We know that there have been meme wars in America, and that Donald Trump has been called the “first president meme’d into office.” But in Kenya—a country where one of the only feasible forms of political expression is memes, and meme creators are being jailed for criticizing the government—it is a very different story. Western media told countless stories about the viral music video character known as “Makmende.” They called Makmende “The Kenyan Chuck Norris,” or a sound-alike of his famous line, “Make my day.” But, according to the artists who brought Makmende into being, none of these characterizations are accurate.
We explore American myopia, the peril of memes and artistic expression in Kenya, and how we should think of memes as a powerful form of communication.
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben: Amory. Get on the tour bus. Time to go on tour together.
Amory: On tour? Green M&Ms? Showering in strange places? Flouching?
Ben: Dr. Flauchi?
Amory: That was good.
Ben: Well I did just learn what flouching is.
Amory: Yeah. Floor couch.
Ben: I just meant a tour of ALL the bands we’ve PLAYED in. You want to go first or you want me to?
Amory: I’ve mostly been a solo artist. I did sing with some friends in elementary school and we’d bang hairbrushes together as our percussion. But I made an embarrassing demo when I was 11 called “Sink.”
Amory: and then made another demo in high school that had some pretty angsty teen vibes…
Amory: And then I’ve been releasing albums since college that have hopefully helped me kinda settle into the person I am now. On to you Ben-jo, tell me about your Bands.
Ben: OK so my freshman year of high school...the extremely poorly named but nostalgically lovely to me, Artificially Flavored.
Ben: College I got a smidge better on the naming thing three bands later. Megalomaniac…
Ben: The Cuts…
Ben: Then, The Ringers. Clearly my Strokes era.
Ben: Then my band Conversion Party...which I thought was pretty good actually. But don’t Google that.
Ben: Then we broke up and half reformed as Pre War…
Ben: And finally...the last band I was in in New York City, High Pony. What do you think? Is High Pony the pinnacle of my band names?
Amory: I like it. It’s the highest of the ponies. Why did we do this though?
Ben: So I think that what I wanted to talk about was how, effectively you and I and everyone else who writes and plays original music is effectively trying...to do the same thing. Catch attention and basically go viral.
Amory: Step one...go viral. Step two… quit the day job! Support yourself with your art.
Ben: Step 3, profit?
Amory: Stack that paper!
Ben: And while luck favors the hard working, long working musician, in the end, it is often just dumb luck. Whether or not you get noticed might not have to do with how good you are.
Amory: Well back in 2010, a group called Just A Band got some of that dumb luck. But they were also undeniably good.
Ben: Yes. Key difference between their bands and my bands.
[“HA-HE” by Just A Band]
Ben: This is the band’s song Ha-He. When Just A Band put it out they had had a little bit of attention where they’re from, in Kenya. They had this good mix of jazz and funk and house music, and they had made some music videos that were almost referential of the work by the band Gorillaz, and got some attention. But this song put them over the top. And the song is good! Right?
Amory: I love it. It’s great. It deserved the attention it got.
Ben: But it didn’t just get attention for the song. It got attention for the video.
Amory: Specifically, the video’s main character. It follows this lanky hero along a knuckle-busting, gangster-beating, lady-impressing adventure that ends up with a boss fight.
Ben: And the main character, who has been putting a bunch of bad dudes in their place throughout the video right before he fights the big boss...ties a red necktie around his head like a bandana and puts a super tough look on his mouth. Before punching out the big boss and walking into the sunset.
Amory: Even if you haven’t seen this video, you’ve probably seen one like it. It might remind you of the video for “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys: A hero delivering justice, no-holds-barred. It’s well done! But it feels familiar, too.
Ben: And yet the main character and this one freeze frame moment where he’s tying a red necktie around his head with a tough scowl on his face...would be the band’s ticket to a wild ride that would make Just A Band much more.
Mbithi Masya: So we just kind of sat there for an hour just like wondering what the hell was going on.
Amory: It would make them the creators of a meme that some people would call the first and biggest meme in Kenya. A meme that personified a tough guy identity in a country where memes are becoming a flash point for political strife. A meme with a name that in some ways created its own mystery, with its own mythology. A name that has arguably had an impact on national identity.
