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Twerking as Resistance: Peeling Back the Ethic of Wamlambez

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What if this ratchet music is a pushback against the bleak logics of a society that defiles in so many other ways, a society that ruthlessly forecloses on opportunities for the young and poor in particular? What if the ratchet offers an insurgent possibility of life after social death, of life beyond nihilism?

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In April 2018, a video of what seemed to be a pair of teenagers having, or simulating, sex at the back of a car – maybe an Uber? – went viral under the hashtag #IfikieWazazi. The girl is sitting on the boy’s lap, the boy is holding a phone in front of them, recording video, selfie-style. The moral panic was swift and shrill – the head-shaking and finger-wagging, the familiar lament watoto wa siku hizi (kids these days), plus the rather grand where are we heading as a society. But what stood out the most for me was the expression on their faces. They – the girl especially – were smiling through it all, looking straight into the camera as they had sex in the back of a moving car in broad daylight. Their joy was both disturbing and complicated: a combination of ordinary teenage mischief and something else, something deeper and more transgressive.

It was play and defiance, an outrageous commandeering of a quasi-public space with lewd behaviour, recorded for posterity and then dispatched directly to parents – ‘ifikiewazazi’ means ‘let this get to [the] parents’. Or maybe, make sure this gets to the parents.

Ratchet: noun, verb, adjective
1. To be ghetto, real, gutter, nasty
2. It’s whatever, bout it, etc
[As defined by producer PhunkDawg on the liner notes of the CD “Do The Ratchet”, featuring rapper Lil Boosie, 2004. Shreveport, Louisiana].

#IfikieWazazi went viral; by now it was not just the video, but also a barrage of images of teenagers posing in highly suggestive positions, arched backs, pouty lips and all. In the chaos of virality, it was difficult to discern whether #ifikiewazazi was to be read as warning (to the kids by the parents and parental figures) and a taunt (to the parents, by the kids), or both.

Soon after, the song ‘Lamba Lolo’ by the rap group Ethic was released. None of them seemed a day over 21. They were (obviously) singing about fellatio, over a poorly produced track. The music video, especially, is of the aesthetic that I call Nairobi Grime – dusty streets, mabati shops and unfinished buildings in the background.

In the chaos of virality, it was difficult to discern whether #ifikiewazazi was to be read as warning (to the kids by the parents and parental figures) and a taunt (to the parents, by the kids), or both.

They seemed like they just walked out of their houses on an errand to buy milk and a matchbox. It was, in short, scruffy and unpretentious. In the next few months, catching many off guard, came this new wave of Kenyan music, in which the ratchetry was turned all the way up. In most of these videos, it was just a catchy hook, the mtaa backdrop, and lots and lots of twerking. The rest, as they say, is history, but a living kind of history.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the city of Atlanta would come to a standstill once a year with what came to be known as Freaknik. It begun as an event for students from the prestigious, historically Black colleges of Morehouse and Spelman to come together and network during spring break; the suffix “nik” hints it was envisioned that the networking would take place in a picnic-like setting.

But quickly, the “freak” part would eclipse any corporate or straight-laced intentions that the event might originally have had. It evolved into a prolific cultural and sexual celebration, that brought in Black students from all over the country, as well as artists, musicians, and residents of Atlanta from all socio-economic classes, to party hard. Atlanta’s city official government pushed back against the festival with violence, intimidation, and attempts at co-optation until Freaknik was ultimately banned.

That this was happening in the city of Atlanta was highly disruptive to the sensibilities of a city that was known as America’s “Black Mecca”, where a wealthy Black middle-class had emerged as far back as the 1940s. The street where Martin Luther King Jr. had grown up – Auburn Avenue – was called “the richest Negro street in the world.”

King himself was born into a respectable middle-class family that did not struggle materially, unlike the majority of Black families in the US at the time, as James Baldwin wrote in his 1961 profile of King in Harper’s Magazine. The Black bourgeoisie of Atlanta were proper, they esteemed certain ways of dressing and speaking; they were respectable folk and believed that this would allow them to live a life of dignity in the segregated South.

