This essay explores the significance of art in political and social change by way of evidence from the Swahili coast of East Africa. Analysis of two musical genres, ngoma and dansi (typically glossed as "traditional dance" and "urban jazz"), exposes common aesthetic principles of innovation, inventive appropriation, competitive opposition, linguistic indirection, and intertextuality. Historical analysis further reveals that both genres have served as effective modes of political action in Swahili communities. I use this data to question prevailing assumptions about Swahili cosmopolitanism, challenge traditional/modern binarisms, and theorize the relationship between art and society.