I spent last weekend at the Africa Nouveau festival in Nairobi. It was a last minute decision, to jump on the 14-hour bus ride from Kampala, but I couldn’t resist the line up.. A general rule; when you get the chance to see the artists who get you excited when you read about them on the internet, take it (alaji, eh-eh), go. Go; the continent is vast, plane tickets are expensive, FOMO is real.
#NewAfricas, #AfricaistheFuture, #AfricavsEverybody, #AfricaRising, #AfricaisNow, #AfricaNouveau. The words cross t-shirts as slogans, and beats as lyrics. For every tagline though, that we use to “rebrand” the Dark Continent, there is a thousand word think-piece which asks what these words mean to the average African in 2015, who has a smartphone but no regular supply of electricity.
Africa is a country. Africa is a concept in a Taylor Swift video. It exists outside of time. When is Africa? To most of the world we are black cultures indistinguishable and ahistorical. White people can string their lineage back to the Vikings. African people’s history begins with the white explorers who “discovered” it, before that is a black hole. We are constantly being exhorted, often stridently, in Marcus Garvey speeches sampled in Damien Marley songs, or in whatsapp forwards of talks by PLO Lumumba; stop thinking of yourselves as perpetual victims subjects blown on the wind of a racist hegemony that has stripped us of much of our history.
“If you cannot do it, if you are not prepared to do it, then you will die. You race of cowards, you race of imbeciles, you race of good-for-nothings. If you cannot do what other men have done, what other races have done, what other nations have done, then you yourself have died.”
But how boring it is to be lectured at for 100 years, whether by insiders or by ignorant outsiders with self-serving agendas. The image of Africa belongs to everyone but young Africans; There is power in naming, in defining a “New Africa”. To control the definition is to control the narrative. My Africa is. My Africa is not. A billion reasons to believe in Africa (and a billion bottles of Coca Cola to be sold).
This is why events like Africa Nouveau are so vital to the continent, the result of hard work and aspirations of people like Muthoni DQ and her Blankets and Wine team; artists and entrepreneurs who want to make a living and a contribution. Artistic aspirations are not limited to those with the resources to fund them, we will make our art and music out of mud and strings. Crowd- or donor-funded or simply funded by the sweat on bus seats and Kampala streets, we will make something where there was nothing.
Artists like those on, and who produced the line-up last weekend help us stay on beat. Acts like Just a Band, Fantasma, Boddhi Satva, DJ Satelite, Jojo Abot, keep us motivated, inspired, focused, and aware. The infectious energy of Blinky Bill, Daniel “NairobiDhobi” Muli, and Spoek Mathambo onstage; the historic and personal stories that inspire Jojo Abot’s EP Fyfya Woto; those who mine kuduro beats and SA House beats to create something new, they keep us on beat. Those who get us on stage and tell us how West African Ewe culture is like East African culture, keep us on beat. Those in the audience who won’t let the guitarist off stage without 5 encores even though he is performing Zulu Maskandi music which they have zero experience with, keep us on beat. Our similarities and our differences bind us and keep us on beat. Multi-genre independent artists like Blitz the Ambassador, who create new modes of surviving economically, while pursuing creative impulse and a desire for social justice in a global economy that tries very hard to place at the very bottom of the ladder.
Africans anxious to change the narrative, to rebrand, not for what others think of us but because of what we think of ourselves.
Artists creating community around values and skills that will save us; ecology, ubuntu, inclusion, freedom and hustle
Africa is right on time.
The Cuban twins, Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé, together calling themselves Ibeyi release their debut album this month. With their musical pedigree and ethereal voices, they are difficult not to like, but what I really like about them is the slightly creepy aesthetic they have going on. Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m projecting cultural stereotypes we have about twins, but it seems like they are capitalizing on this with their video for River.
Calling their music “modern Negro spirituals” the twins draw from traditional Yorùbá chants and folk songs, they make music that is at once both comfortably old and interestingly new
Okmalumkoolkat’s EP Holy Oxygen has been on replay since I discovered his music via Okay Africa a few weeks ago. I keep trying to tell people that some of the most exciting things sonically, are coming out of the continent, and Okmalumkoolkat is one of the artists I point to for evidence.
His new video for the song “Holy Oxygen” looks postapocalyptic, but the biohazard suits that feature prominently are very much part of the present. For the thousands in West Africa for whom Ebola has turned daily life into a dystopic scifi nightmare. In the video, characters are shrouded in torn plastic, recalling the makeshift protective suits that for many facing the epidemic, are all that stand between them and the virus.
Watch the video for yourself and check out the rest of the Holy Oxygen EP here:
My current auditory obsession is this remake of Fela Kuti’s 1974 song Lady, by tUnE-yArDs, featuring ?uestlove, Angelique Kidjo and Akua Naru. It is the first single from the second Red Hot compilation, (RED) Hot + Fela, which will raise funds for HIV/AIDS research.
My love for this version is so strong it is almost sexual. Angelique Kidjo is a goddess as always, her lead vocals are full of grunts and gymnastics that call to mind Fela’s energetic stage presence. ?uestlove, the biggest proponent of Fela in mainstream Western music is as ever, the cool backbone of the track. tUnE-yArDs quirky harmonies are just left-of-centre enough to stand on top of the amazing things the brass section, represented by Rubblebucket, are doing. This version manages to inject even more energy into the song, which if you know anything about Fela Kuti and his long musical reign at The Shrine, is quite an achievement. The climax of the vocal harmonies and brass at the end, will make your arm hair stand up and take notice.
Fela’s music was always political, and Merrill Garbus’ (of tUnE-yArDs) choice to populate this song with female vocalists is a political one. The original song was a criticism of what Fela saw of African women’s embrace of Western values.
If you call am woman
African woman no go ‘gree
She go say, she go say, “I be Lady o”
Khuli Chana featuring JR
Today I am thinking about female African pop stars, the ones who inspired and interested me when I was younger. Intrepid women who kicked down doors and destroyed barriers with the power of their vocals.
I am thinking in particular of three South African women who made a special place for themselves in the music industry and in my heart.
“Princess of Africa”
Ask anyone who lived in Africa during the eighties and they will be happy to sing some kind of localized version of Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s song Umqombothi. It is a song about home brewed beermade from sorghum or mealie-meal. It is first and foremost a party song, and I have fond memories of watching the adults get drunk and dance to it at parties when I was a child. It is also about the women who made umqombothi, and ran shebeens (speakeasies) in order to entertain the working men and feed their children in the poverty stricken townships. During Apartheid especially, shebeens were a cultural centre, an oasis of peace hidden from the burning South African sun of oppression.
Yvonne Chaka Chaka grew up under that sun; in fact she was the first black child to ever appear on South African television. When asked who she admired most, Chaka Chaka said
“My mother because she has always been there for me. My mother raised three daughters single-handedly on a domestic workers salary. That took great courage and strength. She is my mentor and hero. When I was born in 1965 in Soweto, it was during apartheid, and those were extremely difficult times. My dad was a great musician who could never realize his dream. He died when I was 11 years old. I inherited my talent from both parents, so music has always been in my blood .When I was little I would strum an empty tin and blow into a broom stick pretending it was a microphone. I sang in church choirs. I loved singing. I am blessed that I achieved my destiny, and been able to accomplish what my father could not.”