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson
Ben: And you’re listening to Endless Thread.
Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR...Boston’s NPR station.
Ben: So as we said, back in 2010 Just A Band was pretty much that. Here’s band member Mbithi Masya.
Mbithi Masya: Yeah, so Just A Band is, I guess you could call it an art collective of a few guys who got together in college and picked up a straggler along the way and have been making different forms of art, exploring different media from their bedrooms in houses for over a decade now.
Another member is a guy named Jim Chuchu.
Jim Chuchu: I am an artist, and I also work at The Nest Collective, which I am a founder of.
Amory: And what is the nest collective for people who might not know it.
Jim: The Nest Collective is a group of rowdy Kenyans. Are we? I guess we call ourselves a multidisciplinary collective of artists.
Ben: Something a lot of Americans, and people really from all over, don’t realize about Kenya is that when it comes to the internet, and more specifically the MOBILE internet, Kenyans have arguably leapfrogged us. For a long time Kenya didn’t have wired network infrastructure…so the country’s internet users--which by the way are more common than in any other country on the African continent...choose to access the web on their phones.
Amory: And this high rate of connectivity in Kenya has been a catalyst for a generation of artists and other creative workers. Like the guys in Just A Band, who live in the country’s capital, Nairobi, and who say that the way they popped off was definitely the music video for their song “Ha-He,” and the video’s main character, Makmende.
Mbithi: So the video opens up with an old school montage of Makmende getting ready. You don't really see who he is. Just see him kind of putting on his dog tag chains, his blazer, his shirt, his open shirt. Like two buttons are open. And then you see his glasses and kind of his afro and then walking across this vast, empty field, you're introduced to him for the first time. And the title of the video, which in Swahili is Makmende Amerudi, is Makmende Returns. And the whole idea was just we were playing on. We're making a sequel of something that doesn't exist.
Ben: Something that doesn’t exist...yes. But Jim says...that doesn’t mean they weren’t working from inspiration.
Jim: we definitely watched Chuck Norris when we were small and we watched, like Jean-Claude Van Damme. This kind of golden age… Fake gold age.
Jim: All of our time when one does this kind of machismo pseudo martial arts hero swaggering around and beating people. And Kenyans did watch a lot of that stuff.
Amory: Also, blacksploitation movies. And Kung Fu movies?
Ben: Which is a lot of influences. But Mbithi says that mix of things makes the video of “Ha-He” feel very connected to their national identity.
Mbithi: I think what makes it distinctly Kenyan, it's is the gumbo nature of it, the fact that it's all these different things thrown into one pot. At the end of the day what came out wasn’t a bunch of influences but it was this one thing that Kenyans got. This is that thing that I think also speaks to just kind of the Kenyan cultural way of life, which is just that amalgamation of so many different influences. And then somehow the thing that comes out of it at the end of it feels Kenyan.
Amory: The word Makmende is also Kenyan, as near as Jim and Mbithi can tell. It’s a word that they’ve been using and hearing since they were kids.
Mbithi: And this expression was used to refer to people who I don't know, I guess the person who was feeling themselves the most on the playground. You know, the guy who climbed to the highest tree branch on the tree and you'd be like, oh, you think you - like you're feeling Makmende. You see yourself Makmende. Like it was more of an expression how where I grew up. Jim, do you have a different interpretation?
Jim: Oh, I have to say that I think we live in a society that isn't very good at documenting itself. So many of the things that are part of our culture don't necessarily have a very clear origin. And this is definitely one of those things.
Ben: Whatever the origin, Jim says this sentiment of the idea, the kinda don’t get too big for your britches vibe, is a troubling undertone to Makmende, too. Which didn’t occur to him until later.
Mbithi: That I suppose you live in a society where people warn one another about straying too far from the norm. Which sounds to me like the opposite of what you want young people to be telling one another, right? It's like don't climb too high, don't stand too close to the fire. Don't go outside and find out what that sound is. If that is the origin of Makmende, I find that origin story quite troubling.
Amory: Troubling origin, maybe. But when Just A Band took a playground expression and gave it a face and a beat? It got very popular, very fast. Jim says the first thing that happened was that the band broke a bunch of their own records for views on the video.