This worked, to some extent – Atlanta was one of the few cities in the South that seemingly “peacefully” transitioned out of segregation, the Black elite had already built substantial wealth and were on hand to integrate into the city structure. Most of all, the Black bourgeoisie cautioned against disrupting day-to-day business even as the Black community pressed for civil rights, writes Sarah Abdelaziz in her thesis Ratcheting a Way Out of the Respectable: Genealogical Interventions Into Atlanta’s Respectability Politics. “They believed that through negotiations, business deals, and moral pleas, they could advance political progress.”

Two decades later, a new generation of young Atlantans began enthusiastically inhabit a form of Black sexual leisure Abdelaziz calls a “mass rupture in respectability politics”, a kind of “undomesticated Black communal eroticism.” In her words:

Cars littered the streets, blocking intersections and highways, as people recreated a city center wherever it suited them. Black women danced on top of cars with or without clothes on and became a central spectacle of the event, defying sexual and racial mores (Thompson, 2007). To the white fear of a singular Black body, Freaknik answered with thousands, not only in numbers, but with a loudness. Freaknikers literally ratcheted up all that capitalism and the project of whiteness fear: the unabashed engagement in sexual leisure at the direct cost of circuits of capital.

Freaknik, in her analysis, was a pushback against the surveillance that is demanded by respectability politics that characterised Atlanta, by enlisting in the tactics of “evasion, subversion, play and exhibitionism.” It was an attempt to snatch some joy in a context where neoliberal policies had left the class oppressions intact even as Black people had been granted civil rights, and where mass incarceration was ensnaring more and more Black people in its grim dragnet. And although most Freaknikers may not have been able articulate what they were doing in such elegant political terms, that doesn’t mean it was any less so.

A new generation of young Atlantans began enthusiastically inhabit a form of Black sexual leisure Abdelaziz calls a “mass rupture in respectability politics”, a kind of “undomesticated Black communal eroticism.”

The personal is political, especially if your existence has already been politicized. Sexual energy is life energy, my friend Ciru Ngigi reminds me, and Audre Lorde understood the erotic as not only a sexual pleasure, but as a way to “deeply connect with the self and with others radically, so as to empower the ability to fight for and manifest liberation.”

In moments like this, one escapes, even temporarily, the constraining norms of a society where your worth is determined by how much labour can be extracted out of you, and where existing as Black means that true social worth is always tantalizingly out of your reach. In so doing, there is an insurgent possibility that there can be life after social death, that there can be life beyond nihilism.

It is, the Black Ratchet Imagination – a form of redemption can be grasped as one inhabits one’s body fully and unashamedly, not easily reducible to mere “acting out”, the ratchet is an attempt to “to reclaim space, refuse binary identities, subvert language [and] create economic opportunities with new economies.”

Six months ago, economist and public intellectual David Ndii revisited the Kenya at the Crossroads: Scenarios for our Future report that had been written in 1998, when the Kenyan economy was in free fall. At that time, President Daniel arap Moi was clocking two decades in power, there was public dilapidation everywhere you looked.

Darius Okolla captures the mood of despondency in his article exploring the 1990s deterioration of his hometown Kitale– “it was subtle, gradual, almost imperceptible, and forever disguised as the typical wear and tear of urban spaces – but it was more than that. It was thievery, corruption, and disenfranchisement, shoving it down the path of visible decline; a depreciative spectacle masked by rural docility and the often-accepted rural poverty.”

The premise of the Scenarios project was that “Kenya had reached the limits of its chosen political and economic models”, that is, what Ndii calls an “enclave economy” as set in place during British colonialism – a small corporatized economy of formal enterprises, good schools and prim urban neighbourhoods (it is telling that we call our neighbourhoods ‘estates’, as if in our imagination they are, in fact, country manors ruled over by lords and barons). On the outside of this small elite and privileged core is the “native sector” of the excluded African masses.

