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How Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Not Like Us’ Helped Young Kenyans Lead a Successful Protest in Their Country

Like many African countries colonized in the 20th century, Kenya has struggled to find its diplomatic footing in the decades since gaining independence. The East African nation successfully broke away from British rule in 1962, and a small circle of affluent and influential Kenyans quickly took over. They banked on their connections to Western superpowers and the detrimental effects of colonialism to maintain their power. Though that strategy has worked — Kenya has yet to see a president that isn’t connected to this circle — it hasn’t been without its conflict. The nation has found itself in states of civil unrest as the divide between the country’s governing bodies and its people continues to grow.

Now, it’s become intolerable, and Kenyan Gen Zs have had enough. 

Last month, young Kenyans took to social media to object to the country’s 2024 finance bill, which proposed increased taxes on an alarming amount of everyday items, from tampons to bread. Using the hashtag #RejectFinanceBill2024 to rally together, it was an unprecedented approach to activism for Kenyans that inspired both international attention and national unity — and birthed a viral protest song that samples Kendrick Lamar’s diss track “Not Like Us.”

Titled “Reject Hio Bill,” the track, by local rapper Sabi Wu, has become the theme of a movement calling for change to Kenyan government.

“The song represents the sentiments of young Kenyans like myself who are living in tough economic times,” Wu tells Rolling Stone via email. “Gen Z has always been disregarded, but we have shown that we have a voice through the mass protests that I have attended and supported.” 

Wu says that the “combative and accusatory nature” of Lamar’s “Not Like Us” provided the perfect backdrop for his own rendition, representing how Kenyans actually feel about their government. “I freestyled the chorus and first verse in under 15 minutes and put it up on social media not really expecting anything,” the rapper explains. “People resonated with it so much so I completed and released the song after.” The song has gone on to be used by thousands of people in their posts about and from the protests.

The protests began a few weeks ago when young Kenyans, outraged by the finance bill and already struggling amid the country’s deteriorating currency following the Covid-19 pandemic, marched to Nairobi’s central business district for a maandamano (the Swahili word for protest), as Kenya’s president William Ruto and parliament members were gearing up to vote on the bill.

Though protests were initially peaceful, tensions escalated quickly. Attendees grew in number and were met with violent retaliation at the hands of Kenya’s police. Some protesters breached blockades and stormed parliament, in an act eerily similar to the events of January 6, 2021, in the U.S. The Kenya Human Rights Commission announced 39 people were killed and hundreds injured or tear-gassed, including former U.S. president Barack Obama’s sister, Dr. Auma Obama. 

“Honestly, it was scary,” Ezra Ruto, a young Kenyan who’s been on the frontlines, says in an email. “Many among us, including myself, suffered from tear gas and rubber bullets inflicted by the police for exercising our constitutional rights.” 

But with Wu’s “Reject Hio Bill” as the soundtrack, the protests seem to have worked: President Ruto, who was initially nonchalant about the backlash, eventually conceded and announced on June 27 that he would not sign the bill, according to the BBC.

Protesters demonstrate against proposed tax hikes in Kenya in June: a local rapper soundtracked the protests with a song that sampled Kendrick Lamar.

LUIS TATO/AFP/Getty Images

It was an extraordinary victory, but young Kenyans say the fight isn’t over. Haunted by the lives lost and the deeper issues rooted in Kenyan democracy, the country’s Gen Z population now want President Ruto removed from office, and they’re prepared to continue to speak out until their government reflects their needs and ideals. 

“In Kenya, politics has always been tribal,” Wu says. “That was what always used to rally people, but us young people have chosen to be united and tribeless. This is what has empowered us. This is really for the people by the people. All this has caused a real change and has cemented a new era in Kenyan politics.” 

According to Tom Osborn, CEO of the Shamiri Institute, a non-profit organization that’s committed to making mental health support accessible in Kenya and around Africa, any new era of politics in the country has to incorporate the nation’s youth and champion efforts that empower them after years of neglect.

“Many young Kenyans feel they do not have a fair chance to actualize their life outcomes,” Osborn says. He recommends investments in youth development, “merit-based” access to education and professional opportunities, and addressing the mental health crisis as necessary steps forward in bridging the gap between youth and government.

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“For Gen Z, validation and acknowledgment of their struggles are crucial. It’s not just about solving the problems; it’s about recognizing and empathizing with the hardships they face. The lack of this validation has intensified their feelings of alienation and neglect,” Osborn says. 

Na ni ndo tunavote, na ni si tunachagua,” Wu rapped in his defiant track. Its translation? “We’re the ones who choose, we’re the ones who vote.”

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