By Fred Mbogo
Published December 1, 2008
The work of South African singer Miriam Makeba, Jamaican musician Bob Marley, Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and South African playwrights John Kani, Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard would not have been as high profile were it not for the circumstances surrounding their creation: Adversity. Misery, difficulty, and ill fortune, FRED MBOGO contends, are always the fodder for good art.
The music of the late South African lark, Miriam Makeba (Mama Africa), wouldn’t have been the same without Apartheid. This is the case of the evil begetting the beautiful.
Jamaican Bob Marley’s greatness is similarly built on a romanticisation of an Africa, which he keeps hoping to go back to and which he claims to have been a part of in spirit through, among others, dressing and smoking! He paints it as a place from which his ancestors were forcefully removed.
Nigerian Fela Kuti’s suggested wildness in his music becomes great when put in the context of the ‘politricks’ played by consecutive oppressive Nigerian regimes during his performing life.
South African John Kani, Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard are considered exceptional creators of stage plays because of their anti-Apartheid stance and previous difficult working conditions. Their play, The Island, is celebrated as a window that enables audiences to see and ‘experience’ the fears, hopes, desires and general conditions of South African political prisoners housed at the infamous Robben Island.
Is Thomas Mapfumo likely to be appreciated more given Zimbabwe’s staggering steps under President Robert Gabriel Mugabe? Makeba’s 31 years in exile made her music quite noticeable.
Kenya’s Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is a major beneficiary of the goodies of exile in the form of publicity and myth creation; that, for instance, his books were read in bars back in Kenya! (Most bars in Kenya are and were dark, noisy and smoke-filled providing very difficult conditions for reading.)
Would Bob Marley have been great if history didn’t possess the trans-Atlantic slave trade? Would Fela Kuti’s sweaty body and shiny saxophone have given us such entertainment were Nigeria’s political troubles to absent themselves from history? Supposing Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai are to come up with a binding agreement that creates a stress-free Zimbabwe, what chances will Mapfumo have of being famous beyond the borders of Zimbabwe? Following this trend, what would our current discussion about South Africa’s art be, were Apartheid to have not taken place? Consider all the art that postures itself as ‘post-colonial’ or that calls for de-colonisation or that warns us of neo-colonialism. How much of its beauty would we have missed were colonialism a thing in dreams alone?
It seems oppression and exile bring with them certain ‘sweetnesses.’ Both seem to excite a sense of sympathy for the victim. In the case of exile the isolated victim carries with himself the images of home that become important in his creative works. The victim’s sense of nostalgia and longing for home is sometimes borders oppression of the highest order. But there is a flip side to this in the form of opportunities that come with sympathy and even guilt! People give an ear to your story since it bears aspects of suffering which they may be keen to assuage.
The exiled victim, through his art presented at a foreign land, will always draw curiosity for his works are different, ‘strange’ or exotic. This serves to encourage him to make more of the same kind of art.
This is not to remove anything from the greatness of the works of Miriam Makeba, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or Wole Soyinka and many others. It is only to suggest that maybe their works wouldn’t have gained as much notoriety as they do now that they have lived in foreign lands. At the same time it is to suggest that possibly their works would not have been as qualitatively beautiful as they are considered to be if they did not experience the pain and insult of exile and eventual isolation from home.
Perhaps the pains of oppression force its victims to wail or cry so that in the process there results a therapy of sorts that gives room for momentary escape. Miriam Makeba’s wailing may be such a case in point. Through her songs we are able to capture a voice seeking a way out of the troubles mostly of the pains of Apartheid and then of her own isolation in exile. This crying in a form that displays her nostalgia for home gives her listeners a chance to explore with her a romanticised Johannesburg in her Pata Pata song whenever she gave it outside her South African borders.
It therefore is unfair to subject young artists to the standards set by the wails of Miriam Makeba, Wole Soyinka, Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s ilk. The issues of the present generation appear to be far removed from the former. But personal suffering, that affects one directly, occasionally creates spurts of genius from the present generation.
Can it really be true that Africans have run out of ‘hard’ material like colonialism, or Apartheid and its immediate effects from which to fashion great art? There are still such cruel situations as the Congo wars, the Somalia troubles, the various shades of xenophobia in southern Africa, negative ethnicity in many African nations, and the ever threatening diseases and forces of nature from floods to drought. There are also a number of dictatorial regimes. How come no one significantly sings, writes, sculpts, photographs or wails about such issues? Is it because the artists involved are not in exile? Supposing they got an exile experience, would such artists be as vocal as Miriam Makeba about Apartheid or are her shoes too big to be filled by an artist writing about the tragedy that is Somalia?
Maybe the African person is afraid of self-criticism. Bad African leaders in many works of art are blamed but only as conduits of the ills of neo-colonialists. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is critical of the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta, the first black leader of Kenya after colonialism. But the failures of Kenyatta are only presented as part of a larger scheme by former colonialists to keep exploiting the African populace. If Ngugi wa Thiong’o were to create his art around the exclusive ills of Kenyatta’s leadership without shipping in the neo-colonists angle his art would perhaps seem empty! He therefore chooses the ‘buy-able’ route of blaming the colonialists for creating a black elite that has a black outside but a very white inside!
Miriam Makeba must have been lucky. With oppression from the colonialist or Apartheid systems that were propagated by the white race, it was easy for artists to wail freely and beautifully without restriction. But when the oppressor is black, how should the artist wail? This seems to be the trouble for the young generation.