Africa is a Country

Out with the Old: Exploring the myth of the ‘new’ South Africa

In the past few weeks there has been much consternation about the de facto existence of the dompas in the Western Cape community of Worcester. The dreaded dompas was a humiliating fact of life in apartheid South Africa; my father had one and his memories of it are vivid and painful. The passbook was arguably the most visible aspect of the system of apartheid. Any white man could stop a black one on the street and ask to see his pass. In this way, the pass gave power to petty bureaucrats and ordinary white men. Passbooks allowed racial authority to be invoked on a pretty random basis, and this of course instilled fear in the hearts of black families. When black women resisted the pass in the 1920s and then in the more famous marches of the 1950s, it was because they had seen the effects of the passbook on their menfolk.

While it served the social purpose of elevating the status of even the poorest and least educated whites, the dompas played an important economic role as well. It was created to manage urbanisation and was an essential regulatory mechanism within the migrant labour system. It was also critical for the pursuance of the nonsensical homeland strategy. The dompas operated like a blacks-only passport within the borders of South Africa. It contained the fingerprints and photo of its bearer, his racial classification as well as the name and address of his employer. The pass contained information about how long the native had been employed and even described the characteristics of the pass holder, for example, ‘honest and courteous,’ or ‘speaks respectfully and always on time.’

The information in passbooks was crucial for determining whether or not black people were legally allowed to be in a certain town or suburb. If their employment details did not match up with the area in which they happened to be walking around, they could be harassed, jailed or have their permission to work revoked. Needless to say, only white people qualified as ‘employers’ and only black people required passes. Whites could travel freely wherever they wished.

So the discovery of the pass system – implemented with the active involvement of the police in a wealthy Western Cape community – has rocked the nation. Hands have been wrung and shock has been expressed. ‘How can this happen in the ‘new’ South Africa?’ many have asked. Fingers have been pointed. As usual the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance have traded insults. Both parties have tried to abdicate responsibility for any part of the mess.

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For all their hyped up indignation however it is obvious that neither the ANC nor the DA are interested in much more than point scoring. The issue of direct responsibility in this matter is important for stopping the practice but it is somewhat peripheral to the story of how it is that we come to have an active dompas system in South Africa in 2015.

When Earl George Macartney introduced, in 1797, the first pass law seeking to regulate the movement of Africans, the objective of propertied whites was to keep natives out of the Cape Colony and the role of the state was to support the wishes of men of means. Today – in spite of the Constitution – little has changed. If you are poor and black you are subject to the whims of the wealthy and you often find yourself at the mercy of a state that continues to see itself as the upholder of laws that serve the interests of the few.

The dompas was officially repealed in November 1986. Growing popular resistance had made the country ‘ungovernable’ and in 1985 a state of emergency had given the government sweeping powers of arrest and detention. Those in power were well aware that tightening their grip on a society that was coming apart was not sustainable. In a move to diffuse tension the apartheid regime eased some of the more overt restrictions on black people. The dompas was an easy give – it had symbolic meaning, but its repeal would not undo the architecture of apartheid. With or without it, the Nats knew that blacks would continue to live on the 13% of the land that had been set aside for them and would have little access to health, education or full citizenship rights.

Almost thirty years later, the question that all South Africans should be asking is whether – in a metaphorical sense – the dompas was ever truly scrapped. Twenty years into the ‘new’ South African project, it is becoming clear that the apartheid horror show is far from over. Rather than having halted apartheid, it seems as though we simply pressed a pause button in 1994. This allowed the good people of South Africa to learn the rules of an inclusive democracy. It also provided breathing space for the old elements of apartheid to regroup.

In retrospect it is obvious that one of the first mistakes South Africans made in those heady transitional years was to believe our own hype. We fell for the language of the ‘new’ South Africa. We thought that apartheid – l’ancien regime – would die and that a ‘new’ South Africa would replace it. We were even prepared for apartheid to die a slow death.

It turns out that everything that was old in the country wasn’t dying – it was hardening.

In 1994 South Africans began to build new edifices. These edifices masked the institutions that stood behind them. The obvious ones bothered us: what had once been the Day of the vow became Reconciliation Day. For those of you who may have forgotten your history, let me refresh your memories.

Beginning in 1838 the Day of the Vow marked the solemn religious pact that the Voortrekkers made with God. They asked Him to deliver them victory against the Zulu nation, which stood in their way as they sought to make it to safety in the interior of the land. Three thousand Zulus were killed and the river ran red with their blood.

The less obvious ones were folded in corporate branding and we forgot about them entirely: Volksas People’s Bank was renamed ABSA and today ABSA has been gobbled up by Barclays. What was once the Argus Newspaper Group is now the ideologically contested Independent Newspaper Group. In it’s submission to the TRC, the Argus Group conceded, “The company applied the government’s petty apartheid laws on its premises, and this was broken down in some cases only by black disobedience action in the face of abuse from other company employees.”

South Africa was so busy racing towards the future that once the TRC had done its work, we told ourselves that we had no further need to look back. The work of the Commission was ground-breaking and crucial. It only began to scratch the surface but it gave us any clues. We did not fully understand at that time that there are some processes that cannot be rushed. Dismantling cultures, attitudes, systems and institutions of oppression takes time and energy: we poured all of ours into new things, rather than into the undoing of old ones.

It is clear now that much of our busyness has had the effect of fortifying what was already strong in this country. The new pieces – like our new education system – are made of cheap materials, slapped together impatiently rather than crafted with thought and care. No wonder then that the largest number of complaints of racism that are lodged each year with the Human rights Commission come from the education sector.

Some of the shiny new-ness of the ‘new’ South Africa starting to wear off. The notion that South Africa is new is no longer an unassailable truth. Worse — as events in Worcester reveal – some of us have begun to suspect that the new South Africa is just a fallacy, a powerful contemporary myth sold to us by people who needed to make difficult things palatable. Perhaps South Africans accepted the lie of the new because we needed something to believe in.

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In hindsight of course we also believed in the ANC. Even with all the caveats and the platitudes that our leaders issued about how long the road ahead would be, many people around the world believed that that if any movement was capable of re-making the world, it was the ANC.

The ANC has always understood the iconography of freedom and resistance. Its list of fallen heroes stretches back a century: Pixley ka Seme, Chief Albert Luthuli, Lillian Ngoyi, J.B. Marks, Chris Hani, Oliver Tambo. Solomon Mahlangu. Its champions picked up trumpets and played dirges for the revolution. They sang the Pata Pata and then segued into A Luta continua. The ANC’s giants make Che Guevara look like a schoolboy and they look Thomas Jefferson dead in the eye. Their names stand out across the ages; their spirits watchful. They delivered us to freedom and the ANC wrote their histories and took their photos and documented it’s own soaring ascent. The ANC had the presence of mind to plan for nostalgia.

The ANC I remember is a funeral organiser, a sister, a lawyer and a surgeon. When comrades fall the ANC ensures that the casket is black green and gold. The ANC knows which cadres to dispatch to keep vigil over the body through the night. The ANC stands resolute. It fixes our eyes on the horizon. The ANC sends sophisticated natives to address the United Nations General Assembly. The ANC I cherish is a tapestry of human endeavour woven from threads of courage and dignity and intellectual rigour and all the things that black people have always been even as whites denied that we were fully human.

The ANC of today has fallen from grace. He has stumbled and is having difficulty standing straight. He sways drunkenly blinking against the future. The ANC of today is Marie Antoinette’s half sister. She swigs Veuve straight from the bottle and gives shout-outs to her homies still livin’ in the hood. We watch her descent in wounded surprise.

The ANC is the daddy who will not countenance dissent: Uncle Gwede wagging a stubby finger at journalists as he mocks yet another allegation of corruption. The ANC is a meme; it is Comrade Cronin using his diminishing intellect to circumscribe the truth. The ANC is a room full of overfed praise-singers who exalt the man at the helm.

And the man at the helm? Ah, make no mistake that he is a leader. He understands the ways of men. He knows their frailties and their doubts and so he is skilled in the art of lording power. When he laughs it is rarely authentic. This is not a man who is having fun. This is a mirth born of shame.

So is this the new ANC? Because today’s ANC looks so different from yesterday’s ANC, many of us are tempted to suggest that we are seeing the emergence of a ‘new’ ANC. We describe it as ‘the post-1994 ANC’. Mmusi Maimane – with his posh ways and his DA politics – spoilt it for us, but when he said it we knew he was right; ayisafani iANC.

It may not be entirely the same, but it is not new. We call the corrupt ANC ‘new’ because we cant accept that our heroes may have been flawed all along. We struggle to accept that the ANC today is exactly like the ANC of yesterday, but that the context has changed. We are wedded to the idea that heroes are sacrosanct: They could not be both liberators and con men; both intellectual giants and corrupt thieves; both just and unjust.

In an interview about this most recent book, Askari, Jacob Dlamini points out that our history isn’t only a story of victims and perpetrators. Dlamini argues, “There were people who were neither; they were something in between.”

Perhaps this is the key to understanding where we are today. While South Africa is not new, it would be foolhardy to suggest that it is completely old. Perhaps Dlamini’s phrasing, his insistence on complication, helps us here. Perhaps the ANC and South Africa are neither old nor new, but ‘something in-between.’

The racist white on black violence we have witnessed in the last year has provided a heartbreakingly old-school set of reminders that we are not yet in a new place. We are very far away from the post-race society that some people argued we might one day achieve. Sjamboks and dompases, gardeners and maids; this is humdrum, garden variety racism. There is nothing new or creative in this. It reeks in the way that it always has. This is how our grandfathers died. This is how our mothers were shamed: Through petty rules and random beatings on ordinary days.

If these events were not backed by an economic infrastructure that is as old as the British Empire, then I might be tempted to believe that they are simply signs of a dying order. But they cannot be shushed away. They are evidence of the strength of the old ways. They are not throwbacks. No, they are harbingers. In the absence of consistent and thoughtful leadership, the old is re-asserting itself at precisely the same moment in which the new is beginning to show signs of wear and tear.

It is true however that the faces behind the glass windows at government departments are now black faces. This was not the case twenty years ago. The faces on Parliamentary TV are also mainly black. This was also not the case in the old and ugly past. Both – the government faces and the parliamentary ones – reflect the demographics of our country and I concede that they are new and good developments.

But these gains – our black faces in positions of authority within the sagging state – are soft in the face of the hard power of the consultants and ‘service providers,’ who build and plan and maintain this country’s infrastructure. Our muscles are puny in contrast to heft of the families that have always wielded extraordinary power in our country. The Ruperts and the Oppenheimers and the Rhodes’ have not been hounded out of the country. Their mansions remain and their wealth has not been touched.

It is not just that their bank accounts and lifestyles that have gone unchallenged; I am fascinated that their legacies remain remarkably untroubled. Until students on the campus of UCT protested this past week, their monuments have remained standing. South African understand that the barons of old caused untold misery, but we have also been taught to respect their contributions to our society. We have not yet broken with them completely, their names are not thoroughly discredited.

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In his will, John Cecil Rhodes stipulated that he was to be buried at Malindidzimu in the Matobo Hills outside Bulawayo. When he died in 1902, his body was transported as per his wishes and the ceremony duly took place. Ndebele chiefs attended the funeral – no doubt in part so that they could confirm that the old codger was truly gone. It is said that when it came time for the gun salute, the chiefs refused to allow the rifles to be mounted and fired as had been planned. They insisted that the shots would disturb the spirits of their dead.

Reading this across the ages, it is tempting to be pleased with this act of resistance. But read on, for nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

As he was lowered into the ground, the crowd of thousands flung a roar to the heavens. “Bayete!” they cried. A chief had passed and Lobengula’s people were there to bid him farewell. In doing so, they were offering Rhodes the highest honour, saluting him in a manner befitting royalty.

This is not a story about forgiveness. We have heard so many stories about forgiveness in the ne South Africa it is as though no other stories exist. We are nothing but forgivers and sinners. But these tales are told at the expense of others and so this is a story about dilemmas. It is about the conundrum of respect. One can hate a man and his deeds and recognize that he was powerful and therefore worthy of a grudging sort of respect. Those who witnessed his interment knew that something fearsome was leaving the world. They also knew that it was unlikely to rest easy.

Today our ambivalence about our colonialist and apartheid past is just as pronounced. In our contemporary politics, we do a strange sort of dance with history. Mandela smokes the peace pipe with the generals of the Broederbond. Tutu weeps. Mbeki intones, ‘I am an African.’ Malema says without economic transformation he will ‘drive the Boers into the sea’. We cheer for them all. We are radical but tentatively so. We are the Ndebele chiefs in the presence of the dead Rhodes. How else can we explain our curious relationship with the word ‘independence’?