After independence in 1963, the privileged core was vacated by the British, and an African elite moved in to replace them. If you had a university education, you went straight to the top of the public or corporate sector and your future was pretty much secured; even with a secondary education you could live comfortably.

However by the end of the 1980s, the formal sector had stagnated and was struggling to absorb the ever-increasing numbers of university graduates. Catastrophe was only averted when the economy was liberalised in the early 1990s, leading to the explosion in the informal sector. The jua kali and mitumba businesses, the second-hand cars from Dubai, the stalls and ‘exhibitions’ were like opening a safety valve on a pressure cooker – they staved off social unrest and bought Kenya a few more years of stability.

Fast-forward three decades, and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that the economically active population (age 15-64) are 25 million, a five-fold increase from 1990. Yet, as Ndii writes, the formal wage employment is estimated at just 2.7 million, and its contribution to total employment is down to 8.5 percent, from 25 percent in 1990.

Meanwhile, 125,000 students graduate from university every year – an astonishing 63 times the rate three decades ago, yet the formal sector is absorbing less than 100,000 a year. Once again, Kenya is balancing on a delicate precipice, a society of rising tensions where upward social mobility is becoming more and more of a mirage.

Today’s 18-year-olds are coming of age in a society with bizarre and normalized dysfunction. They watched as the country ushered in a new constitution only to eviscerate it. They live in a city presided over by a governor whose rise to power is only comparable to the plot in a crime fiction novel.

The formal wage employment is estimated at just 2.7 million, and its contribution to total employment is down to 8.5 percent, from 25 percent in 1990.

These teenagers watched as a country celebrated students’ mass failure in national examinations, starting in 2016 when tough-talking Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i defeated the so-called cartels and their shadowy, dormitory-burning ways, and delivered a ‘clean’ examination – just 141 A grades, compared to over 2,000 the previous year. In 2018, more students — 30,840 of them — only managed a grade E (a flat failure) than those who scored a combined A, A-, B+ and B, who total 28,403. This is not a normal distribution – the bell curve of grading would predict that the majority should get an average, C grade. The sharp skew at the lower end is not how normal classrooms perform.

In any sane country, this would prompt a somber reflection, maybe even a day of national mourning. At the very least, any teacher whose class failed her exam en masse would at least have to re-evaluate either the content or her teaching methods. And, if the scripts were being marked by external examiners, it would not be unreasonable to suspect that one’s students are being deliberately made to fail.

These 18-year-olds instead saw the country cheer as some subjects record a failure rate of 90 percent and higher. They have been watching as a hairdresser carted away millions of shillings of public funds in sacks, and as reports of poisonous (poisoned?) sugar, maize, milk and meat flood TV headlines and nothing substantial happens. They have been watching as political leaders shift alliances without batting an eyelid, and with such speed that it can give you whiplash, where someone condemned as the devil and an ogre today can be described as “my friend” and “a safe pair of hands” tomorrow.

Today’s 18-year-olds are coming of age in a society with bizarre and normalized dysfunction. They watched as the country ushered in a new constitution only to eviscerate it.

It is a bleak new dispensation. We have been telling them to work hard, be God-fearing, modest, respectful and focus on their education, but kwa ground vitu ni different.

It is against this backdrop that we now must consider the chants of wamlambez, wamnyonyez. If we steady our gaze on the nihilism and purposelessness that our young people have been forced – by the older generation – to inhabit, then their lewd chants and booty-shaking becomes less an indictment on their morals and more on our own. It is, in fact, appropriate to regretfully mutter wazazi wa siku hizi ( Today’s parents). And it is not like every generation doesn’t have its own lustful excesses – many of today’s horrified parents did the same, or worse, at Jam Sessions or Safari Sevens. They sang along to Nampenda John and Manyake, all sizes. The only difference is that there were no camera phones then.

As one 23-year-old told me, the only morality our society cares about is the sexual one, yet the rest of our existence is incredibly immoral. The young people of today are gleefully forcing that hypocrisy to collapse on itself, by intentionally being as ratchet as possible – so over-the-top and outrageous that they becomes impossible to ignore. Because really, what’s the worst that could happen? “Shame and embarrassment is not the worst thing. We’ve experienced worse. What is there to protect?” she said to me. It is, as Kalundi Serumaga once wrote, that poverty is the worst violence, the greatest shame and the constant embarrassment.

Like Freaknik in Atlanta a generation ago, the wamlambez wave – by this I mean the wave of this extremely ratchet music – is a pushback against the bleak logics of a society that defiles in so many other ways, a society that ruthlessly forecloses on opportunities for the young and poor in particular. Kwa ground ni different: social amenities like public parks, playgrounds and social halls have grabbed or left to decay, jobs and opportunities are hoarded for the politically connected, and there is the constant exhortation to entrepreneur oneself out of structural poverty.

It leaves one, then with only the Internet and one’s body as the last arenas that one can live, not just exist, but really live, with the all the thrill and joy that capitalism, classism and racism tells us will never be ours. This is the possibility of alternative life that the ratchet offers — a way of being in the world that seeks to live in pleasure, purpose and joy – full humanity, and that above all refuses to participate in the fraudulent prescription that in Kenya, of all places, personal comportment and sexual restraintwill define one’s life chances and opportunities. Anyone who went to an upmarket private school in Nairobi knows how ratchet wealthy children can be, with no lasting consequences.

As one 23-year-old told me, the only morality our society cares about is the sexual one, yet the rest of our existence is incredibly immoral.

In the end, however, the ratchet in isolation will not save us either. The personal transgression of mores governing dress, speech, sexuality and decorum do not make a revolution – the oppressive structures that corral black life into nihilistic corners are a product of laws, politics, the justice system, theology and economics, all of which should be engaged with, for the purposes of expanding freedom. And although Freaknik was banned by the city of Atlanta, that was not before it started losing its own appeal because of increasing incidents of sexual harassment and even assault during the festival, in contrast to its playful and liberating beginnings.

In the end, the ratchet cannot be an end in itself. It is only a means of carving out new ways of relating to ourselves, and each other. The ratchet only offers possibilities, as Abdelaziz concluded, “we would be mistaken to not pay attention to these gasps of alternative life in our present predicament.” The emphasis is mine.

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Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist, and 2018 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya, and has written on a wide range of subjects. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Al Jazeera English, The New Internationalist, and more. Currently, Christine is the curator of Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi, a co-creation space for public interest storytelling.

Culture

The Politics of Street Names

Street names are political weapons. They produce memories, attachment and intimacy—all while often sneakily distorting history.

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June 18, 1940 is well known throughout Francophonie: it is the date of Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech calling for resistance against France’s occupation by Nazi Germany and its ally, the Vichy regime. The then-governor of Chad, Felix Eboué, was one of the first political leaders to support de Gaulle; he proclaimed his support from Brazzaville, the capital of “Free France” between 1940 and 1943. To this day, in Dakar and Bamako, as in all the metropole’s cities, at least one street name references the event. On the other hand, who remembers Lamine Senghor’s scathing indictment of French colonialism—which he urged to “destroy and replace by the union of free peoples”—before the League Against Imperialism in Brussels on February 11, 1927? Two public addresses calling for resistance to servitude: one proudly displayed around the empire, the other pushed into oblivion.

Recent movements like Rhodes Must FallFaidherbe Must Fall, and Black Lives Matter have forced us all to face the political nature of odonyms (identifying names given to public communication routes or edifices), carriers of a selected and selective memory. If a street, a square, a bridge, a train station, or a university proudly carries a name, it is because someone decided it would. In Senegal, historian Khadim Ndiaye insists that “it was when the power of the gunboats defeated all the resistance fighters that Faidherbe’s statue was erected in the middle of Saint-Louis as a sign of rejoicing.” “Lat Dior was assassinated in 1886,” he adds, “and the statue was inaugurated on March 20, 1887 . . . to show the greatness of the metropole.”

To live on Edward Colston Street, Léopold II Avenue, or Jean-Baptiste Colbert Boulevard is to adopt, through time, a geographical identity based on that given name. One starts becoming accustomed to its sound, as it takes a life of its own; generating scenes of endless discussions around tea, of traffic jams on the way home from work, of bargaining with the local shopkeeper. Everything from the bakery, pharmacy, and police station to the hotel, ATM, and gas station bear its shadow. A name that produces memories, attachment, intimacy—all while sneakily erasing its backstory. Rhodes? Ah, my college years! Pike? Good times we had around that statue! Columbus? What a lovely park that square had!

Odonyms have the power of not only negating history but also distorting memory. May 8, 1945 is synonymous with both liberation and carnage. In Europe, the date marks the surrender of Germany and the victory of the Allied powers. In Algeria, for having dared to demand their liberation from the colonial yoke during the parade celebrating the end of the war, thousands (probably tens of thousands) of Algerians were killed in the cities of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata. Two memories face each other between the May 8, 1945 bus stop in Paris or the May 8, 1945 square in Lyon on the one hand, and the May 8, 1945 airport in Sétif or the May 8, 1945 university in Guelma on the other. Moreover, the “liberation” commemorated through the avenue running alongside Dakar’s port celebrates that of France in 1944–1945, not Senegal’s. This “liberation” occurred when the country was still a colony, its children subject to the Code de l’indigénat (Native Code), and its soldiers—at the Thiaroye camp, on December 1, 1944—coldly executed in the hundreds for demanding their compensation for fighting in the French army.

As sociologist Alioune Sall Paloma argues, “naming is an act of power.” Odonyms can thus equally be used by officials to seize historical legitimacy over a popular figure or event. Despite being attacked throughout his life, everyone in Senegal now seems to erect multifaceted thinker Cheikh Anta Diop as an unquestionable reference. How is it, then, that the country’s largest university—that happens to bear his name, on an avenue named after him, which now also hosts a statue of him—does not teach his groundbreaking work? Or that, in February 2020, five high schools in the country were renamed after authors Aminata Sow Fall and Cheikh Hamidou Kane, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, sculptor Ousmane Sow, and revolutionary leader Amath Dansokho, all while artists barely manage to survive from their work and the political principles these namesakes stood by are today systematically scorned?

There is also a lot to say about many heads of states’ obsession with “going down in history.” In Cameroon, the largest football stadium in the country, built for the 2021 African Cup of Nations, honors current lifetime president Paul Biya. In Côte d’Ivoire, after only two years in office, Alassane Ouattara gave his name to the university of Bouaké. In Senegal, under the impetus of his brother—also involved in politics and at the center of a 2019 multibillion-dollar oil scandal—President Macky Sall now has a high school named after him in the capital’s suburb.

Decolonization—a term increasingly abused and gutted of its meaning—supposes the conservation and promotion of Africa’s multidimensional heritage. Material heritage is decolonized through, in particular, the rehabilitation of emblematic sites and buildings and the restitution of its cultural heritage trapped in Western museums. Decolonizing immaterial heritage requires the repatriation of audiovisual archives seized by foreign funds and a thorough refoundation of odonyms. Finally, human heritage is decolonized by concrete support to artists and young creative souls, so that no one can claim, when it will be too late: “They did their best, despite the obstacles. If only we had uplifted them during their lifetime.”

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Culture

The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities

The mass atrocities of the 1899 French invasion of what is Niger today are finally being treated with the gravity and consequence they deserve in Western popular histories.

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In the spring of 1979, Moussa Ali, now 85, was plowing his parched field on the edge of a two-house hamlet in the Sahel of Niger. Suddenly, his hoe rang with the sound of metal. Intrigued, he dug down and found a cache of ancient bullets and spent cartridges. “Then I knew that the story our grandparents told us must be true,” Moussa recalls.

