When the air shifts its scorching weight just so, and begins to allow the cool streams of summer’s evenings to take over, I find my courage to venture out for a walk around the neighbourhood. Another full cycle has come knocking, I say to myself, in cautious tones so it does not ring out loud like an admonition against self; a reprieve that I may have stayed too long in this land of cyclic seasons and strange sojourning.
Yet there’s something about this place that has lodged itself deeply into my becoming. There’s a foreign bone packed with the marrow of experience, encounters and educating. That bone is stuck in there, and over the years of accommodating its foreignness, it has calcified into character. It’s a bone that has made the soldier in me more prepared to take up arms and go to war for that which makes us whole, restores our dignity, and against that which diminishes our civility. And I’m about to go to war for Kamala Harris.
Walk with me
But first, take a walk with me. Up the street, just a five-minute walk from my home is the Natural History Society of Maryland building. I’ve been here before for neighbourhood events like paint night to raise funds for our arts festival. I come to the building’s parking lot on occasional Saturdays to buy fresh produce from the local seasonal farmers’ market.
This building is also the place where something phenomenal happened in 1913. A group of women suffragists marching over 200 miles for three months from New York to Washington DC stopped here to rest up for the night. I live in the shadow of one of American history’s most inspirational women’s movement that fought for the right of women to vote.
I stand there in the quiet of the evening summer breeze and close my eyes. In my mind’s eye, I can see the reported 5,000 to 10,000 women marchers finally arrive in Baltimore, worn out, shoes and laces desperately clasping the feet they protected with fierce resolve. The neighbourhood has opened their homes for the women to spend the night. The local priest, Dr. Cyrus Cort, is against the women’s fight to be heard through the ballot, but he is voted down, and the women are welcome to stay in the neighborhood.
This connection to history fills me with inspiration. It’s enough for me that my neighbourhood played a part in this struggle. No matter what, I will carry on that spirit of welcoming the warrior, giving them rest, and replenishing their supplies as long as I have the means. It is because of these women that I, an African in America, have pitched my tent here and can vote for the leaders I want.
The women suffragists stopping in my neighbourhood is all reported in a New York Times article on February 1913. The marchers woke up early the next morning and marched on down past where I live and headed on to Washington DC. With them they carried banners, one which read: “New York State denies the vote to criminals, lunatics, idiots and women.” When they arrived in Washington DC, they held up another sign, which read: “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of this country.” But things were not going to change overnight.
It wasn’t until seven years after those women came by what is now my neighborhood that the 19th amendment was signed, giving women the right to vote. But that’s not what’s shocking. This fight started in 1848 when the women established the National Women’s Suffrage Association. It took them 70 years to achieve that goal!
Let’s zoom out and get an even truer perspective. The United States Constitution, written in 1787, states that all men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But it took over 130 years for women to achieve that equality as voting citizens. This did not include black women!
There’s a sadness about this struggle that only America’s foundation of racism could have enabled. White women who fought for equality left out black women. Some of those in the leadership ranks voiced out their concern that black women did not have the same rights as white women. Ida B. Wells, a black woman suffragists born into slavery, fought for black women’s place in the struggle. They were allowed to march from the back of the parade. History records that she bravely led her team of black women to the front. While the 19th amendment of 1920 gave women the right to vote, it wasn’t until 45 years later that black women gained their right to vote. This background connects the dots from women’s suffrage to the nomination of Kamala Harris, a black woman, for the vice presidency.
Kamala Harris in the African context
European society looked upon women as men’s property, childish, prone to irrational thought, and therefore dependent on their husbands for decision-making. Unfortunately, this is a worldview that European colonisation imposed on Africa.
African societies had women in positions of power and public influence long before European intervention. They were queens who ran kingdoms alongside men. They were warriors who fought in battles and medicine women who healed. They were priests who held oracular power that could be more powerful that the king’s political office. They also comfortably occupied the private space of their homes as mothers and nurturers of life.
While the 19th amendment of 1920 gave women the right to vote, it wasn’t until 45 years later that black women gained their right to vote. This background connects the dots from women’s suffrage to the nomination of Kamala Harris, a black woman, for the vice presidency.
Sufficient research by African scholars shows that before the intervention, African societies recognised the complementarity role that both male and female genders played. The ordinary African woman was not considered fickle of mind like the European woman. In fact, in most societies, she ran the markets, determined the prices, and controlled the location of trading. This phenomenon is still very present in African countries where, for example, “mama mboga” is the predominant trader in local markets. If something happens to the market spaces, it is women who speak out and fight to have things corrected. The Western concept of markets, on the other hand, is dominated by men. There are still very few white women in political and trading spaces. In the United States, there are only seven black women who have conquered the heights of financial bosses in big companies. The Western world has a lot to learn from pre-intervention Africa.
So why are African women celebrating the nomination of Kamala Harris to the vice president candidacy in America if they were way ahead in recognising the complementarity of genders? Because things changed, and now we draw inspiration from the global black woman who rises against the odds. Colonial powers in Africa strategised to place men in powerful positions and relegated women to private spaces where decisions affecting society were not made. Over time, colonial and post-colonial African men began to think of themselves as superior to their women. This was never the reality.
When Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi admonished the environmentalist, Professor Wangari Maathai, in public, telling her she should know that African culture demands a woman should be subservient to men, he was wrong. African elders raised in colonial Africa are not to be trusted with Africa’s memory. They are the ones who sided with the white usurpers and kicked our mothers out of their places of honour. Many have misled a generation that is now slowly beginning to discover the truth about an Africa whose civilizations fully included women. In ancient Africa, from a gender perspective, Kamala Harris’s nomination would have been ordinary.
We have forgotten the African institutions that had nurtured powerful women who were not an oddity to Africans. In spite of the destruction of Africa’s gender complementarity systems, Africa’s new nations have not needed to fight the same battles that Western women have had to fight. Kenyan women do not need a suffrage movement.
When Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi admonished the environmentalist, Professor Wangari Maathai, in public, telling her she should know that African culture demands a woman should be subservient to men, he was wrong. African elders raised in colonial Africa are not to be trusted with Africa’s memory.
To arrive at the place of complementarity that satisfactorily caters to women’s needs and talents in leadership, African women activists must include a restoration of memory, an education on how African societies so naturally came to produce women like Mekatilili wa Menza, Yenenga, Asantewa, and a string of queen mothers across Africa. What white women have been fighting for is a place that African women had long figured out how to structure, and then violently forced to forget.
The novelty of Kamala Harris in American politics comes from a society that is still very young in building institutions of gender complementarity. America is culturally a baby compared to Africa’s ethno-cultural nations and territories before they were arbitrarily bunched up together as Westphalian nation-states. Yet the irony is that African women now find inspiration in Harris’s nomination as one of them.
Perhaps someday, African scholars will teach and inspire America in building what Africa once had so that the occurrence of a Kamala Harris or a Barack Obama in the 21st century would not be so shocking an achievement. When Cheikh Anta Diop attempted to teach about the ancient wisdom of Africa’s matriarchal systems and civilizations of black Kemet that contributed to Western knowledge, he was fought ruthlessly by the French and denied the right to teach.
Slowly, the present-day Anta Diops will arise, return memory to Africans, and gift the Western world with the idea of how to make a black woman presidency as common as that of a rich white male. When Shirley Chisholm, an educator and writer, became the first black woman elected to the US Congress in 1969, where she served seven terms, and then boldly ran for president on a major party ticket in 1972, she carried within her this easy knowledge from her African ancestors – the knowing that there was nothing out of place about a black women leading a country, a kingdom, an army.
I’m caught between celebrating Kamala Harris and chastising America for its exceedingly slow pace in bringing women to powerful public spaces. The black movement does not yet have the power to steer more Harrises to the top. There’s a war of intra-black identities brewing. And I’m caught between different blacknesses. Racial identity in America is a web of chains that you struggle through. One encounters three streams of consciousness: unquestioned belonging of whiteness; uncertain discomfort of in-betweens; and the dangerous branding of blackness. Kamala Harris belongs to the in-between identities that have lately kept shifting and disturbing a nation that demands neat extremes.
Kamala, the in-between
She’s black, she’s Indian, she’s American. In this country, race is everything. It is the thread that knits this country’s identity, with the warp and weft of black and white extremes inextricably holding together the character of a nation knit with the needles of structural and performative violence. This aspect of violence comes out with shocking clarity in the dissection of George Floyd’s murder.
In spite of her mixed-race heritage, in the American construct, Harris is considered a black woman. In Kenya, she would be called white – mzungu – either as a result of her Anglophone American culture or on account of her much lighter skin. The black/white racial dichotomy in Kenya holds little to no relevance in the functional identity of Kenya. And if you are mixed-race with one of your parents being white, you are still more mzungu than mwafrika in Kenya. The way it goes in America, if you even have a drop of black in you, you are considered black.
Historically, some people with that drop of black chose to pass for white in order to have an easier life in a country where being black is a heavy cross upon which one is hung and bleeds from wounds of indignity to the end of their days. It doesn’t matter that a black person becomes the president, a billionaire, a Nobel laureate… if they are black, they are just below the line of consideration as human beings. Kamala Harris, a black women who is also in-between races, to have been nominated as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, is both discomforting and at once dangerous for Americans.
Conspiracy theories as puerile as birtherism and their manic regurgitation have been a hallmark of this current regime. That Ms. Harris is now a victim of this idiocy fueled by the president is no surprise. Something tells me she has the firepower to fight back that Obama did not have. She showed her mettle during the Democratic presidential candidacy campaigns when she fearlessly confronted Joe Biden. The debates against their Republican opponents can’t come soon enough. Black people do not have the luxury to play nice. They have to know how to throw lethal punches using nothing but their smarts. And as a Howard University alumna, Ms. Harris comes with confidence and pride. She is fearless because she inculcated black intellectualism as a dominant body of thinking during her four years at this university.
But the black identity is growing more complex in America, especially when it comes to power. Harris’s nomination is not only discomforting to white nationalists and good white folk who silently feel threatened by the encroaching shadow of darker-skinned people that translates to lowered value of life and living; it is also discomforting to some black people who are unable to think outside of the compartmentalisation of race purity.
