When the phrase “MTV Generation” was coined in the 1980s this is not what they were referring to. “This” is Thursday night at Steak Out; a bar, restaurant and club in tropical Kampala, Uganda, also known as “Rock Nite”. At the table beside me, a guy cradles his beer bottle like a microphone, singing every word to the 30 Seconds to Mars song playing; the tendons in his neck straining, the drops of sweat on his forehead shaken into rivulets. I don’t know whether to cringe or laugh, so I just look away.
The kids of Kampala’s growing middle class have been raised on MTV videos beamed into their living rooms by South African satellite television. Now they can go out to enjoy their favoured angst-driven guitar riffs and catchy pop tunes in the company of like-minded, equally inebriated individuals. Club scenes that were once dominated by Lingala music out of Congo, Western reggae, rap and hip-hop, and their African permutations, have been forced to make room for new tastes. Where young people once Ndombolo-ed, tonight they are head-banging.
As I push my way to the bathroom I am amazed by how many more people have arrived since I entered the venue several hours before. Steak Out is packed to capacity. Rock Nite is their most popular weekly event and they claim, one of the most popular “nites” in all of East Africa. When I return to my seat, the boy beside me starts up a conversation. I am wary of being “picked up”, but what am I here for if not to meet people?
I should not be so surprised for I am not so different. My tastes too, are a product of the globalization of popular music. My music player has as much Ali Farka Touré as A Perfect Circle. Surely this kind of musical colour-blindness is to be celebrated rather than a cause for concern.
System of a Down’s Toxicity starts to play and the crowd roars along “You! What, do you own the world? How do you own disorder?” This song was my own introduction to the joys of rock. My older brother had recorded the video off late night MTV, that small window of time after midnight our only access to alternative music. We specially requested the Toxicity album from a sister in the UK, along with the Marshal Mathers LP which was all the rage at the time. Standing by the lockers in my secondary school in Zambia, you could at anytime hear someone reeling off the lyrics to Eminem’s latest single. System of a Down, on the other hand, remained like a secret between me and one or two other friends who were not immediately put off by the loud guitars and guttural screaming. My growing appreciation for rock music was not something that I could proclaim proudly to the rest of my class, my penchant for constantly having my nose in a book marked me as pariah enough.
The next song is Katy Perry’s latest hit, and with the same breath the crowd shouts every last word. This time I am woefully unfamiliar. I have not sat down to watch MTV in years. I cannot begrudge anyone else the community and connection that I never thought to want. I am too young for that kind of “get offa my lawn!”sentiment. Still, as an unrepentant music snob, it makes uncomfortable. Not just because I disdain Katy Perry’s big-eyed, bubblegum, brain-porridge brand of bullshit and don’t think she belongs at a “rock nite”. This too, is the globalisation of commercial culture at work, and it is something to be both admired and feared.
You may not believe me, that I am not just being a hater. So let me give myself some authority, use someone else’s words,
“the ability of commercial culture to collapse boundaries and render historically specific cultural expressions little more than fashions to be appropriated far from their conditions of creation” (Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads)
It is a beautiful and treacherous world you and I both live in. One in which you can listen to the exact same song on opposing sides of the globe and have it mean very separate things. It is beautiful that a bunch of college kids from Cambridge, Massachusetts can hear old school Congolese guitar on the internet and be inspired, but it can also be empty and meaningless like a robot in one of Asimov’s dystopias. You and I have to fill it with meaning, hold on to that meaning, talk about that meaning wherever we are, whether in Kampala, or Bowling Green, Ohio, and bring our music back to life.