The story Moussa heard as a child was the story of the Battle of Koran Kalgo. In July 1899, his ancestors’ village was attacked by a well-armed French invasion force. If Moussa had had access to the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence, he would have read the terse French dispatch from that day: “Enemy held their ground despite a murderous battery. A small village of 600. Storming it cost us 2 dead, 14 wounded. All inhabitants killed, village set on fire.”

He also might have gone on to read the diary of the French officer sent to find this murderous force after rumors of its atrocities had reached Paris. “Towards midday we arrived at what used to be the village of Koran Kalgo. Now it was just smouldering ruins. An old man sitting in the ashes told us the invasion force had passed through four days ago. Two little girls, about 10 years old, were hanging from a tree at the village entrance. Everywhere I saw dead bodies of men in their prime, their great shields lay alongside. Some had had time before dying to find the shade of a spindly bush.”

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Moussa had kept the bullets for over 40 years, wanting to preserve the evidence of this monstrous history. We were the first people outside his village to ever come asking about the massacre. We were in Niger to make a BBC documentary, African Apocalypse, on the murderous invasion of 1899 and its continuing impact on people today.

We sent a photo of one of the bullets to a historical munitions expert, Curtis Steinhauer of Cartridge Corner. Its markings were clear, and we received this remarkable reply: “‘4-85’ means the bullet was made in April 1885. ‘ART’ indicates it was made for the artillery division. ‘D’ signifies the manufacturer, Société Électromécanique of Dives in Normandy. And ‘EG’ is the company that supplied the casing’s metal, Eschger, Ghesquière & Cie of Biache St Vaast, near Calais.”

This bullet is just one testament to a more brutal history. Paul Voulet, the French commander in 1899, is believed to have killed tens of thousands of Nigeriens as he sought to take control of Lake Chad for France before the British got there. Niger’s main highway follows the exact route of his massacres. In fact, it created the colonial and still-current border with Nigeria.

Last month in New York, Fabian Salvioli—the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence—presented a report entitled “Transitional justice and addressing the legacy of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in colonial contexts.” Unrestricted access to official archives in the search for truth is one of his many recommendations.

Transitional justice might seem a strange concept in the context of century-old abuse, but, as Salvioli points out, “the colonial transfer of wealth and racist oppression have created a legacy of social, economic and cultural exclusion whose effects have been felt for generations.”

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Moussa Ali has lived that legacy. In the 1980s, he traveled to France, looking for work. He was unable to access a visa and, when discovered, he was instantly deported back to Niger. “They can come here,” he says, “but we’re not allowed to go there. It’s shameful!” For 40 years, he has had little choice but to eke out a living in his deserted village, five kilometers from the nearest water well.

At every village along the road, we met communities who feel that the day Voulet arrived marked the first day of their impossible present. According to the UN Human Development Index, Niger is the least developed country in the world. France granted Niger independence in 1960, but only if they entered into a defense treaty which required that Niger prioritize French national security interests. Today, although a third of France’s electricity is reportedly generated by Nigerien uranium, less than 20% of the country’s 25 million people have access to electric power. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in “The Case for Reparations,” “plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient.”

© LemKino Pictures.

© LemKino Pictures.

In our film, the Sultan of Birnin Konni states that Voulet and his men killed between 7,000 and 15,000 people over three days of rampage. “He found us rich and left us poor,” he adds. In fact, the sultan believes that Voulet’s actions constitute a crime against humanity. “If they occurred today,” he says, “Voulet would be taken before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.”

Salvioli’s report acknowledges the obvious fact that given the time elapsed, prosecution of colonial perpetrators is most often no longer an option. “Given this limitation,” he writes, “it is even more important that other components of transitional justice are properly developed.”

Also last month, representatives of the affected Nigerien communities (with whom we worked on our film) spoke alongside Salvioli at “Racial Violence and Colonial Accountabilities,” a global webinar at the New School of New York. These advocates are demanding a public apology from France accompanied by a full investigation of the truth of what happened—something neither France nor Niger has ever done. They also demand a process of memorialization with full community participation. There are monuments across Niger to French officers who died in the colonial conquest; Voulet’s grave is still preserved in the village where his African troops, sickened by his excesses, finally mutinied and killed him. But there is not a single memorial to those who died resisting the bloody invasion. As Hosseini Tahirou Amadou, a history teacher and one of the Nigerien community representatives, says, “It’s as if all the Africans who died were not actually human beings.”

It’s not just Niger, either. Also at the webinar, Professor Ousseina Alidou, a Nigerien specialist in postcolonial gender studies at Rutgers University, remarked that years later, Africa still remains “marked by coloniality and its afterlife.”

The time since George Floyd’s murder have shown us the urgent need for global humanity to transition out of an unjust world forged in the fires of colonialism. The communities of Niger, silenced for so long, are now beginning to play their part in making that transition a real possibility.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Culture

Musical Roots Run Deep in the Congo

The documentary, Rumba Kings, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage case and a centering of the Congolese way.

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On October 6, 2021, both Congos—Brazzaville and Kinshasa—submitted a formal proposal to UNESCO to recognize Congolese Rumba as an intangible cultural heritage. When UNESCO announced the list, Congolese Rumba did not make the cut. At least, Morna music from Cabo Verde did. Recognizing a musical genre as an intangible cultural heritage brings with it things like legal protections. Were Congolese Rumba to command entry, it would mark a further centering of African culture in the world’s imagination and priority.

Over the last decade, a concerted effort by producers, filmmakers, historians, journalists, and image-makers worldwide has sought to reinterpret Africa’s image and center its place in modern history. Books, records, films, and an ever shifting gaze away from the metropoles of North America, Europe, and East Asia have wonderfully exposed Africa’s rich offerings.

Each endeavor has its own motivations but each are bound by a consensus that it would be a grave error, and downright idiotic, to continue to ignore the vanquished cultural history and stories that have shaped a continent that sits as much at the center of most conventional maps as Europe.

Musically, Congo is the mothership. Congolese rhythms laid the groundwork for many styles of music across the Atlantic, most notably in Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil. Its guitar styles caressed Africa, inspiring artists from Senegal to Somalia to South Africa to South Sudan. As early as 2011 in Accra, I picked up a copy of one of the best selling albums in Africa in the 1980s, an LP by Rumba maestro Docteur Nico.

With nearly 90 million people, projected to reach 200 million by 2050, bustling cities, a storied culture, and a history that demands rethinking, not least because our so-called modern world runs off the toil of Congolese labor and the fruits of their soil, the world needs a piece of storytelling humanizing a place few will visit or even experience via the internet or TV in their lifetime.

Rumba Kings, a new documentary by Alan Brain, a Peruvian-American filmmaker who boasts an impressive, committed CV, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage and a centering of the Congolese way—but, like all immense endeavors, is not without flaws.

It excels through its tightly knit narrative and historical recount, not sparing the brutality of Belgian colonizers, as well as a clean, simple structure and edit, making the documentary accessible. The utter lack of western or European voices and faces is most welcome. Congolese musicians are expected, but Congolese scholars and pundits are not as obvious, often easily overlooked. European and American documentaries on Africa have in the past centered a white character or produced something entirely devoid of African voices.

As someone intimately familiar with the intricacies and difficulties of working with archives and sourcing aged imagery, the sheer abundance of archival footage and photography in Rumba Kings is no easy feat. You’re always in charge of the production—the filming, the music recording—but scouring the past for its relics requires good fortune birthed by tenacity and persistence.

Such attention to detail is also evident in the film’s focus on the enduring legacy of Cuban culture on Congolese music. Cuban music is an awesome force in Africa—the soundtrack to the Cuban Revolution’s commitment to African independence struggles embedding itself deeply into the repertoire of many of the continent’s capitals. There is a uniqueness to its presence in Kinshasa, where Congolese music welcomed home a sound that partially found its identity on the rhythms of central Africa. While the West African coast is dotted with enviable interpretations of Cuban music, the Congolese-Cuban sound is exceptionally sweet and deserves a documentary of its own.

