The arts are sometimes do not get the respect they deserve. They can be seen as flippant pursuits, entertaining enough to engage in as hobbies but not to be taken seriously as careers. This isn’t thinking that’s exclusive to Kenya. Parents the world over discourage their children from pursuing a career in the arts and encourage them to go after more “normal” jobs. At school the children’s teachers do the same. The attitude to the arts leans more to admiration than to aspiration.

The hesitation and trepidation surrounding the arts is not unfounded. Have you ever heard the phrase “msanii maskini” (broke artist)? It isn’t a falsehood. A lot of artists spend their days hungry, angry because they are hungry, and stressed because they don’t know when their next meal will come. They eat bread and tea for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They struggle to pay meager rent or live at home with their parents when society’s “rules” say they should be out paying their own.

There are stories of those who have achieved massive success with fantastic and glamorous lives, but they are a minority. Parents want the best for their children, so of course they wouldn’t want them to be struggling to support themselves. Better to become an engineer, or a doctor, or a lawyer; those are more surefire ways to make a decent living.

But the world would be a very boring, uninspiring, and stifling place without the arts.

Besides being a source of entertainment, the arts allow us to dream and imagine. They allow us to escape the vagaries of the world and inhabit another reality. They show us what human beings are capable of, the amazing things we can do. They keep us grounded too, reminding us to appreciate the beauty of life and the world we live in.

The arts give us the freedom to express ourselves.

All the traditional categories of the arts involve some form of expression: from literature, the visual arts, and the performing arts, to the plastic arts, the decorative arts, and architecture. The artist creating a particular object, environment, or experience can express it however they want. They can send messages through their art, communicate feelings and emotions, or tell a story.

Through the arts we can say or convey what we want in different ways. Sometimes we don’t even have to say anything ourselves, we can have the artists do it for us. In doing so, the message can be veiled to avoid offending or annoying those it targets and can protect the originator of the message from harsh critique. The message being passed might also be received better if it comes from an artist. Think of the satirical cartoons in our newspapers that lament poor governance or harsh economic times. Or books like Animal Farm. Think of lyrics to songs that sound like only the artists who wrote the songs could have come up with them. Yet they say exactly what everyone seems to be feeling. Coincidence? I think not.

The arts bring people together. They are unselfish, in that the things that they create can be shared with others. Fans and admirers build a community around their chosen art form and artist. They share in their appreciation of the art or the artist. They become familiar with each other and form relationships. They may come from different backgrounds and cultures, but their shared appreciation for art that was shared with them brings them together.

As a form of creative expression, the arts are often a reflection of society or can influence it down certain paths.

This can be extremely positive. For example, there is an increased appreciation today of African culture and art. Artists of African heritage are getting more attention and recognition around the world. African musicians are blowing up globally. There has been increased investment in local film industries and productions, such as Kenya’s very own Country Queen on Netflix.

But the negative sides of society show themselves too. Hip hop is the world’s most popular genre of music. It employs wickedly addictive beats and flashy videos with even flashier cars, houses, and girls (or guys) to entertain its listeners. Drug use, violence, sex, and money are often-used themes in the music, themes that put the genre under fire for promoting them. It may be true that casual sex and recreational drug use have become more common. It is possible that we, especially younger generations, are more consumed with chasing riches and quick gratification than we were before. Does that then mean that one-night-stands, cocaine, and owning 50 pairs of shoes has been made more popular by hip hop music? Or has hip hop music been made more popular because of them? Or is it a bit (or a lot) of both?

The arts have a lot going on with them and a lot going on around them. They entertain us and make life more exciting. They influence us and reflect what’s going on in society. We need the arts in our lives. We need them as an outlet, as a way to express ourselves when simply talking isn’t enough. The world will move on and we will continue to make extraordinary discoveries and inventions. But like Hans Zimmer said, there will always be room for someone to tell us a story.

Let’s encourage the gifted artists among us to exercise their gifts. They may yet change our attitude to the arts to be one of aspiration and not just mere admiration.