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The Exoticisation and Otherisation of the Afrikan by the Afrikan

Written by Doreen Gaura for POVO Journal 2014: Inaugural Women’s Edition

In the last decade or so we have seen an increase in Afrikan visibility and participation in the marketing of the continent as a commercial and creative hub. We have embarked on re – branding the image of Afrika i.e. moving away from the traditional Afro-pessimistic narrative to a more positive vibrant one as well as reclaiming the marketing rights of our own continent and cultures. This paradigm shift has reaped benefits for more and more, mostly young, Afrikan designers, artists and entrepreneurs both on the continent and in the Afrikan diaspora.
It is a cause for celebration particularly in light of the reductive, Afro – pessimistic narratives that have plagued us for centuries and enabled the violent dispossession and subjugation of our people. However, I fear that while it has created room for Afrikans and our cultures in the global market as well as facilitated cultural exchange amongst ourselves as Afrikans on a much larger scale, I feel that this new visibility and celebration of our various cultures and the different aspects thereof has done very little to facilitate a shift from the exoticisation of the Afrikan and Afrikan culture.

If anything, it would appear to have not only validated it because that same narrative is now being vocalised by Afrikans “so it must be true”, but we now participate in the exoticisation of ourselves and our cultures.

I can personally think of many examples of this that I have either observed or encountered personally over the years both as a Zimbabwean immigrant living and working in Cape Town, South Afrika and as a Zimbabwean emigrant returning home every year for a visit. During my last visit to Zimbabwe I was called “exotic” by strangers for spotting natural/afro-textured hair and donning afro inspired clothing and accessories. I found this both very problematic and somewhat offensive at the same time even though on all three occasions it was intended to be a compliment.

The term “exotic” does not sit well with me, particularly when it is said in reference to people (of colour) or to POC cultures and heritages and this is because of the historical baggage that comes along with that term. Historically, and even in the present day, the term exotic mostly serves the purpose of propping up and sanctioning the otherisation of the “exotic” subject so as to fetishise and objectify them/it making them/it inferior to what is considered the “norm”. This thinking operates on the premise that there is a singular norm and anything that deviates from this alleged norm then automatically becomes unusual and abnormal.

The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the US defines exoticisation as:
…a process by which a human figure is cast as foreign, not in the concrete sense of belonging to a foreign country or ethnic group, but in the phenomenological and ethical sense of being “other.” The other is considered an object of interest and contemplation for the viewing subject, who presumably represents a cultural norm. The hallmark of exoticization in European and American literature is the construction of the other as strange and mysterious—often in some desirable or attractive but nevertheless distanced way—as if she did not exist within a plausible cultural or psychological context.

What I take issue with when I’m referred to as exotic, particularly by fellow Afrikans and more especially by fellow Zimbabweans is that the things that aren’t foreign about me BECAUSE I’m a brown/black Zimbabwean or Afrikan are the exact things that my viewer considers exotic and distances themselves from; things such as not relaxing my hair or not wearing a weave or even not identifying as a Christian but instead as an Afro – spiritualist. This of course speaks to the politics of decolonisation and betrays to what extent we are really a nation (and perhaps even a continent) of Anglophiles whose idea of normal is really Euro-centric and it is often through this Anglophile/ Euro-centric lens that we engage with our cultures or identities and wind up falling into the trap of commodifying them as opposed to promoting them.

The commodification and exoticisation of ourselves, our cultures and our identities also seems to entrench the socio economic and political issues that already plague our communities. It appears to disenfranchise certain communities (particularly the rural ones) who by the way are usually the ones who preserve, live and identify with these cultural aspects more than those who wind up profiting from commodifying and commercialising said cultures. We end up replacing the current perpetrators of the exploitation of our people and our cultures. Also it is very problematic how we seem to be only embracing our cultures because we feel that there is business to be made from them for as long as the west is still enamoured by the idea of the exotic other.

The exoticisation of Afrikans is nothing new and we have seen this in stories like the Allan Quartermain series and various other aspects of pop culture that romanticise and fetishise the idea of Afrika as an endless majestic wilderness filled with adventure and “primitive but mysterious and alluring jungle people”. It is this sort of exoticisation that we seem to have internalised and adapted somewhat. Since the emergence of Afropolitanism, which has come under much justifiable criticism we have seen more and more young Afrikans appearing to be engaging with both their own as well as other Afrikan cultures. I say appearing because of late I have wondered to what extent most of us actually engage, if at all, with the plethora of Afrikan cultures we are enthusiastically commodifying and consuming.

I started to question this when I noticed that in conversations with fellow young people, be it in South Afrika or Zimbabwe, around “afro-print” couture for example, most people treated the plethora of prints being used in the fashion industry as though they all emerge from a homogenous culture, called “Afrikan”. Not many bother to learn more about the origins of the prints they were using or buying and what, if any, significance or meaning they hold to the bearers of that particular culture. Because we use whiteness as the standard or default for normal, modern, urban, progressive, sophisticated etc we appear to be more interested in engaging with our identities using Euro-centric rules and norms i.e. moving away from the roots of said identities while maintaining the things that have received the West’s endorsement and approval and that can fit seamlessly into the neoliberal capitalist imaging of the world at the expense of the sacred aspects of our identities. What appears to be a celebration and promotion of Afrikan identities is in most instances a celebration and promotion of Western identities and norms just with an Afrikan twist to it.

It is true that doors have been opened up and conversations started about our Afrikan cultures with business opportunities being provided for our Afrikan designers but to what extent are the designers engaging with the cultures they are “marketing” in order to be considered representatives of said cultures? Is a Kente inspired printed fabric the same as a Capulana print one and therefore can be used interchangeably? Are the symbols in these prints just meaningless pretty squiggles and designs on a piece of cloth or do they represent something? To what extent are the rest of the beneficiaries of those cultures being included in this distribution of their identity? Is the appropriate respect being awarded to the sacred aspects of the things we are marketing? Is commodifying Afrikan cultures creating multiple and nuanced narratives or just creating an illusion of representation and adding an Afrikan voice to the already existing reductive narrative of the “exotic other”? In my opinion these are all pertinent questions that elicit the necessary conversations that I believe we should be having as young Afrikans.
That we are not is indeed problematic or has the potential to be. Don’t get me wrong, I am not entirely against the marketing of our cultures ourselves as I am for the idea of (re)discovering, (re)claiming, and (re)framing/branding our identity first as black Afrikans then as members of various ethnic and cultural groups that fall under that banner (of Afrikan) that is removed from the imposed monolithic common identity that is “human” which is usually understood as a synonym for Europhile but I believe that we need to stop viewing and identifying ourselves using a Westernised/ white gaze.

Others may wonder if it is still necessary to be talking about such things and if these things still matter but for as long as we and the rest of the world determine our value by our ability to produce Afrikan flavoured versions of Western convention and form because we are “inferior” we still have lot of talking, learning and unlearning to do. Of course, there will always be the risk of opening ourselves up to continued exoticisation by others through this promotion and celebration of ourselves and our cultures, that is unavoidable, but at least we can aim to dismantle the ever reductionist narrative somewhat and more importantly we can cease to legitimise and reinforce the problematic racialised inferiority imposed on us by ideas of Euro-centric supremacy.

 
 

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Miss Mystery

Written by Kolawole Cornelius Gbolahan

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The morning came wid its sudden cold,

its cool breeze,

its smell of fresh air and nice undiluted atmosphere,

a new day it is,

a new dawn

But right on my bed wid my lonely naked body,

I could feel d impact of d change in weather on my body

and a need for warmth was d only option I had to be sane,

so I grabbed my duvet but still couldn’t find a perfect warmth,

immediately I knew I needed more dan jux dat,

a need for somfing rich,

unique, special and real——

den I thought of a queen,

I thought her royal highness,

thought of a masterpiece,

thought of a sexy goddess,

thought of dat figure so trimmed to perfection and delight to the eye,

a figure so dearing to touch

to feel

to embrace,

all I could wish was to be trapped and wrapped in the total circumference of her lovely body under my duvet,

while I talk her to sleep and keep her safe within my arms

with her lovely face buried within my chest

while our heartbeats dictate the romantic rhythm….

good morning Miss Mystery

 

*Kolawole Cornelius Gbolahan (musician): I am me, I am I, I answer to Me and I listen to I, I do me and I respect You, I appreciate Me and I accommodate and respect You for You cause I love it when You decide to be You and do You, IT PAYS TO BE REAL….A lover of the ART is who I am, I breath the ART, I respect and appreciate the ART, I promote the ART, I project the ART, I talk sing play dance and write about the ART—- its what I do, its who I am, Its who I have always been and I will always Be—-Am African,I believe in Africa, I believe in its Heritage and respect its people and culture, Am human and I Love every Being—– Am a Man a Real Man, I speak what I believe and act with conviction and understanding of my roots and purpose of living—-have got dreams to make reality, goals to achieve, visions to make clear, I aim at strategic targets and with my words I will speak and impact, with my Talent I will influence and touch souls of man cause for me this is being successful—Kolawole Cornelius Gbolahan, am a Nigerian, a true Nigerian with a unique spirit of the ART and strength of Africa—Am proud to be Black, Honoured to be African and Blessed to be Nigerian”

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2013 in Art, Culture, Poetry, Reflections

 

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The Problem With Respectability (Race) Politics

Written by Doreen Gaura for her column on iamtehn.com

About four years ago I made the life changing decision to go BACK to natural (no such thing as “going natural” in my opinion); about half a year later I was back on the job market after completing my internship at a renowned regional (SADC) gender organisation in Johannesburg. With a full head of uncombed, Afro textured hair, and at the risk of sounding as though I am tooting my own horn, I was totally rocking it, I sent out dozens of CVs and decided to volunteer at another NGO in a bid to keep my foot in the door.

Somewhere in the middle of my professional purgatory, some relos from back home visited with us and like any concerned Zimbabwean adult, they wanted to know what my plan for the future was i.e. was I actually actively looking for a job or was I sitting on my lazy, ruffian tattooed and pierced ass, just sponging off people as is the usual assumption made about people who look like me. I told them that I actually had an interview lined up for a managerial position with an organisation in Cape Town (the very same one I find myself currently employed at) to which they responded with a barely concealed sigh of relief that was quickly replaced with a look of what I can only imagine horror fornicating with disgust would look like were they flesh and blood; something freakishly ugly. “You are planning on doing something about your hair aren’t you? You can’t go for an interview looking like that!” the one relo exclaimed. To be fair, hers was constructive criticism because she didn’t just stop at the criticism but went as far as to offer up a range of “solutions” to my perceived dilemma which ranged from me getting a weave to me relaxing my hair, however, not one “solution” involved me keeping my hair natural. Apparently that isn’t an option on the road toward “respectability”. Who knew?

This actually isn’t an isolated incident but is in fact the story of my adult life in my Zimbabwesphere as it is the story of many-a-person of colour around the world since time immemorial and as Jay Smooth articulately pointed out, the story of the very many Treyvon Martins’ and the abuse they have suffered and/or their subsequent deaths. In spite of the political and the perceived socio economic emancipation of the brown (black) person, the quest to “deniggerfy”/ “dekaffirise” the Afrikan seems to be very much alive and kicking and it appears that it is the very same brown person who claims to be emancipated that is leading the battalion into war against the “unrespectable black”, be they sitting at a CNN news desk in the U.S. or in an office at Karigamombe Centre, Harare.

I have found that we are the biggest critics of “blackness” and are quite content with being dictated to by others what determines our right to respect. “You have tattoos? Well then, you deserve to be discriminated against and be passed over for that job you applied for that you were the most qualified for out of all the other candidates who applied isn’t it?” “You have dreadlocks? Well then, it makes total sense that you were profiled at Maputo International airport and suspected of drug trafficking because in all fairness, you do look like a thug.”

This is not just the plight of the average Shupi/Jane or Joe/ Kwame on the streets of Harare or Joburg or Accra or Miami or Kent but it also goes to the highest office of the land in a lot of places, especially Southern Afrika. I have heard South Africans express their dismay at how Msholozi a.k.a. Jacob Zuma sometimes likes to tog the traditional Zulu attire, ibhetshu, because they think it’s embarrassing or unprofessional but the very same people are totally OK with the leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, traipsing across the globe being profound and enlightened and shit, all the while donning an orange curtain like thingy and I must admit, some very groovey beads.

People say presentation is everything and in a lot of ways they are right but they negate the fact that presentation cannot be viewed in an overly simplified and singular manner. A good presentation is not necessarily reliant on what you are wearing or what your hair looks like but on how you carry that look that serves to express a part of your personal identity. I have eight tattoos, a nose ring, finger combed “nappy” hair, I do not own a suit (I hate them; they’re stuffy) and my idea of dressing formal is donning one of my many kente, capulana or chitenge print outfits and believe me when I tell you that none of these aspects of my “presentation” prevent me from writing articles and papers that have been published around the world, or from addressing parliamentarians and politicians in South Africa and Italy on children’s rights,or from drafting national guidelines on combating child exploitation with SA government and ILO (Internationl Labour Organisation) officials, or being invited, on two occasions, by the Department of Labour to be the keynote speaker at their national events on the National Day Against Child Labour. Not only do I do these things which are part of my job in spite of my allegedly unrespectable look but I do them well.

When Don Lemon of CNN suggested that if brown people presented themselves more respectably by, say, young brown men pulling up their pants, tragedies like that of Treyvon Martin would be easily avoided I saw red. Now don’t get me wrong, I personally detest the whole sagging jeans thing, but I would never discriminate against someone or justify an injustice committed against someone because they had their trousers hanging halfway down to their ankles. To me it’s no different from the “she deserved to get raped because she was wearing a mini skirt” codswallop that misogynists often spew. This line of thinking only serves to justify systemic racism and the continued oppression of brown people and blames the victim instead of the perpetrator.

And it doesn’t end at appearance mind you, but it even goes as far as accents and our command of the English language or the professions we choose. Venturing into the arts is still not considered a respectable career choice in a lot of places, especially Zimbabwe where artists not only struggle to eke out a living through their art but also to gain respect from society for their chosen profession. The same goes for the way we speak. People are more ready to accept and respect someone who speaks private school English than someone who speaks English with a heavy Shona or Ndebele accent. We use one’s fluency in the English language as a bench mark for their intelligence regardless of the fact that the former does not necessarily guarantee the latter. Trust me, I have met some fluent English speakers in my time who are as thick as door nails and not quite as useful. If anything, this bar that has been set as a result of colonialism only serves to discredit people’s opinions and positions and render them inadmissible or void and this is mainly because a lot of Afrikan peoples who are otherwise well informed on a particular subject find it difficult to articulate themselves effectively or coherently in the English language.

The idea that brown (black) people need to look or act a certain way to deserve respect or be safe from racism or discrimination is ludicrous and reinforces the colonial belief that Afrikans are primitive or subhuman. It serves to justify the historical (and in a lot of ways still existent)oppression of the brown person. The real tragedy is that this system and the issue of respectability (race) politics are so entrenched in our societies that we as brown people have internalised them and are now their propagators and are zealously feeding into it (racism)ourselves. What we do not realise is that this detracts from the real issues and prevents us from reclaiming our common identity, redefining it on our own terms(whatever the result maybe: sagging jeans and dreadlocks or not) and subsequently demanding its (said identity) global recognition as equally respectable and demanding an end to the vindication of racially charged discrimination and violation.

 

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Why “The Great African Character Design” is NOT a Disaster but the Makings of a Revolution

Written by Doreen Gaura for Africa on the Blog

 

Princess Zahara. Image: John and Charles Agbaje

Princess Zahara. Image: John and Charles Agbaje

 

I realise that this response to Eugene Ramirez Mapondera’s  rather Afrophobic litany on all the things “wrong” with Afrikan comic book character design is delayed but I write it nevertheless because I believe the points I am going to highlight here to counter his assertions are quite crucial to any conversation on Afrikan art and its future as an influential player in the global arts and culture arena and as a trendsetter in global pop culture.

I must begin by saying that I do not disagree with everything that Mapondera postulated in his article because he is right, the field of comic books and their characters is essentially a popular culture thing and it needs to be relevant, particularly to the audience of this medium.

It needs to be progressive and/or modern so yes, urban cities, modern techno gadgets and gizmos and culturally diverse and integrated i.e. globalized communities in the story’s backdrop are all important aspects that a designer would do well to include in his/her creation and this includes in the character development and design process.

With that said, everything else about that article was nothing short of offensive and reeked of internalised racism and an unhealthy dose of an inferiority complex. The language Mapondera uses in his article (in relation to Afrikan character design and cultural influence) to make his point about the need for innovation in comic character design is so self deprecating I cannot help but visualize a freakishly weird creature that is a fusion of the character of Uncle Ruckus from the popular animated TV series The Boondocks, King Leopold II of Belgium and Cecil John Rhodes spewing all of that tripe. His ill informed but well-worth-the-consideration point is almost completely drowned out by the hot mess that is his tirade against the things that both inform a general/common Afrikan identity as well as inspire a sense of pride in these identifiers that are ultimately proudly Afrikan.

He ignores that all other cultures still hold onto certain elements they deem essential to their identity going forward and in the west they dub these the “classics” or declare their proprietors and ambassadors “cultured” and yet when we do this, hold on to aspects of our past that we would like to carry forward with us, it is, in Mapondera’s opinion, us being “unsophisticated” or “tasteless” or “backward” or “derogative”.

What is derogative is how he looks upon things such as spears, beads and animal skins in this way because although we now tog “skinnys” and hoodies, we also still wear beads and dashikis and kente, capulana, chitenje or mudcloth (all commonly known as “Afro print”) outfits, not to mention that spears and animal skins and drums are still very present in a lot of modern and if anything affluent spaces from our homes to hotels and offices all as part of what is considered “sophisticated” décor.

Mapondera appears to be so blinded by his apparent inferiority complex that he seems to confuse himself a little in his article when he uses conflicting strands of reasoning to praise western and eastern creations on the one hand and to tear down Afrikan creations on the other.

His adulations for fictional and very fantastical western characters like Superman, the X-Men and vampires do not call to question the unrealistic characteristics and qualities of these characters, neither does he interrogate the impracticality of Clark Kent’s “disguise”, the unrealistic indestructibility of Cyclopes’ eyelids by his own death ray or the ever changing vulnerabilities of the blood sucking (and nowadays “vegetarian”) undead for instance but he will challenge the practicality of the Afrikan comic character’s costume which involves being topless/bare breasted and argue “protection against the elements.”

He also uses Marvel’s famous comic book (now turned movie) The Avengers as an example of “sophisticated” characters in comparison to their “woefully” primitive Afrikan characters and yet he appears to ignore the fact that Thor, the Norse God of Thunder (inspired by Germanic mythology) is a part of the Avengers team, complete with his very archaic and somewhat impractical gear and arsenal which is solely made up of a non-battery powered hammer affectionately known as Mjolnir. Wait, there’s more, in addition to the Germanic man-god, the avengers team also boasts the skills of Captain America in his American flag inspired spandex, I repeat spandex, costume – he must share a tailor with Superman as he too has a costume that is inspired by the star spangled banner – but this, this, Mapondera does not have a problem with.

He does not consider these ever consistent trends a sign of tedious or clichéd unsophistication but he will bemoan the red, yellow and green colour scheme of Afrikan characters.

In his citation of the definition of sophisticated he conveniently omitted to include disambiguations of the term as sophisticated can also mean “to alter or pervert” and the antonym for this, which I suppose by implication would apply to the current nature of Afrikan design would be “unadulterated; pure; genuine” which in a way is a compliment despite the fact that he meant it as an insult.

I was particularly intrigued by Mapondera’s and the site administrator, Sigma Scribe’s responses to comments that called into question the author’s barrage against particular aspects of Afrikan character designs.

Sigma Scribe dismissively responds to a comment made by Shaudzirai Lowe Mudekunye Mawunganidze that calls into question Mapondera’s choice of words to describe what is inherently a lot of Afrikan peoples’ heritage using what appears to be sarcasm when s/he comments to the academic nature of the comment as though to imply that there is no room for that kind of analysis or rhetoric on that platform.

This dismissal of the intellectualization of the article in the debate exhibits a refusal to welcome practical criticism or to be encouraged to self evaluate and interrogate the flaws of the author’s argument for the sake of progress and the actualisation of the sophistication he and his supporters so audaciously claim to advocate.

In addition, the comment made by the scribe about him being “unapologetic” and “revisionist” almost as if to imply that he is a revolutionary of some sort is also a bit worrying because, again, it completely refuses to review opposing postulations that may or may not be valid from the get go.

It also negates the fact that if indeed Mapondera is viewed as some sort of post modern revolutionary of his “sophisticated” Afrikan ilk, there is a difference between being a revolutionary and just being stubborn and arrogant. Besides, it is not all self professed revolutionaries who make good/ideal revolutionaries.

After all men like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Kony are considered revolutionaries in certain circles and I find Mapondera’s choice of words a little too close for comfort to the colonialist and Eurocentrist view of the Afrikan to be deemed a positive inspiration.

What I believe Mapondera misses completely in his article is an opportunity as an informed, experienced and articulate artist and instructor to advocate for an amalgamation of modern and urban Afrikan spaces with their respective heritages.

To challenge us, and more particularly his students, to set our own and possibly the rest of the world’s, standards on progress, advancement and development and inspire a resurgence of an Afrikan renaissance of sorts in this area of pop culture.

Instead he chooses to use this opportunity to pit modernization against cultural heritage and identity and in his article and subsequent responses to comments, he ignores the fact that Afrika does not need to turn itself into a quasi America or Japan in order to be a powerhouse in the global comic arts scene.

What he does manage to do is callously betray his own privilege and completely disappears the realities of the majority of the peoples of the continent, including those of the very same Zimbabwe he both hails from and presently resides in.

He completely overlooks the fact that Sub Saharan Afrika survives at approximately 60% (urban) and 14.2% (rural) access to electricity, or that access to computers and the internet and microwave dinners and Justin Beiber/ Miley Cyrus etc are still more of luxuries enjoyed (or suffered, depending on which side of the fence you stand) predominantly by the privileged or that majority of the people identify more with heroes like King Shaka, Mbuya Nehanda and Queen Yaa Asantewaa or Shango; Orisha of Fire and Thunder than they do Thor and Aqua Man.

In a bid to abate his fears that this will only serve to restrict Afrikan comic books to the continent and context specific locale I will point out that the Green Lantern was inspired by Irish folklore and heritage so if the Irish can successfully export their own culture via the Green Lantern why cant we do the same with our own heroes?

C. Matthew Hawkins so aptly put it when he said:

“Comic book heroes personify societal mythology, and mythology tells people who they are and what they can be. A society that only imports its superheroes, but never produces heroes of its own, is a society that will always look to others to solve its social and environmental problems.” 

We have been taught for centuries that we will never be better than the lesser and that Afrikans have always been primitive and backward and that it is only the global west or the global east that can set the tone for what is and what isn’t progress and sophistication. Mapondera’s article is a manifestation of the inroads that this dogmatic indoctrination and miseducation on the history of the world and its peoples have made in the minds of the oppressed.

Digital artists and creatives like Ghanian computer game designer Eyram Tawia and Zimbabwean designer, founder and director of Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts and author of Afrikan Alphabets Saki Mafundikwa (who applies the philosophy of Sankofa in his work) are in my opinion much healthier for the young minds of digital arts students because at least they, although keeping up with the times, still exhibit and encourage pride in our Afrikan (creative) heritages and the need to keep them alive in both our work and in our journey towards becoming leaders in the global digital arts world.

In my opinion, and if history is anything to go by, assimilators are neither inspirational nor influential. However, those that set themselves apart are. Afrikans need to thrive to be Afrikans, yes perhaps global Afrikans/ Afropolitans, but Afrikans all the same, not Americans or Japanese or Britons. We need to give our children s/heroes they can identify with and who look like them and sound like them. We need to create these s/heroes from the rich and full repository of our history, folklore and mythology not that of others and we also need to be selective of the kinds of international icons we draw our inspiration from.

Not all things trending are worth duplication. We need to give our kids roots with which to hold their identity firm in the ground in order to sufficiently nourish the magnificent plants they will grow and blossom into based on and informed by their identity and origins and yes inspired by the world around them presently. We need to use pop culture to change the negative narrative that Mapondera so obviously buys into and retell our own stories to share and inspire the rest of the world. There is a reawakening/ revolution a-brewing in these here parts of the world and it should be digitized.

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2013 in Afritude, Art, Culture, Literature

 

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The God Within Gerald “Synik” Mugwenhi

Gerald Synik Mugwenhi

Gerald Synik Mugwenhi

Hailing from my Motherland, Zimbabwe, Gerald Synik Mugwenhi is a truly gifted MC, poet and (consciousness) teacher. An introverted soul, totally down to earth, friendly and very deep, Synik is a Pan Afrikanist artist and ambassador in the making. His album Syn City, is both a social commentary of the life of the average Hararean as well as a sort of journal where each song is an entry of various aspects and experiences in his life (or that of those around him) as well as his journey into the world of hip hop. You especially see this in the first five songs of his album. The songs paint a very vivid and honest picture of real people’s lives in metropolitan Zimbabwe and not what one would mistakenly assume to be L.A. or New York as can be the trend with some of the impressions given in some hip hop songs on the continent. Syn City is not necessarily bleak and dire as that would be too easy and overly simple but neither is it superficial and glamourous as that would be false. It’s unassuming and it’s just honest, raw and real in an almost romantic way as it paints a picture of a painful but beautiful love. Love for his city, love for Afrika, love for the people, love for hip hop. Synik is about reflection, introspection, Afrocentricism and community, the Afrikan community, ubuntu. This comes out in his songs Africa and Marching as One. One can see he is in touch with the soil in which his roots are embedded and the sun beneath which he grows strong and magnificent in his song Hamurarwe where he personifies the “Sunshine City” aka Harare into a restless, seductive and ruthless but also somewhat, in a weird sort of way, caring and loving woman, a little reminiscent of the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone archetype found in Neopaganism. He is a soul that has traveled through many lifetimes, has seen many things, done a lot more and is now ready to share all the knowledge it has accumulated over the millennia with the other more restless and impatient new born souls around it. He is definitely the kind of young talent that we need in Afrika. He is deeply and importantly talented and not merely entertainingly and superficially so. God truly resides within him.

Check out his latest video to his song God Within

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBkAmGT3WjM

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2013 in Afritude, Art, Music

 

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What’s Next (Written for Chimurenga Chronic)

What’s Next

by  on June 1, 2013 in ArchiveArts & Pedagogy

Socially conscious rhymes and hipster swag; sexy dance moves and magical mbira; traditional Shona sounds and contemporary jazz skills; rock, traditional Japanese, Colombian cumbia music and electro…the recent Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) got bodies from different racial and social walks of life, some even from as far as Europe, the U.S. and Asia, moving and grooving. Doreen Gaura joined the party.

Noisettes

Noisettes

The Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) whose theme this year was “What’s Next” began and ended a couple of weeks ago, 30 April to 6 May to be precise, and I am still reeling from the few shows I managed to catch. This year’s festival was its biggest to date with over 200 performers from both Zimbabwe and other countries around the world. If there is one thing art can do, it’s bring people together. Well, almost. The Harare Gardens were swarming with people from different racial and even social walks of life. Some even came from as far as Europe, the U.S. and Asia. Class diversity was not as present of course because like in all other parts of Afrika and possibly the world, the enjoyment of the arts in such a set up is still a privilege reserved for the bourgeoisie and at the most only extends to the middle class. However, artistic expression, especially at the festival, has become more diverse and it transcends the “class” barrier.