The identity psychosis of black purists
On the black identity extreme, accusations of “she’s not black enough” have already started. The smear campaigns that she’s not black at all are staples that benefit both extremes of racial purity. The keepers of both black and white racial purity have built a thought citadel of power and belonging that is tiered, with the top level of political representation, social influencers and paradigm shifters belonging to a select few for the rest to gaze upon and feel proud and well represented.
These citadels of black racial purity are heavily fenced in with qualification criteria that range from parentage, ancestry, political ideology, social association, upbringing, and yes, the unspoken inanity of skin tones. Black purists, such as the American Descendants of Slaves movement (ADOS), are peddling she’s-not-black-enough prejudices – an accusation that is as callous as the president’s fueling of birtherism conspiracies.
Harris has fully embraced her mother’s Indian heritage and proudly declared her black identity in America. Yet there is still a problem for some vocal ADOS members who argue that her black Jamaican father who came to the United States as a student is not a descendant of American slavery, and therefore his progeny cannot claim to understand the issues that black people in America really face. It does not matter to these black purists that Harris was born and raised in America as a black person with the same racist experiences an ADOS would have faced.
Conspiracy theories as puerile as birtherism and their manic regurgitation have been a hallmark of this current regime. That Ms. Harris is now a victim of this idiocy fueled by the president is no surprise. Something tells me she has the firepower to fight back that Obama did not have.
During desegregation, Harris was bussed to school as a black girl and faced the isolation and rejection of the white school she was being bussed to. When you are the instrument of experimentation in the pursuit of a more perfect union, the whip of the master’s fightback lands on you through the jeers and indignities you suffer alone in school. Regardless of privileges she might have had as a light-skinned educated woman – because this is America where human value is often measured by the shade of one’s epidermis – Harris has worn that branding of blackness since she was born.
But the psychosis of racism for black people has been long and brutal, and some have reacted to it by taking that very same excoriating system and building a caste system of black identity. This tiered privilege is presented by influential ADOS persons as “lineage”, where an up-coming black person is pushed into declaring her ancestry. By that declaration, she gets shelved into the appropriate caste of blackness: Pure Black; Pass for Black; Not Black Enough, Not Black at All.
As a continental African immigrant, I belong to the last tier – Not Black at All – and I dare not be caught by an ADOS speaking authoritatively on any issues of black experience in America regardless of the fact that the American system considers me a black person. The police will kill a black immigrant African with no less depravity that they killed George Floyd; and my resume will and has often been thrown into the bin as quickly as Shaniqua’s because we both have an African or black name.
Last year, Don Lemon, a CNN anchor sympathetic to ADOS, sparked a fury about Kamala Harris’s lineage: “She’s black, yes, but is she African American?” he asked. A splitting of black hairs and hierarchies. Like Barack Obama before her, these keepers of American black purity questioned where these problematic in-betweens should fit in the black identity spectrum.
Meanwhile, right wing blacks have also joined the bandwagon of policing the black identity against the collective interests of a people who share the same enemy. Observing all this is the Master who chuckles gleefully at the spectacle. So, gleefully, the president’s son retweeted a black right wing provocateur who claimed about Kamala: “She comes from Jamaican slave owners. She’s not an American Black. Period.” Whether such tweets are generated by Russian bots or not, there is enough communication with real black purists that hold the same views.
This tiered privilege is presented by influential ADOS persons as “lineage”, where an up-coming black person is pushed into declaring her ancestry. By that declaration, she gets shelved into the appropriate caste of blackness: Pure Black; Pass for Black; Not Black Enough, Not Black at All.
If these black purism voices rise to a critical mass, they would win the argument that Harris could not possibly represent or understand the grievances of American descendants of slaves because her Asian-Jamaican lineage disqualifies her. It’s mind-boggling.
The psychosis of exclusive belongings kneecaps black rising everywhere. Purposeful black unity is possible and necessary in conquering the 21st century institutions of modern slavery. In the United States, the main one is the prison industrial complex that incarcerates black people at over five times the rate of white people, according to the US Department of Justice. Globally, the institution of economic slavery binds us all. The Washington Consensus economic hegemony still holds hostage African nations and the global black economy. It is naïve to not understand this connection between all descendants of African peoples. It needs to be clarified that I speak of a black unity of purpose that could and should be achieved through black diversity and through the necessary recognition that blacks are not and never have been a monolith.
Healing the black mind
What has happened and is still happening to black people in America can never be fully expressed in any manner of language. The one thing that ADOS have right is the insistence that they have a unique experience that no other black person who has not borne the inherited burden on the enslaved ancestry can fully understand. Uniqueness though does not mean that a non-ADOS is incapable of learning the history of African Americans and making intelligent decisions that dare to build a country that helps heals the minds of black people, restores justice and recognises their humanity. Is Kamala Harris up for this challenge? Time will tell.
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The Politics of Street Names
Street names are political weapons. They produce memories, attachment and intimacy—all while often sneakily distorting history.
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 Fall, Faidherbe 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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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