We call ourselves the ‘new’ South Africa but we refuse to speak about ourselves as an independent African country. Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania, Cote D’Ivoire, Congo – all of the former colonies that were once under the thumb of settlers or colonialists or (even better) settler-colonialists like those who ruled Rhodesia – mark their break from the past with a celebration on Independence Day. I have always wondered why we do not call it Independence Day as others do.

Sometimes words are important.

Instead, on the 27th of April, we celebrate Freedom Day. Some argue that freedom is more powerful a concept than independence. The former is a state of being whereas the latter is a nod to political autonomy. Freedom connotes signal moments in in black people’s history; the abolition of slavery, the Haitian Revolution, the Freedom Rides. Independence on the other hand describes the end of a colonial system and the beginning of self-government. I understand the allure of the language of freedom, but these very examples also speak to the necessity of independence. The American Civil War gave rise to the Independence that made the abolition of slavery possible. The Haitian Revolution led to the establishment of a Haitian state that was independent of France. In other words, freedom and independence are intertwined – whether the one precedes the other doesn’t matter much. What is most important is that both exist in the vocabulary of a nation.

Let me concede that there are places and sites of dreaming and doing and action and progress so that the feeling of South Africa having taken too many wrong turns is not overwhelming. I have seen with my own eyes that there are spaces in today’s South Africa that are in fact trying to be new. It would be wrong – disrespectful even – to deny this.

But let us also agree that on the whole, one of the most remarkable things about South Africa is the extent to which the rhetorical device of creating a ‘new’ place has functioned to protect those who have refused to change. As we enter our third decade of transition, perhaps it is time for us to address this squarely.

If we accept that we are neither the new nor entirely the old South Africa, then we can stop being incredulous in the face of evidence that the old ways persist. The epidemic of shock each time some new racist horror is revealed stems directly from this idea that the bad old days are over.

This is a naiveté we can scarcely afford. When violence exceeds what we have come to expect and when moral codes are broken, the response must of course be anger and outrage and a commitment to doing more and doing better. But these impulses to act must not be based on the idea that racist and sexist violence is somehow anomalous in our ‘new’ society. Our outrage must be predicated on an understanding that what we are often witnessing are continuities, that the old ways are still the current ways.

Forgive me, for I do not mean to sound cynical. I agree that there is no place for violence and racism and sexism and pain in the South Africa we wish to build. In my heart I believe still that we can make strong things out of broken ones, and like many of those who inhabit the new spaces in our country, I am convinced clear-eyed assessments are far more useful than myopic ones. I love sentimentality in my movies and sometimes in my books, but in my politics, in my country and in my people, I prefer disambiguation.

We must continue to be vigilant yes, but it must be a vigilance that is shorn of disbelief. Shock and surprise are the indulgences of children and South Africans are far too grown up for these sorts of pretend games. There is nothing surprising about racism and dispossession in South Africa. Let us agree to be outraged by inaction, even as we accept that the old is alive and well and surging alongside everything that is trying to be new.

Comedian Mpho “Popps” Modikoane: Spokesman of South Africa’s “Born frees”

Watching audiences during stand up comedy shows is thrilling. Makes me feel like Amélie turning around in the movie house. There is something so participatory about the whole performance; like a live feed of ratings on faces. I recently went to Mpho ‘Popps’ Modikoane’s first one-man show: Exhibit A: Bornographic Material. It was at The Lyric Theatre in Johannesburg, I was late and it was dark when I sat down, but I could see that it was packed like sardines in a crushed tin box.

Comedians are interesting for being both societal spectators – observing cultural norms and values – as well as performers of that same society’s provocations. Sure, the comedian bears witness to their time, using “social commentary, high-energy impersonations and hilariously personal accounts” to put on a rousing show that gets the people going, but increasingly I think that there’s a barely perceptible, finely nuanced difference between what comics as writers set out to do and what they end up doing.

They use their lives as a prism for current events, and what I like about it is that the result is a live performance of what novelist Akin Adesokan describes as “dimensions of experiences that are perennial, that aren’t easy to grasp historically or as past events.” Serendipitously, when performing these experiences on stage, skilled comedians seem to me to refract their experiences onto the faces of audiences. I feel a mild case of synesthesia amongst a crowd of happy comedy fans identifying with a joke, like I can hear lights in their laughter. Laughter in the dark has a special kind of luminescence.

It brought to mind an excellently dark article I had recently read in the Chimurenga Chronic called “Situation is Critical,” investigating the context in which African creative writing takes place by asking, “Where is the hope? Where are the dreams? Where is the demotic counterpoint?” as a response to why there just has to be so much war and violence in the stories African men write.

I enjoyed a secret giggle while watching the story on stage in front of me, because as part of a slideshow hovering behind Popps, there was this photograph of a white child with no mention of why it was there and it felt like a “my-best-friend-is-white” LOL leitmotif that went without saying the whole time. Similarly, neither the African experience (slavery, wars, colonialism, diseases) nor the South African experience (all of the above plus apartheid and Jacob Zuma) held much credence in the show, and I could almost taste the relief in the crowd on my tongue. It’s a difficult thing trying to write about a comedy set without trying to be funny (perhaps the best proof of infectiously good satire?), but I will abstain and sum up that his set coalesced around family, friends, failures, fortunes and the future. Popps has come to be known as “The Spokesman for the Born Frees” (previous titles include The Minister of Single Fathers and Roads), and when the lights flung his constituency into relief, the people looked palliated.

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Image by the author

The symptoms of post-apartheid pathologies felt less severe, the seriousness of the State of the Nation disguised, and fears or suspicions apparently allayed by this funny guy with giant eyeballs. In better lighting after the show, I saw that the crowd was mostly young, urban and black with a demographically apt sprinkling of white and brown faces. I fully understood why he is the face of MiWay Insurance, punting himself as a born-free running loose and still winning makes a wide variety of people feel protected, their hopes and dreams indemnified by “demotic counterpoints” to the status quo. It made me think that stand-up comedy lets people know in layman’s terms that things will be okay, crazy dreams do come true. Turn the spotlight onto yourself and guffaw a bit at how far you have come and how far you still can go.

Perhaps, then writing comedy – trying to imagine how the crowd will respond to biographic material that has to be lived before it can be performed on stage – is as much writing a metanarrative for historical meaning, experience and knowledge as it is offering a society legitimation in the process.

According to Popps, “You have not lived the South African dream if you have not been a call centre agent.” This was said before he started living real dreams like Blacks Only and Bafunny Bafunny, not to mention his latest role in Vuzu TV drama Ayeye. A lesser known fact: he acted in Thina Sobalili: The Two of Us, directed by Ernest Nkosi (they co-founded a production company, The Monarchy Group). Made on a shoestring budget with no outside funding – either from a private investor or the State – the film is set in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra and is gut-wrenching in its account of sugar daddies and marital rape. It won the Audience Choice Award at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles this year. I would have loved to compare faces in that crowd to those at the Lyric.

I must admit that I groaned internally before the show when I saw him being touted as spokesperson for the “born frees” because the term has come to be so enervating, but to his credit, he started the show with the best disclaimer: “I am of the generation juuuust before the born frees,” while giving thanks to the generation juuuust before that one for making his whole fact of being on stage talking about a childhood in Soweto with a down ass white best friend possible.

Most born frees don’t have friends of different races, university education, access to creative success or opportunities to talk to hundreds of people about it. Even less so for the generation juuuust before. And obviously the one before that. So I felt proud of Popps for stating his case from the get go; that his show is about exploring the dimensions of his experience with different generations, races and classes. To normalize it. To make it real. To show thanks for the support and most importantly, to motivate the need for people to be the sole spokesperson of their own stories.

The situation is critical, there is a barely perceptible, finely nuanced semiotic war at work about who gets to decide what the future of the born frees will be. But the state of comedy (and its nation of gigglers) as refracted on the face of one of its most promising storytellers made me look forward to seeing faces at government gigs reflecting similar sentiments of laughing at luminaries as they struggle on, forging “bornographic material” as life-porn for future hopes and dreams.

Stirring the Spirits of the Murdered Miners: a review of the play “Mari and Kana”

On Thursday, 13 March 2015, at Cape Town’s Company Gardens, during the Infecting the City Festival, a public arts festival in the City of Cape Town, something unspeakable happened. The widows of the Marikana Massacre victims (the August 2012 police killing of 34 striking platinum miners in South Africa’s Northwest Province), in a play titled Mari and Kana, were trying to wake up their husbands from their graves by yelling at them. Marking the gravesite, in front of the Iziko Museum, were thirty-nine white crosses laid out on the lawn.

During the play, the dead miner’s restless spirit circled above the Company Gardens. Even now, days after the crosses have been removed and the actors have long left the stage, the chilling atmosphere set by the play still hangs there.

The performance took place in front of the Iziko Museum, under the invasive statues of colonial rule. The space allowed the performance to be expansive, spreading out on the lawn. The play was haunting and convincing such that it became convincing that the miners were really lying in those graves. The play depicted reality with such preciseness that parts of it became the reality it was depicting.

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The Infecting the City festival turns city streets and architecture into galleries and performance spaces, the everyday city walker and art coexist in the city streets, influencing or hindering each other’s movements, or completely rejecting each other. The festival, by virtue of confining itself in the city, is not without its problems of inclusivity. People who live far from the city have to come to the city to experience it. With Cape Town’s Group Areas Act mapping, this is particularly hard to do, even impossible, even though the majority of them converge in the city to access public transport, they are often in town for a limited time, so limited in fact that they are always running to the public transport terminals to catch an earlier bus, train, taxi home. That the festival took place during the week, only spilling to the weekend by its last day, made it extra hard for people to attend.

Long before the play was scheduled to start, the audience gathered around the lawn to see it, some were seated, some stood and others walked around in doubtful gaits, anticipating it.

During the delay, to while away time, I made my own doubtful gaits, to nowhere in particular. Behind the food stalls was the new garden plot.

Many centuries ago, at the same venue, a horror occurred here. The first was when Jan Van Riebeeck came and appropriated the land, named it after the Dutch East India Company and set it up as a vegetable garden. The second horror happened when historians erased the Khoikhoi, original inhabitants of the gardens from the history books.

The horror has unfortunately not stopped. The City of Cape Town recently completed a garden plot in the Company Gardens, which begn construction in February 2014. The new plot was constructed using Dutch colonial gardening principles. Its open stone-lined irrigation channels are also designed after the Dutch “leiwater” water channels. The city named the new garden plot section, the VOC Vegetable Garden (after the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie).

Mari and Kana was presented by Theatre4Change Therapeutic Theatre. The cast was made up of Aphiwe Livi, Azuza Radu, Thembelihle Komani, Thumeka Mzayiya, Abonga Sithela, Slovo Magida, and Lingua Franca.

On the festival programme, Mari and Kana, are described as “Mari and Kana invite us to experience the emotional journey of losing their fathers: The work explores attempts at finding consolations for those left behind by the protagonists’ brothers, sons, uncles and fathers after the Marikana Massacre. The 39 graves presented in public space allow audiences a more intimate and active engagement with the subject.”

During the performance, the gravesite was real such that when the homeless men and women who have made Company Gardens their home roamed around, within the graves, stomping on the graves of the dead, a chill rushed through my body. When kids fled their parents and walked on the graves, their mother’s faces were mortified. It was more than kids stomping on a stage, this was a gravesite, and nobody walks in the gravesite unless they are there to talk to the dead in the way that people talk to the dead.

On Friday evening, during its second performance, speaking to the director, Mandisi Sindo, the plot, he told me, was a narrative of two children, Mari and Kana, coming out of jail and finding their mothers grieving for their dead fathers. Sindo explained to me that the purpose of his theatre group, Theatre4Change Therapeutic Theatre is to help people heal.

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To an extent the performance does this but also it does something else, something more terrifying than helping people heal. It opens wounds that have not healed.

When the actors ran frantically from one grave to the next, looking for their loved ones, shouting all the thirty-nine people who were massacred in the Marikana Massacre, screaming at them to wake up, one did not experience the feeling of healing but grief, anguish and the spirit of the dead circling around.

Even after the performance ended, the crosses never became mere props in a play. One could not walk on the lawn, where they were and not feel like stomping on the spirit of the dead.

Azuza Radu and Thumeka Mzayiya, the two leading actors were not concerned with the technicality of acting or entertaining the audience, this is not to say they do not how to act or entertain. Their acting was very real such that they were not simply playing widows looking for their husbands. When they kneeled on their husband’s graves, screaming and cyring at them to wake up, one wished they could walk to the stage and comfort them.

The play made its way into one’s heart not only with the dance but also with the text. The lyrics and the poems were poignant. The poetry was delivered without the accent of poetry or the dramatisation of dramatic theatre.

