Emily Akuno: Dialogue with an Adventist music educator in Kenya

Dr. Emily Akuno was born in Kenya, into a family of nine children. Although her father was not a Seventh-day Adventist, Emily's mother was, and her commitment to Adventist values and lifestyle became part of Emily's heritage. All of Emily's education was received in public schools. She obtained her bachelor's degree in music from Kenyatta University, where she currently serves as professor of music. She holds a master's degree in music from Northwestern State University in the United States and a Ph.D. from Kingston University, London.

Because of Dr. Akuno's professional skills and achievement in music, she was elected chairperson of Kenya Music Festival for all educational institutions in the country. She has also served as chairperson of Kenya Music and Cultural Festival for non-academic institutions, and chairperson of the Association of Music Educators of East Africa. She was, until recently, the acting dean of students at Kenyatta University and has headed the Department (later Institute) of Music in the same university for several years.

Professor Akuno, her husband, and two sons are active members of the Nairobi Central Adventist Church.

Professor Akuno, would you please tell us something about your early days.

My father was a policeman, and his duties often kept him away from home. So Mother was our mentor. She took her faith seriously and conveyed to us a God who loves and cares for us. She was a faithful and active church member. My maternal grandmother was also a Seventh-day Adventist, and I spent a lot of time with her. So, I may claim myself as a third-generation Adventist.

After primary education, I was sent to a prestigious school in Kenya, and that is where I first met music as a subject and studied its fundamentals. From then on, my interest in music kept growing. After secondary education, I knew what my degree course should be: music. And I chose to go to Kenyatta University which had a good music program. After that I went to the United States to do my master's degree and later to the United Kingdom for doctoral studies.

So your interest in music began when you went to this prestigious secondary school?

No. That's where I met music in a formal, academic setting. Long before that, I was involved in the music ministry of my home church, which had three choirs. I was a member of the first one, which would be the equivalent of the Pathfinder choir today. So from the age of five years, I was involved in singing, and I can safely say that I first met music at home and church.

As a Seventh-day Adventist Church member, how do your responsibilities of teaching music relate to your faith?

I do not look at music as music per se, but music as a tool. Within the educational environment, music is a tool that enhances behavior change as well as individual perception of oneself. It is a tool that moves people. That is a challenge to me as an Adventist. How does one use this tool so as to produce the maximum effect for good? As an Adventist, I want to use music to transmit right values. To that extent, I use the gifts that God has given me and teach in such a way that those in my class will be able to make wise and informed decisions on how to use their music talents. My faith also informs me on the kind of music I can participate in, and keeps me focused. This does not mean I do only Christian music, but I let my Christian values impact on how I do music–the sacred as well as the secular, the classical as well as contemporary.

At times music is a controversial subject, particularly as it relates to worship both within the Seventh-day Adventist Church and elsewhere. As a professional, what advice would you generally give on how music should be perceived?

I go by three principles. First, music should praise God. David says, “make a joyful noise unto God” (Psalms 66:1, KJV). He responded in music for what God had done for him. So good music should be what will be pleasing to God and praising God, and it is done with joy and thanksgiving. Second, as Christians we need to be gentle and wise. I love singing and music, and if I go to a church where the music is poor, I feel as if I have missed something in my worship that day. However, whatever I do should not be a stumbling block for the rest. I follow Paul's counsel that I should not cause others to stumble. Third, music is a language. In one of my books I define music as an expression of a culture. As Christians, we have embraced another culture. Most local cultures, particularly those I know of, may not have originally had the concept of the God in heaven but had some deity worthy of worship. Now that we know the God of heaven, all these other aspects of culture should be subjected to our knowledge of the God of heaven. Using music developed in another culture or language may have overtones that may not portray the same meaning as the original culture in which that particular music was composed. I therefore encourage the composition of music in local languages done particularly by those who are well grounded in the gospel.

Is your family musically inclined?

In a way, yes. Although sometimes my younger son asks me why he should have to study music, the reports I get from school indicate that he is quite active in it. The older son did music up to high school, plays saxophone, but he is not studying music in college. I let them make their own choices. I know from research that music training enhances learning in all other areas of study. It also helps one to be emotionally balanced.

Can you comment on life in a public university where you have studied and where you now work?

Entering university life can be a big change for young people as they suddenly find that there are no bells, no serious curfews, little guidance regarding relationships with members of the opposite sex, and for the most part you are on your own. What guided me were the following:

These activities provide fellowship and a support system that keeps one focused on the positive aspects of life. They also give opportunities for young people to dialogue with one another and know who they really are, and even reason with God.

What advice would you give to young people interested in pursuing the study of music?

Begin where you are. Local churches provide many music opportunities. Once you discover your talents and interests, seek out institutions that have quality programs in such areas. Define for yourself the reason why you want to be involved in music. The focus should be on the end objective. Is it to build or break? Will it help in your Christian responsibility to be the light of the world so that you can through music bring a little light where there is darkness? Will it help you uplift Christ? Will it advance spiritual and social concerns that dominate the world today, such as ministering to the emotionally battered ones, or fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic? Music should not be an end in itself; it should be a means to make a joyful noise to our God and to share that joy with those around us.

Hudson E. Kibuuka (D.Ed., University of South Africa) is the Director of Education of the East-Central Africa Division and Dialogue regional representative,with offices in Nairobi, Kenya. His email address: kibuukah@ecd.adventist.org.

Professor Emily Akuno's email address: eakuno@ku.ac.ke.