Mbithi: I think on the first day we we had some pretty good numbers which were like higher than anything we've ever had as a band. And then the next day was more than that, and the next day was more than that.
Ben: That was just on the YouTube video. When the band looked at a Twitter hashtag for Makmende, they saw that there were six new tweets using the hashtag...per second.
Mbithi: It was at that moment and I was like, OK, this is this is different. Let's wait and see, let's enjoy the ride.
Amory: The guy who played Makmende in the video also started to realize something was going on. While he was walking around his neighborhood in Nairobi.
Kevin: Maybe, maybe three or four days after the video went up, I, I was walking along the road and there was this car at a cross in front of our car. And as I'm crossing, they just hit the brakes like almost like an emergency brake. And they started hooting.
Ben: This is Kevin. Aka Makmende.
Kevin: It's pronounced Kevin Maina. And I usually just call myself an entertainer. I am an actor, singer, DJ, director and comedian and sometimes Part-Time emcee.
Amory: A few days after a car full of people hooted at Kevin...he went on an errand with Mbithi in another part of Nairobi.
Kevin: So Mbithi goes in, he leaves me at the reception, I just sit down in the waiting room and whatnot and, and then as people are walking in and out, that's when someone sees me like oh my goodness, is that… yo, it's Makmende! And then this guy runs into the office. And then I hear commotion and then he comes back with like five people, and then they go, they all run back in and now it's a whole, like storm brewing in there.
Ben: The place exploded with fans. Kevin found himself talking something like 50 selfies. When he and Mbithi finally escaped back into the car home, a friend called his phone, asking where he was. They were seeing a bunch of people posting online about making an appearance at some office building?
Kevin: And I'm like, what? What the hell is going on? I think that's the moment when we started to realize, OK, so this is getting way bigger than anyone anticipated.
Amory: Pretty soon Kevin was doing local media.
[YouTube video: For the last couple of weeks there has been an online craze about a character named makmende. Finally we get to meet the person who he decided to take over. Kevin Maina.]
Ben: You know the pattern by now right? First, Makmende went viral. Then Makmende became a meme.
Kenyatta Cheese: A viral and meme both share the emotional reaction and the need to spread but then it's the memes that are the ones where people feel like they can insert their own experience into.
Sarah Laiola: Maybe you're viral and then everything after that becomes a meme.
Don Caldwell: Memes can be considered a meme if they go viral and spreads, that it replicates itself through people.
Gianluca Stringhini: People will also be able to modify those videos.
Ben: The musician emcee comedian art collective video director renaissance men in Just A Band were definitely savvy to online stuff. So they had done some social media promotion around the video. They made fake magazine covers featuring Kevin’s tough guy Makmende face.
Amory: But after the video came out, other things started popping up. If you remember the ridiculous tough guy jokes about Chuck Norris some years back and the resulting memes...you’ve got an idea of what people started doing with Makmende.
Amory: One of the ones that I saw says Mike uses Viagra in his eye drops just to look hard.
Ben: Just to look hard?
Amory: Just to look hard.
Amory: Like, were you guys were you create-- I know you made the magazine covers, but was this just other people running with this idea or were you generating any of this content yourself?
Mbithi: No, I think after the video was out we stopped.
Amory: Very quickly, the story about Just A Band and their video was secondary to the idea of Makmende. But the actual origins of the phrase were still pretty murky.
Ben: The more national and international media covered the meme...the more confused the story got. For instance, Jim says that CNN showed up to his house in Nairobi. Which was amazing!
Jim: But then the story that they put out kind of amplified one side of the story. That wasn't necessarily true for us. But then because it's CNN, it became the story. Right. So this idea about Make My Day and I. Was it Clint Eastwood? Hmn.
Ben: This story of where the word came from has been repeated a ton ever since Just A Band’s video went viral. The idea is that the word Makmende is actually a portmentau...a combination of words from that well known moment in the Clint Eastwood movie Sudden Impact where Eastwood points a massive pistol at a robber and says.
[Clint Eastwood: Go ahead. Make my day.]