“It is you black police.

He will never send us money.

He will never write us a letter.”

The text of the music still haunts me many days later after the show. It echoes and echoes in the back of my mind, like a voice faintly and continuously yelling in the dark.

The play had no denouement because it would have been cheating its own narrative. The way it ended was with a song of healing, with an upbeat and somber lyrics.

“The day of the sun rising is coming.

The heaven is not going to rain and thunder forever.

Heal my son. Calm down my son.”

Long after the actors had left the stage, the audience had dispersed, and the stage was cleared of its props, I was left staring into the empty space where the play had taken place, reimagining it, dismissing it, attempting to abandon it there and not take it with but the play is still replaying in my mind, over and over again, action by action, haunting me to remember the Marikana Massacre.

Interview with Nidia Minaj: The multi-influenced teenage producer making noise in Lisbon’s vibrant Afro-electronic music scene

Anyone who has been paying attention to the global electronic dance music scene knows that there’s an explosion of musical creativity happening in the different Portuguese speaking ports around the Atlantic. Lisbon in particular has shown an impressive and diverse output of new Africa-influenced dance styles. The main live event celebrating that scene, Noite Principe — based at a club called The Musicbox in the center of Lisbon, and centered around an independent record label called Principe Discos – has become a mecca for international electronic music heads in recent months. As much as it’s revered globally, most impressive is the impact this party has been able to make locally — bringing together youth from disparate parts of a racially, economically, and culturally segregated city, and expose them to each other’s sounds, cultures, and selves.

Sonically, the DJs and producers are omnivorous and indiscriminate in their influences, and the resulting products reflect that. Local music style variations like tarraxo, kuduro, funana, batida, and a local house-influenced sound called afrobeat, form a stew with internationally popular flavors like trap, r&b, Brazilian Funk, house, coupe decale and yes, afrobeats. However the sounds coming out of this scene aren’t just simple copies of above named genres. Each producer I’ve come across is quite singular in their take on the Afro-portuguese dance sounds, and can mix all or none of these things in a single track.

Principe Discos artists in particular are marked by their preference for minimalistic electronic drum programming (rather than lush-layered synth melodies for example.) Like the footwork producers of Chicago, their sound is tailor made for dancers watching each other in a dark nightclub roda. I see these producers almost as painters of beats, rather than traditional song composers. And in a way, their compositions deserve more than words — one just has to listen and watch to understand.

In order to begin highlighting more of the incredible musical phenomenon here, I wanted to put up an interview I conducted with Bordeaux-based producer of Cape Verdian, and Guinea-Bissauan origin, Nidia Minaj — the latest artist to release on Principe Discos. I actually corresponded with her via another label Brother-Sister records, who released her debut project, Estudio da Mana.

Here are selections from that interview with both Brother-Sister records and Nidia, in which we explore a bit her rise as a teenage super-producer from a small French city.

Nidia, How did you learn how to make Beats?

Nidia Minaj: I learned how to make beats “alone,” I looked on youtube and asked DJ Dadifox to explain things that I didn’t understand.

From what I can tell, there aren’t many women producers in the scene in Portugal. Being outside of that scene, do you think it’s easier to enter into the scene as a woman?

NM: For me it’s not a question of being easy or difficult. I do what I love, and that’s all that matters to me.

Are there many young Africans in Bordeaux? How is life for them there, are there parties, dances, something like that?

NM: Yes, there are many Africans in Bordeaux, and their life is very exciting. The Africans in Bordeaux are always in parties, the parties in Bordeaux start on Thursday and end on Monday. On Mondays, half of my class in school is asleep for having gone to the parties!

Do you do, or want to do collaborations with artists in other countries, like Portugal, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau?

NM: With vocalists, not yet. However, I already have many vocalists asking me for beats. But, I never do it because I don’t have a lot of time. For me, to make a beat for a vocalist isn’t to make a beat in two or three hours. For me it has to be an entire day to do everything right and finish mastering everything. It has to be a quality beat. I do collaborations with other DJs, but for vocalists.

Do you communicate regularly with any artists outside of your city, and if so is it only by the Internet?

NM: I communicate a lot with some artists. I communicate more with Angolan artists, some I know by the Internet, or we already have met in person.

Do you want to experiment with the music of your parent’s home countries? Have you visited either of them?

NM: I want to experiment with all the musics that I like. I’ve never been to my parent’s home countries, but I would really like to go.

Who are Kaninas Squad and what happened to them? Do they still make music?

NM: The Kaninas Squad was my group that I had with some friends in Portugal. The Kaninas Squad aren’t together anymore since I left Portugal, they didn’t make any new music, and now they only do live shows. However they changed their name. My friends are now called As Mais Potentes.

———

Who are Brother and Sister records?

Brother Sister Records: Brother Sister Records is an artist-run label that we started almost ten years ago as a loose collaborative collective of DIY bands and producers. It’s primarily based in Melbourne, Australia, but some of our founders/artists are currently based in New York, Windhoek, and Kuala Lumpur.

We’re proud of the fact that the label’s output shifts as our tastes do. In the beginning we were putting out different forms of guitar music (folk, post-punk, etc). Our recent releases span from music with intercultural elements to more familiar club sounds. We also run a monthly guest mix series  that has been a great way to support and interact with artists we love, like Beak, Strict Face, Neana, etc.

Does Brother-Sister Records have representation and/or relationships in Portugal or France?

BSR: No. The label is pretty independent/DIY. In the beginning each of us was making music with no real “ins” in our local music scene. We, like many, had to learn everything by trial and error. That ethos has endured — BSR isn’t at all institutional. For us it’s just good to be able to share our past experiences to emerging artists and to offer support to good music, especially by artists who we think are overlooked. The label also allows us to pursue our own interests into musical collaboration and research and so its a good way to learn whats going on in, and to interact with, other places and other cultural contexts. It’s more about opening up spaces for things to occur.

Are you in touch with other producers in the Lisbon scene?

BSR: We’ve been massive fans of the latest phase of kuduro/tarraxo/fodencia coming out of Portugal and France for quite a while now, and have been in touch with some of the artists from that scene. The incredible thing is how young most of them are and how fresh and emotive so much of their music is. There are also some really interesting musical links between those artists and DJs in Lusophone countries in Africa and even in Brazil. What we’ve found is that the less established artists, who also tend to be the ones we love the most, often have never met each other and are just collaborating on tracks via the Internet.

Have you been to any of the Noite Principes, or have you been in touch with any one at Principe Discos?

BSR: It’s great that Principe Discos has emerged as a strong forum for artists like Nigga Fox, Lilocox and the Tia Maria crew, all of whom thoroughly deserve the attention. We haven’t reached out to them, partly because sites like Soundcloud allow us to communicate directly with the emerging artists whose tracks we love.

Do you have any other plans for Nidia in terms of managing her career?

BSR: We initially approached Nidia as massive fans. It seemed crazy how unknown she was, and it was especially exciting to see a very young female DJ making this sort of music. We wanted to learn more about her and to spur her on to make a formal release, which could garner a different sort of attention from the individual (amazing) tracks she had been dropping on Soundcloud. Obviously, we would love to continue working with Nidia but we also hope that a label or labels with better resources and larger listener-ships will think about working with Nidia in the future.

Does the Development Industry really need new clothes?

If you don’t work in the international development field, it may have escaped your attention but we currently find ourselves in the dawn of a new global development epoch. As the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire in September 2015, their replacement – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – will soon take over.

The ultimate goal of this brand new set of global standards and targets is to put in place the strategies, principles and partnerships to make this world a more equal and just place over the next fifteen years. The recently released synthesis report offers a (provisional) blueprint of what sustainability will look like. Its ultimate aim? Ending poverty, transforming lives and protecting the planet. The first goal is to “eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere”.

The word sustainable shows up no less than 199 times in the report’s 34 pages (plus 12 hits for sustainability). As it stands, there are seventeen goals, 169 targets and six essential elements (dignity, people, prosperity, planet, justice and partnership) that will guide the allocation of trillions of development dollars and shape national policies of member states (though the extent of the latter will differ in each country). With ambitions this high, the SDGs are worth speculating about, as evidenced by a slew of recent op-eds and blog posts.

With fifteen years of the MDGs behind us, an evaluation of their impact seems a logical starting point to assess the new agenda’s potential to drive positive change. Yet, as some commentators have pointed out, there are some notable differences between the two agendas. One major difference between the old and the new set of goals is the process to create them. Unlike the ten MDGs, which were established by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a handful of confidantes, the SDGs are the product of huge rounds of global consultations. A consequence of the more inclusive approach of the SDGs, as some governments and human rights NGOs have lamented, is that the new goals and targets are too many, and lack both clarity and direction. For economics professors Abhijit Banerjee and Varad Pande, who wrote about it in the New York Times, it will be challenging to balance ambition with practicality.  Former World Bank Economist Charles Kenny is skeptical about the impact of the MDGs and, by implication, the potential of the SDGs. According to him, the MDGs may have led to an increase in aid – but it’s not clear they always led to progress. One critical problem of the new agenda, Kenny argues, is that the goals lack a clear rationale on what, exactly, they will accomplish and how.

Similarly, Duncan Green, an advisor for Oxfam, argues that we lack the actual evidence to show that the MDGs influenced government policies. Drawing on the findings of a report called Power of Numbers, he points to the limitations and unintended consequences of measuring justice and human well being with quantifiable targets. One example, offered by the report and cited by Green, is the MDGs’ focus on gender parity in education, the workforce and the political sphere. “’These narrow targets were a dramatic change from the more transformative understanding of “gender equality” that had emerged from the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women and the civil society movements of the 1990s.” With regards to education, the MDGs’ preoccupation with raising primary school access, often hailed as one of its greatest achievements, has been singled out for its detrimental effect on the quality of education, as many schools lack the resources and teaching staff to actually accommodate the newcomers. While it’s important to get all children in school, enrollment and attendance rates don’t tell us much about what they’ve learned in class.

William Easterly, currently a Professor at NYU and famous for his skepticism towards development aid, told the New York Times that development experts “mistake development for an engineering problem” when in reality development progress only happens “when people identify problems and push for solutions through their political systems.” He recently shared on Devex that the SDGs mirror the development community’s “fetish with action plans.” To him, the excessive usage of the term sustainability in a global framework that tries to please everyone rendered the project somewhat empty. Yet even he admits that both the MDG and the SDG share the potential to spur “advocacy and motivation.” However, with the efforts and budgets that are invested in the SDGs, they should amount to a great deal more.

Photo of the Day: Irony Arrives to Brazil

In today’s news, the mainstream Brazilian media try their hardest to illustrate that protests against, and calls for impeachment of sitting Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff (for her proximity to the Petrobras scandal), are not solely from the disgruntled “white elite” (one commenter said that the protests looked like a World Cup matches — another that the protests were just a scheme to unload all the built up National team gear after their disastrous exit from the tournament.)

Now, we here at Africa is a Country are aware that the media tends to sensationalize racial and social divides in Brazil, however we couldn’t help point out that with just a touch of irony, one lucky contestant (I mean c’mon…) was able to gain his fifteen minutes, by answering the call to fulfill the Brazilian media’s wildest fantasies.

Translation: “White elite against Dilma”

Under the radar, yet Guinea Bissau’s Sana Na N’Hada is one of Africa’s most important filmmakers today

In a cinematic career spanning some four plus decades Sana Na N’Hada has borne witness to the best and the worst times in Guinea-Bissau. He joined Amìlcar Cabral’s revolutionary army in the heady days of the war for independence. In the restive years following self-rule he set about making evocative films that, at their very best, captured and challenged the prevailing zeitgeist. Today, approaching his 65th year, undiminished and evermore imaginative, he is still hard at work shedding light on the political and social realities in his homeland.

His latest film Kadjike (Sacred Bush), 2014, is set on the pristine shores of the Bijagós Archipelago, and follows the lives and rituals of the islanders as they face up to the threat of drug traffickers in their midst.

Kadjike_10

In the last decade Guinea-Bissau has become the key transit hub for cocaine trading between Latin America and Europe. The Bijagós Archipelago, a sprawling mass of largely uninhabited islands, has been the focal point of trafficking activity in the country that has turned it into what some observers call a ‘narco-state’.

On a simple level, Kadjike is a coming of age drama. On a deeper level it is a meditation on the schism between tradition, Guinean customs, and the rising tide of modernity–something which has been a constant theme throughout N’Hada’s cinematic career.

On the eve of his initiation into adulthood Ankina is torn between his responsibilities to his people and his love for a girl with whom customs forbid a relation. Drug traffickers promising a better life in the city lure his boyhood friend Toh away from the island. Facing important decisions at the crossroads of their young lives, both boys must find a way out of their predicaments – a way back to their people.

