artists across Kenya. This initiative aims to provide access to global platforms for promoting their work and offering role models to the younger generation, breaking down stereotypes hindering their development in the music industry.
Kasiva Mutua, one of the few female percussionists in Kenya, mentors younger musicians through MOTRAMUSIC. This collective teaches young women and girls the art of drumming, percussion, and rhythm. Kasiva’s debut EP, Ngewa (meaning ‘stories’ in the Kamba language), released in 2022, contains six songs addressing the role of women in music, encouraging them to use their instruments to tell their personal stories.
Muthoni Ndonga (The Drummer Queen), running one of East Africa’s most successful music festivals, Blankets and Wine, since 2008, also founded perFORM, a music business and artistic development incubator. This initiative aims to develop artists, publicists, event producers, and other players in the sector, contributing to broader and sustainable gender representation across the cultural ecosystem.
In the filmmaking realm, where roles for female actors are often fewer than those for their male counterparts, the foundation established by pioneering women directors like Ann Mungai, Dommie Yambo Odotte, and Wanjiru Kinyanjui has provided a platform for a new generation of filmmakers. Wanuri Kahiu, the most successful of this new generation of Kenyan filmmakers, gained international prominence with her feature films “From a Whisper” (2008), “Pumzi” (2009), and “Rafiki” (2018).
While Wanuri’s success stands out, the Kenyan film industry faces challenges such as weak structures and a lack of resources for production, marketing, and distribution. Rafiki, for instance, was co-produced with partners in Europe and financed from Lebanon and the U.S. Wanuri argues that, despite more women in top positions in the film industry, poor pay persists for both genders due to insufficient funds.
Yambo-Odotte notes the struggle for women filmmakers between accessing funding to make their films and funding for marketing. Securing funding for cultural projects is challenging for professionals, and women face additional hurdles due to structural biases, contributing to a gender gap in funding.
Independent filmmaker Judy Kibinge established Docubox, The East African Documentary Film Fund, to offer training, development, and production grants throughout East Africa. This project exemplifies how women filmmakers provide leadership in confronting challenges in their industry, including gender inequality, and ingeniously devise solutions for the development of their professional colleagues.
Social media and new digital spaces, such as podcasts, have increased the visibility of female cultural players, enabling them to organize and promote their content directly to audiences. Podcasts like “Legally Clueless” by social media activist Adelle Onyango have diversified voices and stories, showcasing unapologetically African women’s evolving human journeys.
However, the digital world also exposes female artists to online harassment, bullying, and body shaming. Gospel singer and TV presenter Kambua Mathu, a victim of such abuse, notes that the majority of trolls on Instagram come from pseudo accounts created to bully artists and celebrities. Singer Nadia Mukami and rapper Khaligraph Jones have faced online abuse, highlighting the need for measures to address this issue.
Streaming platforms have broken down barriers for female artists in creative industries, allowing content creators to bypass traditional gatekeepers. Dorothy Ghettuba, Netflix Director, Original Series for Africa, has created a platform for Kenyan films and drama series featuring women in leading roles, addressing gender imbalances in the industry.
While male acts still dominate online music streams, programs like EQUAL on Spotify aim to address gender disparities faced by female creators, providing support for artists such as Nikita Kering and Ssaru, among the few female rappers in the popular Kenyan urban music genre, gengetone.
Despite these signs of progress, achieving greater gender parity in the cultural sector in Kenya requires a more significant commitment from both public and private bodies. Current policies, lacking accurate information, data, and analysis, are gender-blind and fail to address prevailing inequalities in the cultural sector.
This article was written by Bill Odidi and commissioned by PANAF as part of the women-led series, with the goal of identifying and addressing structural barriers faced by women artists.