Ben: Makmende sounds a bit like that. But…
Jim: That that isn't true for us. Because like Clint Eastwood didn't occupy space in the Kenyan memory like that, in Kenyan cultural memory.
Amory: This is something that Jim and Mbithi say is just kind of flat out wrong, at least in their understanding of where the word came from. It’s a Sheng word--or Swahili slang word--that means “a hero.” With a wink of course. A hero, or a person who deems themselves a hero. And sure, they were inspired by a bunch of the exported macho American action movies for the Just A Band video. But Dirty Harry wasn’t one of them.
Ben: When it turned into a meme though, the true origins and definitions of Makmende didn’t really seem up to Jim and Mbithi and their bandmates. They weren’t in control of the story.
Mbithi: I guess people said that CNN has to find like an angle to the American audience to kind of plug into a story. So they went to that,
Ben: even though it's completely wrong?
Amory: Oh god, that's so sad.
Ben: F*** that.
Mbithi: Yeah, it was sad. But I guess that's how the world operates right
Amory: We DID find one of the CNN Journalists who was in control of the story when it went international. His name is David McKenzie.
David McKenzie: Boy, did this story bring back memories. I had to dig deep, I must say. But it brings up lots of fun memories from Kenya.
Ben: David says that he started covering Kenya after a time of civil unrest, and close to the time that fiber optic internet cable had hit the continent. People were more connected and consuming more of CNN’s work. And CNN wanted feel good stories. That was his assignment.
Amory: And we put to him this issue: That the Just A Band guys felt in retrospect that reporting by more international news outlets, maybe got it wrong.
Ben: The filmmakers and the members of Just A Band that we talked to for this episode said that they did not think Make My Day is the origin of the term, but that they also said they didn't actually know the origin of the term. Have you heard any other theories over the years? And what do you think about that development?
David: I don't I haven't spoken to just a band for more than 10 years. I know they were just like a lightning bolt in terms of Kenyan music and creativity. So if they say they haven't heard it, you know, maybe it isn't the case. Certainly at the time, that was the feeling. And no, I haven't heard any other theories.
Ben: David also said that it was his Kenyan colleagues at the time who were more into the Clint Eastwood theory. And on the CNN pushing a Western perspective thing…
David: Yeah, look, you know, I'm from South Africa. I've grown up in Africa, that's certainly not something that would really appeal to me as a reporter. That's interesting. And, you know, they have a point with many reports over the years in Africa, but I certainly don't think that's the case here.
Amory: Even if it’s not obvious to the casual observer, the origin of most memes is discoverable. Most of the time because they’re based on an image that is searchable on the internet.
Ben: And while Makmende the man, a.k.a. Kevin Maina of Just a Band, is an image, the personification of the idea, the phrase’s true origin is more complex. This Swahili slang is both about toughness and maybe a lack of self awareness. Where it came from and what it means to Kenyans is still complicated, and maybe important.
Amory: Important because when a meme gets connected to your identity, be it your identity in a subculture or your national identity, it can influence how you feel. And it can say a lot about who you are as a person, as a country. For Jim and Mbithi Just A Band’s personification of Makmende is actually connected to something bigger.
Ben: Are you pro-meme? Anti-meme? How do you guys feel about memes? And maybe I'll start with Mbithi first.
Mbithi: Haha. You ask a very interesting question right now, because just yesterday there was an activist arrested by the government because of making memes.
Ben: Amory and I didn’t really realize the conversation would go from discussing the quote unquote first meme from Kenya to...a pretty complicated conversation about Kenyan aid, global powers using finance as a cudgel, and people getting arrested for memes.
Amory: But it did. In Kenya, memes have recently become a flashpoint, as a form of political protest.
Amory: Is there a precedent for this? Like, have people been arrested before for making meme-like content?
Mbithi: Not really, there's a new kind of weird cyber crimes act that was put into place. It's kind of weird and muddy and blurry in that because I guess Kenyans on the Internet are a bit fearless in terms of how we talk to people in power. So I think politicians are trying to put something in place to just kind of control the masses. But I don't know.
Jim: I think Kenya has, the state has has a lot of, has a talent for suppressing physical protest.
Amory: More on memes as protest in Kenya in a minute.
