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.
Our society undervalues the creative arts. This is an unfortunate fact. In the developing world, artisan activity is the 2nd largest employer after agriculture, generating $34 billion a year. Yet it still remains woefully underfunded in East Africa, along with its emaciated family of creative industries; visual arts, film and music.
This month I am among those mourning the cancellation of Sauti za Busara 2016. Despite being in its twelfth successful year and having generated over $70 million for the island of Zanzibar, the much-loved music festival will not take place next year.
I attended the 2015 edition of Sauti za Busara (SzB). A weekend of great food, sandy white beaches meeting cerulean seas, and the best live music the continent and the Diaspora have to offer; I would recommend the experience to anyone. My friend and I ran around the island, getting lost in the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town, buying fresh sugarcane juice and gelato on the street, exclaiming over Syrian shwarmas at Forodhani gardens, devouring the freshest calamari with our toes in the Indian Ocean. In the evening we made our way to the historic Old Fort to appreciate expert soukous guitar played by Madagascan bands, athletic Zulu dances by a family band that encompassed 3 generations, traditional Zanzibari taraab music kept alive by young women, and the inimitable Blitz the Ambassador and his full piece band playing live arrangements of his manifesto music. At SzB there are no backing tracks, all of the performers must use live instrumentation, leading to truly unique performances, even from hip hop acts like Kenya’s Octopizzo. All this happens against the beguiling Indian Ocean coast, a backdrop of Swahili culture both ancient and modern.
SzB alumni include musical luminaries like Salif Keita (Mali), Nneka (Nigeria), Ochestre Poly-Rythmo (Benin), The Brother Moves On (South Africa), Djimawi Africa (Algeria), and Bi Kidude (Zanzibar). The festival connects African music professionals with their counterparts from across the continent, a valuable experience where pursuing a career in the arts is still sneered upon by the larger society. Skills development is a key goal, and the festival offers a range of workshops to East African professionals.
It is for these reasons that SzB was named one of “Africa’s best and most respected music events” by the BBC World Service, one of CNN’s “7 African music festivals you really have to see” and “Africa’s Best Music Festival” according to Afrotourism.
February, the month in which the festival falls, in 2014 recorded the highest number of visitors to the island. That is more than traditional holiday months like August, July and December. This is due in no small part to Sauti za Busara. During the fest, hotels are fully booked, popular local restaurants like Loukman’s have long lines; taxi drivers, Spice tour guides, scuba diving professionals and those who sail the iconic Zanzibari dhow all ply a good living during the festival. The mainland, Dar Es Salaam benefits too. For budget travellers like myself, full use is made of Air BnB and CouchSurfing, connecting us to a network of independent operators and gracious hosts.
My favourite part of the festival, besides the truly intoxicating musical performances I got to witness, was counting myself among a community of music lovers. In the thick sweat of the front row I looked around me at an audience of people from all over the world, here to have a good time, to be a part of invigorating live performances by the best African acts. Ticket sales are as popular as ever, but they only account for 30% of the festival costs according to Busara Promotions CEO Yusuf Mahmood. So when this year they failed to raise half of the $200,000 necessary, the 2016 edition was reluctantly cancelled.
Sauti za Busara receives zero support from the governments of Tanzania and Zanzibar. Yup, despite being among the island’s biggest draws, the government will not invest in its ensured and continued success. In fact one can argue that the Zanzibari government gets in the way of the festival’s growth by demanding larger and larger taxes each year. This is symptomatic of a problem that can be seen in many East African governments across almost all industries; lacking the infrastructure to collect taxation from a largely informal base, it compensates by overtaxing the structures it can collect from. In Tanzania a visiting artist’s visa costs more than $1000. How is the proverbial starving artist supposed to afford this?
“In fact, we have to pay the National Arts Council every year for registration, event licenses and permits from the Board of Censors, artists’ work permits and visa, assorted taxes, media and film permits, permission to put posters on streets, not to mention costs for venue hire, policing and security, electricity, water and sanitation, technical facilities and so on,” Mahmoud says.
“For many years we’ve had meetings with ministers, directors, permanent secretaries, even the President and Vice President, to beg for at least some of these expenses to be waived, but we’re not holding our breath to get financial support from our governments in the foreseeable future.
It’s only fair to say the best we hope for is minimal interference.”
If $70 million is not enough for governments to recognize the social and commercial value of the arts sector, what hope is there for those of us who attempt to scratch out an individual living in this industry?
Sure, in Africa, the basic needs of a majority of the population are still waiting to be met, but our creative and cultural aspirations are equally valid and will not wait for food on the table in order to be heard. Art is not just about expression. Innovation and creativity do not just lead to tangible value in the tourism industry, they lead to solutions to problems of poverty and poor governance. We have seen this with Ushahidi, with M-Pesa, with IHub, with floating schools that reach slum kids, with Sheng dictionaries and Matatu maps on Google, with apps that address maternal mortality in hard to reach areas.
The poverty that is endemic to our continent is in fact what allows creativity to thrive, because African people must get around shoddy infrastructure, debilitating bureaucracy, pervasive corruption, an inconsequential middle class, an ill-fitting education system, and a total absence of supportive government policy. To flourish on this continent, nay to function, you must by definition be resourceful, flexible and innovate – creative.
We are seeing portents of change, in Kenya there is development of a National Arts and Culture Bill, but we need more and we need it faster. Sauti za Busara is but one example of East African opportunity that is being throttled instead of allowed to thrive.
This piece owes a lot to:
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: