Africa is a Country

What is “Champeta Urbana”? An Interview with Kevin Flórez

Kevin Flórez is one of the main stars of an up-and-coming Colombian genre dubbed as “champeta urbana.” Champeta, without the “urbana,” is on of the most traditional rhythm of his native Cartagena. And it was also there were he added the last name to this new genre.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s boats coming from West Africa would dock in Cartagena, or in Puerto Colombia, the port of nearby but much larger Barranquilla, and would bring with them LPs of rhythms such as South African mbaqanga, Congolese soukous and Nigerian highlife.

In almost every working-class neighborhood of Cartagena, people would design colorful sound systems, known as “picós” for the local pronunciation of “pickups,” and would play these albums, which eventually led to a truly local industry of city’s musicians playing and recording songs influenced by these genres.

Flórez grew up in one of these neighborhoods, but, he says, his life was somewhere else: it was in hip-hop. After trying that career path during his teenage years, he grew closer to champeta and helped create a mixture of those two genres, which he called “champeta urbana.” Now, after working in this new genre for about four years, his music has become a staple of Colombian parties far and wide, and it has given Flórez national acclaim and international recognition.

But as his music becomes more international and moves him closer to other countries and other genres (such as Puerto Rican reguetón, or Dominican bachata) many hard-line champeteros still seem reluctant to accept him and others playing similar music as part of their tradition.

Charles King, author of the popular champeta song “El chocho bacano”, for example, says that “people doing ‘champeta urbana’ are not true champetúos. They tried doing reguetón and dancehall, and it didn’t work out, so they invented this.”

I met with Flórez outside of a barber shop in Jamaica, Queens, to talk about all of this and to discuss his debut in New York City, which will happen this Saturday, July 24th, in Astoria.

 

Is it the first time you come here? What does it mean to you?

Yes, it’s the first time. For me, this first time is like a dream. I feel like I’m still living a dream. When I was very young, I wanted to know the United States, because of many musicians I liked, such as Snoop Dogg. It was a musical environment where we listened to a lot of hip-hop and its setting was New York, or Los Angeles. It was a different world, the United States. So being here, it feels like coming through the big door, because we didn’t just come to do some promotions, there are already a lot of people who know us, especially in the Latino world. There is still a long way to go, but I think this is a first step: to knock on the door of La Unai. So I’m very happy, I still can’t believe it!

What are you expecting from your concerts here?

We already played in Miami and there was a good crowd—a full house, thankfully. In New York we’ve only done a one-week expectation campaign. We couldn’t promote it for two months, or one month, but rather just for one week. And if we can fill the place with only this, it means that there is a good vibe, and that the audience really likes me.

How did you get into hip-hop in Cartagena, a city mad for champeta?

My parents were break dancers. Before I was born, they were breaking. You know the influence of hip-hop in the ’80s was great on many artists like Michael Jackson and other big celebrities. They in turn had an impact on my aunts and uncles, who started breaking. So when I was born, what I listened to was a lot of hip-hop, Afrika Bambaataa, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre. Also hip-hop from Puerto Rico, the Mexican rapper Mexicano, who just passed away this week. Daddy Yankee has been an influence, too. So, growing up, I was called “El niño del rap” and I made hip-hop. I was invited to many hip-hop festivals in Bogotá, I even recorded a few hip-hop songs when I was 15.

Of course, the champeta I am making right now has a big influence from hip-hop. I combined champeta with the format of hip-hop, with hip-hop’s bass drums. It is a champeta sound, but including very urban sounds, such as reggae, dancehall, and hip-hop. But in the neighborhood where I grew up, hip-hop and champeta were two extremes, and putting them together felt odd at first. But I think there was a magic touch somewhere between both genres and now we have champeta urbana.

How did that combination came to be?

Well, I created it in a working-class neighborhood, listening to champeta. It was La Campiña, a poor neighborhood of Cartagena, where I was raised listening to champeta. But what I liked was hip-hop. But I thought “my thing is not the United States, I can’t make hip-hop.” Also, hip-hop is not well supported in La Costa [the Colombian Caribbean], the listeners of the genre there are few.

So I said I would take this flavor and combine it with champeta, to see what happened. I started trying to measure the balance. Then the new wave of champeta happened. It had a renewed air which helped it grow, in part thanks to me—I won the first Congo de Oro and the first Luna Award for champeta, and also a few Premios Shock, and Premios Nuestra Tierra.

Then [American reguetonero] Nicky Jam decided to do a song with me. We did it and people really liked it. And there are a lot of artists who have really liked my style, such as [Puerto Rican reguetón duo] Jowell y Randy, who say that champeta reminds them of the beginnings of reguetón.

I started this in 2011, but champeta is much older, it comes from the time of El Sayayín, but now there is a new style, a new era of champeta. And, thankfully, it has brought us to Europe, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Chile and other Latin American countries, where champeta is being supported.

How did the old-school champetúos receive your music?

At the beginning it was very hard. They didn’t agree with this. Even today there are plenty who won’t accept it. I feel we are still in an evolutionary phase, a process of introducing this genre to other countries, and adapting it for other audiences. But old-school champetúos didn’t like this. They think that what I do is not champeta. But I think that this will be good for them as well, because people are talking about champeta. Some have considered this evolution as something bad for them. But if you look at hip-hop, you realize that the current genre is not like the hip-hop from a few years ago. It is not as underground, the world of hip-hop has changed, and that is just a result of evolution. If you stay monotonous, nothing will happen with you, your market will stay at a standstill.

Why “champeta urbana”?

“Champeta urbana para el mundo!”, that is my slogan. But the genre is “champeta urbana.” Champeta urbana is different from champeta because, well, let me tell you the story:

In the ‘80s, ships and people going to Africa brought back African music, and in the Colombian Caribbean they called that music “champeta africana.” Why champeta? Because at that time, when people went to the picós—the kind of parties which were also called “casetas”—people from the south of the city didn’t feel comfortable going to a club with people from the elite-class of the city. So the people from the south made their own parties, and they played that African music there.

People who went to a caseta to dance, usually had a machete with them, and when a fight broke out, machetes would be drawn. But the knives were too big and many started making them shorter, into a blade known as a “champeta.” People then would ask each other “are you going to that champetúos party?”. And that’s how the term “champeta” came to be. It’s kinda like the name “rock and roll,” just a stone being thrown. It’s a jocular name given to this rhythm.

That first style of champeta is called “champeta africana,” then it came the time of “champeta criolla,” made by local musicians like El Sayayín, or El Afinaíto [Flórez sings part of “Busco alguien que me quiera”]. And now we are in the third wave, which is “champeta urbana,” as I have baptized it. And it’s growing, we’re seeing many new artists in this genre.

Do you think there is an established industry for the genre? Who else do you consider part of champeta urbana?

It’s being built. I feel each of us is working on our own thing, but also that we are together in this, working to grow the genre. There are plenty of other people working on this. There is Mr. Black who is, so to speak, a legend of this rhythm. But there are many others, such as Young F, who is following the steps of the new wave of champeta. But there are many who are there, not just me.

What do you think is the state of champeta outside of Colombia?

I think people see it as a new genre, just like many of us saw bachata not long ago. We heard this rhythm and thought “what is this? Oh, bachata?”. But [famous Dominican merenguero] Juan Luis Guerra had been doing it for long. He had to explain to the world what was bachata and how to dance it.

That is what we’re doing with our champeta, just showing it to people, showing them how it’s danced and telling them its story, so people can be familiar with the genre. So I think that, from outside, it’s seen as a new genre that is only beginning. Well, at least in Puerto Rico it is a genre that is entering hard. We have fans in Peru who listen to champeta. In the U.S., many Latinos are listening to our music thanks to the support of Nicky Jam, who is an artist with a longer career, and thanks to the support of De La Ghetto, who is someone very well respected in the world of reguetón.

Check out Flórez’s hit “La invité a bailar” below:

Does Israel “Blackwash” to deflect international scrutiny?

It would be an understatement to say that Israel’s international standing is not so spectacular at the moment. Between the continued occupation of Palestine, last year’s war in Gaza, and a belligerent government, there is little doubt that fewer and fewer of the world’s citizens hold a positive view of the country. The Israeli government, determined to fix what it considers an image problem rather than its underlying causes, has embarked on a mission of hasbara: to “explain” Israel’s policy positions to the international community, and engender sympathy for Israel.

One axis of this response – colossally ineffective as it is – concentrates on Israel’s role in development and aid projects across Sub-Saharan Africa. The press promotes Israeli medical efforts in the “Ebola zone” in West Africa. They celebrate the supposedly vital role of Israeli firms in irrigation projects in Malawi. Informational media is replete with stories like Israel’s “heroic” rescuers in Madagascar. All this despite the fact that Israel gives a lesser proportion of its national income to aid than similarly wealthy countries – even less than debt-laden Greece.

Is this “blackwashing?” i.e, using black bodies to justify Israel’s military aggressions and human rights violations.

We are now familiar with “pinkwashing” – efforts by states to distract attention from human rights abuses by concentrating on a supposedly-progressive LGBT rights record. Though most known in the case of Israel, whose record of using gay rights to justify or distract from the Occupation is well established, it has also been well-noted in the Netherlands, Britain, and Scandinavia. Yet blackwashing is a term that has also surfaced. In the Israeli context, it describes state efforts to market a country known to have forcefully given birth control to its citizens of Ethiopian descent as friendly to blacks. Here, however, I think there is another angle of blackwashing: Israel vis-à-vis African countries.

Israel blackwashes by marketing itself as a development savior to African countries. It seeks to portray itself as a “good country” through the tired trope of “helping Africa.” This is a contentious if not specious depiction of Israel’s relations with African countries. Let us leave aside Israel’s horrific domestic racism; blackwashing is aimed at a foreign audience – not least, a young Jewish American public, increasingly skeptical of Israel’s actions.

What does “blackwashing” entail? The discourse pivots on two figures: technology donation and the white savior.

Firstly, blackwashing is closely tied to Israel’s marketing as a “start-up nation.” The work of technology firms such as Netafim in providing irrigation drips to countries like Senegal is frequently celebrated in Israeli media. Israel advocacy groups produce clickbait-laden paeans to technological aid with titles like “The Top 12 Ways Israel Feeds The World” or detailing how Israel “restored carp to Lake Victoria.” In short, Israel is portrayed as the “big tech brother” helping Africans have a normal life. I imagine many of the writers of this article think, “in this framework, how could Israel be colonial?” (Little do they know…)

Israel’s defenders also deploy the figure of the “white savior.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs details how Israeli assistance was apparently more than that of other Western states, and emphasizes a narrative of continued assistance from Israel to newly independent African states. They are silent on Israel’s continued financial, military, and political support for South Africa’s apartheid regime, or that African governments balked at Israel’s policies after the Yom Kippur War. Rather, the focus is on Israel as the helper, the essential assister, and the carrier of the new white man’s burden of “assistance” and “investment.” This robs agency from the Africans who have by and large managed these projects. In addition, the Israelis profiled in this effort are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi and white –the work of Ethiopian Israelis is well…whitewashed.