Ben: Part of the reason that politics and memes are so intertwined in Kenya is that the country, and specifically the city of Nairobi, have been extremely online for a while. Which means Kenyans have been talking about Kenya and Kenyan Politics online for a while.
Amory: Back in 2007, political violence erupted following national elections in the country. Kenyan bloggers responded to the violence by calling out those committing the violence and taking criticism of the government online.
Ben: When Makmende blew up several years later, resulting memes used the character to criticise the way Kenya was viewed outside the country too. One meme shows Makmende planting a Kenyan flag on the moon before the Americans show up to plant the American flag. It was aspirational. A story about Kenya, by Kenyans. Still, Jim and Mbithi say the problems at home have continued.
Jim: For us, I think Kenya is an interesting place to situate the story of a hero or a superhero or anything in between, because we often say that Nairobi's like Gotham City, but it's just that we don't have the spandex guys. But we do have the supervillains and they do strut around the city and the police can't do anything about them. In fact, a lot of the stuff that happened after the video was very much about people saying, I wish I wish there was someone like this guy around, and the public seems to think of Makmende as being a good guy, even though we knew we hadn’t really positioned him on a moral spectrum. But, yeah, Kenya really needs superheroes, man. We are like we are really, really between a rock and a hard place. And the IMF.
Amory: Jim said the IMF as in...international monetary fund. Which is VERY hard to define simply but it’s a collection of 190 countries pooling billions of dollars in order to effectively reduce poverty and foster more international trade and global financial stability.
Ben: And when Jim says between a rock and a hard place and the IMF. He’s representing what a lot of people in underdeveloped countries feel. The IMF is controversial because for a lot of countries, it represents an outside influence on their national sovereignty. This extremely powerful lending group headquartered in Washington D.C that gets to incentivize certain policies by offering massive loans to countries that need them.
Amory: And in Kenya, before we even get to the IMF’s influence, we should talk about the rock and the hard place.
Ben: Say more about the people that are strutting around and the police can't do anything about them.
Jim: Oh, my God, just today, even right now on Twitter, there's a there's a guy called Babu Owino who's like a member of parliament. This guy had I think there's a lot of us---are we allowed to cuss? Yes. Oh yeah. Yes. Ok cool. There’s a video of this guy shooting a deejay in a club. And this man is now paralyzed. And this Babu guy, he went scot free, like the police weren't able to arrest him because he's a member of parliament. And we have so many people like that in our country. And most of them are in government.
Ben: Jim and Mbithi describe Kenya now as a place where the younger, more tech-y and urban Kenyan population is more outspoken than earlier generations. And the government is getting more and more aggressive about squashing dissent.
Amory: In part because of this new cyber crimes law, which makes it easier for the authorities to yank you into court or even jail if, for instance, you criticize the government with a meme. Which came up recently when Kenyans started questioning the government’s use of two billion dollars in funds delivered by the IMF to fight Covid.
Mbithi: So interestingly, Kenyans started to say online, stop lending money to Kenya because it's not being used properly, and then that has ballooned into the situation where Kenyans are kind of barging into every IMF virtual meeting or press conference thing and just, you know, flooding the comments with stop loaning Kenya money.
Ben: This included a recent case where someone was arrested for using memes to criticize the government’s reliance on IMF money .
Mbithi: pretty much the facts are just an activist called Edwin Kayama supposedly made some memes that were targeted ads discouraging the IMF from giving Kenya some loans. And they featured some politicians in them, supposedly. And yeah, he was arrested for that. It's all kind of just as Jim said, a mess.
Ben: Again, speaking from a place of ignorance, from what I understand is that the political situation in Kenya is not great. And that the government is, often treating citizens in a way that from a at least from a sort of pro-democracy perspective is bad. And I wonder how memes in general in the country, you know, connect to that reality for everyday life for Kenyans.
