Africa is a Country

Losing London

“To journey is to be human. To migrate is to be human. Human migration forged the world. Human migration will forge the future,” writes Ishtiyaq Shukri in his first essay following his deportation from London’s Heathrow airport in July.

August 2015

I entered the world traveling. My first journey was the 1,4000km trek from Johannesburg to Cape Town, although I don’t remember it. I was just two weeks old at the time. I have lived fully in the world ever since. My first plane journey was when I was five. I still have the ticket with the old orange tail and blue flying springbok of South African Airways at the time. I still have the specially tailored jacket I wore on the flight.  I remember staring at the surface of the water in my glass on the tray table, absorbed by how still it remained despite our great speed. My first international journey was when I was ten. With hindsight, South African apartheid had already made its mark because I remember noticing black and white people socialising together in public and black faces on billboards for products that were advertised with white faces in South Africa. I remain grateful for that first exposure so early on in life, and the enduring awareness that life could be otherwise than it was in 1970s apartheid South Africa.

Thirty-seven years later, on 14 July 2015, I embarked on yet another journey. On that day, I boarded a flight to London. The journey started like all the others that had gone before – with sights set on one’s destination. I thought I was flying home. My wife of nineteen years is British. I have held permanent British residence since 1997. We own a home in London. The journey progressed, as all my journeys do, with an awareness of the space I am traversing, a throw-back to the road trips of my childhood, when my mother would lay out a map before our departure, and trace her finger on the route ahead, road trips during which my father would test our knowledge of the route by asking: “What’s the next town? How far is it? How long will it take to get there?” Three decades later, on 14 July 2015, my route was longer and the map global, but my awareness of the space being traversed as acute as ever. As my flight crossed the Mediterranean Sea, I became more aware of the privileges of my journey, because 30,000ft below, tens of thousands of desperate refugees were having to endure unimaginable ordeals to get to safety in Europe. Given my ties with Britain, I had no reason to suspect that in fact I was on a collision path all of my own, and that instead of flying to a city I thought of as home, I was really flying into a brick wall. Unlike all my previous journeys, on this occasion I would be denied the thing after which all travellers yearn – their destination. Upon arrival at Heathrow, I was detained for more than nine hours and then deported, my residence stamp of nineteen years cancelled. At no point did British Border Force officials attempt to contact my wife. No previous journey had prepared me for that, or the subsequent limbo, which at the time of my writing has lasted seven weeks.

This experience has been so disorienting, that I have on several nights since woken from dreams of being in London, in our house, in our garden, with family and friends. My body was returned, but my heart continued the journey. Had my trip gone to plan, I would have been in London till 19 August, but every day since then has been a day of waking up to the feeling of displacement that follows deportation, the alienating sense that comes with not being where one intended to be. I will always value the support I have had from family and friends, from my publisher Jacana Media for releasing my media statement, from my mentor Professor Isabel Hoffmeyr of the University of the Witwatersrand who led the petition to the British High Commissioner to South Africa which was signed by so many eminent scholars, writers, citizens and friends, to the London correspondent of the Sunday Times, Marvin Meintjies for covering my story, to Professor Neelika Jayawardane of Oswego State University of New York who wrote about my deportation on this site on 30 July, to English Pen who wrote to the UK’s Immigration Minister at the Home Office, James Brokenshire MP on 22 July 2015 asking for an immediate review and investigation of Border Force’s actions on 14 July, and to all those who interacted with the story on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. I mention you all at length because I see you all. Your support has been an anchor during the helium days when I have felt cut loose and adrift.

I am not new to the procedures of detention. I have now been detained three times by British authorities, so that when I was asked by Border Force officials at Heathrow on 14 July to step aside, my first thought was, “Here we go again”. My first detention was in December 1993, when I was detained for several hours upon arrival at Heathrow. I remember that the flight from Johannesburg to London was full. I also remember the return flight to Johannesburg being empty and that I had four seats in the central aisle to myself. Consider the date of my journey. Remember the political context in South Africa at that time. Fill in the gaps. They explain the disparity in passenger numbers between the two flights. Whatever the reason, I was the only passenger from my flight to be detained. The usual questions followed. Why I was coming to the UK. What my family background was. How I had paid for my flight. What work I did. How much I earned. How much money I had for the holiday. Where I would be staying. If I had a return ticket. How long I would be staying in the UK. But one question stands out: How, as a teacher, I could afford the time off work for a four-week holiday to the UK when the Christmas break is only one week long. That question stands out still, because in asking it British immigration officials demonstrated just how little they knew of my world, when I knew so much about theirs. In the end I was allowed through, on condition that I report to a police station every 24 hours for the duration of my stay. I objected and refused. I was not a criminal. I had done nothing wrong. As a black man in apartheid South Africa I had never been required to report to the police daily. Under no circumstances would I agree to do that in the UK. I was let through with the caution that it would be better for me upon departure if I had evidence that I had complied with the condition. I did not comply. I entered the UK. When the time came to leave, I was not asked for evidence of compliance. In fact, I don’t remember my passport even being checked and stamped, raising the question: Why the threat that it “would be better for me” – other than to intimidate and humiliate – when I was not tagged for follow-up?

My second experience of being called aside in Britain was on 28 August 2003, the day of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s evidence to the Hutton Enquiry into the death of the British government’s weapons expert, Dr David Kelly. I had spent the previous night in the queue on Bell Yard outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London to witness Tony Blair’s evidence first hand. I was writing The Silent Minaret at the time and this was a momentous moment. Mr Blair’s was only the second appearance by a serving British Prime Minister before an official enquiry. Setting aside the criticism that the remit of the enquiry was too narrow to be effective and that Mr Blair had himself appointed Lord Hutton to head the enquiry, as a citizen, as a Londoner, as a writer, I still felt it my duty to be engaged, to be there. After I left the court, I was approached by two police officers as I entered Waterloo Station, and asked to step aside. One officer questioned me, while his partner hovered behind me just out of view. The questioning officer would not give me his name, only his badge number. Officer 411LX of Brixton Police Station, asked me to confirm that I had been to the Hutton Enquiry. During the twenty-minute walk from the courts to the station, I had no sense of being followed, and certainly not by the police, leaving me to conclude that I must have been tracked and traced by CCTV cameras during my walk across the Thames. Why me? Why not stop me at the court? Why track me for all that time? That experience has left me in no doubt as to what a British government is capable of when it decides to tighten the screws, which is why I wrote about it in what would become my first ever published piece of writing.

My third step aside experience of 14 July 2015 is testimony to how far Britain has gone down the road of tightening screws. This most recent detention is reminiscent of my detention experiences at the hands of Israeli immigration officials whenever I have travelled to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israeli interrogations are intrusive, dehumanizing and grinding. But if you are inclined to think of British procedures as a soft touch by comparison, think again. While the UK’s Border Force prefers to call its interrogations ‘interviews’ – part of the same linguistic trick that attempts to camouflage British ghettos by calling them ‘inner cities’ – this euphemism in no way tames the realities of the procedure. At Heathrow, my luggage was scrupulously searched, and paperwork from my visits to Yemen singled out, set aside and taken away. I was photographed and fingerprinted. I was held in for several hours in an upstairs room in the airport. I was questioned in detail, my answers meticulously recorded. It is illegal to photograph British detention centres and deportation facilities, and so my mobile phone and baggage were also stored in a separate lock-up. None of these procedures is new to me. They are all variations of previous such encounters, and one draws on those precedents to remain calm, to remain upright and to cooperate. But what is new and altogether more enduring is that it was from Heathrow that I was deported for the first time, not from Israeli-controlled borders to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as I had so often expected would be the case. Yet I have written at length about Israeli procedures. Let me do so now about British procedures and tell you about the hidden world of UK deportation and the secret places they don’t want you to see.


At the various stages of the detention and deportation process, detainees receive letters – in English – from the Home Office explaining the process. The letters are hand delivered by Border Force officials, in my case, to my seat in the detention room where I was kept waiting. The first letter I received reads as follows:



1. I am ordering your detention under powers contained in the Immigration Act 1971 or the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.

2. Detention is only used when there is no reasonable alternative available. It has been decided that you should remain in detention because:

• There is insufficient reliable information to decide on whether to grant you temporary admission or release.

• You have not produced satisfactory evidence of your identity, nationality or lawful basis to be in the UK.

The letter is dated 14 July 2015 and signed in an unfathomable scribble by an immigration officer on behalf of the Secretary of State.

Consider that by the time of writing this letter, Border Force officials had already seen my passport, the permanent residence stamp giving me indefinite leave to remain in the UK, our marriage certificate and correspondence with the Home Office from 7 July 2015 regarding an appointment to have my residence stamp transferred into my new passport.

The second letter I received informed me that I would have my fingerprints taken. It is also dated and signed with the same unfathomable scribble.

What followed the fingerprinting session, during which I was also photographed, was an in depth “interview” with two male officers in a closed room inside the closed room where I was being kept. One of the officers asked the usual questions – why I was coming to the UK, where I would be staying, how much money I had – writing down all my answers. The other was mostly silent. From my answers they learned that I was in the UK to visit my wife, that we had a home in London, that I have never sought recourse to public funds in the UK, and that I had sufficient finances for my trip. He also specifically asked about my visits to Yemen. He had the paperwork from my trips there in his file. He asked why I went. I explained that I had gone to visit my wife who was living there at the time. He asked what she did there. I explained that she was the Country Director for Oxfam, Yemen. To those who don’t know what this kind of probing interrogation feels like, one curious effect is that somewhere deep inside one begins to doubt oneself. That must be part of the interrogator’s intention, and it left me feeling violated. When the first officer had finished his questions, the second officer spoke. He asked me for my wife’s name and date of birth. Then he asked if there were any extenuating circumstances for why I had not visited the UK since September 2012 for them to consider on compassionate grounds while they decided my case. It was not easy to share reasons. I had to tell these men who were detaining me in a closed room inside a closed room the details of my mother’s sudden illness and death in South Africa in 2013, our changed family circumstances through 2014, and my visit to my wife in Yemen in 2014, which meant there was little reason for me to visit the UK as she was not there. I had not volunteered these reasons, but I did share them when invited to do so on compassionate grounds. 

Shortly after the interview, I received the third letter.



I note that you held Indefinite Leave to Remain following your marriage to a British citizen but you do not qualify as a returning resident under paragraphs 18 or 19 of the Immigration Rules (HC395) because you have been away from the United Kingdom for more than 2 years.

You have not sought entry under any other provisions under the immigration rules.

I therefore refuse you leave to enter the United Kingdom.

The letter is dated and signed, this time by a different signatory in a different unfathomable signature.

I wonder what meaning of “compassionate” that officer, whose name I don’t remember but whose face I always will, had in mind when he asked me to share my extenuating circumstances. I wonder what definition of “compassionate” the immigration officer had in mind when he or she signed the “NOTICE OF REFUSAL” and the “DIRECTIONS TO REMOVE A PERSON OR PERSONS” in that unfathomable signature – three times.


I have written novels about disappearances and abductions, but it is still difficult for me to talk about the feeling of powerlessness that comes from being boarded onto a plane not of one’s choosing, except to say: I hope those immigration officials never experience the humiliation. So if I can’t yet talk about the helplessness, let me describe the procedure, the spaces, the other deportees and the conversations I overheard.

Deportees pass through a separate security check out of view of other passengers. It is a closed-in area, and the apparatus is larger, more utilitarian, less fit for public viewing. Staff attending this process know why you are there. Ahead of me was a family of three: mother, adolescent son, and young daughter. They were being deported to Mexico. I will never forget the look of anxiety on that mother’s face. Her son smiled at her as he lifted their bags, the little girl seemed curious, tip-toeing to see, but that woman was terrified. While my luggage was being scanned, I overheard a conversation between two of the officers. They were talking about a deportation procedure from earlier that day. It was a brief exchange, and went something like this:

First officer: Did you get him onto the plane, then?
Second officer: I did. Handcuffed him and got him on.
First officer: Good for you.

What strength. What power. What force.

The embarrassment one feels at being dispossessed of one’s travel documents, of being escorted through the duty-free shopping area, of being walked past the other passengers queuing to board the flight, of having one’s passport and boarding pass handed to the captain upon embarkation for the duration of the flight, and of being handed them back only when one has disembarked after landing, is acute, the gut-wrenching feeling upon take-off that one is being torn away from one’s family and home, more than I can describe. But I am a writer, so l should try … That flight of deportation was a moment of great weakness and dispossession, a reminder that I am a muhajir, an immigrant at the mercy of the journey, and vulnerable to the powerful who would enact their power over me. I am not inclined to making public statements of faith, but during that tortuous flight, I drew strength from the reminder that the Islamic calendar does not start with one of the great moments in Islamic history – the birth of the Prophet Muhammed, the revelation of the Qur’an, victories in battle, the retaking of Mecca – but with a moment of weakness, the Hijrah, the first migration of Muslims into exile from Mecca to Yathrib, now Medina. In Islam, time is not measured by pomp and glory, but by humility and sacrifice.


It is right to acknowledge moments of weakness, when one has been kicked down. But that was then, and this is now. Weakness cannot be a permanent state. Travellers get up, brush away the dust and press on, made stronger by the fall …

People know instinctively when they have been unfairly treated, but let us set that aside and consider Home Office guidance to caseworkers on returning residents outlined in the Immigration Directorate’s Instructions, Chapter 1 Section 3, in particular:

• Paragraphs 19 and 19A (as inserted by Cm 4851) provide for the admission of a passenger in certain circumstances who has been away for more than 2 years if his ties with this country merit it.

• A passenger who does not hold an entry clearance for this purpose but is seeking entry under Paragraph 19, where it is likely, but it is not clear that he qualifies, may if appropriate, be given leave to enter Code 1 for 2 months and advised to contact the Home Office.

Why was I not afforded the benefits of Paragraphs 19 and 19A above and “given leave to enter Code 1 for 2 months and advised to contact the Home Office” when the option existed and when Border Force officials were aware of and had seen email correspondence on my phone regarding my attempts to set up an appointment with the Home Office in Croydon to have my residence stamp transferred to my new passport? Why did Border Officials decide that my ties with the UK did not “merit” the exceptional protection offered by these clauses? In addition to my personal family and property ties to the UK, I have always engaged actively and responsibly with public life and democratic processes in the UK. I have always voted in UK elections once eligible to do so. I have regularly engaged in writing with our local MP about issues that matter to me. I have never been a drain on state resources and at no point sought recourse to public funds. I have always paid taxes on income earned in the UK.

But there is more to life than property ownership and taxes.  The creative landscape of my life in Britain includes two novels written in my study in our London home, the first of which is set in London. It is in all senses a very London novel. The political landscape of my life in London includes Tony Blair’s election victory on 2 May 1997; the same year I received permanent residence. And even though “Education, education, education” was how the fresh-faced new Prime Minster set out his priorities for office that May, it is to me a great tragedy that he allowed his vision to be derailed and that now he is remembered instead for war, war, war. The architectural landscape of my life in London includes Shakespeare’s Globe, which opened in June that same year. It includes the British Library, which was opened in June 1998. I remember that date, not only because the opening was a much-anticipated event after the saga of its construction, but also because it was the same summer my wife and I bought our house. My London landscape includes the Reading Room at the British Museum, where I spent many hours writing The Silent Minaret instead of my PhD thesis. The Great Court in the British Museum, which opened in December 2000 is part of my London. I gravitated towards it more frequently than any other public space in the city. As anybody who has been will testify, few London experiences rival that of leaving behind a cramped, congested city and stepping into Europe’s largest covered public square. My London includes the London Eye which opened in 2000 and on which I rode several times to get the aerial views of London described in The Silent Minaret. Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge, also opened in 2000, are part of my London, too. And so is 30 St Mary Axe, more commonly known as “The Gherkin”. From 2001 I saw construction progress to completion in 2003 during the regular drive back down Mile End Road from visiting friends in Plaistow. The Royal Albert Hall where a group of friends and I organized the London Concert for Afghanistan on 14 March 2002, following the US-led invasion of that country in October 2001, is part of my London. At a time the White House and 10 Downing Street were vilifying Afghanistan, the concert, organized in conjunction with four leading aid agencies to highlight their work in Afghanistan, also brought classical Afghan music to the Royal Albert Hall for the first time in the history of the venue and was broadcast around the world by the BBC World Service. My London landscape includes protest and dissent as on 15 February 2003 when I joined in the largest day of protest in history to demonstrate my opposition to the war in Iraq.

And as I witnessed London’s landscape change over nineteen years, I have also seen it torn apart, first on 9 February 1996 when the IRA bombed the Docklands Area of London in an explosion so forceful we were alerted to it when the windows rattled in our north London home eight miles away, and again on 7 July 2005 when London was rocked by the worst single terrorist attack on British soil. At 10:05 that morning, I was one of many commuters evacuated from the number 23 bus as it approached Edgware Road tube station, the site of one of the bombs, an experience that prompted me to write an open letter to the then British High Commissioner to South Africa, Paul Boateng on 21 July 2005, and to which I have yet to receive a response.

I mention these ties not because I glorify or value British experiences above all others. I am not star-struck by Britishness or Europeanness. In fact, I do not indulge these fake categories. To take the long view, our species is not British or European. We are all Africans. And while I am the recipient of the inaugural EU Literary Award, I have never been under the illusion that the twelve golden stars on the flag of the European Union shine for us – Europe’s “ethnic minorities”.  I am not star-struck and begging for access to Europe. I value these ties simply because I have a sense of belonging derived through marriage, family ties, residency rights, property ownership, the payment of taxes, public involvement and hard work. I list these ties for the record because when Border Force officials decided on 14 July that my ties with the UK did not “merit” the protection of Paragraphs 19 and 19 A, those were the ties they cut, and that was the life of 19 years which they negated in just nine hours. In the end, I, my ties and life meant nothing to them.



Before I proceed, let me be clear: I do not believe in race, largely because of my experiences of the excesses of South African apartheid, but also because the idea of race is a socially constructed fiction with no basis in science. There is only one human species – Homo sapiens. For those reasons I endeavour not to see the world through racial lenses and I do not write about race. One only transcends race by transcending it. My characters have names and histories. Readers fill in the rest. Having said that, however invented an idea, race regrettably remains a deeply-ingrained notion, a despicable plague that continues to infect the world in many heinous ways. So long as race remains an issue, the world will remain a primitive place. When Barack Obama was elected, I smiled, not because of the colour of his skin but because, at the very least, he is articulate and after two terms of George Bush’s buffoonery, that was a welcome change. (I’m not smiling any more.) So, in the face of my efforts to overcome race, I am vexed to wonder whether, given the evidence, had my name been John Smith, I would have been extended the benefits of Paragraphs 19 and 19A. But my name is not John Smith, and I have been to Yemen. That I believe sealed my fate at Heathrow and led Border Force officials to think that they could not take a chance on me, to decide that given all the options at their disposal, they would enact the harshest. Had John Smith’s circumstances of 19 years in the UK been mine, would British Border Force officials have cancelled his life on the spot?

My case is not the worst. Of that I am keenly aware. But it is part of the increasing heavy-handedness and outright hostility facing refugees and migrants at UK and EU borders, which is why I decided to share my experience.

In September 2013, Campaigns Coordinator for Right to Remain Lisa Matthews wrote:

The location of the border has shifted: no longer just at the port of entry or the territorial boundary of the UK, it has now encroached into schools and colleges, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, places of worship, the home, the private life … Migrants can feel the oppressive presence of immigration control all around them: in their homes, at their children’s schools, at the bus or tube station with stop and searches.

As an immigrant to the UK, I have lived in the centre of the immigration storm there, and mindful that, as John Berger wrote, “To emigrate is always to dismantle the centre of the world, and so to move into a lost, disoriented one of fragments”. In London I taught English to asylum seekers, migrants and refugees. My work put me in touch with men like Ali (not his real name), a blind asylum seeker from Iran who had been moved from temporary accommodation to temporary accommodation more than twelve times in as many months. Such instability would be taxing on even the most able-bodied of people. For Ali, it meant constantly having to memorise his way around new accommodation and neighbourhoods, to relearn the location of everything from light switches, doors and gas valves to pedestrian paths and transport routes. Through my work I met women like Najla (also not her real name), an asylum seeker from Libya, so that when the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg invited me to speak on the topic of Europe in March 2006, I took the opportunity to share Najla’s story in my address entitled Fortress Europe.

What gives immigration control such power? Throughout my time in the UK and before, major political parties have gone to great lengths to demonstrate increasingly tougher stances on immigration. 2015 was an election year in Britain. In October 2014 Labour Leader Ed Miliband pledged that immigration was at the top of the Labour Party’s agenda and promised an immigration reform bill with “measures to address voter concerns”. During his campaign trail, Miliband – himself the son of immigrant parents – unveiled his “tough stance on immigration” ahead of the general election in May. If you have never heard the shrill tone of the immigration debate in Britain, if you have never witnessed the depths to which political parties will to sink to “address voter concerns”, look no further than the Labour Party’s shameful immigration mug. If you have wondered how Europe was capable of the hatred displayed in Nazi Germany, how a nation was primed to hate, this was how – through state-sponsored propaganda. The Conservative Party sets the same hostile tone with the UK’s Home Secretary Theresa May proposing in December 2014 to “kick out foreign graduates”. The malignant politics of the border has become all-pervasive, violating private spaces, usurping democratic processes, and infecting language. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, 137,000 people crossed the Mediterranean for Europe during the first month of 2015, the majority fleeing from war. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres quoted on 1 July, “Most of the people arriving by sea in Europe are refugees, seeking protection from war and persecution.” Yet, bigoted language holds sway and despite the facts, on 30 July British Prime Minister David Cameron described them as “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean”, adding that Britain would not be a “safe haven” for migrants. Speak, Mr Cameron, so that we can see you. By 24 August 2015, 2,373 people were killed trying to cross the Mediterranean, making this the deadliest year for refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, and Europe the most dangerous destination. On 22 July English Pen wrote to the Immigration Minister James Brokenshire expressing alarm at the treatment I received at Heathrow and asking him to review the case as a matter of urgency. I am not aware of any response. However, on 13 August Mr Brokenshire told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper that Britain would be building more than two miles of high-security fencing in France.

What am I to do, watch silently while they tear up the world and rip apart lives? These are not the policies of the wise, but of the bigoted who legislate to placate a fearful parochial minority that neither knows nor cares for the world beyond its narrow horizon. Their policies fly in the face of human history, of British history, of Britain’s own hybrid genetic makeup, which is 40 per cent French and 30 per cent German amongst others, and of Britain’s own linguistic heritage – this mongrel language in which I am writing. Their policies betray their blood, and their words betray their language. To journey is to be human. To migrate is to be human. Human migration forged the world. Human migration will forge the future. We will sooner stop the tides in the oceans than the migration of people around their planet. In the meantime, if the British government is inclined to go against the tide of human history by building fences as in Hungary, let it have the courage to build them on British soil for the world to see.

For my part, I will continue to seek the reinstatement of my residency rights because they are exactly that – rights. I pray for the safety of my family and friends in Britain because until my case is resolved I cannot travel there easily. And I will continue to live fully in the world by travelling through it, on an African passport, just as I have always done.

Ishtiyaq Shukri is the author of The Silent Minaret and I See You.

Ghana Takes The Apollo

We arrived at the Apollo Theater to see hiplife superstar Sarkodie at 7:00 p.m., an hour before the show was supposed to start. At 8:00 p.m., the Apollo was barely half-full, none of the opening acts had taken the stage, and we were feeling anxious.

Three hours later, and after several heavy Afrobeats hitters brought a sold-out Apollo Theater to life, Sarkodie took the stage to deafening applause and gave one of the most energetic performances I’ve ever seen. The crowd was electric, dancing in the aisles and on the seats, spilling drinks, chatting, and rapping along with the music until well after 2:00 AM. Anyone in the Apollo Theater that night would have agreed that hiplife has made its way across the Atlantic to successfully stamp its impression in the birthplace of hip hop. In all, the show lived up to its title: “History in the Making”.

In many ways, the Sarkodie Apollo show seems like a feather in the cap for the New York area Ghanian community. Ghanian immigrants started settling en masse in the Bronx in the 1980s, and like any recent immigrant community, it took time for them to find their voice amongst the diverse peoples of New York. Today, after many years of the development of that voice, NY based Ghanian youth have formed artist crews, promoted parties, created production companies such as Boogie Down Nima, iRapTV, and Level 7 Films, and have been able to make an impact on cultural scenes both locally and internationally. Hiplife has remained a central organizing feature of this cultural production.

The resounding success of the Apollo show then, is an interesting watershed moment in Black Atlantic cultural exchange. This is especially because for an outside observer, hiplife can easily be misconstrued and difficult to categorize. Critics often describe it as just a blend of hip hop and highlife, a Ghanaian genre incorporating aspects of traditional Akan music and Western instrumentation. Add to that, artists constantly code-switch, rapping in local dialects as well as Western languages. To the average consumer, hiplife might seem like a Ghanaian version of American rap, but in reality it is the product of trans-Atlantic musical and cultural evolution.

If we start to parse some of the shared aesthetics between hiplife and hip hop, we can start to see that there are so many threads of influence fanning out, that its hard to assert any claim to origins for any one of them. One prime example of this are the fashion aesthetics of Ghana’s hiplife generation. Standing amongst the crowd at the Apollo of mostly Ghanians, who painted the room in a myriad of bright hues, donning standout styles and lots and lots of bling, I felt quite underdressed. Many people would easily recognize the bling aesthetic that hiplife artists (and fans) engage in, as being part of hip hop fashion since the early days of the art form. But, if we look back to Ghanian history, we can see royals of the Ashanti Empire adorned with gold jewelry as an indication of status and wealth as well. It wouldn’t be unlikely to suggest that in the 1970s, when the USA was enjoying an awakening of African consciousness amongst Black Americans, such images had made their way into the communities where hip hop was born, providing a model for an aesthetic of Black empowerment. The same goes for Ghanian cultural imports such as Kente and Batik, which enjoyed a particularly strong revival during hip hop’s early 1990’s “Golden Era”. When fans come dressed in their best outfits adorned with fancy accessories, and dancers on stage come out in outfits patterned with splashes of Kente and Batik, it shows that through the re-appropriation of their own traditions, they are able to participate both in their own cultural heritage and a global Black aesthetic. Such examples show that hiplife, rather than being a regurgitated copy of hip hop, is a beautiful product of complexity and adaptation of Ghanian culture to an inherently interconnected world.

While the Apollo show was in actuality the celebration of the triumph of a community, the man of the hour was clearly Sarkodie. When he came out he wore only a sleeveless black tunic, black pants and sunglasses, standing in stark contrast to the many freshly dressed, jewelry-adorned patrons and performers. An audience that had been laughing, dancing and drinking for hours, now swooned with his every move, spellbound by his presence.

However, Sarkodie definitely did not forget the greater community that surrounded him that night. Performing “Pon Di Ting” with Banky W, “M3gye Wo Girl” with Shatta Wale and “Chingam” with Bisa Kdei, Sarkodie shared the stage for several collaborations with the other artists. He also thanked the artists and fans multiple times throughout the show, keeping with hiplife godfather Reggie Rockstone’s original vision of the movement as a medium to uplift Ghanian youth. At the Apollo show it was clear that today’s hiplife artists remain proud of where they came from and whom they represent. They place a high premium on remaining true to themselves, and all throughout Sarkodie’s performance, that message remained loud and clear. It was refreshing to see a young and successful performer be so humble and focused on others. He closed out the show with his smash hit “Adonai”, and by the time he bowed and walked off the stage, every soul in the building was chanting and begging for more.

With all said and done, Sarkodie, Lighter, Banky W, EL, Kwaw Kese, Bisa Kdei and the whole crew who performed that night proved that Afrobeats don’t need African soil to flourish. And Harlem’s Apollo Theater can now count a Ghanian contribution to its roster of “history making” performances.

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Awkward is the New Black, a short film on Youtube star Issa Rae

In 2012, Issa Rae, the American actress and writer, debuted her web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (also known as ABG), equal satire and romantic comedy. Over two seasons, Rae almost single-handedly built her army of 200,000 loyal Youtube followers (using cunning grass-roots social media strategies) and millions of viewers in a relatively short space of time. Part of ABG’s appeal, was that the show was a breath of fresh air in an era that offered very little in terms of African American television; it revolved around “a quirky, misanthropic main character, like Liz Lemon but with more melanin.” ABG struck a chord with viewers around the world (Rae’s global appeal may also be sourced to her own background: Her father is Senegalese—her mother is African American—and she spent part of her childhood in Dakar.)

In a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, Issa Rae expressed her frustration with the snail-pace of television. Two years ago HBO hired her to create a pilot. That pilot, Insecure, finally wrapped shooting last week after what seemed like an eternity of development. Luckily she hadn’t slowed down and has continued to put out a steady stream of content, mostly made by others, out on her Youtube platform (she’s sorta morphed into a Shonda Rhimes of web series). She also wrote a memoir, also called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, that became a hit and made the New York Times’ bestseller list.

From mid-2013 to mid-2014, I lived in Los Angeles and shot this short documentary as my University of Southern California thesis project, Awkward is the New Black, about Rae. In the film, I explore the journey of Rae’s web series, highlighting in particular how ABG (which started as a zero-budget exercise amongst friends) remedied the lack of complex representation of black characters on screen; and eventually became appointment viewing with the backing of Pharrell Williams. Without the gatekeepers of traditional TV, Rae was able to let her true voice flourish, and walked right into the gap that the big broadcast networks had left wide open. The documentary is a celebration of the series, and also a challenge to indie filmmakers to fully use the digital tools literally at their fingertips, so often taken for granted.


#RespecTheProducer | Broken beat in the Durban underground

In a week of rigorous bedroom studio tours, I got to tail esteemed writer Kwanele Sosibo as he dug into what it is that’s making the Durban underground tick. Gqom — a lifestyle? A religion? A fluid, ever-evolving variation of the three-beat broken beat scene? — is taking over dingy shebeens and, increasingly, high-end clubs in Durban. Made mostly in the bedrooms of young, excited and excitable producers and vocalists, the music has found its way onto a fertile Durban dance scene via a steady stream of datafilehost and kasimp3 links distributed on Facebook groups. Aided by a large footprint of Blackberry and Nokia mobile phone handsets, plus a mostly-young and social network-savvy fanbase, the Gqom sound has become flavour-of-the-month — of many months, even.

(This article is part of a series of articles on music producers throughout the African continent called #RespecTheProducer. Check out updates on tumblr and follow the Instagram account.)

On the Saturday morning that the Durban July was happening, we were busy setting up appointments with local superstars. I played attentive student while the master drilled his way into the bedrooms, living rooms, dancefloors and front porches — everywhere that Gqom had a footprint. We’d snuck our way into eThekwini at dusk on a Tuesday before with the aim of documenting the rapidly-rising, and changing, scene.

Nowadays, deejays such as Lag and 031, the former from Clermont while the latter is from Inanda, and artists like Bhejane and Madanone — from Umlazi and Inanda respectively, are redefining a brave world, wild with discontent and intent of partying it away. Armed with desktop computers, invariably-pirated versions of FL studio and Cubase 5, plug-ins, and entry-level condenser mics, audio interfaces, studio monitors, producers such as Sbucardo and Xtralarge are forging a sound and identity which has  forced the major artists who inspired them initially to slowly re-think their approach; to ‘switch it up’ in a sense. Think of these dudes as Julius Malema’s  Economic Freedom Front on pills, ready and willing to disrupt the state of affairs with their fuck-you attitude, their on-line footprint, rampant output, and incredible grassroots support.

The Gqom sound runs the gamut of township flavour — s’ghubu and its abundant variations — until it teases Afro-house and eThekwini groove without fully admitting to its Kwaito influence. Heavy drums. No bassline. Down-pitched and clipped vocal samples. A carnival of whistles. A dancefloor of percussive instruments. A lone synth running throughout the song. And the all-important hook. Mutant shit if you think about it. But to some, Gqom is the shoddily-dressed, talentless cousin to more refined hallmarks of isghubu, like House music.

Discerning listeners do tend to be the least interesting.

Most artists we held court with stated that none of the publications in Durban had given them page-space. Of the few whom features were written about were Umlazi producer DJ Bonnie, whose write-up was concerned with an ecstatic member of the audience asking him to marry her right after an impressive set at a local festival.

Like any underground scene, Gqom has its own shortcomings. Some artists are clueless about how to go about registering their music with a music rights organization like SAMRO. In the same breadth, there are artists who have a clear vision on how to go about achieving their goals, but have no infrastructure to operate within. They are the building blocks.

It’s hard to tell whether Gqom will implode or make its way onto the mainstream in much the same way Durban house did 10 years before. Aided by the fresh-faced duo of Sox and Tira, the four-beat sneaked its way from the coastline and held clubs in a throttle.

Who knows how things might turn out in the next six months? Qoh, a variant of ecstasy reported to fetch for as little as 20 Dibas (Rands), has gained a bad reputation due to the infiltration of fake product. There’s also bad press generated by drug-related deaths in clubs around Durban. Drug culture, especially ecstacy, is big around those parts, but its association with Gqom has lend a further blow to the scene’s image, and is potentially why radio stations like Ukhozi FM and newspapers such  as Isolezwe haven’t bothered to touch it.

The pretty-boy image for which the mainstream advocates is exactly what Gqom is against. All it’s going to take is one artist to cause a revolution. Who will it be, and how will they do it? What will become of Gqom once it decides to lose its regional affiliations and infiltrate more than the underground scenes in the East and Western Cape, and as far in-land as the Limpopo province?


Ceeyah and Managerh of oBen10 performing at  Sbucardo’s party


Why should the colonist and his crimes be placed at the centre of the narrative? Kamel Daoud’s ‘Meursault, contre-enquête’

Kamel Daoud (b.1970) is a journalist who lives in Oran and writes a regular column for Algeria’s bestselling daily Francophone newspaper. His first novel, Meursault, contre-enquête, was published in Algeria in 2013, and later in France where it was highly praised. Daoud was the subject of a recent profile in the New York Times by the London Review of Books’ Adam Shatz following the translation of his novel into English. (I read a French edition published by Actes Sud in 2014, so quotations are my own translation.)

His starting point is the story told in L’Étranger, (“The Outsider”), Albert Camus’ novel of 1942. In that book the narrator, Meursault, who like Camus is a lower-middle class Algerian of European descent, shoots to death an Arab (who goes unnamed) one day on the beach. For this crime Meursault is condemned to death; though really, we are led to believe, he is condemned to death for failing to grieve in a socially accepted manner over his mother, whose death is announced in the first line of the book, ‘Mother died today.’ From this story, Daoud retrieves ‘The Arab’, giving him a name and a history: Moussa, the older brother of Daoud’s narrator Haroun. Why should the story be about Meursault, Haroun says, ‘It was my brother that took the bullet, not him!’ Why should the colonist and his crimes be placed at the centre of the narrative?

Haroun tells his story in the form of a monologue to a stranger in a bar, the same device with which Camus began his later novel La Chute (“The Fall”). The echo is deliberate, as it is in Daoud’s opening line, ‘Mother is still alive today’. This is not to say that Daoud imitates Camus but rather, I think, that he sees the two novels as entangled. The murder of his brother is the dominant theme in Haroun’s psychology, one that he cannot simply escape. In Arabic, Haroun tells us, Meursault is pronounced “El-Merssoul”, “one who has been sent”, or “the messenger”. ‘Not bad, eh?’ he jokes. Daoud delights in these plays on words, these doublings. Moussa for Meursault, Haroun’s love interest Meriem for Meursault’s Marie. This doubleness lies at the heart of the project of telling Moussa’s story, an act by which Haroun hopes to achieve ‘justice… not the justice of a tribunal, but that of balance.’

In a sense, Haroun is Meursault’s double for he has also committed a murder. The victim is a French colonist, and Haroun kills him for no particular reason, a few days after independence has been declared. On arrest he is treated with suspicion for not having joined ‘the brothers’ in the liberation struggle. Like Meursault, he is hated for something other than his crime, namely the fact he committed it on his own initiative and for the wrong reasons. ‘You should simply have done it before [independence],’ an officer tells him, ‘there are rules to respect.’ In making Haroun a murderer Daoud is not suggesting that some facile notion of “balance” requires that colonist and colonised be condemned in identical terms, but rather that a faithful portrait of him needs an honest reckoning with his guilt as well as his trauma.

As a journalist, Daoud is known for his critical perspective on contemporary Algeria. In particular, he has a vexed relationship with religion, as does his narrator. In one of the novel’s many casually witty lines, Haroun describes religion as ‘public transport which I don’t take – I like to travel towards God, on foot if necessary, but not on an organised trip.’ Nevertheless, the narrator and the novelist should not be confounded with each other. Indeed, the author drops several hints that the writer of the novel is in fact that unnamed stranger to whom Haroun tells his story in the bar over many glasses of wine. In one of the last lines of the book Haroun says to him: “Two unknowns with two stories on an endless beach. Which is the most truthful? It’s a private question. It’s for you to determine. El-Merssoul! Ha, ha.”

Between the Volcano and the Tyrant: Political Dissent Erupts in Ecuador

After 134 years of dormancy, Ecuador’s Cotopaxi volcano began spewing ash on August 13th. The 5,897-meter giant’s initial rumblings generated wide-spread panic due to its close proximity to the nation’s heavily populated capital, Quito. Possible mud and volcanic rock-flows pose a lethal threat to a population of 325,000 people that live near what is considered one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes.


Unfortunately, this geological incident coincides with the growing political unrest prompted by the despotic measures taken by Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. A week before Cotopaxi’s awakening, 100,000 citizens marched against Correa in a nation-wide protest organized by indigenous communities and labor unions.

Groups such as the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, have been extremely vocal about their discontent with the President and his policies. Indigenous groups have banded together against Correa’s recent platform that reduces welfare payments to the poor, restricts access to water sources, and permits oil drilling in ancestral property such as the Yasuni nature reserve in the Amazon rainforest. These policies ultimately favor multi-national corporations that are allowed to encroach upon indigenous land for mineral and petroleum extraction. To maintain this unjust economic situation, Correa has jailed various indigenous leaders to prevent further opposition to his policies.

Initially, Correa was heralded as an advocate for indigenous rights during the early part of his Presidency due to his ability to improve the living conditions of the poor. Ecuador’s oil revenue was used by the President to help modernize the nation and make it one of the fastest developing countries in Latin America. Many indigenous groups benefitted from Correa’s economic strategies that brought in money for social programs. However, a recent drop in oil prices and increased borrowing from China, has placed the nation in debt and eliminated many government services for the poor. This dramatic shift has consequently affected the living conditions of Ecuador’s indigenous people and their land that has been exploited for its resources.

Beyond indigenous concerns, other assemblages have joined forces with CONAIE to oppose another one of Correa’s unfavorable policies that seeks to raise inheritance tax to 77%. Assets such as residential property, businesses, technology, life insurance policies, and money can all be taxed by the government if their value exceeds the $34,500 threshold. While being promoted as a strategy to democratize property, many citizens fear that this measure will provide Correa’s with an absolute control that will send Ecuador along the same path as Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Accordingly, in an earlier protest against Correa’s inheritance tax, residents of the city of Guayaquil continually chanted “Ecuador is not Venezuela!”

These various political concerns are all the more valid when considering that Correa is preparing to change Ecuador’s constitution to allow him to become President indefinitely. Rather than be limited to two four-year terms, Correa is seeking to remain in power and continue to pass his agenda with the help of his sycophantic Congress.

In response to Correa’s proposed constitutional amendment, former President of Ecuador Osvaldo Hurtado told the Wall Street Journal that “The yearning of all autocrats is to stay in power for life, and that was Correa’s plan from the start.”

Correa’s progression towards totalitarianism reached a tipping point the same day Cotopaxi began showing signs of its imminent eruption. As if to reflect the volcano’s ominous message, 10,000 indigenous members marched on the Pan-American highway to reach Quito and voice their opposition against Correa. Along the way tree trunks, rocks, and burning tires were used to block major roads to paralyze transportation and commerce.

 Amazon Watch

An indigenous woman participates in the anti-Correa rally in Quito. Source: Amazon Watch

To disband the march outside the Presidential Palace, police brutally clashed with citizens and arrested 47 people that included indigenous leader Carlos Peréz and Franco-Brazilian journalist Manuela Picq. Both detainees have been openly critical of Correa and were sought after by the police for incarceration. After her arrest, Picq’s visa was quickly rescinded yet her deportation was prevented by a judge that declared her detention was unlawful.


Manuela Picq and Carlos Peréz being arrested by police during anti-Correa protests in Quito. Source: Manuela Picq’s Facebook Account

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa leader from the Amazon, told the Guardian. “Total brutality. They were using motor-bikes, horses and tear-gas bombs. You can’t imagine what it’s like if you didn’t see it.”

To quell the rising wave of opposition, Correa has conveniently used Cotopaxi’s recent activity to declare a “state of exception” that is meant to prepare the nation for natural disasters. However, many citizens are suspicious of this measure since it suspends constitutional rights that are essential liberties needed to depose of Correa.

Accordingly, CONAIE issued a statement in regards to the dubious “state of exception” that declares:

“We want to make it clear that the nationwide declaration of State of Exception is not justified to respond to the emergency presented by the Cotopaxi volcano, and the restriction of constitutional rights to the inviolability of the home, to movement, to assembly and to correspondence in the entire Ecuadorian territory even less so. It surprises us that this declaration includes zones that are not affected, especially when there are demonstrations underway demanding the president and his government rectify their policies directly impacting the rights and freedoms of [indigenous] Peoples and Nations, as well as Ecuadorians in general.”

The suspension of the constitution also terminates the press’ ability to inform citizens and the world about Ecuador. This form of censorship is in line with Correa’s oppressive tactics that continually silence local journalists and media outlets who condemn the president. Most recently, Martin Pallares, a former journalist for the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio, was fired from his position due to an anti-Correa tweet.

Pallares exposed Correa’s censorship methods in a recent New York Times’ article that stated:

“Journalists in Ecuador are warned on a daily basis about possible legal action that may be taken against us if we criticize the government, and the companies we work for constantly warn us of the risks we take by raising issues the government is particularly sensitive about. Newspapers are being forced to publish corrections, on the front page, with text, headers and layouts sent directly from the Presidency’s Secretariat of Communication.”

Ecuador’s state of emergency continues to be in effect which regrettably means that Correa has free reign to control the people’s rights, property, and ultimately their lives. Without the ability to protest or assemble, citizens are now disempowered and unable to rally against the rising authoritarian. The lack of media coverage about Correa’s political crimes has put a repressive gag over the mouth of the wailing country. This situation ultimately leaves Cotopaxi or the people of Ecuador to be the force that will oust Correa from his seat of power.


A Monument for the Mau Mau at last, but no land

Mau Mau heroes now have a monument, but no land.

Earlier this month, they were invited to the unveiling of this monument in Nairobi; a “memorial to the victims of torture and ill treatment during the colonial period 1952-1960.” They turned up in large numbers, the majority wearing bright red t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Shujaa wa Mau Mau” – Mau Mau hero.

In their hundreds, they were a sea of red and black amidst the green of Uhuru Park, watching avidly for when their monument would be unveiled in the section of this commons called “Freedom Corner.”

And while the British and Kenyan government and collaborating NGO representatives, all younger than the actual heroes, were sitting within an expansive white tent, these ageing freedom fighters were sat under the hot sun, waiting for the official ceremony to begin. Some were said to have arrived as early as 6 am.

Finally, we could say, at least some recognition for our people who were classified as terrorists until 2003. Finally something to honour the bravery of all freedom fighters and the significance of that period in our history.

But, as social movement activist Gacheke Gachihi asked, what can we gain from a narrative that continues to posit them as “victim” instead of victor over the British? And even while recognizing the inhuman excesses meted out against them, what are the motivations for a rewriting of history that perpetuates a narrative of their victimhood and, as is appearing to be more and more the case, erases the full extent of their struggle?

Spoken interminably at the monument unveiling was the word “reconciliation,” followed closely by “ending” and “closure.” It seems that this monument is also meant to make us reconcile our past with all features of British imperialism; the £90,000 monument (an incessantly repeated figure) is where all further questions about the ravages of empire stop.

Inevitably, it seems also to be the national burial site for the land question.

Not one mention of it anywhere at this launch.

It was the elephant in the room, the solid yet invisible presence that no one spoke about. It was clumsily replaced by other buzzwords: reconciliation, closure, victimhood.

And while they turned up in their numbers, the show could definitely have gone on without the Kenya Land and Freedom army for in many ways these heroes were the appropriate props for the speeches and photo opportunities of innumerable people who were not Mau Mau, yet who will revel in the after glories of the praise that will come from being “important” at this event.

It is reported that these important characters then later went off to drink at the Norfolk, the oldest and, undoubtedly, most colonial of Nairobi’s hotels (even President Roosevelt stayed here in 1909 when he came to shoot half our wildlife to “collect specimens for the Smithsonian institute”) and whose terrace is “rumoured” to be the site where Africans were often shot for sport.

Meanwhile the actual shujaas then walked home, 80-year-old grandmothers bent over with no shoes walking through busy Nairobi to go back to their rural homes.

And in the the Nairobi headquarters of the Mau Mau, Mathare constituency, life continued as normal for Monica Wambui, a 101-year-old Mau Mau woman who has been living in her mabati tin house for the last 50 + years, and with no water, permanent shelter and still having to find her own firewood to cook.

And for this shujaa wa Mau Mau in this picture, from Mathare, tells it all.

In this same place the descendants of these two heroes are caught in the spate of police killings that Mathare Social Justice Centre is working to document. And there will never be monuments for these young people who, in many ways, are also fighting for land.

A week later we are still being told about the £90,000 monument to “victims,” and being assailed constantly by the supposed generosity of the British government who solicited this monument at their “own” expense  (one twitter commentator remarked that this money is likely to have been easily raised from all the exorbitant visa fees Kenyans are charged to visit the UK) .

And in all the hyper-buzz about this memorial we choose to forget that the Kenya Land and Freedom army did not fight for a monument,

They fought for land.

Why General Gilbert Diendéré is derailing the political transition in Burkina Faso

The remnants of burnt-out tires litter the streets of Ouagadougou as ordinary Burkinabe resist the military coup threatening to completely disrupt the transition to democracy. On Wednesday, September 16th, the presidential guard—known by the French acronym RSP—seized the President and Prime Minister announcing the dissolution of the transitional government and proclaimed their commander General Gilbert Diendéré as acting head of state. With legislative and presidential elections scheduled to be held in less than four weeks, everyone is asking one question, why? Why would Diendéré and the RSP seek to completely derail an up till now peaceful process toward the country’s most democratic elections?

The official response: the organization of elections was deeply flawed. In April the transitional government reformed the electoral code to exclude politicians who supported a modification to presidential term limits in 2014 from running in the 2015 elections—popular uprisings ousted former president Blaise Compaoré from power when he attempted to modify the terms in October 2014. Despite the politically contentious nature of this electoral reform and a ruling from ECOWAS (the regional group of West African states) courts against the reform, the country’s Constitutional Court upheld it and several potential candidates were barred from contesting the elections. However, this doesn’t explain why the RSP decided to take this political debate as a pretext for a military coup, or why the RSP had threatened similar action previously during the political transition.

A better explanation exists for the actions of the RSP and for Diendéré, self-preservation. Created in 1996 by former president Compaoré, the elite unit of 1,200 to 1,300 men carried out the personal protection of Compaoré, as well as the tasks of a secret police force to ‘maintain order.’ After Compaoré’s fall, one of the major questions faced by the transition was what to do with the RSP. The transitional administration side-stepped this thorny problem for the better part of a year, until two days before the military coup. On the Monday before the coup, the Commission for National Reconciliation and Reform released a report to the Prime Minister in which the RSP received stark criticism for its lack of accountability to the military. The report describes the RSP as an army within the army; its final recommendation: dissolution.

Then there’s Diendéré. Compaoré’s right-hand man since before he came power, Diedéré is suspected of being in charge of the soldiers responsible for Thomas Sankara’s assassination. The on-going investigation into Sankara’s death was, by the way, put on hold because of the current coup. His list of dirty deeds doesn’t stop there. Diendéré is suspected of being involved in the murder of investigative journalist Norbert Zongo and his colleagues. He is also suspected of profiting from the less than spotless involvement of Burkina Faso in the crises of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire through the trafficking of illicit goods and potentially arms. More recently, Diendéré is credited with resolving the military mutinies of 2011, although the more suspicious amongst Burkinabè wonder if he might not have also instigated or exacerbated them first.

Until now, Diendéré’s involvement and knowledge of nefarious back dealings throughout the sub-region have kept him safe. But when confronted with the end of Compaoré’s rule, the potential termination of the RSP, the exclusion of his political allies, and a Burkinabè people thirst for justice, it appears he has real cause for concern. What better way to insure his own future, even if it is exile, than by taking the country hostage?

For now, the strategy seems to have paid off. Senegalese president and current president of ECOWAS, Macky Sall, and the President of Benin, Boni Yayi, arrived last Friday (September 18th) to begin negotiations between the different groups in the political crisis. The mediation process restored a tenuous calm to the capital of Burkina Faso. It also guaranteed that Diendéré and the RSP will have a voice in a transition process from which they were previously excluded. Only time will tell if the military coup gambit will pay off completely and help Diendéré and the RSP escape their alleged past crimes.

Achille Mbembe on The State of South African Political Life

In these times of urgency, when weak and lazy minds would like us to oppose “thought” to “direct action”; and when, precisely because of this propensity for “thoughtless action”, everything is framed in the nihilistic terms of power for the sake of power  – in such times what follows might mistakenly be construed as contemptuous.

And yet, as new struggles unfold, hard questions have to be asked. They have to be asked if, in an infernal cycle of repetition but no difference, one form of damaged life is not simply to be replaced by another.

The force of affect

Indeed the ground is fast shifting and a huge storm seems to be building up on the horizon. May 68? Soweto 76?  Or something entirely different?

The winds blowing from our campuses can be felt afar, in a different idiom, in those territories of abandonment where the violence of poverty and demoralization having become the norm, many have nothing to lose and are now more than ever willing to risk a fight. They simply can no longer wait, having waited for too long now.

Out there, from almost every corner of this vast land seems to stretch a chain of young men and women rigid with tension.

As tension slowly swells up, it becomes ever more important to hold on to the things that truly matter.

A new cultural temperament is gradually engulfing post-apartheid urban South Africa. For the time being, it goes by the name “decolonization” – in truth a psychic state more than a political project in the strict sense of the term.

Whatever the case, everything seems to indicate that ours is a crucial moment in the redefinition of what counts as “social protagonism” in this country. Mobilizations over crucial matters such as access to health care, sanitation, housing, clean water or electricity might still be conducted in the name of the implicit promise inherent to the struggle years – that life after freedom will be “better” for all.

But fewer and fewer actually believe it. And as the belief in that promise fast recedes, raw affect, raw emotions and raw feelings are harnessed and recycled back into the political itself. In the process, new voices increasingly render old ones inaudible, while anger, rage and eventually muted grief seem to be the new markers of identity and agency.

Psychic bonds – in particular bonds of pain and bonds of suffering – more than lived material contradictions are becoming the real stuff of political inter-subjectivity. “I am my pain” – how many times have I heard this statement in the months since #RhodesMustFall emerged?  “I am my suffering” and this subjective experience is so incommensurable that “unless you have gone through the same trial, you will never understand my condition” – the fusion of self and suffering in this astonishing age of solipsism and narcissism.

So it is that the relative cultural hegemony the African National Congress (ANC) exercised on black South African imagination during the years of the struggle is fast waning. In the bloody miasma of the Zuma years, these years of stagnation, rent-seeking and mediocrity parading as leadership, there is hardly any center left standing as institutions after institutions crumble under the weight of corruption, a predatory new black élite and the cynicism of former oppressors.

In the bloody miasma of the Zuma years, the discourse of black power, self-affirmation and worldliness of the early 1990s is in danger of being replaced by the discourse of fracture, injury and victimization – identity politics and the resentment that always is its corollary.

Rainbowism and its most important articles of faith – truth, reconciliation and forgiveness – is fading. Reduced to a totemic commodity figure mostly destined to assuage whites’ fears, Nelson Mandela himself is on trial. Some of the key pillars of the 1994 dispensation  – a constitutional democracy, a market society, non-racialism – are also under scrutiny. They are now perceived as disabling devices with no animating potency, at least in the eyes of those who are determined to no longer wait. We are past the time of promises. Now is the time to settle accounts.

But how do we make sure that one noise machine is not simply replacing another?

Settling Accounts

The fact is this – nobody is saying nothing has changed. To say nothing has changed would be akin to indulging in willful blindness.

Hyperboles notwithstanding, South Africa today is not the “colony” Frantz Fanon is writing about in his Wretched of the Earth.

If we cannot find a proper name for what we are actually facing, then rather than simply borrowing one from a different time,  we should keep searching.

What we are hearing is that there have not been enough meaningful, decisive, radical change, not only in terms of the life chances of the black poor, but – and this is the novelty – in terms of the future prospects of the black middle class.

What is being said is that twenty years after freedom, we have not disrupted enough the structures that maintain and reproduce “white power and supremacy”; that this is the reason why too many amongst us are trapped in a “bad life” that keeps wearing them out and down; that this wearing out and down of black life has been going on for too long and must now be brought to an end by all means necessary (the right to violence?).

We are being told that we have not radically overturned the particular sets of interests that are produced and reproduced through white privilege in institutions of public and private life – in law firms, in financial institutions such as banking and insurance, in advertising and industry, in terms of land redistribution, in media, universities, languages and culture in general.

“Whiteness”, “white power”, “white supremacy”, “white monopoly capital” is firmly back on the political and cultural agenda and to be white in South Africa now is to face a new-old kind of trial although with new judges – the so-called “born-free”. 

Politics of impatience

But behind whites trial looms a broader indictment of South African social and political order.

South Africa is fast approaching its Fanonian moment. A mass of structurally disenfranchised people have the feeling of being treated as “foreigners” on their own land. Convinced that the doors of opportunity are closing, they are asking for firmer demarcations between “citizens” (those who belong) and “foreigners” (those who must be excluded).  They are convinced that as the doors of opportunity keep closing, those who won’t be able to “get in” right now might be left out for generations to come – thus the social stampede, the rush to “get in” before it gets too late, the willingness to risk a fight because waiting is no longer a viable option.

The old politics of waiting is therefore gradually replaced by a new politics of impatience and, if necessary, of disruption. Brashness, disruption and a new anti-decorum ethos are meant to bring down the pretence of normality and the logics of normalization in this most “abnormal” society.  Steve Biko, Frantz Fanon and a plethora of black feminist, queer, postcolonial, decolonial and critical race theorists are being reloaded in the service of a new form of militancy less accommodationist and more trenchant both in form and content.

The age of impatience is an age when a lot is said – all sorts of things we had hardly heard about during the last twenty years; some ugly, outrageous, toxic things, including calls for murder, atrocious things that speak to everything except to the project of freedom, in this age of fantasy and hysteria, when the gap between psychic realities and actual material realities has never been so wide, and the digital world only serves as an amplifier of every single moment, event and accident.

The age of urgency is also an age when new wounded bodies erupt and undertake to actually occupy spaces they used to simply haunt. They are now piling up, swearing and cursing, speaking with excrements, asking to be heard.

They speak in allegories and analogies – the “colony”, the “plantation”, the “house Negro”, the “field Negro”, blurring all boundaries, embracing confusion, mixing times and spaces, at the risk of anachronism.

They are claiming all kinds of rights – the right to violence; the right to disrupt and jam that which is parading as normal; the right to insult, intimidate and bully those who do not agree with them; the right to be angry, enraged; the right to go to war in the hope of recovering what was lost through conquest; the right to hate, to wreak vengeance, to smash something, it doesn’t matter what, as long as it looks “white”.

All these new “rights” are supposed to achieve one thing we are told the 1994 “peaceful settlement” did not achieve – decolonization and retributive justice, the only way to restore a  modicum of dignity to victims of the injuries of yesterday and today.

Demythologizing whiteness

And yet, some hard questions must be asked.

Why are we invested in turning whiteness, pain and suffering into such erotogenic objects?

Could it be that the concentration of our libido on whiteness, pain and suffering is after all typical of the narcissistic investments so privileged by this neoliberal age?

To frame the issues in these terms does not mean embracing a position of moral relativism. How could it be? After all, in relation to our history, too many lives were destroyed in the name of whiteness. Furthermore, the structural repetition of past sufferings in the present is beyond any reasonable doubt.  Whiteness as a necrophiliac power structure and a primary shaper of a global system of unequal redistribution of life chances will not die a natural death.

But to properly engineer its death – and thus the end of the nightmare it has been for a large portion of the humanity – we urgently need to demythologize it.

If we fail to properly demythologize whiteness, whiteness – as the machine in which a huge portion of the humanity has become entangled in spite of itself – will end up claiming us.

As a result of whiteness having claimed us; as a result of having let ourselves be possessed by it in the manner of an evil spirit, we will inflict upon ourselves injuries of which whiteness, at its most ferocious, would scarcely have been capable.

Indeed for whiteness to properly operate as the destructive force it is in the material sphere, it needs to capture its victim’s imagination and turn it into a poison well of hatred.

For victims of white racism to hold on to the things that truly matter, they must incessantly fight against the kind of hatred which never fails to destroy, in the first instance, the man or woman who hates while leaving the structure of whiteness itself intact.

As a poisonous fiction that passes for a fact, whiteness seeks to institutionalize itself as an event by any means necessary. This it does by colonizing the entire realms of desire and of the imagination.

To demythologize whiteness, it will not be enough to force “bad whites” into silence or into confessing guilt and/or complicity. This is too cheap.

To puncture and deflate the fictions of whiteness will require an entirely different regime of desire, new approaches in the constitution of material, aesthetic and symbolic capital, another discourse on value, on what matters and why.

The demythologization of whiteness also requires that we develop a more complex understanding of South African versions of whiteness here and now.

This is the only country on Earth in which a revolution took place which resulted in not one single former oppressor losing anything. In order to keep its privileges intact in the post-1994 era, South African whiteness has sought to intensify its capacity to invest in what we should call the resources of the offshore.  It has attempted to fence itself off, to re-maximize its privileges through self-enclaving and the logics of privatization.  These logics of offshoring and self-enclaving are typical of this neoliberal age.

The unfolding new/old trial of whiteness won’t produce much if whites are forced into a position in which the only thing they are ever allowed to say in our public sphere is: “Look, I am so sorry”. 

It won’t produce much if through our actions and modes of thinking, we end up forcing back into the white ghetto those whites who have spent most of their lives trying to fight against the dominant versions of whiteness we so abhor.

Furthermore, we must take seriously the fact that “to be black” in South Africa now is not exactly the same as “to be black” in Europe or in the Americas.

After all, we are the majority here. Of course to be a majority is a bit more than the simple expression of numbers. But surely something has to be made out of this sheer weight of numbers. We can use this numerical force to create different dominant standards by which our society live; paradigms of what truly matters and why; entirely new social forms; new imaginaries of interior life and the life of the mind.

We are also in control of arguably the most powerful State on the African Continent. This is a State that wields enormous financial and economic power. In theory, not much prevents it from redirecting the flows of wealth in its hands in entirely new trajectories. As it has been done in places such as Malaysia or Singapore, something has to be made out of this sheer amount of wealth – something more creative and more decisive than our hapless “black economic empowerment” schemes the main function of which is to sustain the lifestyles of the new élite.

The neurotic misery of our age

Finally, it is crucial for us to understand that we are a bit more than just “suffering subjects”. “Social death” is not the defining feature of our history. The fact is that we are still here – of course at a very high price and most likely in a terrible state, but we are here.

We are here – and hopefully we will be here for a very long time – not as anybody else’s creation, but as our own-creation.

To demythologize whiteness is to dry up the mythic, symbolic and immaterial resources without which it can no longer dabble in self-righteousness or in the morbid delight with which, as James Baldwin put it, it contemplates “the extent and power of its own wickedness.” It is to not be put in a position in which we die hating somebody else.

On the other hand, politicizing pain is not the same thing as advocating dolorism. In fact, it must be galling to put ourselves in a position such that those who look at us cannot but pity us victims.

One way of destroying white racism is to prevent whiteness from becoming a deep fantasmatic object of our unconscious.

We need to let go off our libidinal investments in whiteness if we are to squarely confront the dilemmas of white privilege. Baldwin understood this better than any other thinker. “In order really to hate white people”, he wrote, “one has to blot so much out of the mind – and the heart – that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose” (Notes of a Native Son, 112).

This is what we have to find out for ourselves – in a black majority country in which blacks are in power, what is the cost of our attachment to whiteness, this mirror object of our fear and our envy, our hate and our attraction, our repulsion and our aspirations?

Part of what racism has always tried to do is to damage its victims’ capacity to help themselves. For instance, racism has encouraged its victims to perceive themselves as powerless, that is, as victims even when they were actively engaged in myriad acts of self-assertion.

Ironically among the emerging black middle class, current narratives of selfhood and identity are saturated by the tropes of pain and suffering. The latter have become the register through which many now represent themselves to themselves and to the world. To give account of who they are, or to explain themselves and their behavior to others, they increasingly tend to frame their life stories in terms of how much they have been injured by the forces of racism, bigotry and patriarchy.

Often under the pretext that the personal is political, this type of autobiographical and at times self-indulgent “petit bourgeois” discourse has replaced structural analysis. Personal feelings now suffice. There is no need to mount a proper argument.  Not only wounds and injuries can’t they be shared, their interpretation  cannot be challenged by any known rational discourse. Why? Because, it is alleged, black experience transcends human vocabulary to the point where it cannot be named.

This kind of argument is dangerous.

The self is made at the point of encounter with an Other. There is no self that is limited to itself.

The Other is our origin by definition.

What makes us human is our capacity to share our condition – including our wounds and injuries – with others.

Anticipatory politics – as opposed to retrospective politics – is about reaching out to others. It is never about self-enclosure.

The best of black radical thought has been about how we make sure that in the work of repair, certain compensations do not become pathological phenomena.

It has been about nurturing the capacity to resume a human life in the aftermath of irreparable loss.

Invoking Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko and countless others will come to nothing if this ethics of becoming-with-others is not the cornerstone of the new cycle of struggles.

There will be no plausible critique of whiteness, white privilege, white monopoly capitalism that does not start from the assumption that whiteness has become this accursed part of ourselves we are deeply attached to, in spite of it threatening our own very future well-being.

Weekend Music Break No.83 – Banned in Nigeria edition

This summer Nigeria’s Broadcasting Corporation, or whoever is in charge of censoring content there, decided to ban 18 pop songs from its outlets for either containing “vulgar lyrics,” “obscene video” or something else. What is interesting is that except for two songs by Omarion featuring Chris Brown and Jhene Aoki (“Post to Be”) and Nicki Minaj (“Anaconda”), most of the songs are by Nigerian pop stars. Musicians like Davido, Naeto C, Olamide, Wizkid, etcetera have seen their music banned. Which makes us conclude, that for all that talk of Nigerians as a chaste, church going lot (the view that the government and governing elites want to convey), they’re not that innocent.

In any case, while the music is banned on the public airwaves, they can still be played in clubs or in your car or streamed on your phone. So here, dear reader are those 18 songs as a #WeekendMusicBreak.

#DigitalArchives No. 19: ‘Claremont Histories’ and the preservation of nostalgia

So far, a lot of what has been covered in this series has focused on digitized archival sources or social justice projects. The preservation of nostalgia has not received as much attention (with the exception of Nigerian Nostalgia), though the digital realm has opened up new vistas for collective remembering. This nostalgia comes in many forms, from private messages on social media to chat rooms to more official projects like this week’s featured site, Claremont Histories. Focusing on the Cape Town, South Africa, suburb of Claremont and the struggles in this neighborhood following its designation as a white area under the Group Areas Act, this site pulls together photos, texts, and newspaper clippings to bring the history of Claremont to life. The main focus, however, is on the memories of the Claremont residents who contributed their photos and memories to the site. This focus is communicated clearly in the mission statement of the site.

I want to tell you a story. Or rather, a thousand stories. Stories about Claremont, the area now known as Harfield Village. Our stories are our memories, and they make us laugh, make us cry. This site is a dedication to those who lived in and share wonderful memories of Claremont before the forced removals under the Group Areas Act. They’re not all happy memories, but we would like to share both the good times and the bad. So that we don’t forget – so that nobody forgets – about the colourful, beautiful, difficult and vibrant lives of the people of Claremont.

You can navigate the content on the site in a variety of ways. You can browse through examples of the good stuff (pleasant nostalgic memories of Claremont residents) or some of the bad stuff (more unpleasant memories of forced removals and racism). You can also explore the memories of Claremont through the biographies and reminiscences of residents themselves, like Salegga Mustapha, who was raised in Claremont and is still actively involved in the neighborhood through the Claremont Re-united Alliance. Mustapha was also one of the contributors who loaned out a number of photos and artifacts for inclusion in the site, which you can view in her gallery. There is also a gallery of newspaper clippings that could provide a jumping off point for anyone interested in researching the history of this Cape Town suburb.

Salegga on York Street, Claremont

Salegga on York Street, Claremont

Follow Claremont Histories on Facebook and, if you have your own memories of Claremont, you can contribute via the Contact page on the site. You can also learn more about Claremont on South African History Online. As always, feel free to send me suggestions via Twitter (or use the hashtag #DigitalArchive) of sites you might like to see covered in future editions of The Digital Archive!

Ghana’s CHALE WOTE Street Arts Festival and the corporations

The CHALE WOTE Street Art Festival in Accra has grown over the last four years, expanding to new audiences in Ghana and across the world, particularly through social media and word of mouth. In 2015, the crowds came out in full speed and so did the corporations.

Local authorities estimate that more than 30,000 people participated in the now four-day event, a fact that clearly appealed to at least five multi-million cedi companies who set up shop ad hoc at the festival without prior approval or authorisation from the festival organisers.

The companies that targeted the 2015 festival without going through the proper procedures of vending, include Red Bull, Vodafone, Hello Foods, Blue Skies and Bel Aqua.

Red Bull vendors gained unauthorized entry into the festival and left branded cars at the entrance on Sunday, August 23. Vodafone vendors walked through the festival wearing branded vests selling recharge cards to customers. Hello Foods employees wore branded T-shirts and passed out flyers to festival-goers. Blue Skies set up a vending truck at the entrance of Seaview Hotel on Sunday, August 23 after being told several times by the organizers to leave. Bel Aqua took images from the festival and created an advertising campaign on their social media platforms branding their water.

Chale Wote Pic 2

What makes these exploitive practices even more appalling is that more than fifty small to large-scale businesses were legitimately represented at the festival as vendors in food, fashion, design and technology, having paid for space to operate and share their products and services with patrons.

This kind of corporate exploitation isn’t new to the arts on the continent though. There’s a long global history of well-resourced companies hijacking work and recognition from artists in order to sell to customers. Particularly on the continent, it is a difficult terrain for art creators who must navigate life often with little or no financial support for their work.

Many corporations operate quite differently when they do business on the continent. Africa is seen as a resource extraction mine and the relationship with art is no exception. In many ways, artists in Ghana are treated no differently than mine workers who are far removed from actually enjoying the profits obtained from mineral production. Art is also a natural resource that can transform the life of a nation. An art economy is developing in Accra, and albeit small, it is also consistent. All the more fascinating is how such developments are largely happening outside of state and corporate support.

Ghana is on the verge of a cultural economy explosion and artists have been the center of this shift, creating a new eco-system and network for creative entrepreneurs. CHALE WOTE is an independent structure, built through the energetic efforts of groups of artists, to ensure it takes off each year.

So when high net worth companies gain unauthorized entry into the festival and market their products and services to attendees, it demonstrates a lack of respect for the festival and participating artists. This is evident in their unwillingness to pay for rightful access to the festival or the use of works by artists. Would these companies try such things within the western countries they also do business?

Chale Wote Pic 1

For CHALE WOTE, this is not the first time we have encountered this phenomenon. Last year, after negotiations went sour with Guinness, the company hired bloggers to attend the festival and snap photos of the artwork and events, as a way to add fuel to the #madeofblack campaign launched in Ghana the following week. Airtel Ghana also used a mural created by Jason Nicco-Annan during CHALE WOTE 2014 in a commercial that has been screening since last October. Unfortunately, neither the festival organisers nor Nicco-Annan were contacted for permission to use this work in the commercial.

Such actions, particularly by big business, exhibit a blatant sense of entitlement to the work of artists who are, in turn, treated with neglect and impunity. This amounts to theft, a persistent stealing of the intellectual property and livable wages entitled to artists. This dishonest practice does not acknowledge the time, energy, and cost that the organisers and artists have committed to the realisation of CHALE WOTE each year. The artists are often not recognized by name, their work is not portrayed accurately, and they are not contacted for payment for the use of their work in commercial advertising.

What’s even more disturbing is how images are lifted easily and associated with products and services that may be misaligned with the artist’s intentions and morals. Artists’ messages are being compromised through association with the selling of particular products Furthermore, why is consent not the first place to start? It is it not okay to continually take from artists without any recourse.

The exploitative behaviour of corporations goes against the very vision and mission of the CHALE WOTE Street Art Festival, which is to provide a platform to Ghanaian artists to create, collaborate with international artists, exhibit and make a livable wage from their work.

We’re left with no choice but to call out these predatory capitalist practices for what they are. Cease and desist with the tomfoolery corporations. African artists are not pawns.

Working alongside many others, we are relentless in our pursuit of justice.

For the first time, an Ethiopian film was selected for Cannes. We interview director Yared Zeleke

Cinematographer Yared Zeleke is making Ethiopia proud. The movie Lamb – both written and directed by Yared – is the first Ethiopian film to have ever been selected for the Cannes Film Festival.

Lamb is the first feature film for 37-year old Yared, who studied at New York University’s film school. The world premiere was held on Thursday night in Ethiopia’s National Theatre in capital city Addis Ababa. The story is about a 9-year-old boy who loses his mother due to drought. His father decides to find work in the city and leaves him with relatives. The Guardian has described the film as an “ethnographic film made entirely from the inside out.” We caught up with Zeleke in Addis Ababa after the premiere.

How do you relate to the main character?

I relate to the main character, as far as I also had a childhood full of love and color but I was separated from my childhood-home age nine, right before I turned ten. It was during the time of the Derg* and my father had already escaped to the U.S. It was natural for my family to want to send me to join my father because of better education, better opportunity. But for me it was a nightmare. Because I left behind everybody I loved, and everybody I knew. I left my home. And that little kid in me is heartbroken. That’s some of the main themes in the story, about how a child deals with loss.

Drought and hunger play a central theme in your movie. Why would you choose subjects that have stereotyped Ethiopia for decades?

When I went to the U.S., a lot of times people would think I’m from the desert and I was starving and things like that. I grew up having to defend who I was as a child. I play with this cliché in this film. Because the majority of the images you’ll see is green beautifully lush green landscape, and a lot of the narrative is driven by food.

Another important topic to the livelihoods of the characters seems to be rainfall, or the lack thereof.

Ethiopia is experiencing a changing climate. There is a debate in some parts of the United States, but here in Ethiopia it’s a reality. 85% are still farmers. So it’s not even a debate, it’s a reality. Our country was once very forested, very green. Today it’s mostly deforested, but outside of that, the pollution from wealthier countries is causing havoc on the lives of farmers here.

Never before has en Ethiopian movie been officially selected for the Cannes Film Festival. How was it to receive the news of your selection?

It was one of these really exhilarating rare moments in your life. It’s like natural sort of high, and a real honor and real blessing to be selected and at the same time to represent Ethiopia. In Cannes, when a film is selected it’s like the Olympics, you represent the country.

How would you describe Ethiopia’s film industry?

Ethiopia’s film industry is developing and I’ve seen much improvement actually in the past seven years that I’ve been coming back and forth. Of course there is room for improvement and I hope to contribute. In the future I would like to teach and also screen films from around the world. We have 3000 years of incredible extraordinary history, beautiful culture and landscape, beautiful people. That should be shared with the world, they should know that Ethiopia is worth looking into.

Will all your movies be about Ethiopia?

I think so, even I made a film in the US which I think I will at one point, it will have some Ethiopian elements. At least, Muleken Melesse’s music or something.

You used the music of different Ethiopian musicians for the movie Lamb.

I really go out of my way to discover and rediscover Ethiopian music. Some people prefer the old, some youth are listening to contemporary but I listen to everything. A lot of times people give credit to the old ones but there is some incredible new stuff out there. There are ten songs, contemporary mostly, in my film now and there will be more to come in the future. I want to make Ethiopia cool, because it is. This country is a dream for an artist because it still has so much soul.

What will be your next project?

My next film is all about youth because Ethiopia is a very youthful nation. I also want to do something really cool so that the youth don’t loose that sense of identify because Ethiopia is one of the places on earth where identity is still strong and its beautiful. We don’t have McDonalds or anything like that. I want to maintain our cultural diversity, our religious diversity and our sense of beautiful identity.

 Manhattan Digest

Zeleke, Image credit: Manhattan Digest

The movie “Lamb” will be released in 15 countries, including Turkey, Germany, France, Switzerland, Taiwan, the UAE, Mexico, and Norway.

*The Derg was the military regime under the leadership of Mengistu Hailemariam who overthrew emperor Haile Selassie in 1976. The Derg is considered Ethiopia’s most brutal regime in history.

Black Magic Women: Ancient, new, and circum-Atlantic

Before we hear her commanding voice, we feel her power buffeting two bible-carrying pastors who’ve accosted a young woman, talking on a phone, walking down a pathway. As they invade her personal space, we hear an insistent beat, first soft, then gaining force. It deflects the chasing proselytizers; the pursued woman escapes into the foreground. We are swirled into an alternate universe. Out of the mist in a jungle clearing she looms, sitting on a throne flanked by drummers, wielding sceptre, face paint, and megaphone.

Thus begins the new music video, ‘Black Magic Woman’, by Azizaa, ‘Ewe from Ghana soaked in the American pop culture by living here for over twenty years’. Produced by Wanlov the Kubolor, half of the Fokn Bois and an artist in his own right, it cannot but be provocative. The video’s address is Ghana, and contemporary West Africa. But its remit is wider: the repossession of time itself through a feminist reclaiming of the sacred.

The already scrambled time of African modernity is visually communicated through the bibles, men clad in shirts, ties, and trousers, and woman on a mobile phone. But murkier, more jumbled-up temporalities await in the jungle. The Black Magic Woman’s ‘ancient mind’ is ‘dreaming of aliens from the sky’ as did Sun Ra; the electronic pulse dialogues with percussionists; the bullhorn and megaphone are both prostheses of power. This mash-up of the ‘jungle’ and the sonic-lyric registers of Afro-futurism decolonizes the forward march of secular, factory, colonial time. As Azizaa says, ‘my music is a bridge between the ancient and the modern, the present and the future.’

It’s also a bridge between West Africa and the Americas. The last time a Black Magic Woman was invoked in a memorable song, it was Carlos Santana’s: ‘put a spell on me, baby’—an avatar of the exotic. As the ‘Black Magic Woman’ returns to the African Jungle, the pasts of slavery and colonialism meet the present of postcolonial West Africa. Christianity’s eschatology, a possible escape route from modernity’s metronome, is rejected as a legacy of colonialism and empire. Contemporary African Christianity is exposed as complicit with the restriction of women’s mobility and independence. Where is a spirituality that can decolonize the soul while empowering women? It’s in indigeneous West African spirituality that she finds the answer.

Not for Azizaa, however, a tidy nativist indigeneity, but the re-assemblage of cultural resources already re-assembled in New World diasporas.  ‘A voodoo priestess who creates voodoo music that is essential to my spiritual wellbeing,’ Azizaa is also the ‘daughter of Oshun’ (one of the female powers of the Afro-Cuban pantheon). Eschewing Hollywood–style voodoo with its dolls and hexes, her music, ‘spiritual but light-hearted, with a hint of sarcasm’, draws from female divinities with Yoruba roots, diasporic agencies, and various caprices and demands. Their auras range from the dark to the lighter; In Azizaa’s Black Magic Woman, possessor equally of ‘darkness’, ‘dragon’s breath’ and a sexy beauty, we see the dangerous Erzulie Dantor, the coquettish Erzulie Freda, the jewellery-loving Oshun, and the ‘supersyncretised’ Yemaya/ Lemanja/ Mami Wata: unpredictable Black Magic Women all, aliens from the sky, washed up on Black Atlantic shores.

Azizaa reclaims ‘voodoo’ from both the Afro-diasporic imaginary and Ghanaian pentecostalism: ‘”Vodou” means “free the people” in Ewe. So my music is for the free souls and minds.’ West African musical reinterpretations of Black Atlantic spirituality’s diasporic afterlives are a long-standing phenomenon. Cultural producers from across the region insist that ‘salsa came from here’, or that the ‘clave’, the signature rhythm cell of Cuban music, can be traced back to a village in Mali or Benin. This transatlantic cosmopolitanism evades imperial histories through affective strategies of reparation and reconnection: note, for instance, the ‘vodou-funk’ of Benin’s Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou.

Azizaa updates this trend with a feminist reworking of transatlantic voodoo and the nativist trope of the ‘Afro-tribal’. The Black Magic Woman also answers back to Chinua Achebe’s magisterial novel, Things Fall Apart, whose descriptions of the drums are set in a pre-colonial past thanks to realism’s collusion with linear narrative. Azizaa’s video is an aural-visual-percussive riposte to Achebe’s evasiveness regarding Christianity and female agency. Her use of English is welded to spoken word traditions and to the ‘Africa’ of the ribcage, thorax, and solar plexus. Watch how, at 4.22-2.29 in the video, body movement transmits the Black Magic Woman’s majesty as embodied, kinetic, and ‘African’, capable of ‘reconverting’ evangelist and pastor.

Ex Africa aliquid semper novi — from Africa always arises something new for the world. Aziza’s pocomagicmix of a video gives a new twist to strategic essentialism through its audacious and hypnotic power.

All descriptions of Azizaa’s music and cultural influences are taken from the author’s correspondence with her. Thank you, Azizaa.

#RespecTheProducer | Awesome [Beat] Tapes From Africa!!!

Sabelo Mkhabela is an emcee caught in limbo. Currently, he’s a functional as a writer wading his way through Cape Town alleways with headphones fully locked and loaded. When not contemplating whether or not to drop another mixtape — his music is on Soundcloud — he likes listening to beats of all kinds. Generally, he prefers ones with a boom and a bap and a clack-clack, accompanied warm, woozy synth pads, or abrasive, crackly, cranky snares drums. So we asked him to pick a selection of some beat tapes in his possession and write about them. This article is part of a series on music producers throughout the African continent called #RespecTheProducer. Check out daily updates on tumblr and follow the Instagram account.



Just before meeting with Cape Town hip hop duo Ill Skillz, producer J-oNE did something amazing when he released a beat tape consisting of beats he had made on [the beat-making software] Fruity Loops 9 (FL9). He made all the beats in December 2011 in Pretoria on his little brother’s laptop. “I had no beatmaking equipment at the time so I jumped on my nigglet’s laptop, gathered the few drum samples I had on my external hard drive, installed Fruity Loops 9 and just did what it does,” said the producer in an interview I did with him about two years ago. The tape is packed with soothing Rhodes keys, ambient pads unobtrusively creeping behind warm basslines and varied rhythms. The beats sound full, yet still leave space for vocals. This explains why some of them ended up on Ill Skillz’s Notes from the Native Yards album. “Cyber Lust” with its soaring pads and perennial bassline became “Fuck Your Day Job”. The sax-led “Crate Break 2 – The fancy Name for an Interlude” with its heavy drums and club-ready chants became the banging “2 Dope Boyz”. The organ squelches on “Crate Break – Short Word From Our Sponsors” made for a perfect canvas for Uno and Flexx to throw tirades at the system on “Give Us Free”. On The All Fruity Loops Tape, J-oNE showcased some of the various beatmaking styles he is able to pull off. The warm and damp “The Dilla Joint” – my personal favorite – saw J-oNE recreating Dilla’s neo-soul signature sound backed by those creaking vinyl sounds. He even managed to emulate Dilla’s plodding drums and uniform arrangement giving a Dilla fan like myself goose bumps all over. J-oNE succeeded at merging smooth ambient pads and lively percussion making this a perfect backdrop for dreams and musings.

Becomingphill - All sorts vol. 1Namibian producer Becoming Phil is an anomaly on All Sorts Vol. 1. He offers a variety of sounds — familiar and rare samples alike. Sample-spotters will recognize most of the tracks being re-imagined by the producer. Phil’s chops and loops are basic. He excels in blending them with the subtle synthesizers he uses on some of the beats. All Sorts Vol. 1 is a light listen, where the samples lead, Phil prefers his drums smooth. Even when they attempt to thwack, he has a way of keeping them in the background. The tape left me feeling nostalgic. The soundscape consists mostly of breezy production reminiscent of the 90s. A variation in rhythm makes sure you bob head differently to almost every beat. And at 30 tracks, the tape’s guaranteed to have something for everyone.

[Note: The beats were mixed by Nyambz, whom we’ve written about here]


With production credits on one of the most talked about albums of 2014 – AKA’s Levels, Tweezy didn’t need a beat tape to “get his name out there”. He is the man behind AKA’s massive hits like “All Eyes on Me”, “Run Jozi” and what I believe to be one of his best beats, “Sim Dope”. But Tweezy felt like showing the world that he could do more than just make bangers, that’s why he released the God Level EP mid-2014. The tape kicks off with an ear-drum wrecker, “Pata Pata” where the producer samples Miriam Makeba’s tune of the same name. He plugs Mama Afrika’s vocals into a circuit of regular 808s, high-time hi-hats and a low-octave electronic bassline. The beat takes off where “All Eyes on Me” left off; it could be a beat AKA left out. For the first half, Tweezy brings pulverizing basslines and layers an assortment of synthesizers on top of them. It’s a turn up! On the second half, he reveals another side of his we haven’t heard: Mellow keys and subtle electronics which sit on smooth, friendlier basslines. The beats, however soulful, are still catchy. Tweezy’s strongest traits are his basslines – they are full and loud but are not painful at all! Just dense. And firm. His mixing abilities put many vets to shame; all the sounds he uses exist in their own, distinct frequency. It’s no surprise, then, that AKA roped him in for Levels. The rapper needed Tweezy more than Tweezy needed the rapper.


#RespecTheProducer -- HiperdelicClean Thoughts and Dirty Beats is an on-going series by Hipe. The Cape Town producer releases instrumentals that artists – Cream, Jaak, Rattex, Imbube, Ben Sharpa, The Anvills and more – have jumped on before. The first volume, which hasn’t been followed up in two years, attempts to sum up Hipe’s career. It’s a story for another day if it does succeed in that department. What the compilation does is showcase the producer’s versatility and cements his legacy in the South African hip hop scene. From blunt soul chops to Hipe’s signature horn loops, and the prevalent head-bopping boom bap rhythm, the tape teleports you into the Hyperbolic Chamber (Hipe’s production enclave). What you find there is virtuoso use of the MPD drum machine, Hipe’s beats are purely organic; no PlayStation sounds here! Though boom bap is a wholesale sound, where the only attempts at innovation have been merging the 90s’ style of beatmaking with electronic elements (think Black Milk and 88 Keys), Hipe has mastered his own technique. In his work, you hear a lot of familiar sounds, just sounds you haven’t heard in one beat. Take Jaak’s “Sweet” for example, where Hipe loops accordion riffs over his melodic bassline. He does throw in some exclusive pieces sporadically between the familiar instrumentals, ranging from his interpretation of Nigerian traditional music, to some flirtations with 70s and 80s soul and pop. A lot of regular boom-bap beats (“Bass & Kicks”) show up somewhere along the line. But mostly Hipe keeps things interesting, as each track comes with its own mood, from the ominous “Intergalactic Crew” to the breezy “Ill Vibe Music” by emcee Mingus, and straight street (“Welcome to Khalcha” by Rattex). Not forgetting the skittering drums on “Slew Them” which suite whatever mood you are in. Maybe Hipe’s kind of production is not making waves on mainstream radio stations such as 5FM and YFM. But that doesn’t anyone from appreciating it.

Teck Zilla - Son of Sade
Nigerian emcee and producer Teck-Zilla released Son of Sade in 2014. He released it on his mother’s birthday, whose name is Sade. He sampled Nigerian singer Sade’s songs for all the six beats on the project. Sade’s music is rich. This gave the producer plenty of sounds – keys, saxophones, and of course, her woozy vocals – to chop. Teck is inspired by the golden era of hip hop; it’s written all over his work. He prefers the boom-bap sound, but can also appreciate that we are living in the 21st century. On “Dream Weaver”, he throws thwacking 808s over a saxophone loop and still manages to keep the soul seeping through. Most boom-bap projects tend to fail to keep the listener interested, but Son of Sade is a monolithic offering whose brevity ensures it doesn’t get monotonous. The producer is not a novice. The clarity of his samples and the crispness and accuracy of his drums is impressive. This is the kind of beat tape that has you thinking of flows and concepts. My personal favourite is “Theme to S.O.S”, I even rapped over it.

Mokhele Ntho (also known as Suade Ritchie) is a soft-spoken introvert, the perfect personality for a producer. He’s the kind to spend hours indoors tapping on his Akai MPD26 drum pad, eyes fixed on the computer screen. He lives in his own world; a world that excites him; a world you have to understand, in order to understand him. I met Mokhele while we were both university students. He played me some of his beats in his room in Liesbeeck Gardens one afternoon. He had a story to tell about each and every beat he played. When he shot me a link to BlackWindows.WhiteRoses, I was excited! The brief project is the perfect backdrop for cold winter nights spent alone. The beats have Mokhele’s personality written all over them – the aeriform pads over basslines so healthy and so sure of themselves they seem to have a life of their own. His basslines are my favourite aspect of his production, not to say anything else is any bad. They are highly textured, and it doesn’t take a scrupulous ear to pick up the evidence of the thorough and calculated tweaking that went behind creating them. The project is tied together by a uniform sound yet it doesn’t sound monotonous. It sounds like storytelling without words. The producer made the project in two months, ensuring that each beat led into the next. “I repeatedly played the previous beat I had made over and over before I moved on to next one to maintain consistency between the track in order for the project to have unity and sound like a single project,” he said when I spoke to him. “The way the tracklist is setup is exactly the order of creation, I didn’t follow a selection process – I didn’t make trillions of beats then picked from them.” My personal favourite is “Fear of Dolphins”, the violin towards the end of the beat cuts deep, makes you think about your past, present and future. Mokhele has a way of making soulful sound cool!


Reflections on the state of LGBT activism in Africa

In 2014 at an annual summit of the African Union, Joachim Chissano – former head of state of Mozambique – made a declaration in which he called African nations to uphold the rights of all citizens, including sexual minorities, and consider the decriminalization of certain forms of sexual relationships between consenting adults. The speech may have caused a stir in that assembly room in Addis Ababa, but it hardly made headlines outside of Lusophone Africa. One year later, Mozambique would be amongst the first African countries to decriminalized homosexuality by removing penal sanctions inherited from its former Portuguese colonizer.

Despite the good news from Mozambique, many African governments continue to either ignore the issue of sexual discrimination amongst its citizens, or actively enact repressive policies and laws to punish sexual relationships between people of the same gender. The debate has become an internationally polarizing one, playing out in mainstream press, and in settings such as the United Nations General Assembly or the Human Rights Council. Sometimes eclipsed by the debates going on in these high profile arenas, it is worth noting that positive steps towards LGBT rights are also happening locally across the continent.

Contrary to what the international media would have you believe, there have been narrow windows opening for LGBT Africans in the past decade. These changes have occurred in legislation, judiciary decisions, courts, health policies and more importantly in shifting public opinions among the youth. There are lessons to be learned and numerous Africans to be praised for championing change.

In Botswana and Kenya, after years of challenges by local activists, court authorities have given LGBT organizations permission to operate within civil society. In 2004, Cape Verde decriminalized consensual relations between adults under the leadership of Pedro Pires, and Sao Tome & Principe also decriminalized homosexuality in 2013. In Rwanda, politicians and President Kagame himself have refrained from supporting a bill to criminalize homosexuality, unlike their immediate neighbours.

Gay pride events, which constitute the visible side of LGBT political mobilization in the West, are still an extremely rare occurrence on the continent (with the exception of South Africa). However, activists in countries such as Uganda and Mauritius have held Pride events in recent years (albeit in covert ways). In Cape Verde, the city of Mindelo now holds an annual street party where LGBT people and allies celebrate together.

The work of local LGBT groups and human rights defenders is crucial in spearheading the policy changes that we are beginning to witness. A growing number of LGBT organizations are documenting cases of violence and discrimination occurring in communities. In Nigeria for instance, human right defenders publish data on violations against LGBT people occurring in workplaces, families, police stations, housing, schools or healthcare institutions. This evidence is then used to lobby national human rights institutions — often with little success – as most national human rights institutions do not recognize LGBT rights as priority. However, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) has started to take note of our work. In 2014, it broke its silence on the matter by issuing its first ever resolution LGBT rights. Resolution 275 explicitly condemns violence against LGBT people noted across the continent, and calls for states to protect human rights defenders working with sexual minorities. Another notable win was the formal offer of observer status granted to the Coalition of African Lesbians this year.

Africa’s response to AIDS is also gradually giving attention to LGBT issues. Most countries now specify in their AIDS policies, the need to target men who have sex with men as priority groups. However, public health efforts are hampered by punitive laws against homosexuality that exist in 38 African countries. Negative public opinion further drives gender and sexual minorities underground and creates a climate of fear.

Training sessions on gender and sexual diversity are now delivered in the health sectors of most African countries. These programs often explore the impact of apathy, prejudice, stigma and discrimination toward sexual minorities. Among the health officials and providers taking part, it is common to see professionals struggling to name a single ally of LGBT people in their country. Gender experts admit that they have never met transgender people from their country. They readily admit that the root of stigma and discrimination — and the laws which entrench them — are rooted in ignorance, and the strict gender norms which prevail in our countries. This is at least a step forward.

The visibility of LGBT people comes at a high price, and many activists still fear to speak openly. But recent surveys show that attitudes are shifting. For example in Nigeria, one survey showed that acceptance of LGBT people is far higher among younger Nigerians. New ways of resistance are flourishing in the arts as well; writers like Abdallah Taia, Binyavanga Wainaina, Chimamamnda Ngozi Adichie, photographers like Zanele Muholi and poets like Diriye Osman are breaking boundaries and giving voice to previously hidden narratives. African scientists are also now joining the debate, The Uganda Academy of Sciences now recognizes that gender and sexual identity are “part of a continuum and that no positions on this spectrum are “unnatural”” – despite what President Yoweri Museveni and a proposed Ugandan law have claimed. The point is, Africa has always been a place of resistance to all forms of oppression. And beyond what the mainstream media would have you believe, the current direction of LGBT rights dialogues in several African countries should give us reason to hope for a better future for Africans of all sexual orientations.

Weekend Music Break No.82 – Catch up edition!

Africa is a Country has been on break for about a month, and in that time we’ve accrued a bit more videos than the usual ten we post for our Weekend Music Break. So as we make our way back into our posting stride, enjoy the following set of twenty-five videos from across Africa and its diaspora:

It feels good to be back!

At the Heart of the West Indies Parade

In New York City, Labor Day is associated with the West Indies Carnival. This enormous parade is a magnetic force that attracts, on average, one million spectators every year. It is not a space to talk about labor or exploitation. It is a massive celebration of Caribbean culture and heritage.

The carnival takes place in Crown Heights, East Flatbush, and other surrounding neighborhoods of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where many West Indian families are resisting gentrification. Mists of smoke grill and the strong aroma of curry surrounds the parade. While people eat, trucks loaded with speakers blast every possible genre of Caribbean music, from reguetón club hits to hip-shaking gospels. This creates an ambiance carnivalesque unrivalled by other festivities in any of the five boroughs of the city.

This carnival used to take place in Harlem––once a beacon of African American culture and African heritage in the US. Harlem lost the permit to host the carnival in 1964 due to disturbances. A fact that is perhaps more telling of the political climate than of what the carnival has represented throughout its history: imagine the plausible occurrence, in the minds of officials, of an energetic celebration of African heritage and miscegenation, joining forces with the then growing protests spurred by the Civil Rights Movement.

But the Carnival resisted, and it moved to Brooklyn. A less known festivity that is paired with the carnival, J’Ouvert (or Jouvay, which is creole for open day) breaks out at midnight with drums playing on Flatbush Avenue and then disperses until the dawn of Labor Day. This festivity is not only of great importance due to its ritual significance, but also because it is celebrating the  emancipation from slavery. The festivity is tied historically to representations of disruption of social norms and the establishment.

While mainstream media tends to focus on episodic gang-related violence surrounding the carnival (especially during Jouvay), this photo essay attempts to portray the many facets of this massive celebration. Cultural pride, diversity, familial and ancestral ties are at the heart of this parade. Not to mention a surge of creativity.

IMG_4192 IMG_4152   IMG_4219 IMG_4236 IMG_4187 IMG_4305 IMG_4256   IMG_4265 IMG_4335 IMG_4291 IMG_4283 IMG_4316 IMG_4295 IMG_4407 IMG_4401 IMG_4464 IMG_4443 IMG_4377 IMG_4471 IMG_4419   IMG_4457  IMG_4496 IMG_4529 IMG_4517 IMG_4537 IMG_4516  IMG_4531 IMG_4553 IMG_4543   IMG_4559



One Hundred Academics for Ayahuasca Dignity in Colombia

Yagé, or ayahuasca, is the name of a plant and also of a beverage made from it that is used in many native tribes in the Upper Amazon in South America for sacred rites. It is an integral part of the culture of various indigenous ethnicities in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. In the past decades, though, non-indigenous people have sought it, either for the spiritual experience, or as a tourist attraction.

Opinions on the expansion of the popularity of the beverage vary between and among indigenous tribes. But some instances generate widespread rejection. Such is the case of Alberto José Varela, an Argentinian man, based in Spain, who has been selling the plant in Europe, as well as tourist packages to the Colombian Amazon for retreats involving the beverage.

About 100 hundred academics and experts on indigenous issues, from universities Latin America, Europe and the United States, now denounce him for varied reasons in a letter that we now reproduce in full below:


We hereby manifest our support for the representatives of the Cofán people who signed a public denunciation1 against Mr. Alberto José Varela and his commercial activities involving Yajé.

In their denunciation, they point out that Mr. Varela does not have the permission or approval of the Yajé authorities of Colombia to transport or use the Yajé medicine; that they have not trained or instructed anyone from Mr. Varela’s organization, including Mr. Varela himself; and that he was not granted authorization to commercialize Yajé. By the same token, they note that Mr. Varela has made no economic investments for the benefit of the Cofán community, nor for the preservation of their culture and traditions.

The undersigned manifest our concern over the proliferation, in Colombia and many other countries, of a business model in which Yajé (also known as Ayahuasca) is used solely in the interest of making a profit; disrespecting the plant, its proper management, and the sacred character bestowed upon it by native peoples and mestizo populations of Southeastern Colombia.

The activities of Mr. Alberto José Varela are especially worrisome because he claims to have been “initiated” in 2001 by Taita Domingo Males Miticanoy, calling himself “the first Westerner authorized to use the ayahuasca of Taita Querubín in Europe,” 2 and referring to his organization, Ayahuasca International as “the first multinational corporation dedicated to Ayahuasca.” 3

Between his so-called “initiation” and his arrest in Spain in 2008, Mr. Alberto José Varela conducted Yajé ceremonies in Colombia, Spain, and other countries, claims to have trained therapists “according to the instructions of Taita Domingo,” and sold Yajé to participants after ceremonies so they could consume it in their own homes.4

In 2007, Mr. Varela founded the Putumayo Association for the Assistance of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon, which he uses to organize trips from Spain to the Dept. of Putumayo, Colombia, and through which he collects money with the supposed aim of giving economic aid to indigenous peoples of southern Colombia and providing “needy communities with materials such as clothes, shoes, toys, and books.”5 The Putumayo Association also seeks to purchase land in the Colombian rainforest to allegedly collaborate with indigenous peoples in restoring it by “planting traditional crops and elaborating shamanic medicines which are the basis of their medical culture and their means of sustenance.” By 2008 the Putumayo Association had purchased five hectares of land in the Colombian Amazon.

Mr. Varela was arrested in Spain in December of 2008, after a police investigation initiated by complaints filed by family members of participants and neighbors over the disorderly conduct generated by the Yajé ceremonies he conducted. After fourteen months in prison, he was absolved in April 2011 of any crime against the public health because, as noted in the court’s sentence, it was not possible to quantify the DMT content of the Yajé confiscated by police. According to news reports, 40 kg of Yajé were found at his home.6

In 2013, Mr. Varela resumed the same kind of Yajé activities he had carried out prior to his imprisonment, now using aggressive marketing strategies and investing significant amounts of money in advertising and social media.

In order to legitimize his activities, he named various Taitas who were supposedly part of his organization, including Víctor Queta, Taita Querubín Queta, Taita Juan Jamioy, Taita Alfonso Males Jamioy, Taita Juan Males Jamioy, Taita Biron Piajuaje and Taita Humberto.

To expand his business, he provides “training” for facilitators after only one to a few weeks long course through what he calls the “European Ayahuasca School”; these people – some without the least experience or training – then organize and conduct Yajé ceremonies.

It so happens that the founder of this “school” claims that he does not consume Yajé any more, because, according to him, he no longer needs to; he also prohibits facilitators from taking the medicine while they are conducting ceremonies,7 which runs contrary to the principles followed not only by Yajé traditional medicine practitioners, but in all contexts of Ayahuasca use we know of.

Mr. Varela has created a business model around the Yajé ceremony involving a network of businesses, web pages, and Facebook profiles designed to protect him legally from further complaints. Yajé is prepared on lands bought by the Putumayo Association8 and then distributed to facilitators who are “contracted” by one of his companies, “Inner Mastery International.” Trips to the Colombian rainforest are sold through “Ayahuasca Travels,” and Yajé is sold directly over the Internet through the company “Ayahuasca Planet.” 9 All of these business activities are carried out by means of various intermediaries.10

Given all the aforementioned, we the undersigned declare as follows:

–We express our support for the Cofán people and their authorities, and we denounce Mr. Alberto José Varela for improper and fraudulent use of the name and traditions of Colombian native peoples, especially the Cofán, to legitimize his business activities;

–We denounce the use of aggressive marketing tactics and social networks to publicize and commercialize Yajé ceremonies, and condemn the direct sale of this medicine over the internet to anyone without any controls whatsoever;

–We denounce the irresponsible use Mr. Varela makes of the Yajé medicine, employing people without the necessary experience and training to conduct Yajé ceremonies; moreover, we note that these facilitators do not consume the medicine during ceremonies, contrary to the manner in which Ayahuasca is used in diverse contexts around the world;

–While some people might benefit from the use of the Yajé medicine in sessions organized by Ayahuasca International, we warn prospective clients that participating in sessions run by this organization could result in grave risks to mental and physical well-being;

–In this context, we note that a growing number of witnesses who have participated in Yajé sessions organized by Ayahuasca International have reported reprehensible practices, contrary to the principles enumerated in various ethics codes and guides to best practice, such as those developed by Brazilian Ayahuasca religious groups,11 ICEERS,12 and PDA;13

–We denounce the commercialization of Yajé as if it were an ordinary product or service, generating an artificial demand based on crass manipulation of what it means to consume the Yajé medicine, and taking advantage of the ignorance, credulity, good faith, and vulnerability of many people;

We the undersigned are not opposed to the expansion and spread of Yajé usage per se. Instead, we affirm that the diffusion of these practices should always be based on knowledge, respect, and ethics. The activities of Mr. Albert José Varela represent a danger not only to those who take part in his organization’s ceremonies, but also more generally to the expansion and consolidation of these practices beyond their region of origin.

August 2015

[Go here to download the letter and see the full list of academics who signed it.]














“Oh, don’t try me”: On style and salt and Serena Williams’s utterly astonishing breadth of utterance

This past summer I thought, again and again, about the rare range of things Serena Williams communicates on the tennis court. Never before has an athlete, or just about any other kind of performer, really, operating at that level—and, in a separate question: has anyone operated at this level?—included the audience in anything like the range and depth of process and pathos, the vulnerable dissonance that scurries about in the depths of what it takes to attain such an extreme level of craft. Like memory, craft at this level is never attained, can’t be kept, and so must be recreated again and anew in the moment.

If craft—as opposed to mechanical technique—bears some similarity to style—as opposed to the vanity of surfaces, of disguises—then, possibly, it, too, exists in an inverse relationship to “make believe.” We’ll come back to the “make believe” connection at the end. For now, let’s imagine that to develop a craft requires myriad confrontations with realities of world and self in order to become something alive and awake in the moments when it encounters its toughest tests. Style and craft can’t be borrowed or bought, they have to come out of the person, the real person doing the crafting and styling. Ergo the notion of “wood shedding” and the mythos of Thoreau at Walden, Charlie Parker in the Osarks and Robert Johnson off at the crossroads playing dice with Legba. Of course, according to the myth, this smelting of self and world into craft is done off by one’s self, in private, mostly in silence. In David Bradley’s lost classic, The Chaneysville Incident, John Washington refuses Judith’s early offer to help him think through what’s on his mind, “Struggling,” he informs, is “natural and necessary, but it’s vulgar and ought to be done in private.”

But, what if the wood shed is public? Where do you hide your rituals, your failures? Well, what if you don’t? What if you can’t?

Enter, Serena Williams, en route to play for a record-tying 22nd major championship at this year’s U.S. Open, marching her way, nearing 34 years old, toward tennis immortality. When has any athlete demonstrated the many-shaded vulnerabilities inherent in excellence in this way? No one ever has. Watching Serena Williams is the closest thing watching an athlete has ever been to reading Adrienne Rich’s “The Phenomenology of Anger.” Among the stages of a woman becoming conscious, which she had come to realize meant of women becoming conscious, Rich imagined burning the myth of silent seclusion, “Thoreau setting fire to the woods.” In this funeral for the secluded, individual genius, Serena adds the shed to the pyre.

It all depends upon something Serena is able to do with an invisible, but palpable, envelope of space complexly involved with and closely surrounding herself that figures something we rarely get to watch, something, though, I suspect, we all have a version of the need to do: to summon and craft an energy—maybe it’s simply (simply!) our presence in space, in the world—that we’re never in control of but that we need to steer and, finally, to ride inside of: our body as historical moment.

And, Serena accomplishes this in tennis, and women’s tennis, at that, that veritable reserved, country club table of “reserve,” a space reserved for the reserved. Here and there, sure, there are infractions against this reserve, a Golden Mean punctuated by post-McEnroe-ian, petulant, rebel-without-a-cause-isms.  At times, maybe there is a cause, take Nick Kyrgios, for instance, part of whose historical moment as a non-white (Greek-Malaysian) Australian was illuminated when his behavior at Wimbledon provoked super star swimmer Dawn Cash to opine that he should leave Australia and go back to the country of his father, Greece. No matter, Serena’s career provides an alternative to the myth of the reserved and clarifies something about for whom that myth has been reserved. 

In a very beautiful essay called “The Light of the South West,” Roland Barthes wrote: “I enter these regions of reality in my own way, that is, with my body; and my body is my childhood, as history created it.” If style is the way one travels in one’s embodied, inherited, historical moment, and craft, like style, relates directly to one’s ability to navigate those moments, then what of the politics of style? And, let’s allow that that classical reserve—ok, let’s just call it whiteness—means absent, means one stands in the empty space next to one’s self, maintaining what we hear called “composure,” which, paradoxically, is what allows a person to stand as themselves, an individual. That crucial space has been the perilous privilege, one whose costs we seem still unable to face, of white people, men most of all, and tennis has been but one of its many display cases.

Enter Serena, again, so radically present. She brings a dazzling, at times disturbingly intense, frayed and fissured depth of labor to the surface—no less than poet Elizabeth Bishop’s vaunted, stoical fish—and makes it articulate. She rips it at 123 mph within a Hawk Eye-measured centimeter of where she wants it to go, then turns a few steps and does it again and, often enough, again, in service games that barely take more than a minute. A historically strong array of talented professional women such as the great Maria Sharapova, who hasn’t beaten Serena in a decade, at times, watch in dejected disbelief. Serena wraps that up in style, beauty, a copiously black women’s beauty, and, when need be, adds salt—also a copiously black women’s salt—and we watch her win. And, also paradoxically, she damned near always wins; this is because the vast majority of her losses, such as her most recent loss in Toronto to Belinda Bencic, are examples—at times spectacular pageants—of self-defeat. Arguably as much as any soul singer, or poet, Serena’s presence carries these episodes to her audience with a sense of extreme proximity and availability. So it all becomes a story the audience (especially on TV) doesn’t merely observe but undergoes in a rare way. That’s often what a good poem or novel, or ballad, is supposed to do. In tennis, the sense is this isn’t supposed to happen. In tennis, an audience celebrates victory and victors—along with silent Swiss things like Rolexes—and, the rest, well, as with daylight drunkenness, the sense is it’s bad manners to act like we noticed. More than noticeable, in her tough wins as much as even in some of her more reserved self-defeats, Serena’s style makes that dissonance unavoidable. 

Michael Jordan is an athlete who mostly won, yes, and with extreme beauty and salt—more sweat than salt, actually. He converted a range of gestures on a basketball court, somehow, into movements that included the viewer (except maybe Knicks fans). But he was almost always a captivating vector of controlled purpose. The man. To “be like Mike” was to elevate above yourself and float there, “Air Jordan.” But, he never did the basketball equivalent of double faulting his way through a service game; he never missed both free throws in strings of three and four consecutive trips to the line. He almost never beat himself; shoot, when it counted, he almost never lost. He almost never seemed on display in ways beyond his control. He never had to stand there, bend neck-in-symmetry-with-wrist and talk his frayed self back from beyond the edge into a coherent spot to start again. And, basketball is a team game, and of course it’s a mostly black team game; so he was never alone in the game. Was he?  

My point here is: neither is Serena alone—which, I’ll submit, is the real thing that confounds the tennis world’s sense of what’s reserved, and for whom. This is why, for instance, the only two people in the tennis world who never really seem troubled about Venus playing Serena are Venus and Serena. Oh, and, their mother. Echo that rather evidentiary Sister Sledge line that states, and “for the record,” something about “giving love in a family dose.” And, that’s a black family dose. It’s true. In “Nikki Rosa,” Nikki Giovanni wrote that “Black love is Black wealth,” and that has a lot to do with this, but I first heard that line in a poem Sharan Strange read about a newly inaugurated President Barack Obama. This element of bringing a plurality with her into the frame of tennis excellence is part of her style, I’d say it’s the basic, maybe invisible but palpable, structure of her style. And, if one knows how to look, it’s not invisible at all.

Now, let’s say that a certain absent reserve—the paradox that to be one’s own, individual, self has required a person to separate themselves from their actually existing self, its body, and its historical moment—has been the perilous privilege of whiteness, especially for men, and tennis players par excellence. Then it becomes crucial to think about how black persons can’t make that move if they try, and black persons, at least in part of their lives, have and do try, pretty much all day every day, rational self-interest requires it. Style is part of that, too. But, it doesn’t work. When a black person tries to step aside from who they are in the eyes of the world, to an important degree, they simply step into another black person’s image. This trans-personal reality has been part and parcel of both black peril and black power and, often enough, in the moment, it’s unclear which is which.

Exceptions to this rule require massive amounts of energy and many very bright spotlights whereupon the peril—more often than the power—intensifies off the chart. In the 1966 film, A Man Called Adam, Sammy Davis Jnr. plays an early black-power-era musician who has become a “name” in his own image in exactly this way. After an argument over the (individual or trans-personal) structure of the quest with two younger black men who recognize him in a bar, of Adam, one concludes “forget him, man, he could have been white but he turned down the job,” a rude put down for sure but not for nothing either.

The language keeps track of the trans-personal rule quite precisely. It’s why one finds certain highly refined bourgeois black women referring to each other as “soror,” and others simply as “sister,” and, at the end of the day, it’s really what’s behind all the hub-bub about the term “nigger / nigga.” It’s also part of why, when another black man—or woman—is gunned down by police, every black man (and woman), anyone who loves a black man (or woman), and anyone who could possibly be mistaken for one, takes at least a moment of terrified notice. It’s also why white people, by and large, don’t have the phonemes to pronounce—and therefore to convey such an ambiguous and resonant depth of meaning in—words such as brother, sister, to say nothing of the spasmodic phantasm that becomes of the n-word, in these ways. Black wealth is also black speech, and style.

Black power and peril. Why power? Well, that’s largely the “soror” part; a collective purpose—black, and female, in radically disproportionate portions—that has been a life sustaining and democracy expanding force in American life. Why peril? Because in a democracy, we could call it “reserved,” which has bitterly and brutally attempted to stand aside from itself during every era of its history, being randomly—still less racially—mistaken for each other is something no rationally self-interested citizen thinks they can afford. The need to thwart that connection—which according to the American myth is essentially mistaken—between people affects what Americans consider to be rational and self-interested at every level. Hell, separating and distinguishing one’s self from others is damned near what we’re told it means to think. Separation, being, in the words of the brilliant critic James Snead, one of the “aboriginal obsessions,” “one of the founding paradigms of Western thought.” It has been one of the driving forces of American culture to efface this aboriginal desire under the guise of “reason” and then frame the natural origin of reason in the “individual.”

But, within the contending perils and powers at play in the substructure of American selves, black style conveys a very important and powerful sense of collective purpose, that human reality can be a mutual entity, and that any human entity is a mutual reality. The narrative of that is complex, conflicted, often tragic, but, in popular American terms, it’s essentially a black narrative. Our history of moments has made this so and has made selves and songs—and here and there even a poem or two—embodied to be so. This song has circled the globe.

So, like it or not, Serena’s style takes all this up. A book could parse moments over her career and therein account for how her compelling and nuanced commentary on this historical epic embodies its textures, its intensely vulnerable strength. Claudia Rankine’s sensational 2014 book, Citizen, actually does a few moment’s worth of this in a brilliant and timely style. For now, suffice it to say: it’s a lot. One result of this lot, in Serena’s style, is an unprecedentedly available, vulnerable, various, at times volatile, account of what the quest for excellence entails, a black woman’s quest for excellence in a white-dominated venue. Millions see her do it because she got there. She’s the best, the boss and paid—is paying—the cost. I mean you know you’re good when Drake shows up on your bandwagon (and in Toronto, he brought his mama!). But, we in the bell of the curve also recognize ourselves there, in all what it takes, say, to get three kids up, dressed, and on the bus to school every morning, without breaking dishes and causing visible bruises, and then get it together and make it to work ourselves. Try trying to talk to a teenager with ear buds surgically implanted in his ears? Can all that be done while standing in the empty space beside oneself? In the space reserved for the reserved individual?

A brief moment on salt, to wit: when the raucous, Centre Court home crowd at Wimbledon 2015’s third round threw themselves behind Heather Watson, at times, by calling Serena’s shots out before they bounced, and jeering at Serena when she appealed to the umpire, Serena, only partially in control of the tailspin she’d been in for half a set, down two breaks in the third, turned away from the umpire to face the 20,000-and-something mostly hostile fans in the stands, wagged her index finger and said, “Oh, don’t try me.” And then, somewhere in that fraught quadrant of embodied, historical space, and with many other hostile crowds—Indian Wells 2001, Miami 2015—collapsed into that afternoon just south of London, she turned again and ripped off six or seven straight games to take the match on the way to her 21st major tournament victory. Incredible. And, after that turn happened, for the rest of the match, the unfortunate Heather Watson—even, strictly speaking, the game of tennis itself—became somehow beside the point.

And, Serena wins, sure. But when I say she communicates, I say that because we—who, exactly?—who watch feel an expanded, clarified, and surfacing range of occurrence in our own lives, in our presence in the world, a renewed capacity for occurrence routed in our own strength and skill, yes, but also in the way we know all that depends upon frayed edges and nerve-fissures, the permeable borders of our body as historical moment. Those who covet the table reserved for the reserved—and that person is alive in all of us—won’t be comfortable with this; they (who, exactly?) might find it disturbing. This accounts for most of the commentators and many in her audience.

Others take a kind of strength from her unprecedentedly broad range and depth of utterance, her bouts with what it takes to summon one’s self into whatever power and peril resides in one’s failing-laced struggles and to keep on with it. And the power of this utterance comes both from Serena, herself, and from the way she embodies her historical, inherited moment, which is beyond her but also herself. Describing his part in exactly such a black, one’s-self-but-beyond-one’s-self dynamic, poet Chris Gilbert called it “a story that I become / avowal for.” And, therefore, Serena performs while apparently all alone but carries a copiously mutual and collective weight that gives what she does and how she does it a unique kind of force, a force of a structure alternate—maybe compatible with, maybe antagonistic—to the notion of the essentially individual nature of human endeavor and excellence. Unreserved, she’s performing something shared in our peril and our power.

One final note about black style, in 1963, James Baldwin said that one key to black style is the fact that, relative to white Americans, black people don’t have much room “for make believe.” The idea that a person is an “individual” (cue Simon and Garfunkle: “a rock, an island”) autonomous from one’s surroundings has been a—might be the—cornerstone in the American make believe. In the end, Serena’s unprecedented exposure of the basic intensities of her craft and style communicate a paradoxical reality: how an apparently single person conveys, nonetheless, the power and the peril of a collective. This sense of style and salt also carries with it how a living collective depends upon what Ralph Ellison called “the art of individual assertion within and against the group.” The question “are you with us” has also, always, meant: “are we within you”? And, from Wimbledon’s Centre Court to the morning breakfast table, that’s not make believe at all. It better not be make believe. Still, part of what a great artist—yeah, I said it, artist—like Serena Williams does is make us believe. That’s the crux of her brilliant sentence. It’s a sentence we’re all sentenced in, a story we’re all “avowal for,” too. So, tennis is the font, heretofore reserved, that Serena has embodied, enlivened and expanded into a historically resonant script for us all.  The next point is ours: in public and private, coax and confront the historical moment of our bodies, search for a way to make that articulate to whomever might be willing to stand there facing us, and return serve.