The poignancy of this film lies in the juxtaposition between the natural beauty of the archipelago and the imminent dangers that lurk in the shadows of this fragile world.

“I want to show people why the natural beauty of my country is so important and why we need to stand together to prevent our nation and culture to be harmed” – N’Hada says.

Kadjike_07

Kadjike is only N’Hada’s second feature film. His first, Xime (1994), follows the struggles of a rice peasant confronted with losing the authority over his two sons during the fight for independence.

In the intervening years N’Hada has flirted with both documentary and shorts. Despite his minimal output he is arguably one of the most important filmmakers on the continent today and has long been regarded, along with his contemporary Flora Gomes, a titan of Guinean cinema. Both are credited with producing the first ever fiction film (Mortu Nega, 1988) to be made in Guinea-Bissau.

N’Hada’s career in cinema began during his days as a revolutionary in Amìlcar Cabral’s independence movement. He was taught first aid in order to help out at the local field hospitals, and with the remaining part of his time he went from village to village to educate the people about the fight for independence. It was during this time that he began to turn his back on his medical studies in favour of cinema. At the behest of Cabral he travelled to Havana along with Gomes, studying under the auspices of legendary Cuban cinematographer Santiago Àlvarez.

Upon his return to Guinea-Bissau he rejoined Cabral’s movement and set about documenting the war of independence on film. Reflecting on his cinematic conversion he states, “I didn’t come into cinema because of talent but because I felt obligated to tell certain stories. There has always been a question of necessity.”

In 1976, shortly after independence, N’Hada co-directed two short films with Gomes: The Return of Cabral and Anos No Assa Luta – both tributes to the revolution and to their great political icon Amìlcar Cabral.

His life long friendship and collaborations with Gomes has produced some seminal works in the canon of Guinean cinema. His greatest recognition however has come in the form of Sans Soleil, a documentary collaboration with French filmmaker Chris Marker. Shot in the early eighties, it was recently voted one of the top five best documentaries ever made.

As well as Gomes and Chris Marker, N’Hada counts celebrated Senegalese filmmaker Sembène Ousmane and Santiago Àlvarez among his great cinematic influences.

Kadjike_04

Despite all the uncertainty facing his country today N’Hada remains hopeful about the future. As we speak, he is already turning his mind to his next feature, a film documenting the positive effects of independence in his homeland.

With Luta Ca Caba Inda (The Struggle is Not Over Yet), an ongoing project first shown in 2012, N’Hada may yet bequeath his most profound legacy to Guinean cinema. Along with Gomes he has set out to find and make accessible the remains of raw film material made in the country after independence but either lost or damaged in the era of political upheaval.

For a man who has seen so much and lived through such uncertain times it is perhaps the defining point of reference for his dedication to his country and his people that he has found time, since 1979, to head the National Institute of Cinema of Guinea-Bissau.

Trailer for Kadjike:


Dir. Sana Na N’Hada, Guinea-Bissau, 2013, duration 115 min, production LX Films. (Screened at Film Africa London, November 2014)

Why won’t the Malawian media report on crazy mobile phone rates?

BBC recently reported that the average Malawian spends more than MK5400 (US$12) a month. That’s more than half the average monthly income in Malawi. Proportionate to earnings, Malawi has the most expensive mobile phone rates in the world.

There is no shortage of complaints within Malawi about expensive phone tariffs but this report (based on findings by the International Telecommunications Union) shows the extent of the problem. For a week, following the report, I monitored local newspapers reports and the mobile phone rates received no coverage at all. Not even by the growing number of columnists and opinion writers.

Why the silence on a story that is obviously of pressing concern to ordinary Malawians, and which made a splash internationally?

Only Nyasa Times, Malawi’s populist news website, republished a copy and paste version of BBC’s piece. Newspapers are the main agenda setters within local media in Malawi, and they didn’t cover the story at all.

There are two major mobile phone companies in the country, Airtel Malawi and TNM. These are also the main providers of mobile internet. Those familiar with the political economy of the local media will understand the media blackout on the mobile rates story. Like the rest of the world, Malawi’s newspaper industry depends on advertising revenue and mobile phone companies have become indispensable source of that revenue. The media industry cannot afford to get on the wrong side of these mobile phone corporations.

For a long time, the Malawian government and NGOs were the largest advertisers but mobile phone companies have now taken over because they are very consistent advertisers and they buy prime space in bulk —daily space for a whole year in some cases. There is fierce competition between the duopoly of Airtel Malawi and TNM and this drives the need for endless media advertising between the two.

An insider working with Airtel says: “all mobile phones companies buy strip ads [advertising banners on the bottom of front and back page] for the whole year.”

A look at a whole week’s run of the country’s two dailies, The Nation and The Daily Times shows strip ads alternating between the two mobile phone companies. If Airtel has a front page on Monday, TNM will have the back page, and on Tuesday it is the other way round.

According to the insider, these strip ads are worth MK180 000 (US$400) a day, which means newspapers make roughly MK131 million (US$291,111) annually from strip ads alone. Add these strip ads to various full-page adverts worth an average of MK280 000 (US$622) per advert, and you see that the revenue is colossal.

The insider said, of course the government and NGOs are important but they are not as valuable as mobile phone companies because government and NGOs mostly place job vacancies and press statements, which are neither daily nor in colour—which is more expensive, and they do not book expensive prime spots like front and back pages.

This explains the newspaper blackout on the mobile phones rates story. The mobile phone companies may not issue editorial directives but, as they say, only a foolish dog bites the hand that feeds it. Newspapers know exactly what to do. Of course the local media always have a go at politicians, the government and the civil society.

The media responsibility, always, is to hold to account those holding public positions. But this must include powerful corporations that rip off poor Malawians, 75 per cent of whom live on less than US$2 a day.

Of course Malawi media does a lot of commendable work reporting on government excesses and corruption in high places but the media know that they can afford to get on the wrong side of the government and politicians. The media know they have a public backing should the government withdraw advertising revenue or bring draconian media laws. This was the case in 2010 when the government of the late Bingu wa Mutharika threatened to withdraw advertising with some private media houses such as the Nation Publications Limited.

In 2007 Blantyre Newspaper Limited (BNL) were forced to retract a story they reported on a love triangle involving a Catholic priest, a banker and a married woman. The woman’s husband was seeking divorce in court after discovering that the wife was having an affair with the two men.

At the time BNL had a debt with the bank where the involved banker worked and his influence forced the immediate retraction of the story despite the fact that the story was based on a case that took place in an open court. Caroline Somanje, a journalist who wrote the story and BNL General Manager were fired from BNL for no editorial reasons, as BNL alleged, but for being insensitive to BNL’s financial interests.

Corporations in Malawi have more media influence than the government. Sadly, most people only pay attention to government’s efforts to muzzle the press, most through threats and regulation. This means corporate powers in Malawi are left unchecked. It would not surprise me that mobile phone companies also have financial support of the political establishment. Political parties in Malawi are not mandated to disclose their sources of income, and so they don’t.

Image via Innovations/Concern

What are you scared of Joseph Kabila? Senegalese, Burkinabe, and Congolese Activists Arrested in DRC

Being a pro-democracy, nonviolent youth activist is a dangerous thing in some countries. On Sunday afternoon activists from Senegal’s Y’en a Marre (We’re Fed Up) movement and Burkina Faso’s Le Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom) along with several journalists and Congolese activists were detained after a press conference just outside of Kinshasa. The local NGO Filimbi invited the activists to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for a series of workshops and events. The exact charges or reason for the arrests are unclear.

In DRC during the past few months, citizens have hit the streets en masse in opposition to legislative changes that call for a census before the 2016 election. Many see this as a means for President Joseph Kabila to stay in office beyond his two-term limit because it would take some time to organize a national census. Demonstrations have been violent with hundreds of arrests and more than 40 deaths.

Apparently, just the presence of the West African activists was threatening to the Kabila government. The Y’en a Marre protest movement emerged onto the scene in early 2011. The founders—consisting of youth activists led by a collective of some of Senegal’s most famous rappers and journalists—first organized protests to denounce injustice and inequality in the country. The movement gained popularity when then 85-year-old two-term president Abdoulaye Wade proposed changes to the constitution that would have ensured his success in the next elections by reducing the number of votes needed to win an election from 51 percent to 25 percent. The changes would have also established the post of vice-president, to which many claimed Wade intended to nominate his son Karim, thus creating a family dynasty. Wade responded to the massive protests by withdrawing the proposed changes, yet he moved forward with his controversial bid for a third term. Y’en a Marre and other citizen coalitions turned their energy toward defeating Wade at the ballot box. The collective used the tools they had at hand—their popularity, their microphones, and their access to the media. They took to the streets to reach out to the population by conducting community meetings and handing out flyers. They also created strategic media campaigns consisting of a series of songs, videos, and concerts, which also included a voter registration campaign and a get-out-and-vote campaign titled Ma carte mon arme (my card my weapon) and Juni Juni votes (thousands and thousands of votes).

Le Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom) formed during the summer of 2013, to struggle against bad governance and to improve social conditions in Burkina Faso. When they formed the goal of Balai Citoyen was to struggle against the ruling party’s attempt to change the constitution to allow 27-year President Blaise Compaore to run for a third term. The name Balai Citoyen signifies the need to sweep the political scene clean. The musicians at the head of the primarily youth-led Burkinabe movement are rapper Smockey and reggae artist Sams K. Their movement gained popularity in October 2014 with the citizen uprising that ultimately Campaore to resign.

There are clear similarities between Y’en a Marre and Le Balai Citoyen. Both groups assert a pro-democratic and non-violent position and both call for the participation of the population to create change through protests. According to Smockey, “like the movement Y’en a Marre of Senegal, Le Balai Citoyen will be the voice to denounce bad governance.”

Y’en a Marre’s ultimate objective has been to cultivate a Nouveau Type de Senegalais (NTS), or new type of Senegalese citizen, one with a heightened sense of civic responsibility. Increasingly they assert the desire to effect continental change. While the Arab Spring left regional instability and insecurity in its wake as weapons and fighters have traveled across the Sahel, the Y’en a Marre protest movement is having a different type of regional impact as the rappers have traveled and connected with other activists across Africa. These new nonviolent, pro-democracy movements have slowly and quietly gained momentum over the past three years. According to Aliou Sane, one of Y’en a Marre’s spokespeople who is among those arrested in DRC, “The countries of West Africa all suffer from similar problems relating to governance and leadership.”

The two groups have been successful because of their direct messaging to the people but more importantly because they emphasize peaceful protest. In 2011 journalist and coordinator of the movement and also detained in DRC, Fadel Barro, stated, “we did not want the Arab Spring. We always wanted non-violence. We wanted to defeat Wade in elections, we did not want our country in flames.”

Y’en a Marre and Le Balai Citoyen have always acted in accordance with the law. All of their activities in DRC have been public with activists regularly updating Facebook and tweeting their whereabouts. They made it clear that they believe in working through democratic institutions. The government of DRC therefore has nothing to fear other than the spread of ideas. The international community should press for the immediate release of these activists who have always offered an alternative to violence.

 

Dear Grammy Awards: A Letter From a Colombian Musician

Pedro Ojeda is a Colombian musician, member of many influential bands, such as Los Pirañas, Romperayo, Ondatrópica and Chúpame El Dedo. Last year, the song “Universos Paralelos” by the Uruguayan Jorge Drexler and the Chilean Ana Tijoux, was awarded a Latin Grammy as “record of the year.”

Recently, Ojeda received a diploma from the Grammys for being part of the group of musicians who worked on the recording of the song. This prompted him to write a heartfelt note to the Grammy Awards on his Facebook profile, which we now translate and share:

grammy

Dear Grammy Award:

Thank you for sending me this nice diploma to my house (for having been part of the album of my friend Drexler, who is a great guy, following the call of my pal [Mario] Galeano [from Frente Cumbiero, Ondatrópica, and others, and one of the producers of Drexler’s “Bailando en la cueva” album], who is also a great guy). Nonetheless, I would like to take advantage of this situation to propose a debate about the, in my humble opinion, inordinate relevance you have in the life of many musicians from my country (and from many other countries).

While the recognition you give to highlighted artists and to high quality music recordings (even though I have never liked any kind of competition), I am very worried about the fact that many musicians from my generation, specially the youngest ones, see you as their god, as the only longed-for goal, that they think the only way to succeed in life is through your validation, and that their only life dream is to go to your house in Las Vegas and take a picture with you.