Jim: I’ll preface the answer by saying that I don't think there's any country that can say that their politics is great right now. That four years you guys had with Trump was instructive for the rest of the world. Because suddenly the country that told us that democracy was great suddenly wasn't doing very well with democracy. So for us, what that means is that impunity has become a little stronger. And I was saying yesterday on Twitter that that these memes, these humorous tweets that we send out as a populace are the only, most likely the only, voice that we have right now. Our court system is very fragile. Our police are underpaid and they spend more time trying to raise money from bribes than, because their pay is ridiculous. Our health sector is a whole mess because the government is refusing to hire doctors because they don't want to spend money on doctors, and we're in the middle of a pandemic. There’s so much about our country that is almost farcically wrong. And so the memes to me are people like, what else do you want people to do, right? They've gone on the street and they've been, you know, kicked and pepper sprayed and arrested. And now even making memes will land you in court and in prison. So there, a lot of them are funny, but there's something much more serious happening there.
Mbithi: I think it's also the little power we have left in that we know it actually affects the people in power. Like our president was just whining a few months ago that he left Twitter because Kenyans are mean. And it’s just like, It's interesting that these guys are so thin-skinned that we're getting to them on the Internet. So, yeah.
Ben: It doesn't seem great if that's your only option, but I guess like having an option is good?
Jim: Yeah, it's not great for our citizenship to feel like the only way they can, the only option they have left is to engage in dark humor online. There's nothing rosy about that.
Ben: Can it be a tool? Or is it just a pressure release in an increasingly pressurized situation?
Mbithi: No, I think it's it's more than that. For example, this IMF thing, as much as we think the guy was arrested for memes, what he was arrested for was expressing a very kind of consolidated public sentiment that got picked up by international media. And then the thin skinned president decides, “I need to threaten these guys,” so they stop talking to the IMF. So it's not that “stop putting me in memes.” That won't stop us. But it's like “stop interrupting the day's business” is basically the the message his arrest is supposed to send.
Jim: I think if you look at this from like a kind of glass half full place, then I'd say that it's really amazing that Kenyans can speak directly to the IMF in a way that the IMF has to take notice. That is unprecedented. Come on, petitions are signed every day by people for the most terrible things and nothing ever happens. But a meme? A bunch of memes gets people arrested? Now we are talking. And I think the Kenyan government has a lot to be scared of because the generation behind us, if they think we are verbose online, they haven't met Gen Zs, who were literally born with iPads in their faces. So I think I think there’s a lot more coming.
Ben: And what will new versions of memes in Kenya from that new generation look like, and what will those memes have to say?
Amory: Just a Band is on hiatus right now. The guys say that’s because in part, they’re just pursuing other creative endeavors and growing as separate media artists in their own right. But they say that with the right ingredients, they wouldn’t rule out a reunion. With this kind of sentiment, hard not to anticipate, maybe even hope for Makmende Amerudi. The return of Makmende.
Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.
Ben: Want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content, Amory’s shower songs... my bathtub tunes? Join our email list! You’ll find it at wbur.org/endlessthread.
Amory: Also, we want to know what you think is the most underrated meme. Call us. Yes, pick up the phone. 857-244-0338. Or better yet, record a voice memo and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We just might feature your voice memo and your suggestion on the show.
Ben: For example...
[Liz: Hey y'all I'm Liz. I don't know if this is just a meme that's popular with my friend group, but it's this little boy. If you're on twitter and do a GIF, and you type in HELL YEAH. This little kid has so much passion and joy, and just like pizzazz in this one little dance move that's like, "HA HA HA, arm in the air, hell yeah!"]
Ben: Big thanks to our meme chorus:
Sarah Laiola teaches about digital culture and design at Coastal Carolina University.
Joan Donovan is Research Director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.
Gianluca Stringhini studies online security disinformation and hate speech at Boston University.
Amanda Brennan has the extremely cool title of Internet Librarian.
Please go find their work and benefit from their meme genius.
Amory: Our series and our show is produced by Dean Russell, Nora Saks, Dean Russell and Quincy Walters. We are co-hosted by us… Amory Sivertson
Ben: And Ben Brock Johnson. This episode was edited by Maureen McMurray.
Amory: Mixing and Sound Design by Paul Viatkus.
Ben: Special thanks to, and additional production work from, Josh Crane, Frank Hernandez, Kristin Torres, Sofie Kodner and Rachel Carlson.
Amory: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and the shaggy, warm, and comforting trunk of Mr. Snuffleupagus. If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email email@example.com.
Ben: Stay cool forever!