For this record producer, the documentary’s nod to Congolese record labels was short but crucial. Record labels are treated with immense suspicion in the overly moralized Western imagination, but they are the key business engine and vision behind memorable cultural eras. Music needs money and strategy.

That none of the labels featured in the film—the most major record labels in Congo at the time—were owned by Congolese is unsurprising given the nature of capital in the country, but also an important revelation of a vestige that persists today perhaps more than elsewhere on the continent. West Africans owned mega labels like Syllart, East African governments nationalized their music, North Africa’s imprints were mostly all home grown. If, as the documentary says in its promotional slogan, “Congo’s real treasure does not lie underground,” it begs the question why the nature of ownership follows a similar structure to the extraction of its mineral wealth—a question the documentary could’ve posed with investigative vigor.

While the figures interviewed are a star list, the film’s insistence on tracing the story through a series of characters and voices rather than developing a small cadre of central characters weakens the transmission of intended feeling: building an endearing emotional attachment to Congo via a few central characters. The Guardian’s short, viral documentary on Somali music from the 1980s is a fine example of this approach.

Rumba Kings also could have dedicated space to the deep roots of Congolese music to discover where the prowess, melodies, and rhythms were born. Some of the most stellar Congolese melodies in Brazzaville derive from ancient folk traditions of smaller towns and villages deep inland, where many musicians migrated from. There is a deeper level of understanding Africa’s relationship with sound that we often ignore. As an Asian, it is the same as tracing the roots of the endlessly diverse cuisines of my home continent, where the trail leads to unsung master chefs in the hinterlands where few venture.

Perhaps the most lamentable aspect of the documentary, for all its good intentions and efforts, was what was left out. It is the same coverage that is neglected in endless columns, articles, analysis pieces, and album liner notes about contemporary African history. What happened? If we’re going to celebrate Congo, its music, and this rich era when everything seemed to be going right, when Zaire hosted music festivals, bands, and boxing tournaments from around the world, when the guitars looked so fresh like they were made in Kinshasa itself, to the dire situation Congo and other African states find themselves in today, we should be compelled to ask what happened? There was no mention of what stripped African countries like Congo of their “golden era,” or the energy and exuberance of independence that ushered in a cultural epoch that will be spoken, covered, and featured for generations. A small mention of the manufactured debt crises and structural adjustment, the scars of which are so visible and still bloody on the continent, goes a long way. Without exploring this era of the recolonization of Africa, as Thomas Sankara put it, one unwittingly perpetuates a fallacy that Africans cannot govern themselves, and any abundance that reaches African societies will be short lived.

An issue that affects all African-focused documentaries, not Rumba Kings in particular, is one of control. Distribution of Western documentaries is too tightly controlled and rarely, if ever, finds its way anywhere outside Europe, North America, and maybe Australia. A quick glance at the film festivals screening Rumba Kings has only Brazil as the sole global South audience. This is not a failing of this film in particular of course, but a scathing indictment of the arrogant, incentous nature of the documentary film industry. Who are these documentaries made for? There’s no doubt Rumba Kings is made for a Western audience. Will anybody in Africa or Asia, where 80 percent of humanity lives, be privy to its insight? Music is available worldwide, why is this mostly available at film festivals in European cities that most of the world risks drowning in the Mediterranean to reach?

Lastly, viewers should be cognizant that this was supported by the Africa Museum in Belgium. The museum underwent a $67 million revamp to clean its crass colonial image and depictions of Africa within its walls. Its support for films on King Leopold’s former fiefdom appears to be part of its ongoing mission to paint over its lamentable image with storytelling of such nature, rather than, say, spending $67 million in some form of restitution to the two Congos themselves.

Nevertheless, the subject matter remains infallible and Rumba Kings is a tireless and commendable effort, and a timely, solid case for Rumba’s designation as the world’s latest protected cultural heritage.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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