This pyramidal, lazy and monothematic cultural phenomenon tends to disconnect many young people from their environment and their local-artistic, cultural and political problematics. It also makes them underestimate and negate the great musical and cultural value of their history and surroundings, and of the great deal of musical masters and cultivators from their country, who have never played, and possibly will never play, on your red carpet, nor will they be part of your chosen ones and nominees because they are not part of your allies, giant record labels (or majors), and they don’t have the money to be part of your showroom.

These young people I speak of, blinded by your recognition, also don’t notice the great amount of festivals, musics, melodies, rhythms, repertoires, musical and cultural circuits that exist in Colombia and Latin America, just as in the rest of the world, different from the standards that are heard and managed in your awards and in your circuit.

This is why I think is of vital importance that, in every town and city, we stop looking only towards your house in Las Vegas, so we can begin to look at each other and start to get rid of this third-world burden on top of us.

Thank you for your attention,

Your friend,

Pedro.

#WhiteHistoryMonth: Britain’s Racist Election

Last night, Twitter in the UK was all over a Channel 4 documentary, “Britain’s Racist Election.” It tells the story of the election of racist Conservative politician Peter Griffiths (pictured above) to a seat in Smethwick in the West Midlands in the 1964 General Election. Watch the documentary here (it’ll hopefully be available on YouTube soon).

Here’s the trailer:

The story is remarkable (for a fuller write-up, check Stuart Jeffries’ piece for the Guardian from last year) and well worth repeating. For example, we find out that it was Cressida Dickens, the 9-year-old daughter of a Conservative party strategist, who coined the infamous slogan: “If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour.” She says the slogan occurred to her after chanting the rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a n***** by the toe” in the school playground.

“If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour” was daubed on walls across Smethwick during the 1964 campaign, and has become recognized as the nadir of British electoral history.

There is also archival footage of the inaugural meeting of the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, led by a 27 year old named George Newey.

We then see Malcolm X visiting Smethwick in 1965, after white residents attempted to institute segregation in the town. He was murdered just nine days later.

Obvious parallels are being drawn with the cynical mobilization of “fears over immigration” by all the major parties ahead of the upcoming general election in May. The film closes with soundbites from current prime minister David Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband and UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage, each bloviating over “immigration” in a way which has become terribly familiar — the very same euphemisms mark the speech of out-and-out racists from back in the 1960s — and which sadly looks certain to be a vote-winner for them at the polls this time.

The landscape has shifted in the past decade. In 2005, Conservative leader Michael Howard was panned when he was seen to be cynically demonizing asylum seekers and immigrants to increase his popularity. His key strategist on that failed campaign was the Australian Lynton Crosby. Now Crosby is back running the Conservative election campaign for 2015, and applying the same old playbook. This time it’s working, and all the major parties sound like Michael Howard did in 2005 when he was widely criticized for leading “the nasty party.” What was “nasty” in 2005 is the norm in 2015 — focus-group approved and rabbited relentlessly across all platforms.

One pitfall the film avoided was the centrist tendency to tie the history of racism in British politics to the fringe xenophobic party UKIP (previously the British National Party served this role). UKIP have attracted extraordinary amounts of media coverage in the past year or so, and are commonly framed as dangerous rivals to the Conservatives for right-wing votes. In fact, UKIP are a major asset to the Conservative Party, whose venal assault on the living conditions of ordinary people and the major institutions of Britain’s social fabric in the name of “austerity” gets a gloss of respectability by contrast with the overt bigotry of UKIP.

There is also a broader historical context which the film never quite investigates, but that Musa Okwonga pointed to:

The framing of the UK #immigration debate is so often "they are coming here to take our resources". There's an Empire-sized irony in that.

— Musa Okwonga (@Okwonga) March 5, 2015

The imperial history that continues to undergird British anxieties about non-white presence in the UK (the polite term used to be “multiculturalism” before that became a name for something which “failed” in the 90s) needs to be analyzed in terms of class. Then as now, ordinary people are being screwed by their government (“austerity”) and “immigration” is simply the most popular scapegoat.

W.E.B. Du Bois argued exactly 100 years ago that nascent welfare programs in the early 20th century effected an alliance between rich and poor at home that was only possible due to economic expansion overseas through imperial projects. The popular idea of “the undeserving poor” was mainly displaced to Africa and other parts of the British Empire, with exploitation reorganized along what Du Bois called “the color line.”

The Empire remains hugely popular among people of all classes in the UK, with romantic myths of “Britannia ruling the waves” closely guarded by the current government with the help of the likes of Niall Ferguson. But the Conservatives also know, deep down, that the Empire is over. The alliance Du Bois pointed to between different classes no longer seems necessary — there is no Empire left to exploit.

The idea of “Johnny Foreigner” using the National Health Service or a state school, without having paid for it, is so awful for many Brits that it makes more sense to scrap the whole thing. Any public institution guilty of such “waste” must be privatized because private enterprises are absolutely “efficient.”

The press is fixated, to an astounding degree, on “benefit scroungers,” but it is never enough to show white “indigenous” British benefit scroungers, however much that usefully plays on the demonization of the working class. What is needed are recognizably “other” scroungers. Thus infuriated, the great British public feel sure they are being horribly ripped off by the free healthcare, education and other public services they have relied on all their lives.

And so, in Britain in 2015, racism is being used to dismantle the consensus on the welfare state, and to undo the greatest achievement of British democracy.

Between Magic and Reality On Otavalo, in the Largest Outdoor Indigenous Market in South America

Rimarishpa, rimarishpa kausanchik (Talking, talking we live)

Hiding in between the fertile Andean nostalgia, overlooked by the volcanoes Imbabura and Cotacachi, the colorful textiles of the city of Otavalo, in northern Ecuador, contrast with the green pastures and grey volcanic soil. In this commercial post the past and present are in permanent dialogue in the ongoing process of self-actualization of the Otavalo indigenous people, once more strained by the tension of Westernization and tradition.

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The colors of Otavalo

Waking up before the sun raises, Julio goes out to work in the minga (communal reunion) that the town council has invoked to fix the road that leads down to the city. Cars will soon be passing by. With a hoe in his hand he works for the next hour. As the sun appears in the east, he can’t help but think that the best places in the market have already been taken.

He returns home and feeds the chicken grains of corn while his wife, María, cooks potato tortillas for the three kids. He sends the two oldest ones to school, while he ties the two-year-old in a green sheet behind María’s back. It combines well with her blue anaco (dress), her embroidered blouse, her golden necklace and her single black braid falling down her back. He wears his espadrilles, white pants, a blue poncho and a hat from which the same black braid falls.

Julio uses public transport, a small bus that rolls peacefully down the mountain and sometimes shuts down its engine to save some gas while endangering the passengers. After an hour he arrives to the warehouse where he keeps his textiles. He packs them all into a bag twice his size, and heads to the centennial Plaza de los ponchos, crafted, at least in its current design, by the Dutch artist Rikkert Wijk in 1971. It is the largest outdoor indigenous market in South America.

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Once inside, he notices the familiar array of alpaca sweaters and socks with animal and symmetric patterns, wool pants of every (in)conceivable color, paintings and tapestries depicting the triangular ponchos and hats worn by anonymous figures, jewelry and handicrafts, the Andean charango (a string instrument) and the quena, an instrument which imitates the sound of the wind. Some are handmade and others are cheap imitations of folkloric paraphernalia and motifs.

With his stand open, the first American tourists arrive. This haggling event will become a multilingual experience. Americans will begin speaking in a broken Spanish, to which the Otavalo will answer in a more fluent English. The dialogue will continue in both languages, an agreement is close to being made, but then Julio turns to María and asks in Quichua what does she think of the price.

The American tourists have to wait for an agreement. If Maria doesn’t approve, more haggling will be done. The American tourist may have overpaid, who knows, but he will leave with the sensation that he did not just buy a textile, but an entire folkloric experience.

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Symbolic Rituals

But rather than romanticizing the history of these centenary people, the present state of Otavalo is a coincidence of historical events. Their plight has been the plight of many indigenous people throughout South America: trying to maintain and reclaim their own culture since the Incaic expansion to the north.

The Inca method of conquest included relocating and fragmenting the conquered people to prevent any organized uprisings. Nevertheless, the Incas were impressed with the Otavalo technique of manufacturing textiles and assigned them to weave for their nobility. Later, during the Spanish colony, Otavalo was made into a textile producing obraje, a business enterprise in which indigenous people were employed, and usually exploited, as the workforce. Yet, despite continuously succumbing to foreign rule, the Otavalos managed to maintain the community united and to recreate their identity around the textile manufacture.

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In 1822, the independence of Ecuador from the Spanish crown accelerated their transformation. Since then, a mixture of external forces and domestic agency have gone to reshape the identity and subsistence of the Otavalos.

After its colonialist expansion and Industrial Revolution, Britain had a virtual monopoly of the world trade of wool and cotton, which it could produce cheaply. This monopoly lasted until World War I when British exports were blocked by German U-boats.

This shift in the global market further developed Otavalo’s local textile industry, but it was not the only factor. In 1954, an UN-sponsored mission had brought Dutch artist Jan Schroeder, who taught interlocking tapestry to communities in the mountains. In the 1960’s, members from the American Peace Corps came to town and, in a still polemic move, encouraged locals to change their craft and to incorporate other cultures’ designs so they could make their sales more efficient and their profits bigger. Finally, the building of the Pan-American Highway, which goes through Otavalo, put the town on the map.

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The question is then, how genuine is the Otavalo product and culture? Nowadays, Otavalos can be merchants or farmers, rich or poor, may have never left the city or have travelled worldwide. Nevertheless, their continual ritual existence, anywhere where they are in the world, has located their identity somewhere in between the magical and the rational.

Besides the material symbols of identity and their language, they embrace both Catholicism and traditional legends, celebrating Christmas and Inti Raymi as a community happening. These traditions of feasting and dance become spaces of dialogue where the identity of the Otavalo is put under question. Despite the differences and inequalities, by engaging in dialogue, they develop bonds of belonging.

One traditional legend tells of a drought that hit the region. The elders demanded that a young and beautiful virgin had to be sacrificed to the god of the volcano. Nina Paccha was chosen but her lover Guatalqui preferred to run away with her. They were persecuted and, as they ran, the elder or taita Imbabura turned the woman into a lake and Guatalqui into a tree, now known as El Lechero, while drops started to fall from the sky, marking the end of the drought.

In the Otavalo worldview this story is as real as the market economy they live in. This is evidence of the negotiation between oral memory and immediate material surroundings; a negotiation which has entered a new stage in the era of information and the tension between tradition and Westernization. One won’t trump the other. Instead, they will coexist as a conclusion for the meaning of being Otavaleno: a way in which, from communal belonging, you can draw a sense of individuality.

 

 

#SAHipHop2014: Looking Back At The Year That Was

In 2014, South African Hip Hop was allowed longer strides on the mainstream’s catwalk. The line between artist and celebrity got blurred as rappers continued to package themselves into products ripe for mass consumption. Meanwhile, marketers clawed further into the consciousness of an artform they dared not be associated with ten years prior. For the most part the music was good, but that’s as far as it went. The beats were nice, but mostly generic. Imported flows and concepts were given merit as long as the content was ‘local’.

Hip hop didn’t scare anyone, nor was it likely to incite mass action towards any socio-economic cause. To remain relevant, South African Hip Hop engaged in ego-boosting PR exercises masquerading as beef. Moments of brilliance lay scattered in the field of pop aspirations. By-standers stood silent through it all, perhaps overwhelmed by the weight of the shadow that hip hop globally has allowed itself to become.

In 2004, South African Hip Hop embarked on what felt like a maiden voyage to its now-widespread acceptance. The seven-person rap crew Skwatta Kamp won a South African Music Award (SAMA), “Best Rap” category, with an independently-released and distributed album called Khut en joyn. One year later, they managed to sell 25,000 copies of their major label debut Mkhukhu Funkshen. A second SAMA followed.

In 2005, a rapper signed to music producer DJ Cleo’s Will Of Steel label sold 50, 000 copies. Going by the name Pitch Black Afro, and bolstered by a call-and-response single which no one could stop singing along to, the Soweto-born emcee became – and, at time of writing, remains – the first solo rapper to go platinum. And he did so at a time when it really mattered, both critically and commercially (gold and platinum certification has since been re-adjusted to 20,000 and 40,000 copies sold respectively).

The 2004-2005 period felt like the apex of events which had been brewing some years prior. Rage Records had cemented itself as a respectable, if boutique, label through compilations such as Expressions and Maximum Sentense, and through signing acts such as Proverb, Zubz and producer Battlekat onto its roster. Another rap group, Cashless Society, had managed to secure a deal with DJ Bobbito’s now-defunct Fondle Em label to distribute their single “Blaze the breaks.” DJ Bionic’s Eargasm Entertainment had released Mizchif’s Life From All Angles EP; the Hymphatic Thabs had single-handedly written the manual for how to thrive as an independent hip hop artist in South Africa with his debut release, Error Era. In Cape Town, African Dope Records had experienced some amount of success with Goddessa and Moodphase 5ive. The former, an all-female trio, broke through with “Social Ills,” a single which did well to solidify Cape Town’s image as the more ‘conscious’ of the two cities. The latter, a multi-genre outfit led by emcee D-Form and vocalist Ernie, implanted itself in Jozi’s hearts with their appearance at Club 206.