I do not want to dismiss the potential positive benefits of these projects – although, as amply noted on these pages, such initiatives often hurt more than help.  Rather, I want to return to a central point: that the Israeli state is using these projects to raise its international profile and image. Yet a central truth remains: no number of aid initiatives or stylish projects can undo the scar of the Occupation. To use the tired trope of the technologically-advanced white savior on a civilizing or aid mission to the poor black body as a marketing ploy appropriates African experiences to serve a colonial project. Call it blackwashing, call it inappropriate, but this emphasis in Israel’s rhetoric on “the aid-giver” distracts from the wider implication of this state’s policy.

Mandela Day: Where is our imagination?

We’ve just passed that time of year when the Charitable Industrial Complex puts on its Sunday best for Mandela Day. This is the time every year when well-meaning South Africans clad in carefully chosen ripped jeans paint murals while wearing crisp protective clothing (in case they actually have to touch the disenfranchised). No rest for those thumbs as hashtags of #charity #67minutes #doinggood and #selfie flood social media networks.

Mandela Day has been derided as a disingenuous spectacle at best or, at worst, a dangerous ploy to distract us from the inequalities which create the necessity for such lopsided charity in the first place. Who has the privilege to give, to decide who receives, and how much? There are few who dare think beyond seeing Mandela Day as a once-off spree of guilt purging. Few who venture beyond the typical displays of charitable good-will we often see enacted by celebrities and businesses on Mandela Day.

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Very few care to use this opportunity to channel the overwhelming sentiments of goodwill into a project that might be different. Where is our imagination? Our creativity? Our connectivity?

It is not only the stereotypical “white saviour” who enacts the usual scripts of downward benevolence during Mandela Day. Anyone who consumes mainstream media is well versed in the appropriate responses to the seemingly overwhelming crises of inequality: smile, serve soup at an NGO, and walk away. The charitable industrial complex asks nothing more than that, so much so, that we are often told that “any little thing will do”. It is upsetting that it is often sanitised and deliberately depoliticised versions of collective action which are recognised as positive contributions to remaking and reshaping South Africa, but being sincerely upset by this situation doesn’t mean we are changing anything.

If the end goal we seek is social justice, equality, and a greater sense of shared responsibility, our means of getting there needs to be a bit more serious. No-one is asking you to give up your day job, but that doesn’t mean settling for being a tourist in “making a difference”. Thousands of South Africans, across the “colour”, economic and gender spectrums are willing to do something, and evidently anything, to feel like we are part of a positive movement for change, yet we seem to fail dismally each year. Maybe it’s being too committed to Mandela the icon, maybe it’s our fixation with just doing “our bit” for 67minutes, but it doesn’t have to be our defining destiny.

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The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory has called for us to “Make Everyday a Mandela Day” in an attempt to shift the perception of Mandela Day as a yearly once-off. But it is proving far harder to shift the firmly fixed idea that we can change society by  doing “service at” someone instead of actively “working with” those we regard as distant others to formulate new terms of engagement.

Mandela Day has largely been reduced to being “nice” and it seems that as South Africans, we have given up our collective imaginations to corporatised branding of “Ubuntu,” blindly following neatly packaged scripts, where some are cast as givers and others as receivers, lest we really get into the messy business of living in a shared community. And it is messy. There is an underlying assumption that the communities who are often touted as beneficiaries of charity are unaware of the various ways in which top-down charity works. Yet, community organisations and student volunteers who work in community development are not ignorant of the sporadic good will that comes during Mandela Day. Rather than bemoaning those who take 67minutes once a year to engage in community development, some organisations find strategic ways of using this day to get much needed attention or help for the work they do.

Whether it’s getting individuals to help fix a school’s jungle gym, scoring a fieldtrip to a prohibitively expensive learning site, or getting someone to help with website maintenance, community based organisations often find ways to maximise on the good will shown during Mandela Day. The ethical complexities of economically and socially stratified groups working together to change the conditions which create these roles in the first place, however, are really tough, and often we fail because of reifying poverty or being unwilling to divest ourselves from privilege.

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Many Mandela Day participants are often shocked about how little they know about neighbourhoods which are a mere stone’s throw away from them, how complicated the act of building or painting can be, and some participants are surprised by the amount they unexpectedly learn from those who they have been taught to pity or envy.

Twenty years of democracy is a good point for us to really reflect on each of our roles in creating this country. Transformation is not just for the well meaning old white men who call me “girlie,” or for those who struggle to make ends meet, it’s for all of us. Recognising this in earnest means we all have a great deal of personal and collective work to do. We can’t transform by ourselves while remaining in our comfort zones, nor can we force others to teach us humanity. In real life, negotiating meaningful relationships is not a magic pill, it has its ups and downs, but we pursue social change not because we are being nice, but because it’s our only hope.

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For me the overwhelming excitement about Mandela Day is an indication that South Africans don’t need a special invitation to peel away the blinkers, we just need to have the sincerity to open ourselves up to learning to do things in a different way. There are over 300 days to co-create a new vision of Mandela Day, don’t we owe it to ourselves to swim against the currents and co-create a new blue-print?

At the crossroads of BET, Afrobeats, and #BlackLivesMatter

If you have been closely following developments in the Afropop music industry recently, you may have noticed an interesting twist to the story of BET’s award for Best International Act: Africa. In the wake of the latest BET awards show, several African artists have accused the network of treating them as second class citizens, and have demanded more respect from the show’s coordinators. In the wake of that the creator of the award, BET’s Lilian N. Blankson, has responded with an interesting series of tweets, a statement that seems to be telling the artists that they just need to accept the award, and be grateful for what they have. Statements such as:

BET will always signify Black Star Power… Africa, if we want to be featured prominently, we need to know the facts and be very practical.

BET domestic does not and has never aired African music so to have a category is a major deal. Let’s prove and show them our worth not anger.

Finally, let’s be a little humble. No one owes us anything. Like everything else, we have to work our way to the top so we can stay there.

Without weighing in on the specifics of the award (for that revisit my post article on the award), I would like to share a few observations about what the implications are of this latest episode, in an ongoing saga of Black identity politics.

First of all, it’s interesting that African artists now feel powerful and influential enough to challenge American cultural hegemony publicly. I chalk this up to a general international success African pop artists have enjoyed on the continent and in Europe in recent years. Nigerian artists can sell out stadiums across the continent, reaching into monied international hubs with diaspora populations like Dubai and London. In the UK Afrobeats artists fill the O2 Arena, and have a dedicated radio show on BBC1xtra. In Caribbean communities, West African pop songs dominate the road at Carnival celebrations from Trinidad to Toronto. For artists who are the top stars in their home markets, and increasingly taking a central role in global ones, it would make sense that they would expect at least comparable respect they receive in London, Lagos, Port of Spain, and Johannesburg from the BET awards in Los Angeles.

I applaud the African artists for standing up to a continued marginalization of Africanness from international dialogues around Blackness – especially in global pop culture, a realm where a Black Americanness in service of corporate U.S. interests is employed worldwide. Fuse ODG, one of the artists who led initial calls for a boycott, himself is a sort of cultural activist out of London. He has experience working in marginalized communities in the UK, so it makes sense that his artistic work would reflect that personal history.

Yet, African artists must not forget that the Blackness employed by “Black Entertainment Television” is an American identity-based phenomenon. Complaining about second rate treatment is not really knowing the rules of the game on a foreign (and globally dominant) playing field. And the truth is, although there have been several high profile artist collaborations — Fuse ODG with Wyclef, Ice Prince with French Montana, Davido with Meek Mill, Sarkodie with Ace Hood, P Square with Rick Ross — these, most likely being paid feature agreements, often end up looking like superficial attempts to hang with the cool kids. If anything they reinforce American hegemony, not question it (Wale’s seemingly sincere flirtations with his Nigerian identity are a welcome reprieve from all this, but he’s already made it in America — also, I would be remiss to not mention Skepta and Drake voluntarily hopping on Wizkid’s Ojuelegba). That’s not to excuse American Black music audiences. As a friend of mine in San Francisco told me recently, after I showed him a few of the above videos, “American Rap is too NFL, not enough NBA these days.” I couldn’t agree more.

Continuing on, if we take it out of the pop culture field into the political one, the BET awards issue reflects an interesting reality of the relationship between Blackness as defined by the USA, and the African diaspora at large. Anyone who lives in a major (or even not so major) American city knows about an inherent tension — both between communities, and within individuals — when it comes to US notions of blackness versus the cultural norms of black immigrant communities. The way individuals deal with these tensions often comes down to a question of assimilation or escape, or any combination of those two methods of social navigation. However, politically the tension between the experiences of Black Americans and immigrants are rarely resolved. Sometimes the two positions are even purposely placed in opposition to each other.

Extending that to the field of foreign policy, as an observer from far of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, mostly via social media but also from mainstream media, I can’t help but notice a lack of solidarity between Black Americans and their fellow African diasporans in places like Dominican Republic and Brazil, let alone the African continent. This is often justified via the need to account for the peculiarities of the Black American situation. The danger of this for Black American leaders, intellectuals, activists, and entertainers, is that they are allowing their politics (alongside their art) to be used to uphold one of the key tenets of American imperialism, the myth of American exceptionalism.

There is good news from on the ground, however. After spending about a month in the U.S., traveling from city to city, and talking to folks doing work in those places, I have noticed an awareness amongst American activists of a need for solidarity between places like Ferguson, Santo Domingo, Rio de Janeiro, and Luanda. This (like Wale) gives me hope. Still, it pains me when that these connections are absent from conversations in the mainstream. And that’s why I think that BET and this awards debate are also a good barometer for where mainstream Black American politics is at generally.

As African artists gain more and more success globally, using cultural platforms like House music and Hip Hop – innovations from of American Black communities – to assert their claim to an international stage of belonging, one can only hope that a sense of both cultural affinity and political/economic solidarity will start to form on both sides of the Atlantic. Africa has very little to lose in this game, and all the world to gain. The worst thing that could happen for American Blackness, in the global ascendancy of African Blackness, would be for American Blackness to be cast aside as a remnant of American cultural imperialism. Caught up in the rush to defend their position, the possibility of such a thing happening isn’t something that the executives at BET, or mainstream Black American politicians would ever even consider. So, maybe it’s time for all of us as black people to reconsider who our real representatives are.

The ‘Brazil of Africa': How development institutions are financing land grabs in the DRC

Below is an audio interview I conducted with Devlin Kuyek, Senior Researcher at GRAIN. GRAIN is a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems. In the interview, Devlin talks about a recent report they put out that reveals how a Canadian agribusiness company, Feronia — financed by American and European Development Institutions, is involved in land grabbing, corrupt practices and human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kuyek traces the colonial origins of palm oil plantations in the DRC along the Congo River, dating back from the time of King Leopold and the Lever Brothers (which became Unilever), to present-day land grabs funded by Development Finance Institutions and sanctioned by the World Bank; a process which has occurred as part of a re-orientation of aid from poverty alleviation to straightforward investment in private companies.

Community members interviewed as part of the report claim that their land was never ceded to the company and that conditions on the plantations are abysmal. According to Kuyek, this type of large-scale intensive agricultural model that is expanding in different parts of Africa is deeply problematic, taking away valuable land and water resources from small farmers and pastoralists, and creating greater food insecurity in places that are suffering most from the global food crisis.

Here is an excerpt of my interview with Devlin:

Your recent report looks at what you call ‘agro-colonialism’ in the DRC, and specifically at a Canadian company, Feronia, that’s investing in palm oil plantations in the Congo. We think of agribusiness and land grabs more in a contemporary sense on the continent, but in the DRC there’s a whole history to palm oil. Can you go back a bit and give some historical context to palm oil plantations in the DRC?

Yes, many of the current land grabs are actually new companies taking over old plantation concessions. This is the case in the DRC with Feronia. These plantations go back over 100 years and were set up by the Lever brothers at the time, which became Unilever, now one of the largest food multinationals in the world. They were given an enormous concession by King Leopold along the Congo River, which is a beautiful area of forest. Palm oil is a traditional crop of the people and has hundreds of different uses.  They started forcing people to collect and harvest palm oil for them. So initially it wasn’t plantation agriculture, but it quickly moved to a plantation model. Their concessions were for around 100 000 hectares. It was the most severe and grave forms of colonial plantation exploitation you can imagine. Most of the local people would describe it as slavery and this is how it was for about 80, 90 years. Then into the 90s, with war in that part of the Congo, Unilever’s activities started to decrease and they put their plantations up for sale. And you now have this new investor, Feronia, set up by financial players that have no experience in the agricultural sector, but were interested in taking advantage of the new push into agribusiness in Africa. They set up Feronia and were going to turn the DRC into the new Brazil of Africa, introducing a Brazilian model of GMO, intensive monoculture, large-scale farming in the Congo, which is a mainly a country of small-scale production.

In your report, you gave examples of people who have been intimidated by the company for harvesting palm oil in specific areas where there are plantations. There was also a case of a young man who disappeared. Can you talk about some of those incidents?

Whoever we spoke to, one of the first complaints they had was about the local company security. These concessions are like states within a state. The company controls everything – the roads, the social services and their own police force. All of the people that we spoke to had stories of intimidation or abuse from these company security agents. What often happens is, given the poverty and lack of access to land and forest, people will occasionally collect nuts that have fallen in the plantations and apparently, if they are caught by the company security forces with nuts in their hand, they are severely treated.   We’ve heard cases of people being whipped, arrested, brought to local prison and in this one case, we were told of a boy who was caught with oil palm nuts and was detained, put on a company vehicle and was supposed to be brought to the local police station, but never made it. He has not been heard of since. The family was afraid that they would be targeted and harassed so they fled as well and have been in hiding ever since.

Listen to the entire interview below:

#RespecTheProducer – Tweezus, Da Gawd!

When the skhothane scribe-in-chief Rofhiwa Maneta called producer Tumelo Mathebula one evening around 7 o’clock, the last thing he was expecting was the hit-making, versatile tweaker of knobs to be on the way back from an all-day studio session. “I’m actually on the road right now,” he said. “But it’s all good. Let’s talk.” What follows are Tumelo’s thoughts, filtered through telephone static and channeled through Rofhiwa’s writhing pen. #RespecTheProducer

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Mathebula, more commonly known by his production alias, Tweezy, saw his ascent into South Africa’s mainstream hip-hop scene come full circle last year. He’s responsible for crafting three singles off AKA’s award-winning album Levels. If you’ve ever found yourself snapping your neck to Run Jozi and Sim Dope or doing the nae-nae to All Eyes on Me [which received the Best Collaboration accolade at the MAMAs], he’s the guy you should be thanking. And while it would be tempting to call him an overnight success, the truth is 2014 was the end result of years of knocking at the mainstream’s door.

“I started producing in 2008,” he recalls. “Back then I was just fooling around with FL Studio. It was really just a hobby. I only started taking it seriously a couple of years later.” In 2010, under the production moniker N20, he and seven of his high school friends formed a crew called Ghetto Prophecy. The crew announced their arrival with an EP called The Book of R.A.P – an announcement that was largely ignored by the rap scene. By the time they released their second offering – The Book of F.A.D (Faith and Dreams) – two years later, the group had whittled down to four members. “It was a bit disappointing. We were about to drop the project but people had to leave the crew due to other commitments.” The leaner crew consisted of him, Butho Ntini, Shakes “Sheezy” and (now) Cape-Town based rapper E-Jay.

While their first EP amounted to little more than a whisper, The Book of F.A.D was a reverberating shout at the mainstream. The album spawned three singles: Oh My (which was playlisted on Metro FM and YFM), “Great” and “Get the Party Started” (both playlisted on YFM). Even though he won’t admit it, he was the nucleus that held the group together. His versatility as a producer meant that the crew could never be accused of sounding monotonous. “Great for example, with its neck-snapping drums and gospel sample is a [Kanye West’s] “Jesus Walks”-type cut that saw the crew praying against the vices that mainstream success would offer. “Oh My – the crew’s biggest single – is a rap ballad that sees the crew crooning about finding “the one” while “Skothane se Rap”, is an archetypal “turn up” joint with a military drumline, staccato string section and rattling 808s that would easily fit into any nightclub’s Saturday night playlist.

“The response to The Book of F.A.D was amazing. It made me realise that I could actually make this rap shit happen. That’s when I stopped making music for myself and started making music that everyone could enjoy.” And while he appreciated the reception The Book of F.A.D generated, he felt it was time to start getting his name out as a solo act. He would continue producing for E-Jay (lacing him with the hard-as-cement “Baleka Mrapper” and lending a verse on the joint) while also handling the production duties on Bloemfontein-based crew The Fraternity’s “Bheka Mina Ngedwa“. It’s at this point that a mutual friend introduced him to AKA. “I rang Kiernan up and we met two days later. I played him about ten beats and I thought he’d take at least half of them. He didn’t take a single beat,” he laughs. “He was like ‘man, your beats are dope, but they’re missing something. But I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I had to get onto his album no matter what”

The next few months saw him hopping between different studios (he didn’t have a PC to produce on at the time), perfecting his craft. “There’s this one beat in particular that took me three weeks to make. Laying the drumline was simple enough but the melodies didn’t sound right. I spent three weeks reworking the melodies exactly how I wanted them to” he recalls. That beat would later turn out to be AKA’s chart topping “Run Jozi”. With a chorus that channels TKZee’s “Sikelela”, a classic skhanda verse from KO and verses from AKA that employ Migos’ now-ubiquitous machine gun flow, the beat served as the centre of gravity that held all these divergent styles together. Similarly, All Eyes on Me (featuring continental superstar Burna Boy) samples the late Brenda Fassie’s “Ngiyakusaba” and reworks it into a bass-heavy party anthem reminiscent of the Bay Area sound popularized by DJ Mustard.

“It’s quite funny how that joint came about,” says Tweezy. “I was at home watching Mzansi Magic one Saturday and they were airing a Lebo Mathosa vs Brenda Fassie playlist. So “Ngiyakusaba” comes on and I immediately thought it would make a great sample. It’s weird because Kiernan called me a few minutes later and told me he was watching the same playlist and wanted me to sample the joint. That was all the confirmation I needed. I was done with the beat in half an hour.” The rest, as they say, is chart-topping history.

His work on Levels hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last November, he earned a nomination for Best Producer at last year’s South African Hip Hop Awards. But while he was flattered by the nomination, he felt he didn’t have an extensive enough catalogue to bag the award. “I knew I wasn’t going to win. I mean, last year Ganja Beatz [the eventual winners] produced half of Cassper’s album and so many other joints. They deserved it.”

Tweezy is still riding the crest of Levels’ success. A little over a month back, the album was certified gold and recently a video was released for “Sim Dope“, which is still enjoying regular airplay. He’s also responsible for the production on L Tido’s “Dlala Ka Yona” and recently roped in Reason for a solo release called “The Realest“. “Last year was cool, but I still have so many artists I plan on working with this year. I want to achieve way more this year; 2015 is going to be Tweezy year.”

 

 

On Music, Tradition and Race: Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto take Brooklyn

When I was a kid, my dad, my stepdad and one of my dad’s friends sometimes helped organize concerts in Bogotá for this band called Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto.

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San Jacinto is a small town in the Bolívar region, in the Colombian Caribbean, not too far from Cartagena, and a gaitero is someone who plays a gaita (a word which also means “bagpipe” in Spanish), which is a long, wooden flute-like instrument, topped by some bee wax holding a small straw made from a duck’s feather (or plastic, sometimes).

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The concerts were always held at small venues in dark, empty streets, that I shouldn’t have been allowed into, and they tended to start at a time when I probably shouldn’t have been awake. But, despite my young intolerance to late nights, I did my best to stay up, because I was constantly mesmerized by the sound of these men, the intricate banging of their drums, the dexterity with which they played maracas, the high-pitched, yet subtle gaitas commanding the orchestra, and the honesty with which every song was sang: how true their voice sounded, how it made me feel like I was in the depths of La Costa, tending to my animals and dedicating love poems to girls, even though I had never been in that position.

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Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto have been playing since 1940, and have bestowed their name and musical traditions upon generations of sons, grandsons and apprentices. For the past seven decades, they have toured Colombia and the world, bringing to audiences the original sound of cumbia, a genre that has traveled far and has evolved in different countries (like Mexico, Peru, Argentina and others) into true national folklore, but whose roots remain popular.

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After one of their concerts in Bogotá, my stepdad was gifted two gaitas which we kept in our living room. One of them had three holes at the bottom, the other one had five. I remember being frustrated because my arms weren’t long enough to cover all of the holes. On the one with more holes I could manage some sounds, but the other one was impossible for me. One time, one of the gaiteros explained to me the differences between both types of gaitas: “there are female and male gaitas,” he said, “and the female gaita is of course the one with more holes!” It took me a few years to catch that joke.

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Gaitas are indigenous instruments, played for centuries by the Koguis and Arhuacos of what is now northern Colombia. But the drums used by Los Gaiteros – alegre, llamador and tambora – are distinctly African. This makes sense: Cartagena was once the biggest slave port of the American continent. Many aboriginal tribes thrived not far from it, and survived despite’s the Spaniards best efforts. And it is perhaps in the music of such places (and not only cumbia) where lies the truest instance of the “mix of cultures” tale we Colombians tell ourselves (sometimes to hide our racism towards Afro-Colombians and indigenous people).

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So I was excited when I found out that Los Gaiteros would be part of the amazing Afrolatino Festival of New York, and that they would be playing in Brooklyn, where I now live. Daniela Valero (a wonderful Latin America is a Country contributor) and I were lucky enough to get an interview with the current line-up (which you’ll be able to see soon!) just before their set at a venue in Bushwick. It was the largest place at which I had seen them play, and it seemed like an ocean of people was present, ready to dance to every intonation these men had to offer.

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One time, back in Bogotá, one gaitero came near my dad’s friend during the after-party of a concert and told him “you know what? Don’t pay us money today. Just don’t leave and give us more rum!”. Maybe he was being facetious – my sense of humor hadn’t developed yet, if it has developed at all – but that set the tone for me for every time I heard Los Gaiteros’s music: it was, more than a performance, a communal celebration, more than a service, a party with close friends.

IMG_8556 2revIn Brooklyn, led by the wonderful voice of maestro Rafael Castro, Los Gaiteros performed most of their classics, some songs composed by the newest generation, and even debuted a song penned by Castro himself. At some point they also brought out a clarinet, a definitive instrument for cumbias from the 60s and 70s that have become staples of any Colombian party, and that were also performed in this show.

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It seemed to me that all of Latin America was there listening to them, and everyone I saw or spoke to seemingly agreed that we were seeing something remarkable. It was definitely the best show I’ve seen Los Gaiteros perform. This one started as late as those in Bogotá. But by the end of this, I was pretty much awake, and just as happy.

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(All of these pictures were taken by me at the day of Los Gaiteros concert in The Wick, Bushwick, including those below):

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Weekend Music Break No.81

Your weekend music break for July 18th, 2015

This week, master of the new school J. Martins, and master of the old school Koffi Olomide team up in Dance 4 Me, the remix; A busy week for Jidenna who angers Nigerian Twitter, apologizes, and then links up with Kendrick Lamar for the classic man remix; Holy Forest offers an impressive collaboration connecting different nodes in the Black Atlantic with “Africa Calling”; Kollins and Toofan link up for an Ivorian-Togolese party jam called “Crazy People”; Sierra Leonean crooner Famous sings on a London rooftop in “Throway”; Emicida, Inna Modja, and Killah Ace offer up political rap stylings; Tumi provides some more party rap offerings with “Visa”; and finally, top Jamaican artist Popcaan releases a new video this week called “Way Up”.

A complete run-down of all the craziness going down in Kenya ahead of Obama’s visit

Kenyans are not known for their reserve. Not at all, but for some reason, as my cousin said, “Obama’s visit is bringing out all the crays in this country.” The unbridled crazy that has been paraded for our senses since POTUS declared he was coming to Kenya from July 24th to 26th is, indeed, truly bizarre.

Today the Siaya county governor has taken out a full page advert in a national daily to advertise an expo in honor of their “returning son.” This expo is also set to feature a half marathon and rugby matches with a team definitively called the “Obama Sevens.”

Not to be outdone 18 University of Nairobi students have said they are going to kill themselves and 31 female students said they would urinate on the tree that Obama planted last time he was there in 2008 if he does not visit the university. Secondary school students at Senator Obama Secondary School are imploring for Obama to visit them and fittingly change the school name to President Obama Secondary School.

I was recently sent a picture of a fresh sign by a mganga (which in anthropologist lore is witchdoctor) who advertised his ability to ensure you win the sports lottery, get back your lover and to help you greet Obama.

In addition, every day there is reactionary talk in the newspaper about homosexuality because, apparently, this is all Obamas fault. This happens on two fronts. Either some really fundamentalist view by the Deputy President, or declarations from the, seemingly, recently formed Republican Liberty Party which has declared that just for POTUS, and due to his “open and aggressive support for homosexuality”, 5000 naked men and women are going to hold a two day rally in the city on both the 22nd and 23rd of July. This is done so that Obama, in case he is not already aware, can know the “difference between a man and woman.” Related, the council of Kikuyu elders have even said that they will pelt Obama with rotten eggs if he “tries to push for homosexuality in Kenya.”

Luckily, though sadly not with the same proliferation, there are more progressive views about how every leader should just mind their own business, focus on their own bedroom and let every Kenyan have their human rights.

There are also comical and subversive interventions about who the “real homosexuals” are in the country, one of which has succeeded in establishing a new word; “homo-sexed.”

What is certain is that post ICC and election violence provoked western media fanfare and subsequent NGO industry and social entrepreneurship fetishization (they seemed to replicate everywhere at that time) I don’t think Kenya has seen this many white people in a while. Especially since Westgate.

They will all be welcomed by the gubernatorial sanctioned “beautification” project for the city of Nairobi which costs 50 Million shillings (about $500,000) and that is launched just in time for Obama’s visit. A key part of this project seems to be the planting of flowers that, if they actually grow in time, will likely wilt and gather dust soon after POTUS is gone.

Caught in the heat of this melee, are the street families who are being “pushed” out of the city because Obama is coming, and swept under the carpet for the next two weeks are the real issues we should be attending to; food, land, justice, security, employment, teacher’s wages and dignity.

Likely there will also be more illegal detentions, arrests and police everywhere — if more police in Kenya is even imaginable. We will barely, if at all, be able to use many major roads or, according to word on the street, make a phone call for three full days.

Whether he is coming to “have the opportunity to meet some of the brilliant young entrepreneurs from across Africa and around the world” or to announce “new investments and commitments.”, with slightly more than a week before POTUS jets in it is likely that it is only likely to get more crazy in here, that the next few days will bring out more “crays,” if that is even imaginable.

Robin Rhode’s Borne Frieze

The first thing you notice when you walk into Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Chelsea, New York, is a traditional white cube room, with a desk close to the window facing 22nd Street, where the art gallery’s requisite pretty young woman is seated. But then, the rest is unexpected: the large, east-facing wall, where the most audience-friendly work would usually be installed, is one of Robin Rhode’s more challenging pieces: a life-sized stencil-sprayed skeleton is suspended on the wall, its arms raised high like a Christ figure, or on the way to position itself in a “Don’t shoot, I’m unarmed” pose familiar to any American. Threaded along each bony arm is a row of stencilled wire hangers, where observers can attach any projected costume they wish to: this skeletal structure will be the most long-lasting trace we leave when we depart life, but of course, we play hide-and-seek with the fact of our mortality, clothing it in various guises. A spool of actual black barbed wire, its thorny length and jagged hooks curling across the length of the gallery’s wall, is fixed above the skeleton stenciled skull – it is Christ’s crown of thorns, deconstructed.

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Borne Frieze is a play on the popular moniker “born free”, used to denote the generation of South Africans born into, or who came of age after the first democratic elections in 1994. The gallery’s publicity material states that the artist builds on his love for “visual and verbal puns”, and that:

Borne Frieze creates a bridge between the political heritage of his home country and the energy, spontaneity, and ephemerality of his artistic practice, which has long included the wall drawing as a key form.  By bringing an object, idea, or action forth (borne) to a medium central to Rhode’s practice such as the wall (frieze), the artist evokes the improvisational and vibrant nature of his work.

However, rather than uncritically “imbuing his work with a sense of freedom and change that is evocative of this time,” Rhode is also exploring contradictions: the ways in which the art market and commercial art fairs (like Frieze) offer opportunity, yet entrap artists as part of capitalist production. He may also be commenting on the limited mobility to which the majority of South Africans have access, the barbed wire surrounding that perceived freedom into which he and his generation were born, the weight of the high expectations they must bear, the impossibility of moving forward given the socio-economic conditions they face, and the small windows, open high above, through which a few may escape into the dark night.

In the adjoining room, Rhode has included white chalk drawings of bicycles – playful figures of mechanical (yet animated) objects, some of which show movement and mobility – on walls painted in a light-absorbing matte-black paint. His characteristic use of minimal strokes, and the “speed lines” used to show that the bikes are in motion, reminded me of the Russian futurist artist Natalia Goncharova’s Cyclist, which exhibited her similar fascination with dynamic movement of machinery and the restless pace of urban modernity. In Rhodes’ work, the bicycles are devoid of a human figure, and the mobility they offer is limited: a small screen shows video of him rolling a painted bike around the circumference of the smaller second room of the gallery, leaving a chalk-white line on the black floor – evocative of chalk lines used to denote the position of a body after a violent crime has taken place.

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The evocation of a crime is stressed by strewn pages of The New York Times in four different spots in the room. The June 19, 2015 front-page headline announces news of the murders at a historic black church in North Carolina at the hands of a white supremacist – who, himself, evoked Rhodesian and apartheid South African white supremacists as his inspiration. On each front page, Rhode has placed a pair of shoes, spray painted them, and left the ghost of their presence. The hightops that left that trace on three of The New York Times front pages are still present on the Times‘ pages near the south-facing wall, waiting. Next to them, the can of spray paint he used. Positioned above some of the chalk drawings of bikes are white frames of awning windows – the kind that are usually installed high on walls of rooms that are almost below ground-level. Rhode has left the awnings wide open, as if to invite us to sneak out, or for a lover to sneak in. From the third room, where The Moon is Asleep is playing on a continuous, ethereal loop, I hear the voice of a poet, calling out in a restless night, calling out to such a lost love, and finally, resigning to hope lost: “The moon,” he says, “is asleep.”

Another room, also painted completely in black, contains massive sculptures of two lightbulbs – one in chalk, another in charcoal. The lightbulbs lie on the ground, amidst sprawling spools of rope. A strobe light flickers on and off above, lighting the scene momentarily: sometimes we see the bulbs, sometimes they sit in the dark, silent obstacles liable to trip us.

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In the video showing Rhode at work, he moves the bike awkwardly and stiffly. The artist labours to push it, willing the wheels – immobilised, perhaps, by the white paint used to blanket it – to roll. It’s a trick bike that promises movement, but is “tricked out” not to make it faster or more stylish, but to hinder progress. The non-present potential rider of this bike won’t get far, though observers may point to the vehicle, and say, “But you had a bike. Why didn’t you get anywhere?” The moon, we know, is fickle; sometimes, it dozes off, and disappears altogether. Some things that appear to be chances and opportunities only wink at us with tempting possibility, only to leave us empty. And this mortality, this game that claims to offer us liberty and yet hobbles us, this illusion of freedom within sweet-sour entrapment, is all that we may have left to make us peddle from one day to the next.

Robin Rhode is also showing work at at the Drawing Center in NYC, from July 16 to Aug 30. He is represented by Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg in South Africa, and Lehmann Maupin in NYC.

His first solo exhibition, Recycled Matter, short films where French performer Jean-Baptiste André “mimes his journey through a range of wall-drawn and theatrical environments, interacting with props and sculptural elements that are remnants of previous artworks taken from Rhode’s studio” was shown at Stevenson, Johannesburg earlier this year.

PLATINUM: Public expressions of waiting with patience and pangas

On 27 June, I went to check out the launch of PLATINUM, a mini-publication by photographer Jason Larkin and writer Jack Shenker. It’s a combination of large format posters and “an incisive, wide-ranging essay”, the combination of which explores “the build up to and implications of one of the most critical events in South Africa’s recent history.”

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The timing was interesting. I got the launch invite on the same day as the surprise announcement that the President would be releasing the Marikana report. This happened a few days after the most recent of his “injudicious comments”, in which he stunned students at the Tshwane University of Technology when he said that the striking miners had been killers before they were shot on 16 August 2012, referring to the killing of 10 people ahead of the police-led massacre. While it’s crazy that he addressed the students on the deaths of the miners as families were still waiting for the Farlam Commission’s report, even more outlandish was this comment: “Do not use violence to express yourselves, or I might be forced to relook at the apartheid laws that used violence to suppress people.” Haai man. Either he was riling the crowd in preparation for the report’s release (naturally, Julius Malema had to express that he is “flabbergasted” by these comments) or it was just plain irresponsibility that led Zuma, once again, to be in contravention of expected presidential decorum. Both are plausible options I guess, but I digress.

I had wanted to check out the new Fourth Wall Books space in Braamfontein— the company publishes beautifully designed and written books on art, architecture and photography—so I braved the cold and the hit the streets. I could not find parking anywhere and was confused by the queue snaking down and around Smit Street outside AREA3. Turns out it was the launch of Adidas’ YEEZY BOOST 350. Adidas was kind enough to even the playing field in the race to attain a pair by allowing customers the chance to win tickets to buy the exclusive new shoe, and people obligingly lined up to get raffle tickets.

Ironically enough, the book launch got underway with talk of queues. After a welcome by the editor, Bronywn Law-Viljoen, the photographer Jason Larkin (British, internationally recognized for his long-term social documentary projects, lived in Johannesburg from 2011-2013) discussed how what most struck him about his time developing this work was the sheer power behind numbers of people, queuing to affect change. He described the incongruence of pylons and power lines of people, queuing to march and to work, queuing for electricity and for water. There seemed to be some romantic attachment to this image of thousands lined up; I got the impression of a latent wistfulness for a magical shot reminiscent of those first-ever-election photographs. Ja ne foreign photographers huh?

Luckily I had seen another one of his photo series, called Waiting, motivated by “an ever-present sense of people waiting: waiting for jobs, waiting for opportunities, waiting for politics to effect change.” Having this insight into his greater body of work, I appreciated how these sentiments were transposed into the capturing of unconventional Marikana moments—his images of literal public expressions of waiting with patience and pangas. Again, those ever present pylons powering mines in areas where communities have no electricity: somehow, those inaccessible power lines seem to be in tune with the suspended sense of anxiety hovering over the mines, and the nation.

Electricity pylons surrounding the Lonmin platinum mine, Marikana

Electricity pylons surrounding the Lonmin platinum mine, Marikana

That this photographer conveys anxiety and palpable violence with subtlety is something I can empathize with, and more seriously, appreciate for not being too graphic. Blame this on police brutality fatigue; it is certainly overwhelming to be constantly and visually reminded of the tragedy and horror and bloodshed that I have now come to associate with the mines.

The series is worth engaging with for the simple fact that it displays in pictures the suspense of suspended development in the platinum industry. The faces of people stuck in these time warp spaces are vast, and with hundreds of expressions on a single A4 sized print, reminiscent of trick collages I remember seeing in a magazine where you had to squint to see the hidden graphics. In this case, I would guess that the hidden visual here is the hypothetical shadow hanging over the mining families’ futures.

This brings me to the publication style itself and the idea of “breaking with traditional format”. The photos are displayed back to back on four posters, neatly tucked into a cardboard cover with the essay printed in a little booklet in the middle. My companion, brimming with sarcasm, was like, “Ya, because everyone wants to put up a poster of the marching miners on their wall.” Miners would totally make the best magazine centerfold, said no one ever. The novelty is cool, but I eye-rolled a bit at the R150 price tag. Luckily, it turns out that they have 500 copies for sale and 500 for free for communities in the Marikana area. That’s cool, and reason enough for me to have purchased one. It usually irks me when foreign correspondents produce and disseminate their best work amongst people who will never get to consume it, poverty porn blah blah, but this is a notable exception. The essay is available in English and Xhosa, and given that the cost of translation is one of the biggest expenses in the publication cycle, this a commendable gold-star was what got me like YASSSS Fourth Wall Books, I’m so down with you for this.

Speaking at the launch was Chris Molebatsi from the Marikana community and David van Wyk from the Bench Marks Foundation. Their description of life in Marikana right now, discussion about the issues faced in the aftermath of the massacre, and the insights given into the relationship between mine management and miners and the greater communities surrounding them, was quite eye-opening. How crazy is this: apparently Lonmin’s response to supporting the widows of the slain miners has been to house them in hostels and employ them, thus preventing them from talking to the media. That made me think about the phrase “corporate social responsibility” in a whole new light. While lives have not changed much in the three years since the massacre, the political space has opened drastically, communities are mobilizing, and trying alternate methods of engagement with both mines and government on a variety of issues ranging from environmental issues to women’s rights.

The essay introducing the images, by writer Jack Shenker, is wide-ranging, peppered with details about the lives of real characters like music-loving Thembisa who works in her aunt’s shebeen in Nkaneng settlement, and Lungisile, a Lonmin rock drill operator who was gifted with a limp and a bullet in the brain courtesy of the SAPS. It is too dangerous to de-lodge it from his skull; he now has to live with the threat of it imploding for the rest of his life. And he’s one of the lucky ones to have lived – he missed his colleague’s funerals during his post-Marikana months in hospital.

Shenker is comprehensive in his descriptions of the area, the people and the political framework that gave rise to the events. The essay concentrates on the boundaries between material corporate interests, responsible policing and “the co-dependent comfort zone of economic privilege that has benefitted a narrow strata of the new South Africa and excluded the majority.” This analysis is not exactly incisive or groundbreaking, but valid nonetheless because of the importance of reiterating questions that arise from accepting life-as-we-know-it. As Catherine Kennedy, director of the South African History Archive, notes, “as a species we are teleological – we make sense of ourselves, and the world around us, through storytelling”; she proposes that Marikana forces us to ask who wrote our rainbow nation’s epically romantic democratic transformation, and how much of it is true.

The real value of Shenker’s essay, however, is how succinctly it locates the massacre into broader neoliberalism-discontent discourse. After Pinochet’s Chile and Thatcher’s Britain, he suggests, “neoliberalism has undergone a process of democracy-proofing that reached its zenith in South Africa.” No longer a theory or ideology, it has come to be an “uncontested reality” leading to the “hollowing out of government sovereignty in neoliberal states, so that popular demands for social justice become impossible to implement.” Tracing the progress of direct imperialism, colonialism and racial domination to how “liberation as political, social and economic empowerment for the masses had morphed into liberation for market forces” is invaluable, and cannot be stressed enough. In this global context, disappointment with the ruling party is somehow mitigated by the reality that “the consequence of South Africa’s neoliberal turn was that democratic freedom, even as it was being feted across the planet, arrived with enough manacles to preclude any meaningful opportunity.”

But what now? If South Africa is living out “the rational destiny of market fundamentalism”, with its prerequisites of gross inequality and mass murder, what is the next step when “democracy gets filtered through the prism of neoliberalism?” Shenker tracks “The Rise of the Marikanas”, focusing on the potential of determined workers movements, with the triumph of the 2014 AMCU wage strike (where workers successfully reached the R12 500 salary demand) as an illustration of just how important victory can be – “because it will affect whether other workers have the confidence to challenge the mass inequality and injustice that exists in South Africa.”

Amidst the shock, horror and trauma of the political developments on the platinum belt, Shanker’s viewpoint is a take on things that I hold in high esteem. Too often, the manifestation of a struggle is hyped up more than the potential it holds and Shenker is right on the money for pointing out that while the rash of revolts sparked after Marikana are not (yet) united, the anti-apartheid protests were similarly fragmented before knotting together as a popular movement that hauled down the system from within. The essay ends with perhaps one of the greatest takes on the trauma that was Marikana:

Perhaps South Africa, in a manner few could have predicted when apartheid came to an end more than twenty years ago, may yet prove to be an inspiration far beyond its borders once again.

It stands to reason that if South Africans once overturned an obscene system of entrenched racism, yet the outcome of that struggle left a bitter taste in the mouths of the masses, then exploitative capitalism may well be the next big thing to be ceremoniously usurped.

*On Thursday July 16th Shenker and Larkin are also launching the publication in London at the Frontline Club, as part of an evening of debate concerning politics, platinum and resistance in contemporary South Africa – see details here.

#RespecTheProducer – Christian Tiger Shcool’s Tapes are made out of Chrome

Sean Magner takes a peek into the world of production duo Christian Tiger School by way of a review of their latest release, Chrome Tapes.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.

Having emerged from a bedroom of Vredehoek in 2011/2, Christian Tiger School appeared something new and fresh relative to their Cape Town micro-context. Lacing Hip Hop with post-internet/chillwave/blogwave tracks, they had forged a new mould for kids caught up in the new musical intersections being provided by the Internet.

After the release of their debut album Third Floor (Bombaada), Christian Tiger School had already reached a critical mass. Headlining every festival from Durban to Barcelona, the context in which they had emerged was fluid and developing faster than many could keep up with. How, then, do two young Capetonian producers deal with it? Rip it all up and start again is how.

Chrome Tapes is Christian Tiger School’s second album and the first to be released off of New York Label, Tommy Boy Entertainment (De la Soul, Handsome Boy Modelling School). The album is 10 tracks of progressive and immersive electronica. If anything, it’s evidence of a group that understand radical content demands radical form. A group that have finally released something illustrative of their true potential.

Opening track “Mikro Brothers” is a prime example of the new blank canvas. With a sparse gong, we’re welcomed into the world of Christian Tiger School, reimagined. Previous work has also been dense and heady, but the new work exhibits a more mature understanding of aural landscapes where the negative space is as important as the rest. Further progressive tendencies emerge with the inclusion of Okmalumkoolkat. Bringing his  unique Zulu-compurra flow on “Damn January”, what we have here is the frontier of both South African music production and South African rap finally converging. It seems almost decades ago that we were crying out amidst the Cape Town electronic music scene: “Where are all the rappers though?”

Personal favourite “Zloz” is a techno behemoth that lumbers and aches over a full six-and-a-half minutes. Deftly accented with a crystalline synth, the track marks the beginning of a progression toward the heart of the album: after segueing through the Fuck Buttons-type seer of “Handmade Mandarin” and the self-referential “Star Search Phezulu”; the epicentre of Chrome Tapes stands tall in all of its resplendent glory. “Chorisolo” raises the tempo to that of the likely heart rate of the dogs in the music video. With a menacing thrust forward, the track erupts into maximalist-yet-refined splendour. The warped vocal track, looped and contorted, is knotted throughout the track and manages to create a hook that is both melancholic and ecstatic.

This part of the album is likely owing to the group’s obsession with dance music and having not listened to that much hip hop in writing the LP. But they haven’t shed their love for hip hop entirely; “Ultimate Frisbee’, “Mikro Kousins” and “Demamp Camp” hark back to the boom bap of tracks past but still manage to reposition the viewfinder forward, incorporating more distinct samples — less murky than on previous releases. While this may signal an opportunity for the group to fall back into their past iterations, “Cinderella Rocafella” is able to provide the perfect concluding chapter. Meeting almost halfway between the progressive electronica and their hip hop roots, the track offers a mission statement over 8 minutes, suggesting the group’s intended trajectory. With a brutal drumline, the track gallops and strides amongst a synth that shines like an expiring supernova only to give way to another, otherworldly, complex creation.

Since Third Floor’s release both Luc Vermeer and Sebastian Zenasi were able to explore their respective musical inclinations and what appeared obvious was that Christian Tiger School were never going to be the same. Too much has happened in the interim. With Seb it was dropping out of UCT Music school and experimenting in other various musical groups like Fever Trails and Yes, in French. Luc further developed his taste for rap, hip hop and everything these genres touch by way of his solo alias, Desert_head. At the same time, the South African music scene over the past three years has welcomed a new wave of rap and hip hop while also seeing its electronic scene blossom and spiral into myriad new avenues.

While their CTS back-catalogue has never really felt basic per se, with the release of their new album Chrome Tapes the contrast is evident, and I don’t think the duo would have it any other way. Chrome Tapes is a bold release, likely to scare off some fans. But it’s nonetheless admirable in its quest for development and progression.

And it’s this progression that was so necessary: Christian Tiger School had routinely become encased in critical cliché: “aural soundscapes”, “LA-Beat-Scene inspired”, etc. It’s all so trite, yet fails to ever recognise what the two producers behind it all are actually doing on their own terms. Chrome Tapes, thankfully is that moment where CTS have owned their creation. They are no longer a sum of their various influences; they’ve transcended stereotype and placed themselves at the new frontier.

* You can stream Chrome Tapes on Deezer or buy on iTunes

 

“El Chapo”‘s (New) Escape

These days the fonda where I usually eat has been packed with Policía Federal officers. The fonda was designated as one of the official restaurants for the troop sent to Oaxaca to contain those who are opposing a reform that would allow a massive teacher layoff. Los Soles is its name, and it’s located just around the corner from the offices of the Truth Commission where I work, so recently I’ve had casual conversations with officers from every part of the country.

While we wait our turn to taste our meals, I like to ask them if they read the crime novels of Élmer Mendoza, or Paco Ignacio Taibo II, or if they watch police TV series like True Detective, or The Killing. None of those who have talked to me know detectives Mendieta, Belascoarán, Cohle, or Holder; but on the other hand I have not seen The Shield, nor El señor de los cielos, the TV series that they always recommend. We also talk about other things, for example, about what they have had to see in their various missions around the country.

This week I was talking to one of these officers about a historical area of Mexicali, created by Chinese immigrants, known as “La Chinesca,” where there is a series of tunnels and underground passageways that connect various local buildings, and that at some point even extended to the nearby city of Calexico, in the United States.

The first time I heard about this place was in 2008, when I was in Culiacán doing some research for my book El cártel de Sinaloa (Grijalbo, 2009). A veteran member of the organization, who had worked during the reign of Miguel Félix Gallardo, told me that the first important job that Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera had was to smuggle marihuana and cocaine into California through Mexicali in the 80s.

According to that informant, El Chapo reactivated the old tunnels in La Chinesca and thus became one of the most efficient drug smugglers of that era. Some said that El Chapo had worked with unusual patience until he created an authentic narco city underneath Mexicali. I always found this tale about La Chinesca, and the topographical genius that later became one of the biggest drug lords in the world, fascinating and cinematographic.

A few months ago, I was also talking about it with Craig Borten, the screenwriter of Dallas Buyers Club, who is writing one of the many Hollywood scripts about the off-center life of El Chapo.

Nonetheless, the story of La Chinesca is very far from what happened this Saturday, July 11th, when, according to the National Security Commissioner, the most important inmate in the Mexican penitential system entered the shower in a maximum security prison and then descended through some secret stairs until he reached a tunnel where a motorcycle was awaiting, which he then used to cover the whole underground distance of the Penal del Altiplano prison, until he arrived into some sort of basement of a modestly built house, where he was finally able to get our and, for the second time, escape his imprisonment.

According to the official report, the tunnel built is 1.5 kilometers long. To give an idea of the engineering feat that this is, Mexico’s largest urban tunnel is 3.5 kilometers long and is being built by Carlos Slim’s companies in Acapulco, Guerrero.

The first obligation of a journalist is to seek out the official version of whatever is that happened, and the second is to not believe in it, until after having researched and contrasted it with other independent sources. Thus, a permanent challenge of Mexican journalism is figuring out what to do with the official fictions that are produced, mainly, on issues related to the world of the narco (as happened with Tlatlaya, Ayotzinapa, the Tec students…).

But beyond this dilemma, and to add to the awe, we can safely establish that El Chapo left the Penal del Altiplano – by whatever methods – just at the same time president Enrique Peña Nieto and ten secretaries form his cabinet, including those of Government, National Defense and Navy, where flying towards Paris.

It is not a coincidence that this evasion happened at the exact moment in which the main eleven official heads were 9,194 kilometers away. Obviously, the operative reaction to try to recapture El Chapo was more chaotic and complicated by this, which could have given him some time to leave the center of the country faster and arrive to a safe dominion.

This not only speaks about the cleverness of the narco boss and of his political operators, but also about a direct challenge to the frivolity and unkemptness of our country’s administration. It is likely that the Secretary of Government, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, will leave his post after a failure that completely falls under his jurisdiction. But, what will happen with the irresponsible presidential decision to take the whole government to France during almost a week?

The majority of Mexican prisons are ungovernable, or are at least territories where groups of inmates control them as if they were private property. There is the case of the penitentiary of Gómez Palacio, Durango, from where a commando of hitmen got out to execute people in Torreón, Coahuila, and then went back into their cells. Or the one of the municipal jail of Cancún, better known as “Hotel Zeta,” where the gunmen that ended the life of general Enrique Tello were recruited. There is also the case of the jail of Topo Chico in Monterrey, where the recently imprisoned inmates who don’t pay a fee are constantly tortured and get a “Z” tattooed on their butt cheeks.

But, until this weekend, the Altiplano prison was an exception to the rule in this disastrous national statistic.

A few hours after the escape, I phoned Flavio Sosa, social fighter in Oaxaca, who is considered by many human rights organizations to have been the first political prisoner of Felipe Calderón’s government. Sosa participated in a popular revolt and was arrested on December 4th, 2006, and then transferred to the Altiplano prison where, also, he was jailed in the Tratamientos Especiales area, the maximum security zone. There he shared the halls with many drug lords, including Osiel Cárdenas Guillén – before the latter was extradited to the United States. It was there that the inmate Guzmán Loera was imprisoned.

“Do you think somebody can escape the Altiplano without first-level complicities?” I asked him.

“This prison is an unbreakable capsule. And the area where El Chapo was, Tratamientos Especiales, was a capsule inside a capsule. All of the surveillance system must have been relaxed.”

Sosa remembers that in Tratamientos Especiales there were twenty individual cells, divided into two halls. Each one of them is permanently surveilled by video. Inside each cell there is a bunk bed, a cement table and a hole in the ground that is used as a latrine by the inmates, as well as an individual shower, which might discount the version that says that there is a common showering area.

Sosa thinks that the only angle that can be invisible to the camera is the bottom of the bed. He also thinks it is hard to believe that El Chapo would take a shower on a Saturday night, as he says that showers are only permitted at 6 A.M. He also explained to me that there are careful examinations of each cell in this area at least three times a month and that the officers who do it even bang the walls and the floors with a hammer, with the aim of detecting special compartments.

“During one of those tough nights, I thought about how I could get out and I realized that, if I wanted to escape, I would have to agree to it not only with my guards, but also with the other three organisms that are there – the Federales, the jail’s police and a special guard – all of which are under very different bosses, and are usually very distrusting of each other. It was impossible, though it seems in El Chapo’s case, it wasn’t.”

This is what Sosa, who was freed after a year in a half in prison thanks to the social pressure denouncing the unfairness of his arrest, says.

During the time El Chapo was in prison, little was known about the legal process against the Cártel de Sinaloa boss. We only heard anecdotes, like the one from a PAN House member who, it seems, went to visit him, or the one of a letter that he co-signed with other inmates that was addressed to the president of the National Human Rights Commission.

But, in general, the government maintained a suspicious opacity about the enclosure of one of the world’s most persecuted men. Out of those sixteen months he was in jail, now we only know that he escaped. The so-called “arrest of the century” was not followed by a “trial of the century,” in which light could be shed on the political and economical networks used by the boss from Sinaloa to operate. Why?

In the popular reactions in social media, fear and indignation were not the emotions that prevailed after El Chapo’s escape. It seems that his criminal charisma will just increment. Mexico has a plutocrat antihero, whose popularity competes with that of the members of the ruling class.

“The problem is that wherever I go, I realize that people love El Chapo more than Congress members,” said, earnestly, the federal police officer that was talking to me about La Chinesca.

As these and many other questions are answered with time, with my coworkers in Oaxaca we speculate that soon we will be able to eat in Los Soles without having to form a line, because the Secretary of Government (likely by then under the command of Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the Mexican Vladimir Putin) will relocate hundreds of federales who are here, so they can leave the teachers alone and then go look for El Chapo everywhere, even under the earth.

Regarding the cinematographic future of Guzmán Loera, after this second escape, it seems very hard to make an impactful movie based on the “real life” of such a character. The unpunished reality of El Chapo is already a cartoon that has too much literature. Just like the Mexican government has too much corruption.

This article was originally published in the Mexican site / cultural center / caffè-bar Horizontal in Spanish and is translated and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Lagos, the city of divides

Lagos, is the only city in Nigeria worthy of being described as a human potpourri. No crevice of the city is left unaffected by the flavour brought by the multifarious peoples who comprise the city’s teeming populace. Whatever beauty or redeemable qualities can be salvaged from the Nigerian contraption can be seen in Lagos. Conversely, also, the inequality and inequity which have come to characterise Nigerian society permeate Lagos. But this mixture of humans is increasingly divided spatially. This has its costs.

Apart from the economic prospects it offers, Lagos has a highly alluring veneer of beauty, culture and sophistication. There’s always something for everyone, or as Madonna sang in the nineties, you only see what your eyes want to see. This is where the successive government regimes in Lagos and the elites within the state share a common interest, apart from the cornering of the state’s largesse: making the ‘’unwanted’’ invisible. Successive governments in the state have been more preoccupied with ‘’beautification’’ projects in public areas than trying to alleviate the living conditions of impoverished families. The famous Lagosian reggae artist, Majek Fashek painted, for me on a personal note, the most resonant comparison of the divide in Lagos when he sang, some decades ago, about his first time visiting the U.S.A. and alighting in the city of New York. Very much like his beloved Lagos, (or ‘Las Gidi’ as he fondly refers to the city as, a portmanteau derived from Las Vegas, to reflect what Majek saw as the many commonalities between Lagos and Las Vegas in terms of the embrace of the culture of hedonism and the existing underbelly of dire poverty and crime masked by the neon lights of artifice) he was befuddled to find that contrary to what he had previously imagined of America as some utopic Shangri-la, it had homeless people on its streets.

This sharp contrast in experiential perspective by the inhabitants of Lagos also has a spatial face to it. The Third Mainland Bridge helps to provide a physical marker to compliment the social barriers already erected in the minds of its denizens. Living on ’’the island’’ in Ikoyi and Lekki is considered preferable to living or mingling on the mainland. Then, a fleeting camaraderie, of sorts, is found in affirming a sense of superiority over those from surrounding states. This behaviour lends strong credence to Paulo Freire’s theorisation in the seminal ‘’The pedagogy of the oppressed’’ that the oppressed not only respect and fear their oppressors but also wish to occupy their position as oppressors in future.

The sad reality, however, is that, regardless of where one lies on the socio-economic spectrum in Lagos, we all suffer to some degree. The have’s, the yet-to become have’s and the have-not’s are unable to avoid the pothole-ridden roads of Lagos. The wealthy or those who cannot afford it pretend they can avoid the roots of the problems plaguing the Nigerian society by papering over the cracks, so we see them buy bigger cars to ply the bad roads only to be accosted by highway robbers. They retreat into their garishly furnished houses but live in constant fear of the outside world, knowing that many around them live in contrasting paupery. That is the cost of the divide. The barrier set up to keep the have-not’s away, to render them invisible so as not to ruin our aesthetic of comfort and ideals of beauty ends up becoming a prison to the wealthy.

It has transformed the socio-cultural landscape of Lagos into a spin-off of the zombie series The Walking Dead, where the rich keep on moving in an almost-peripatetic fashion to areas with higher insularity from the working classes. So the island mainland divide no longer suffices, they retreat to Ikoyi, then to Lekki, then to the ultra-exclusive Banana Island, where a sizeable token fee is charged before non-residents can gain entry to take a look around. The spatial paradox of this is that the divide is in fact a façade because in actuality it is an eliding spectre which try as they might, the moneyed classes cannot escape from.

In Morocco, a judge agrees: #mettre_une_robe_ nest_pas_un_crime

Yesterday, in Inezgane, south of Agadir, on the southern part of Morocco’s Atlantic Ocean coast, a judge decided that two young women were not guilty of… outraging the public through some sort of indecency. Supporters rejoiced. Defense attorney Houcine Bekkar Sbai declared: “I am very pleased with this verdict. This is a victory not only for these two women, but for all members of civil society who mobilized. Extremist thinking is unacceptable and no one can set themselves up as guardians of religion and morals.” Fouzia Assouli, President of the Federation of the League of Women’s Rights, added, “This acquittal is positive and means that wearing this type of clothing is not a crime.”

Now that this trial is over, the two women, constantly referred to as “the girls of Izegane” in the press, have broken their silence: “We have committed no crime or offense, and yet we have been dragged into court, unjustly, in fear and terror, in pain and suffering.”

The judge also found that the police were beyond reproach in this matter. Two women were harassed and terrorized, forced to hide, because of the perception that they were “girls” wearing objectionable clothing, and the police picked them up, held them, and then arrested the two women, and, only after a hue and cry was raised, began looking for and finally arresting men suspected of having harassed and intimidated the two women. And the police acted according to the letter of the law.

Supporters of the two women say the next step is to prosecute those who harassed the two women. Fair enough. What about the police and the letter of the law to which they abided? Supporters and activists have been reduced to arguing that these two women were not provocatively dressed. The next two… well… we’ll see. But for now “the girls of Inezgane” are not going to prison, thanks to the pressure of thousands of women across Morocco, and that is good news.

The Basotho people must have a stake in the production and distribution of their culture

Blankets are to Basotho people a cultural emblem. Our blankets, much like the cow, are central to every rite of passage in our culture; from childbirth to marriage to burial ceremonies and everything else in between. Originally, we made our blankets out of animal hide and furs, adapting them according to the season. In the early 19th century, European woollen blankets were introduced in our lands by traders and missionaries and notably to founding father of the Basotho nation King Moshoeshoe in 1860. These new blankets were infused into our communities and gained relevance as part of our unique heritage.

For generations the love affair we have with blankets has endured. With an elevation of 1400 metres and higher in our tiny Kingdom now known as Lesotho, our blankets are the signature capes we ensconce ourselves in during unforgiving winters and they hang loosely over our shoulders during summer’s tormenting heat. An aesthetic of the people, our politicians and musicians are often seen wrapped in them as they tour our country, seeking to win the hearts of the masses. Blankets for us are a warm blend of style, function and tradition.

But thanks to the capitalist hunger of Europeans in Southern Africa and the rise of industrial technology, people have ascended our mountains to profit from our prized possession. Blanket manufacturer Aranda, producing blankets near Johannesburg, South Africa since 1951, was appointed as the exclusive manufacturer of our heritage blankets in the 1990s. This gives Aranda a near monopoly on the blanket market in Lesotho. Lesotho on the other hand, despite having a relatively large textile industry, has never been able to produce a successful blanket manufacturer locally and yet the blanket is one of our most treasured symbols.

In the fine Western tradition of profiting from other cultures, Sean Shuter, a fashion entrepreneur between New York and Cape Town and a new admirer of the Basotho heritage blankets, recently struck up a deal with the Aranda company to sell their blankets in high-end boutiques around the world. Using photographs of Basotho in their communities — happily donning their prized capes — he will now be the one to tell our blanketed history globally with our people as props in order to market his product and grow his brand. He recently celebrated himself and his discovery on Style.com, boasting enthusiastically about how he learned of the importance of Basotho blankets not from Basotho people, but from the marketing director at Aranda. This is just the latest exoticizing and repackaging of culture by outsiders. It has happened before with Ethiopian, Maasai and Native American styles and it will undoubtedly happen again if we continue to sleep on our cultural wealth.

MK_Laughing-Lady-Sour-Dude

Photo: Mountain Kingdom

Forward-thinking fashion designers such as Thabo Makhetha have adapted the Seanamarena style (loosely translated as “worn by kings” in Sesotho) blanket for example, into signature coats and other fashionable creations owing to the high quality and intricate patterns of the blankets. Many African designers have embraced Ankara fabric as well. But we as the diviners of culture need to manage more than its relevance, we need a stake in its production. We can choose to recognize the value of our heritage and take control over the distribution of our culture, or we can let the hunters tell the story of how they slayed the beastly lions. When I see someone like Sean Shuter cashing in on my people’s image I’m tempted to cry “cultural appropriation”, but then again, it’s just business I suppose.

 

Kemang Wa Lehulere: History will break your heart

“There still is the demand for black artists to exoticize themselves. The same struggle that Ernest Mancoba was having is still around and oftentimes one does not have to be told to self-exoticize; the mechanisms in which people are shaped into that kind of direction is very sophisticated, but that’s the nature of power itself. I’m very conscious of it. It’s also about refusing the spectacle.” 
-Wa Lehulere

Steel structures pulled from worn-out school desks zig-zag across the floor, propping up inverted gumboots with gold soles.  Identical busts are placed next to each structure, loosely refereeing to the deeply flawed education system and the Marikana Massacre. The installation is surrounded by paintings from South African art giants Gladys Mgudlandlu and Ernest Mancoba; as well as chalk drawings by his aunt, Sophie Wa Lehulere and a film that documents an ongoing project in Gugulethu.

HISTORY WILL BREAK YOUR HEART_020

History will Break your Heart is visual artist Kemang Wa Lehulere’s, latest exhibition. Composed of installations, drawings, video, sculpture and performance, the exhibition is a fractured, layered and deeply personal narrative that recalls the past in order to rethink the present. Wa Lehulere was awarded the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award for 2015.

“I feel like I have to contextualise a few things because people get confused. And of course audiences vary. So we’re not on the same page, all of us. The show is read differently in different cities, according to the audiences and the space.”

Born in Gugulethu and raised by his aunt, Wa Lehuluere has been moving between art and activism and rebelling against the education system since the school bell rang. “My teacher noticed that I was struggling with the curriculum, English in particular, I could not relate to Shakespeare as works of art, they just didn’t speak to me,” he said. “So she began taking books out of the library for me, which is when I started discovering black writers. By the time I arrived at university I was already critical of education as a package, as well as black writers who were erased,” he said.

Wa Lehulere has four solo exhibitions, 50 group exhibitions and six residencies under his belt, in cities such as New York, France, Switzerland and Johannesburg. He’s no stranger but mentions more than once he has come to understand the ‘complexities of what it means to operate in the art world’.

“I’m critically aware of institutional power, the university, the education system, the art world, even Standard Bank Young Artist as an institution so I dance within these things.”

Along with his performing, photographing and filmmaking background Wa Lehulere was also one of the co-founders of Gugulective, a Cape Town based art collective that was established in 2006 to make art accessible in township spaces and allow creatives the space to explore “contemporary art in their urban township context”.

“When we did Gugulective one of my lecturers said, ‘Hey man what the fuck are you guys doing bringing conceptual art to the township? You’re speaking a language people don’t understand’ and I was like what? I mean, the responses I had at Gugulective were the most sophisticated, from an audience that is largely uneducated, they have an incredible ability to read images”.

HISTORY WILL BREAK YOUR HEART_003

“There was a performance piece I did where I was digging a hole with an afro-comb in Gugulethu and I discovered these bones, that work I did it again at the KKNK festival in Oudtshoorn and I was almost assaulted for the very same work. When I did this thing in Gugulethu, people thought I was mad, you know digging a hole with an afro comb. In Oudtshoorn, people took on a whole different political meaning, people came at me really angry like, hey fuck you I also want my own land. You know, in Afrikaans. People read it as coming from land politics. I’m still learning about different audiences and it’s not easy”.

History will Break your Heart includes one of the last filmed interviews with Mancoba (1904-2002), one of the first black avant-garde artists in South Africa; as well as  Mgudlandlu’s (1925-1979) paintings. She was a self-taught fine artist from the Eastern Cape, whose subject matter includes indigenous birds, rural landscapes and brightly coloured scenes from townships and villages. His work sits alongside theirs, speaking to each other, past and present. “These are artists that have been written out of history. Including them in the exhibition is an act of love,” said Wa Lehulere.

With a range of visual elements from a variety of artists, History will Break your Heart is a fractured collection of work, an intentional approach, which speaks to the nature of South African history.

“Things need to change, it’s 2015. And the change is not about hate towards white people, it’s about saying that we also exist, we’ve been existing, we’re also human beings and both Mancoba and Gladys that’s what they’re fighting for, just a simple desire to be human it’s not about hate, in fact it’s about love. Self-love is very important.”

Follow @KemangWa on Twitter.

#DevPix: 5 things that can’t be ignored about development photography

Since Jorgen Lissner’s searing critique of the use of poverty porn to solicit donations in the wake of the Ethiopian famine, there’s been critical attention paid to the way development organisations use photography.

Guidance has been written; research on the unintended effects of using images that negatively stereotype whole continents has been conducted. And yet – despite this – it’s debatable how much progress has been made. As John Hillary highlighted last year in a follow-up piece from Lissner’s, we might be seeing the return of poverty porn.

On July 9, 2015, the Overseas Development Institute organised a Twitter chat with the hashtag #DevPix (@africasacountry participated) to ask: how can development organisations improve? Here’s five key issues which came up in the discussion.

Showing suffering should be specific
Images used by development organisations are often devoid of context, not even providing so much as a location, nor any details about the person they’re depicting or their life. The underlying message is, then, that the consumers of these images don’t need much information to make out what’s going on: it’s probably Africa, and it’s probably awful.

It’s the approach that Binyavanga Wainana brilliantly sends up in How to Write About Africa: “It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herd of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions.”

@toluogunlesi We must all insist on NGOs using appropriate, contextualising, captions. #DevPix

— Hans Zomer (@Hans_Zomer) July 9, 2015

Captions are important; context is important. What’s actually happening? Who is it, and what are they doing? What’s behind the distress or suffering depicted? Who’s involved?

We need more photos of overhead costs, expat hardship allowances, fortified high security living quarters and competitive benefits. #DevPix

— Amos Odero (@OderoGogni) July 9, 2015

Can #DevPix depict the other side of the story? The exploitation that causes poverty. Let's look at the man in the mirror as MJ put it.

— Minna Salami (@MsAfropolitan) July 9, 2015

Without providing information about the factors driving the problems depicted, development communications both end up marking the global South as a site of rootless, causeless, unavoidable suffering, and tire audiences in the global North who are confused as to why, after so much aid has been given and donations have been solicited, not much has seemingly changed.

Cultivate solidarity, not pity
Images of pity solidify the legacy of colonialism (with which development, and photography, share a sticky history), presenting the global South as an unknown, alien other, in need of saving by benevolent passers-by in the North. If the images used by development organisations make people look subservient, submissive and in need of pity, then the unequal power dynamic between North and South continues: ‘we’ have what ‘you’ need, and (bonus!) it’ll only cost $5 a month.

Basically, I am of the opinion that good #devpix must definitely not appeal to our guilt. People must give out of love, not out of guilt

— Nana Kofi Acquah (@africashowboy) July 9, 2015

It’s about seeing people as equals – something development photography doesn’t exactly excel at.

Ultimately, development is not about YOU & THEM, it is about US & OUR world. When the rain fall it don't fall on one man's house. #DevPix

— Minna Salami (@MsAfropolitan) July 9, 2015

Development organisations should move away from using images that encourage pity in the viewer – and instead use images that inculcate a sense of solidarity.

Best #DevPix show people as political agents, not victims. This creates political solidarity. @c_bracegirdle @ODIdev pic.twitter.com/x43BJkW4aJ

— John Hilary (@jhilary) July 9, 2015

Consent must be meaningful
Consent isn’t just about getting someone to agree to be photographed: it’s also about ensuring that they know how their likeness can be used, and if they’re entirely comfortable with that. On more occasions than I could possibly recall, I’ve used images of people I don’t know doing things I don’t understand to illustrate a document with a very specific list of policy recommendations. I’m not sure how that Sierra Leonean community police officer, those protesting Bolivian women, or those people ambling around Lagos would feel about being the ‘face’ of those messages; I’d feel quite perturbed if an organisation with views divergent from mine used me to illustrate their ideas.

@rich_mallett @ODIdev much more. Take the time to explain all potential results, what others experience, what they think will happen #devpix

— Kate O'Sullivan (@KateOSully) July 9, 2015

#DevPix We equip our researchers with materials like this to show photo subjects how their image could be used. pic.twitter.com/hVh0t1dWJx

— Reboot (@theReboot) July 9, 2015

This dynamic is even more problematic when the fact that a lot of development images are used to solicit funds is taken into consideration. Are the subjects models? Should they get paid? And is anyone comfortable being the ‘face’ of poverty and distress?

Are there any studies where individuals from countries most often portrayed give their opinions on representation? #DevPix @ODIdev @bondngo

— Ruth Taylor (@Ruth_STaylor) July 9, 2015

Giving space for self-representation
Development organisations need to go beyond ‘doing consent well’ – avoiding exploitation is a low bar to set for achievement. Instead, development organisations should be thinking about how the people they depict are involved in image-creation: whether through participatory photo projects, or through the democractisation of content creation that (hopefully) accompanies the growth of social media, there’s options out there to give people the space to represent themselves.

#DevPix A5: Social media has liberated who is behind the lens. This is transformative!

— Liz Eddy (@Liz_EddyDC) July 9, 2015

Why haven’t development organisations got better at incorporating these?

Critically reflect on the industry of poverty-images
Stereotypical images of the global South persist, in part, because local photographers are often overlooked in favour of flying someone in, who most likely knows little about the context. The potential for misrepresentation and erroneous emphasis is rife.

.@ODIdev NGOs SHOULD use local photographers. If you're using local issues to raise money makes plenty sense to involve local talent #DevPix

— tolu ogunlesi (@toluogunlesi) July 9, 2015

But, as some of the participants highlighted, these kinds of narratives can be created by anyone – and it’s not a fair assumption that if you hire someone local, you’ll automatically end up with less biased imagery.

.@ODIdev downside is that often, local photographers conditioned to produce the kinds of images they know/think NGOs love to use #DevPix

— tolu ogunlesi (@toluogunlesi) July 9, 2015

Re #Devpix Q3 "Locals" can perpetuate stereotypes too – c.f. stigmatisation of scrappers in Agbogbloshie (Accra) http://t.co/O7rM8GpnwS

— Janet Gunter (@JanetGunter) July 9, 2015

Indeed, thanks to the efforts of development organisations, the production of images of poverty has become an industry in itself, as Nazia Parvez found in Freetown’s Kroo Bay. As notoriously under-provisioned area, it’s long been subject to the gaze of the documentary photographer and researcher. Today, the people living believe that – as Renzo Marten’s film Enjoy Poverty disturbingly suggests – there’s a market for images of poverty, and it’s something they can sell.

This market potentially ends up distorting the ways in which local photographers, or indeed people living in poverty themselves choose to represent that reality. If NGOs and donors have traditionally wanted a rootless, decontexualised and disempowering kind of image, then it might make sense to give it to them.

Though just an hour long, the #DevPix twitter chat proved to be a fruitful discussion for reflecting on the power and pitfalls of development photography, while suggesting resources for doing it better. For a look at the highlights of the chat check out this storify of the conversation: #DevPix: improving how development organisations use photography.

 

The Westville Buy, Swap and Sell(-ing of a domestic worker online)

I generally have the expectation that every so often something racist and problematic from South Africa will show up in my Facebook feed. But even when I think I’m ready, it’s impossible to ever be truly prepared. Last month it was the slave ship ironing board designed and manufactured by the the Cape Town-based company Maid in Africa which I had never seen or heard of before. And, just a few days ago it was the ad below, posted on the Facebook page Westville Buy, Swap and Sell.

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The original advertisement was posted onto the page by a man from Durban, South Africa, but disappeared after a number of people shared and critically commented on the post. He writes: “Anastasia has worked for us for 27 years, she cooks, cleans, is wonderful with animals (she sings to our puppies when she bathes them)…” Then, in order to ease middle class fears based on the assumption that all domestic workers are thieves, he certifies: “She is completely trustworthy, we have never locked valuables away, and nothing has ever been missed”. He explains that the reason for the post is that they are relocating (Australia? England?) and he is hoping that “someone in the Durban North or Pinetown area needs an Anna”. AN Anna!?

The page Westville, Buy Swap, Sell is mostly dedicated to the selling of household appliances, furniture and other objects and “Anna” is advertised here as another commodity – a ‘black’ female body rendered object to be used and discarded when no longer needed. An in-depth analysis is needed to contextualize the historio-social power relationships between ‘black’ women and ‘white’ men in South Africa, but it is clear that however well-meaning, this man has not considered his position in a country with a social history entangled in violent narratives of objectification, paternalism, patriarchy and othering. As many others have already commented, the language in this advertisement is both patronizing and paternalistic.   

This is further made evident by his response to the woman who read the advert and felt it necessary to call him out on it by trying to have a conversation over the phone. His response?:

I am amazed that a black woman phoned me this morning and had an argument with me stating that it was not appropriate to have Anna advertized on Facebook… Typical racial shit. I have had a guts full of the racial attitude of some black people…

This is exemplary of the blinding privilege of South Africa’s ‘white’ middle and upper class which has found new means of subjugation through online community groups.

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Other examples of this are the online neighbourhood watch and community policing forums which often use racial profiling and discriminatory language to talk about (mostly perceived) perpetrators of crime. These supposedly private forums have been uncovered by blogs like Suburban Fear which highlight racial paranoia amongst middle class ‘white’ South Africans. Similarly, on the Maid in Africa Facebook page the owners have responded to criticism of their designs by claiming that their art is activism and subversive. Like the poster of this advertisement, they believe that they are ‘doing good’.

It’s concerning too that there are people who validate the blindness and denialism expressed on these forums through attempts at delegitimizing claims of hurt or discomfort from people with similar experiences and subject positions. This demonstrates incredible ignorance at a time when race is at the forefront of many conversations in South Africa, The US and elsewhere in the world. The validation allows the oppressor to award someone as good or smart for supporting the status quo, while dissenters and critics are dismissed as ‘too sensitive’ or ‘dangerous’ to society. As one Facebook user puts it:

My question is: to what extent do you even have the apparatus to understand the trauma caused to the black psyche when stumbling across a black body on a buy, swap and sell page? Furthermore, if you do not understand it (which I am assuming you won’t entirely) does that make the pain felt by those expressing it illegitimate?

[ed: Meanwhile in Brazil, where the same practice of posting of one’s domestic worker on Facebook groups is common, São Paulo rapper Emicida proposes an alternative scenario:]

#free15Angolans: What you need to know

In Luanda thirteen activists were arrested when they gathered for a book club on  June 20, 2015. On June 22 another two were taken. In every case, police confiscated their computers and telephones and those of family members. All such acts were undertaken without search warrants. Among the prisoners, well-known protestors Luaty Beirão and Nito Alves (only 18 years old), are on hunger strikes.

José Maria de Sousa, Angolan Prosecutor General, accuses them of threatening state security. The Angolan President, José Eduardo dos Santos, raised historical spectres by comparing them to the so-called coup plotters of 27 de Maio that resulted in the purge and massacre of thousands. (If you’re interested, read Lara Pawson’s In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre.)

These fifteen activists have been involved in protests against President dos Santos’ long tenure as president since 2011. Notably, they’ve had their protests broken up before they’ve begun and they’ve been beaten in the streets and tortured in prison. All are young, a few are rappers, many are students or graduates of universities. They are all male. This excellent post (in Portuguese) by human rights activist Rafael Marques tells you about each of them.

Here’s what you need to know:

1 – There are more than fifteen. While fifteen were arrested between June 20-22, other political prisoners, less well known because they are struggling outside of Luanda, languish in prison and face harassment: Marcos Mavungo has been held since March without a warrant in Cabinda, accused with crimes against state security. Arão Bula Tempo, President of the Cabinda Lawyers Council, arrested with Mavungo and later released, was prohibited from traveling from Cabinda to Benguela June 26 to speak on Human Rights. On June 30, Zenobio Zumba, who works in the Angolan Armed Forces Office of Information and Analysis, was arrested. His crime? Propinquity: he was in an International Relations program at university with one of the 15 political prisoners (Osvaldo Caholo). He refuses to be registered with the police until they present him with an imprisonment order. It seems he and his wife, a police officer, have been politicized by this process.

2 – These arrests serve as a distraction from the April massacre at Mount Sumi in Huambo (and the drop in oil prices and new Chinese loans.) Read Claudio Silva’s powerful post on Mount Sumi.

3 – The arrests, like the massacre, have provoked unprecedented, explicit public condemnation from a widespread array of Angolans. If you read Portuguese there are a number of pieces expressing outrage, a variety of analysis, and vision in response. More here and here. Some great drawings by Sergio Piçarra that make sense even if you don’t read Portuguese (scroll backwards through the arrows). And this chilling, hopeful, and poetic post by Ana Paula Tavares: “Last night I traveled to the end of the night and I saw new things that allow me to believe that ‘the door of the future is not shut’ and that in the silence of stone tame waters carve new paths and pass.”

4 – While these young activists are all men, they are surrounded by women. Several articles note mothers, wives, sisters who have been politicized or who share their vision. Many of the prisoners are fathers. They fight for a better future for all Angolans. And let’s not forget Laurinda Gouveia, a 26 year old female student and grilled chicken vendor, beaten by the police in broad daylight in November 2014 at a small protest.

5 – They advocate peaceful change. On the day they gathered they were reading Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy: a Conceptual Framework for Liberation and Angolan journalist (among the arrested) Domingos da Cruz’s Tools to Destroy a Dictator and Avoid a New Dictatorship. We might need to think a post-Fanonian politics. Would that he were here to help us think the impasse because his analysis of the national bourgeoisie reads the riot act on the Angolan elite.

6 – This is not the first time President dos Santos has accused someone of plotting a coup. As Rafael Marques notes, he neutralized General Fernando Miala in 2009 with a 4-year prison sentence for insubordination after being accused of a coup attempt in 2006. And his elite is full of generals who slop at the trough of state largesse precisely to keep them fat, happy, and docile.

7 – Some arrested (Zenobio Zumba – detained July 7) and now dead (Alves Kamulingue and Isaís Cassule) are veterans of the Presidential Guard or the Military Information Unit. When former presidential guards and military information officers start to advocate for their rights, look out.

For breaking news in English, follow Claudio Silva on Twitter.

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