“We were on our first African Dope tour in April 2001… We arrived at 206 and Moodphase rocked it so hard the power went down. They rocked it even harder with an impromptu acoustic jam while the power was down…” recalled African Dope co-founder Roach in an interview.

Billing itself as “South Africa’s No.1 Hip Hop Magazine” and with distribution spanning not only South Africa but neighbouring states as well, Hype Magazine hit the shelves in 2004. The print publication’s first two issues were guest edited by DJ Ready D: champion turntablist; community builder; car enthusiast and, most importantly, co-founder of Prophets Of da City and Brasse Vannie Kaap — two globally-revered cultural institutions with roots in the Cape Flats. It was fitting, then, that Ready D was chose as the one to ignite the torch for the magazine. The lantern has been burning since, changing hands through a shifting roster of contributors and editors.

Hype may have dished out more than its fair share of mediocre content through the years. However, it’d be unfair to not commend them for the good work they’ve done, most notably their continued relevance, in a shaky South African print environment. As former editor Simone Harris attests in the magazine’s 10th Anniversary issue, Hype is “a history book that has served our [South African] hip hop heritage well” as well as a “brand which has kept up with each new generation of hip hop enthusiasts.”

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Rapper AKA @ Maftown Heights 2014

The year 2014 was filled with great rap releases. K.O. of the group Teargas came brandishing a brand new set of flows on Skhanda Republic, his debut solo outing. “Caracara”, the second single from that album has amassed an upward of 1 million views (inspiring spoofs like this one in the process).

AKA ended off a gruelling 2014 by winning in four categories at the third annual South African Hip Hop Awards. His sophomore album Levels had been producing strong singles such as “Kontrol” and “Congratulate” well before its mid-year release. The album best showcases how, over the years, hip hop in South Africa has learned how to produce songs which can work collectively or as singles. The latest, “All eyez on me,” has guest raps from JR and Da Les, with hook duties masterfully handled by Burna Boy. The song premiered via a Google+ hangout and was simultaneously broadcast on radio stations in Kenya and Nigeria. AKA answered questions from the anchor Lee Kasumba and from guests in the hangout. The song continues to gain traction and has recently entered A-list rotation on BBC 1Xtra.

Cassper Nyovest’s Tsholofelo played like the scattered thoughts of an artist still figuring out what approach to music works best for their audience. It showcased his breadth as a rapper, sure, but it failed to establish him as a fully-fledged artist. However, it’s only his first effort.

When it wasn’t arguing over who the best is via a list curated by a satellite television broadcaster; engaging in c-grade social media antics; or writing open letters to radio stations, South African Hip Hop did extremely well for itself. Away from the glimmer of the mainstream, Cape Town continued to quietly nurture its own class of talent. “We had to deal with so many gatekeepers, turned down so many times by people already on the scene,” said Laneave Hansen of Rude World Records, the independent label which, besides pop sensation Jimmy Nevis, boast artists like Kita Keetz, BoolZ, and Namibia’s Black Vulcanite, acts who are giving an alternative take on the genre and expanding the rap conversation beyond the confines of eJozi (the city of Johannesburg). There’s also Andy Mkosi with her traditionalist approach and real-life raps; Miss Celaneous favours hard-edged, finger-up-your-nose-type lyrics. In one fell swoop, she lists all that is wrong with the ‘scene’ as she raps: “all I gotta say/ I am bored as fuck with the game in SA/ same old naaiers (fuckers) get the fame/” on “#Checkmeout”, a song which utilises Nipsey Hustle’s song of the same title.

Away from the mainstream, Jozi’s a hive of active movements, like the internationally-acclaimed Scrambles for Money battle rap league; innovative rap cliques like Revivolution; and mind-bendingly dope delivery a la Gigi Lamayne. Boyz ‘n’ Buck$, a crew of creative entrepreneurs with associations in music and fashion, have crafted a visual identity which resonates with their fanbase.

Okmalumkoolkat’s one of the members, alongside the likes of Riky Rick and Bubhesii — the former an artist whose debut album, Family Tree, is about to disrupt the way South African rap is set up, while the latter is a Jozi rap mainstay who’s collaborated on music with the likes of the P.O. Box Project, and recently launched a mobile boutique store with his wife. Okmalumkoolkat’s been the quiet architect for a lot of trends in South African Hip Hop. While the likes of HHP and Morafe may have been doing what’s now termed New Age Kwaito for more than a decade, it’s Dirty Paraffin (Okmalumkoolkat + Dr SpiZee) who acted as the bridge not only through introducing experimental beats favouring bass-heavy frequencies, but through their slang, and through the means through which they chose to distribute music — mostly on-line, for free, and with no strings attached.

It’s a strategy which has worked for Cassper Nyovest. In a recent visit to Zimbabwe, he stopped by the 2 Broke Twimbos’ studio to chat about his career. Talking about his team’s music distribution strategy, Cassper said: “Our music is free and anybody can download it; you’ll never know where it’ll end up. It probably started with one kid in Zimbabwe who played it to his friend, and then it ended up spreading, [and that was] before we started playing on radio.”

Nyovest is worthy of mention for re-writing the rule book on how to make it as an artist in South Africa. He came as an independent off the bat, and retains ownership of all of his music to this day. How he achieved nationwide acclaim with two songs to his name (“Gusheshe” and “Doc Shebeleza”) is a topic all on its own. He’s nominated under five categories for the 2015 SAMA Awards to be held in two months’ time.

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Rappers Blaklez and Nveigh @ Maftown Heights 2014

There’s elation in the air. South African Hip Hop is the media’s darling. Headlines such as ‘South African Hip Hop wins big at [insert desired award ceremony name here]’ are easy to come by. It’s a good time to be a part of it all — as a by-stander in the pit, shouting your lungs out word-for-word to your favourite rapper’s songs, at the expense of carrying the baggage that comes with being a rap fan.

Less discussed is the danger of having any single, “authoritative” voice on the scene. South African rap writing needs to be elevated beyond an eighty-odd-page monthly print issue which can be read in one sitting, in under an hour! There is room for more voices; alternative voices; voices of change, of discontent, of outrage!

In a scene which measures success by the amount of radio spins a song receives and values awards ceremonies — which couldn’t give two shits about hip hop were they held at gunpoint — over everything else, this vital voice is rendered mute. It’s the voice of a section of South African Hip Hop dedicated solely to dope beats, dope rhymes, having fun, and being ‘nice with it.’ This legion of heads is scattered across the country, bubbling in their locales yet never getting the ‘spark’ to make it onto the mainstream. They toil to upload songs onto the Internet; to share links on social networks; to e-mail blogs requesting for interviews. They are the foot soldiers of South African Rap. Alas, ‘keeping it real’ doesn’t pay the bills. Now also a good time to innovate; to disrupt the trend; to build pan-African institutions inspired by hip hop!

Kissinger 2.0: Why Washington should seek closer cooperation with Teheran in the fight against Boko Haram

Richard Nixon visited Mao’s Zedong’s China 43 years ago, from 21 to 28 February 1972. His stay was part of Henry Kissinger’s triangular diplomacy in which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union were drawn into a competitive cooperative dynamic with the United States. Because of that newly established link with the PRC, Leonid Brezhnev felt compelled to improve his relationship with the US, resulting in an interim strategic arms limitation agreement (SALT I), normalization of US-Soviet trade and even a joint venture in space known as Apollo-Soyuz. While Détente had its limits, particularly in Vietnam and other areas of the Third World, it still stands as one of Henri Kissinger’s crowning achievements.

The African Union’s (AU) decision to commit 75,00 troops to counter Boko Haram’s in Nigeria as well as Nigeria’s call for American support and the pledge to support of Iranian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Amir Hossein Abdollahian at the AU summit, offers the Obama administration the chance to design its own triangle, a Kissinger 2.0.

It is true, as John Campbell points out, that Boko Haram is an indigenous northern Nigerian response to poverty and bad governance which should not be placed in the context of the international war on terrorism. But sustained attention to the international dimension of this African conflict is vital in addressing an underlying problem: the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is being played out in Nigeria.

President Obama ought to take a page out of the book of the Vice President of Nigeria, Namadi Sambo, who travelled to Riyadh in August 2012 to request King Abdullah’s assistance. The late King and other Saudi nationals funded Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Boko Haram and Al Shabab believing that their radicalism would provide a vehicle for Saudi geostrategic interests. Iran on its turn has, according to the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, invested in intelligence gathering and supports a group of its own: the Islamic Movement in Nigeria. While the fog of war makes the verification of precise details difficult, it is becoming increasingly clear that the ideological competition between Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism and Iran’s Shia inspired Khomeinism has been exported to Africa, with bloody results.

Like the US and the USSR in the 1970s, Iran and Saudi Arabia are keen to acquire allies which has deepened local conflicts. In January 2012, funds from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, for instance, increased the popularity of Wahabi Islam in Mali and strengthened local fundamentalists such as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. This militant group in turn drew on the discontent of Northern Malian Tuareg who already in 1963 and 1990 had led an insurgency against the central government in Bamako. Similarly, the murder of  Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusef, by Nigerian troops in 2009 cemented Boko Haram’s commitment to violence. Abubakar Shekau’s group could only grow because of local and international benefactors, and links to Al-Qaeda and other well-funded groups in the Middle East.

President Nixon meets with China's Communist Party Leader, Mao Tse- Tung, 29 February 1972 National Archives and Records Administration,  White House Photo Office. (1969 - 1974).

President Nixon meets with China’s Communist Party Leader, Mao Tse- Tung, 29 February 1972 National Archives and Records Administration,  White House Photo Office. (1969 – 1974).

It is as if a strange version of the Cold War has returned to Africa: ideological affinity compel states outside of Africa to fund groups who on their turn spin out of control, killing thousands of civilians and requiring prolonged military intervention.

In response the White House is hesitantly developing a Kissinger 2.0. Obama’s letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in mid-October 2014, in which he raises the issue of ISIS, the continued negotiations over Teheran’s nuclear program, the war authorization under consideration in the US Congress, and the President’s reaction to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu’s speech all suggest the US government is open to engaging Iran. At the same time Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of Iran’s Expediency Council, has said that cooperation between Tehran and Riyadh would be advantageous to the region.

Bringing Iran back into the international community would give Riyadh and Tehran less incentive to seek allies in the Middle East and Africa and could compel the new Saudi King to prevent his subjects from funding extremists abroad. Improved relations between Iran and the US would force Saudi Arabia into a more constructive attitude because the Saudi Government depends on US military support for its survival and the fight against ISIS.

It is in this light that Africa in general – and Nigeria in particular – becomes a key battle ground in the war on terror and significant in the international order. Not only can cooperation against Boko Haram further restore trust between two nations who have been estranged from one another since 1979, but the defeat of Boko Haram would also offer a blow to the ideological project of a fundamentalist caliphate built on atrocities.

To realise an Iranian-Saudi-US triangle, Obama will have to tread lightly. As Ronald Reagan learned in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal a deal with Iran, like any other diplomatic move, could have unexpected outcomes. Moreover, local problems such as the Kurdish national question or the protracted civil war in Libya might derail a new linkage venture. Nevertheless, Iranian-American support for the AU in Nigeria might provide an important stepping stone to a broader long term arrangement between the US and Iran. For a president eager to establish his legacy this is a golden opportunity. Unlike Kissinger – who was booed when he testified in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a few weeks ago – Obama still has time to write his story.

#WhiteHistoryMonth: When the NYPD beat up Miles Davis

Miles Davis spent March and April of 1959 recording the astounding Kind of Blue. A few months later he was left with blood streaming from his head after being attacked by NYPD officers right outside his own show. Here’s Davis recounting what happened that night in Miles: The Autobiography (1989), which he wrote with Quincy Troupe.

I had just finished doing an Armed Forces Day broadcast, you know, Voice of America and all that bullshit. I had just walked this pretty white girl named Judy out to get a cab. She got in the cab, and I’m standing there in front of Birdland wringing wet because it’s a hot, steaming, muggy night in August. This white policeman comes up to me and tells me to move on. At the time I was doing a lot of boxing and so I thought to myself, I ought to hit this motherfucker because I knew what he was doing. But instead I said, “Move on, for what? I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis,” and I pointed to my name on the marquee all up in lights.

He said, “I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.”

I just looked at his face real straight and hard, and I didn’t move. Then he said, “You’re under arrest!” He reached for his handcuffs, but he was stepping back. Now, boxers had told me that if a guy’s going to hit you, if you walk toward him you can see what’s happening. I saw by the way he was handling himself that the policeman was an ex-fighter. So I kin of leaned in closer because I wasn’t going to give him no distance so he could hit me on the head. He stumbled, and all his stuff fell on the sidewalk, and I thought to myself, Oh, shit, they’re going to think that I fucked with him or something. I’m waiting for him to put the handcuffs on, because all his stuff is on the ground and shit. Then I move closer so he won’t be able to fuck me up. A crowd had gathered all of a sudden from out of nowhere, and this white detective runs in and BAM! hits me on the head. I never saw him coming. Blood was running down the khaki suit I had on.  Then I remember [journalist] Dorothy Kilgallen coming outside with this horrible look on her face — I had known Dorothy for years and I used to date her good friend, Jean Bock — and saying, “Miles, what happened?” I couldn’t say nothing. Illinois Jacquet [the saxophonist] was there, too.

It was almost a race riot, so the police got scared and hurried up and got my ass out of there and took me to the 54th Precinct where they took pictures of me bleeding and shit. So, I’m sitting there, madder than a motherfucker, right? And they’re saying to me in the station, “So you’re the wiseguy, huh?” Then they’d bump up against me, you know, try to get me mad so they could probably knock me upside my head again. I’m just sitting there, taking it all in, watching every move they make.

[…]

It makes the front pages of the New York newspapers, and they repeat the charges in their headlines. There was a picture, which became famous, of me leaving the jail with this bandage all over my head (they had taken me to the hospital to have my head stitched up), and [Davis’ wife] Frances — who had come down to see me when they were transferring me downtown — walking in front of me like a proud stallion.

When Frances had come down to that police station and saw me all beat up like that, she was almost hysterical, screaming. I think the policemen started to think they had made a mistake, a beautiful woman like this screaming over this nigger. And then Dorothy Kilgallen came down and then wrote about it in her column the next day. The piece was very negative against the police, and that was of some help to my cause.

Now I would have expected this kind of bullshit about resisting arrest and all back in East St Louis (before the city went all-black), but not here in New York City, which is supposed to be the slickest, hippest city in the world. But then, again, I was surrounded by white folks and I have learned that when that happens, if you’re black, there is no justice. None.

[…]

Around this time, people — white people — started saying that I was always “angry,” that I was “racist,” or some silly shit like that. Now, I’ve been racist towards nobody, but that don’t mean I’m going to take shit from a person just because he’s white. I didn’t grin or shuffle and didn’t walk around with my finger up my ass begging for no handout and thinking I was inferior to whites. I was living in America, too, and I was going to try to get everything that was coming to me.

Tomorrow is the Question: Afrofuturism and engaging prophetically with history

On February 13, nearly 200 scholars and artists gathered at “Tomorrow is the Question: Afrofuturism, Sound and Spirit” — a symposium at Union Theological Seminary in New York exploring what an “Afro-future” might sound like and mean today. Panelists included multidisciplinary artist Korby Benoit, electronic music composer Val Jeanty, and scholars Beth Coleman, Michael Veal, Alexander Weheliye, and event moderator George Lewis. Benoit opened the event with a DJ set and Jeanty closed the event with an improvised sonic performance.

What follows is a discussion between the event’s lead organizer, Columbia graduate student Didier Sylvain, and event attendee, Columbia professor of postcolonial Caribbean literature, Kaiama L. Glover:

Didier Sylvain: What, to you, were some key ideas emerging from “Tomorrow is the Question”?

Kaiama L. Glover: George Lewis provided a capacious set of introductory remarks, reminding us that to imagine black futures is to be always recalling black pasts — engaging prophetically with history. Emphasizing the centrality of sound to the public — the social, the political — sphere, Lewis opened up some real space for thinking about the ways sound has mattered, matters, should and will matter to #blacklives in an all-too-often condescending and downright dangerous world.

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DS: Can you elaborate on what you mean by “engaging prophetically with history”? 

KLG: I was struck by the extent to which each of the panelists took up Lewis’ call to think of technology as an urgent social intervention vis-à-vis a precarious Afro-future — and by the fact that each one of them put that future within a dynamic historical context. Though Fanon certainly warns us not to become slaves of slavery, it’s pretty clear to me that questioning tomorrow would be an empty practice in the absence of dialogue with uncomfortable yesterdays. Korby Benoit and Val Jeanty explained and expressed musically, for example, their retoolings of ancestral techniques — technologies? — as ways of mediating suffering and contesting injustice. They were backed up in these practices by Beth Coleman’s more explicitly “futurist,” even activist project, whereby telling stories and making sounds can change the contours of our social worlds. Michael Veal conveyed a theoretical commitment to preserving jazz narratives in the conversation, including the technical complexities of (and relations between) Sun Ra’s sound and cosmology. And if Alex Weheliye dug in to a generative rehashing of the R&B vs. hip-hop debate, it was certainly a gesture toward potentially empowering solidarity. 

I suppose what I’m getting at is the fact, as Glissant suggests, that we can — we must — revisit past narratives prophetically; we must reimagine the “same old” stories differently, with an eye to the present and to the futures we desire.

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DS: You mention Fanon, which reminds me that, for him, the task at hand is to not only reimagine narratives of the racist colonial past and present, but to also “set afoot a new human being.” There seem to be traces of Fanon in Weheliye’s remarks on black technology — or “apparatuses and forms of embodied knowledge” — that bring about possibilities of the “human otherwise.” Is that a charge for today’s “Afro-futurist” discourse and performance — rethinking and enacting new types humanity?

KLG: First, let me say, in what I hope doesn’t come across as a cheap shot, Fanon actually talks about setting afoot a “new man.” That you generously update his language evokes something I thought was a particularly impressive element of “Tomorrow is the Question” and, I would argue, of the practice of Afro-futurism more broadly – notably, its inclusiveness and breadth as far as gender is concerned. I’m not just talking about the fact of a equal feminine presence at the event itself, though that was very cool, but about the fundamental way in which wariness regarding the reproduction of limiting social constructions of masculinity and femininity are concerned; because as we well know, “the racist colonial past and present” was and is pretty good at sexism, too. But I digress. Or no, I don’t. To update and differently inscribe past discourse so as to bring out the future-forward possibilities it engenders is to set our sights on that “human otherwise” Weheliye wants to explore. Because, like Fanon and Glissant and others, he rightly understands and foregrounds the relational nature of our being-in-common – our imperative to acknowledge the various iterations of our (social) difference and the ethical practice of being decent to one another in the face of this diversity. To me, that’s what an Afro-futurist humanism looks like.

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DS: Yes yes. To close, I would be remiss not to ask about these issues in the context of your work on francophone literature in the Caribbean. What postcolonial writers come to mind when thinking about “futurism” in the Afro-Atlantic?

KLG: I’ll walk right through that door you’ve opened and mention a few folks from the specifically French-writing postcolonial context – a look back, I suppose. Beyond the two Martinican theorists Fanon and Glissant who figure in my work, past and present, there is the Haitian writer-painter-mathematician-singer-teacher Frankétienne. Having founded the aesthetic philosophy of Spiralism in the mid-1960s Frankétienne has been writing fiction meant to be heard for decades now. The fact that he stayed and wrote in Duvalier’s Haiti has meant limited appreciation for his contribution, but that’s beginning to change as he and his work travel outside the country and are exposed to an anglophone audience. As was made plain during this recent event, one of Afro-futurism’s challenges will be to imagine solidarity with humans outside the U.S. — American context — to produce sounds and texts and other unifying artifacts that resonate across the divisive boundaries that are the legacy of the colonial past.

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Kaiama L. Glover is an Associate Professor of French and Africana Studies at Barnard College/Columbia University, specializing in francophone postcolonial literature with a particular focus on the Caribbean. She is the author of Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon.

Didier Sylvain is a composer and PhD student in ethnomusicology at Columbia University. His research explores the metaphysical and political dimensions of futurism in black music, and, more generally, interdisciplinary work surrounding sound, race, and technology across the Afro-Atlantic world.

South Africa’s Domestic Workers: Invisible labor in plain sight

For South Africa watchers, two sets of statistics from a new comparative study of domestic workers in India and South Africa, A New Form of Bonded Labor makes for sobering reading. The first is that around 1.1 million South Africans are domestic workers. With a total population exceeding 52 million people, that’s a lot. The second is that 54,000 of those workers are under the age of fifteen.* Basically child labor. What’s worse, given the statistical invisibility of this kind of work, the actual number is probably even higher.

According to the International Labor Organization, over 75% of domestic workers are women, who work for private house holds. 91% of them are African and 9% is Coloured. So basically they are black. Many of them make work weeks topping 80 hours up to the age of 75 (though women’s life expectancy is only 48 years). The majority of women work in one home, and live there, or divide their workweeks between a few different homes. It also turns out that South Africa has the highest number of domestic workers in the Southern African region.

Historically, domestic workers were the near exclusive privilege of white South Africans. Few relationships carried the legal, state sanctioned apartheid abuses of the public space into the personal homes of white South Africans as the ‘Madam-Maid’ contract did. The domestic worker, (as well as the gardener) embodied the exploitation that the apartheid state was built on in many white homes. And just like the white supremacist economy could only survive and thrive through exploitation, abuse, repression and the disruption and destruction of black neighborhoods, households and families, the domestic worker –isolated from her own family — operated as the backbone to the white family’s household economy.

Many employers chose to frame their domestic worker’s constant presence and unwavering dedication to their children, belongings and wellbeing as a matter of belonging, intimacy and connection, and expressed this with “she’s part of our family” kind of statements. This type of family title, drenched with affection served different functions. It took the exploitation out of the equation, erased the worker’s own family, made their contract seem organic and – simultaneously — soothed suspicious anxieties. On the latter, often, domestic workers were viewed as inherently unreliable, theft-prone and untrustworthy.

The interviews and observations in A New Form of Bonded Labour, suggest that, for many (live-in) domestic workers, not much has changed twenty-one years into democracy. One employer, a married doctor and mother of four from an elite suburb in Durban, described her bond with her domestic worker — who receives 2000 Rands (around $170 right now) a month for 84 hour workweeks — as follows:

She is part of our family. We take care of her, her mother worked for us. She gets all the old clothes, she eats all the leftovers and she has a bed and her own room. When we bought new TV we put the old one in her room. She will do anything for this family. We can wake her up at midnight and ask her to prepare a meal and she does it with a smile on her face.

So basically, she views her worker’s position as a matter of destiny and belonging. Like her mother, she serves them with a smile (so upward generational mobility isn’t necessary either) and is rewarded with a fabricated form of kinship (rather than actual benefits).

Her employee has a different take on their connection.

When my mum retired they gave her R 10,000 which was in 2006 she worked for doctor’s mother for thirty-two years. Is that how you treat your family? They pay me R 2000 a month. What can you buy for R 2000 a month? I work like a slave. I am telling you, seven days a week. When I want time off they make me feel bad. Sometime they give me an extra R 100. I see doctor; she spends more than R2000 on a pair of shoes. I am not their family I work here if I had some — where else to work for more money I would go. True they feed me. I am not hungry here. I got a nice place to stay, but I am always tired.

If their experiences are typical for ‘Madam-Maid’ relationships in post-apartheid South Africa, then it seems like not much has changed, which we already sort of suspected. To this day, domestic workers are recommended with reliability credit, as if her trustworthiness makes her an exception, and family titles continue to trump actual benefits or opportunities for social mobility. They’re still Black.

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In 2000, whites are said to have made up 55% of employers versus 30% of Africans and 15% Coloureds and Indians (though the authors note that the real number of white employers is probably higher.) Do black employers treat their domestic workers differently? We don’t know.  But the (overall) picture that the study paints (of both countries) is a bleak one indeed:

These women are taught to be invisible in the homes of their employers and to refrain from engaging in spontaneous conversation with their employers and guests of their employers. They are seen as workers in the household; employers neglect to realize that they are people with feelings and emotions; the way in which they are treated deeply affects and isolates them.

In 2008, visual activist Zanele Muholi (whose mother worked as a domestic worker for the same family for 42 years) wrote that “There continues to be little recognition and little protection from the state for the hard labour these women perform to feed and clothe and house their families.” That’s one of the reasons why, in 2008, she used her ‘Massa” & Mina(h)’ project toacknowledge all domestic workers around the globe who continue to labour with dignity, while often facing physical, financial, and emotional abuses in their place of work.” *

Since then, the South African state has made some legislative efforts (to protect domestic workers.) They, for example, ratified the International Domestic Workers Convention in 2013 and came up with the ‘Sectoral Determination for the Domestic Worker Sector’ law. But with a minimum wage of 8,34 Rand (around $0,72) per hour, the findings of ‘A New Form of Bonded Labour’ shouldn’t surprise us.

*Mary Sibande is another South African artist who used her art to celebrate her mother, grand mother and great grandmothers (all domestic workers). Check it out here

* The child labor estimates are from a 2007 ILO study, when the total population was just below 48 million.

Like a weary protest song that has been marching since the 1960’s

Kae Sun, who we’ve featured on this site before, has just released a new single. With an organ vamp that registers like an extended Prince intro, the interrogative lament wanders over handclaps, and rolling snare drums to give the feel of a weary protest song that has been marching since the 1960’s. Fittingly, the song is called “l o n g w a l k,” and it’s impatient yet resigned feel seems right on time in light of recent mainstream headlines.

The song will be part of Kae Sun’s forthcoming self-titled EP. Follow him on Soundcloud, Twitter, or check up on his website to stay in the loop on when it drops.

If you find yourself in the US’s Northeast this March 28th, head over to Yale University’s Africa Salon Concert, where he will be performing alongside Just a Band and Jean Grae.

The fantastical texture of the everyday in E. C. Osondu’s novel: This House is Not for Sale

The Nigerian fantasist, D.O. Fagunwa, didn’t think much of realist fiction. How difficult can it be to mirror life, he asks in a little known 1960 essay published in a teacher’s magazine. Realist fiction, he concludes, involves little more than shopping around for stories that already exist in life and reformatting them into a novel.

If you’re squirming at Fagunwa’s idea that life presents itself in readymade stories, it’s most likely because you’re thinking of what everyone from Aristotle to Virginia Woolf has told us—that life appears in the form of scattered, incoherent bits of incidents, which the uber-imaginative novelist rearranges into narrative.

You clearly did not grow up in a Nigerian city where everyday life serves as the stage for spectacular dramas and miraculous events, where every neighborhood has its fair share of characters and crazies—the white-garment church pastor, the dodgy police man, the mad man with his thing hanging out, the prostitute, the political thug, the old soldier, the witchdoctor, the quack pharmacist, the old lady who everyone thinks is a witch, the Phd holder without a job, and so on. Life with these archetypes existed in a continuum of the hilarious, the surreal, and the bat-shit crazy.

This fantastical texture of the everyday—including the strange catalogue of characters it produces—is what E. C. Osondu captures brilliantly in his debut novel, This House is Not for Sale (2015), an urban tale about a house and its aging patriarch. The house, which is in some sense the principal character in the novel, is set up as the stage on which a series of isolated scenes carved out of a classic Nigerian working class neighborhood are played out.

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The narrator doesn’t quite say, but we know the house is in an Oceanside city—the Atlantic to be precise, which would make it Lagos. Given that the military is still in power, we could place the novel somewhere around late the ‘80s or early ‘90s. People on the outside say the house is evil. But that doesn’t quite capture what is strange about it. It’s not haunted either, like a gothic mansion. And even though it is located in a city, the story of its origins is buried in legend and folklore.

Osondu’s work is not entirely a novel in the conventional sense of a single story idea or narrative problem unfolding through time. We are not following the life and times a set of characters from beginning to end. This House is Not for Sale is, instead, a collage of stories centered on strange characters loosely related by their having stayed at the house at some point and having had some dealings with the enigmatic old man called Grandpa.

Each of the fourteen or so stories captures only a fragment of one character’s life told in a short chapter of sometimes as little as 2000 words. If you’re a character in Osondu’s novel, you get one quick shot at basking in the spotlight, after which you disappear from the story, never to be mentioned again.

Because the novel captures only a small bit of each person’s life, the stories often leave you hanging. They are incomplete and piecemeal. You want more. You want more because you realize that each story is a teaser and could easily be a novel on its own, but Osondu—possibly relishing the daemonic pleasure of living you hanging—has chosen to give you only a glimpse of what could have been.

This fragmentary structure of the novel works. It gives one the perverse pleasure of reading a novel that refuses to be a novel. Like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, each of the stories in Osondu’s work are somewhat linked together, but they hold on jealously to their uniqueness, their incompleteness, and their refusal to coalesce into one continuous “whole story.”

This House is Not for Sale is artistically aware and experimental without trying too hard. The novel is also unapologetically literary. It’s not trying to make some grand point about politics and society. If you’re hankering for an issues-driven novel, feel free to move on to the “poverty porn” section. This House is not for Sale is all about masterful storytelling and a delightful reading experience.

And because the novel is so petite—182 pages—and made up of short dramatic vignettes, it is quite impossible to get bored reading it.

Which Art History in Africa?

Reading Eddie Chambers’ thoughts on African diaspora art history brought home my own struggle of writing on contemporary art in East Africa. I burst out laughing when he, pretty much, joked about the reality of writing on very recent events: “Those of us who work in the realm of African diaspora art history—in my own case, with a particular emphasis on British-based art practice—are constantly faced with the curious, absurd, but sobering challenge of researching that which happened, in a manner of speaking, very recently.” This means, of course, that his writing on late 20th century Black Artists in Britain challenges an art history, that is, both white and centuries old. Chambers reminded me of a very real challenge. Is historical writing on art in Africa available?

Beyond the fancy, glossy, pages of art history books, are African artists (more so, East African artists), whose modern and contemporary art work is practically unrecorded. By unrecorded, I do not mean this literally. Yes, their work is recorded, but really not publicly, instead it is personally recorded, or through collective and personal memory. In this sense, for any writer, or researcher, available writing on these artists, many of whom are living on the continent, is quite unusual. As a result of this, as an art writer working in Africa, I have no available model to craft an entire practice of writing books on contemporary art in Uganda.

When asked what art critics I read to inform my own practice, I am dumbfounded by the fact that my own reading has consisted of white American and French theorists from the 1970s. This often follows with a doubtful look asking: what exactly do you know about Ugandan art? It is as if reading Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’, Roland Barthes’ ‘Camera Lucida’, Jacques Derrida’s ‘Writing and Difference’, Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ and Michel Foucault’s ‘The Order of Things’ places my knowledge of contemporary art (theory) in the West. Yet, this, I have discovered is not unusual for anyone writing on contemporary art in East Africa.

The conversation on contemporary art in Africa, often, overwhelms the art itself, which gets lost in there, somewhere. Some of the most quoted documentations of contemporary art in Africa in recent years are not only difficult to read, but they say little to nothing about the art itself. Yet, again, this is not unusual from writing on contemporary art in Africa, or in the African diaspora. Chambers complaining about the naming of African diaspora art history says: “It seemed to me that there were things, and there were black things; there was history, and then there was black history; there was art, and there was black art.” Chambers goes on to point out how Kobena Mercer’s series on African diaspora art has been named and gives a recommendation in how this could change:

Instead of Cosmopolitan Modernism, Discrepant Abstraction, Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures, and Exiles, Diasporas, and Strangers, perhaps the books’ titles should have been along the lines of Modernism, Abstraction, Pop Art, and so on.

Achille Mbembe’s article ‘Afropolitanism’ published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Africa Remix (2004) comes to mind. And while that show included the phenomenal work of contemporary artists as wide ranging as Cheri Samba, Wangechi Mutu, Julie Mehretu, El Anatsui, and Goddy Leye, the text referred more closely to a theoretical cultural context—one which has been taken up more in African literary debates by writers like Binyavanga Wainaina.

The Portrait of Mali (2012), the monograph on Malian photographer Malick Sidibe opens with a self-titled text by Sabrina Zannier, which discusses how—and maybe why—anthropological approaches teach us anything at all about contemporary art in Africa. She discusses among other things: Sidibe as a storyteller in the rural setting among his goats and sheep. Yet, to contradict the story, in true manner of art writing on contemporary art in Africa, she does not escape discussing Roland Barthes extensively in relation to Sidibe’s photographs.

Yet, perhaps, some authors have struck a balance that works. Coco Fusco’s essay, The Bodies That Were Not Ours, published in Nka Journal in 1996, was striking in its discussion the black male body in contemporary photography. In comparison to the two texts mentioned above, it reads more like a personal journal on the black body in performance art. The essay was collected in a book of the same title published under Routledge along with other essays by Fusco.

Some authors seem to present an overview from a logistical standpoint, while addressing issues of politics and contemporary art practice. Author Candice Breitz, in a rather balanced viewpoint of the much critiqued 1st Johannesburg Biennale, Africus, wrote about its position in a political and logistical framework: “It is in the spirit of slow reconstruction and transformation that the first Johannesburg Biennale should be received; not as a polished event, but as an unfolding process, a work in progress.”

Worth mentioning are two exciting volumes of art writing on contemporary art in Africa. One is ‘Contemporary African Art’ by Sidney Kasfir (2000), and another is ‘Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to Market Place’ (1999) edited by Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwenzor. 

The writer, or researcher, on art in East Africa will read, first and foremost, political texts. No doubt that a text such as Franz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ is fundamental reading. Mahmood Mamdani’s‘Citizen and Subject’ comes to mind, as well. Then, the writer will read philosophical texts. Regardless of which part of Africa, religion will most certainly come upfront. ‘Artist, The Ruler’ by Okotp’Bitek will appear to be fundamental reading for East African art writers. That 1986 text argues from the position that we must abandon Christianity in order to appreciate African aesthetics.

Then, the writer will read art historical texts. From East Africa, again, the one canonical text they will read is the catalogue of the 1995 exhibition: Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa, curated by Clementine Deliss. Yes, I know what you are thinking. The truth is that such a reading plan speaks of art, but in very technical terms. In more elaborate terms, if reading on art in Africa is for those who have gone to graduate school, it is no wonder that this information remains unavailable in local libraries, schools, bookshops, homes, and personal libraries across the continent. If history must become available it should be readable.

The real difficulty, for any art writer on the continent, is to know about exhibitions and artworks that happened, as Eddie Chambers says, quite very recently. If going to library archives, and personal libraries, is insufficient, they must go to find the actual artists who were in these exhibitions. The art writer, here, ceases to be a critic of current exhibitions and art productions, but they become a kind of curious “mad person” digging up the past. They go on an obscure, exciting, ridiculous adventure.

The available encounter with contemporary art in Africa is, today, shaped by moral and aesthetic postmodern philosophy from France and America. One doesn’t, in the most formal sense of an art catalogue, exhibition, or critical review, encounter art in Africa without, first being bombarded by colonial and postcolonial theories named above. At times, and often, art curators and writers turn even further back to Hegel, Kant, Leibniz, Hume, and even earlier to Artistotle! Even today, the encounter with art in Africa is shaped by a trajectory of Western philosophical discourse.

Therefore, how can I, as a writer on art in Africa, encounter the subject in new and exciting ways? How can I write about a 1977 artwork by a Ugandan or Kenyan sculptor or performance artist, aware of not only its postcolonial baggage, but also more precisely the wider body of cultural expression in which it was produced? How can I, as a writer, make culture in the 70s more available, palatable, readable?

From recent publications such as ‘Word! Word? Word! – IssaSamb and the Undeciferable Form’ a monograph on IssaSamb of the Sengalese art group Laboratoire Agit’ Art, curated by Koyo Kouohat Raw Material Company in Dakar, Senegal; the new monograph on ‘J. D. Okhai Ojeikere’ curated by Olabisi Silva at the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos;  ‘Ibrahim El Salahi: A Visionary Modernist,’ the monograph on the Sudanese modern artist Ibrahim El Salahi, written by Salah Hassan; a 54 countries Cultural Encyclopedia curated by Nana Offoriata Ayim at the Center for Cultural Research in Accra, Ghana. My encounter with visual art, here, exists in broader ways, that engage life, history, culture, fashion, architecture, poetry, popular music, and other forms of existence. Reading ‘Word!’ I am exposed to Issa Samb’s originally handwritten manifesto; I am for the first time reading a play that the artist wrote (which are real insights into the working methods of Laboratoire Agit’ Art); I am for the first time reading the poetry of Samb, an artist still stigmatized in Dakar for his political views under an earlier postcolonial regime. Reading ‘Ojeikere’ I am exposed to not only the famous 1970s ‘Hairstyle series’ but I am taken on a journey to see how ‘Pa Ojeikere’ (as he is fondly known in Lagos), made his work as an accurate and nuanced document of the times in which he lived.

These books, are not simply glossy art books, they are documents that show the exciting possibilities of artistic research, and the importance of innovative research in the writing process. Only when art writers on the continent become more adventurous and daring in their research, making choices that aren’t preaching to the choir of postcoloniality, will we discover a fuller and richer encounter with art in Africa.

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