Most of the shows I managed to catch were those of Zimbabwean artists and I must say I got my money’s worth. The opening night was a wonderful exhibition of Zimbabwean talent in the form of singers and dancers who dished out various popular cover song delicacies starting from as far back as the 1960s right up to 2013. The musical greatest hits (that transcended geographical and genre boundaries) timeline, beautifully performed and put together, kept people in the crowd either on their feet grooving away or enthusiastically singing along (or both) throughout the entire show. People, including whole families, were there in spite of the nippy conditions on this Harare late autumn/ early winter night and the jubilant atmosphere easily made one grateful to be a part of one of Zimbabwe’s greatest offerings. Also the fireworks finale was a real treat for all, young and old and cemented the euphoric sensation of festiveness and community amongst HIFA goers.

The highlight of the night for me was Ammara Brown’s performance of one of her father’s, the late great Andy Brown’s, greatest hits Mapurisa. That sent the crowd going wild. This vibrant and extremely talented young woman is intoxicating both on and off the stage. Her appeal goes beyond her talent but extends to her confident, meticulous, self aware and enigmatic personality which at first can easily be misconstrued as arrogant and standoffish but can later be respected and even admired once one sees just how loveable she is. Brown has managed to maintain a very good relationship with her step mother, renowned and extremely talented Zimbabwean musical icon Chiwoniso Maraire (whom she has performed with countless times) who taught her how to play the mbira which is also included in her musical repertoire. This fierce young woman by no means attempts to ride her late father’s wave of musical success even though she always commemorates his legacy in her all her performances. She is an artist in her own right and she carries with her the blessings and gifts bestowed upon her as a chosen one by the ancestors of her clan. It is easy to tell that she is dedicated to her calling in the arts from the attention to detail she paid to the preparations for her performances which included wardrobe organisation, time management and rehearsals to making sure she puts on the best performance she can when the time comes and best believe her vocal abilities, sexy dance moves and magical mbira skills left the crowd yearning for more.

Ammara Brown during the opening show of HIFA 2013

The epic opening was just a prelude of what was to come. The following night I had the pleasure of attending the performances of Zimbabwean hip hop artists Tehn Diamond, Junior Brown, Karizma and Take Fizzo at the Coca Cola Green stage. I must admit, in the last few years I had become rather cynical of Zimbabwean hip hop, mostly because I felt, that there isn’t much that makes a lot of it stand out from other MCs around the world but on this night I was completely wowed by these guys and proven wrong.

Producer Tatenda Jenami aka Take Fizzo has been around since my high school days (eons ago) and he is extremely talented and his work appears to be getting better with time. He started out as a rapper in the group Madd Flava of the Hapana Chakaipa fame and he soon went into producing when he started Chamhembe studios. He has produced some of Zimbabwe’s more popular Urban Groovers over the years, namely Roqui, Mafriq, Leonard Mapfumo, ExQ, Stunner (now of the Tazoita Cash record label), Tererai, and Taurai. In his earlier stuff, Jenami fused traditional instruments such as the Zimbabwean mbira with more modern/ urban instruments and beats and this, along with the fact that his artists don’t only sing or rap in English but also Shona, contributed to his success with the greater Zimbabwean audience who were mostly critical of the Urban Grooves genre of music. His love for music and his gift and talent have kept him in the industry for over 10 years in spite of various obstacles and we have seen him grow from strength to strength and we look forward to hearing more of his offerings if they are going to be anything like the afore mentioned and the newer generation MCs like Junior Brown and Tehn Diamond.

Tehn Diamond is one very talented young man. He is both an artist and an entertainer who is both a singer and an MC. His song Heppi featuring Junior Brown is a great party song that makes use of double entendre and beneath the jovial and upbeat tune and chorus, he speaks to the need for people, especially young people, to always know who they are, where they come from and that not all that glitters is gold. He has also worked with other Zimbabwean maestros on the hip hop circuit such as producer and MC Simba Tagz who has also just recently released his new album Black. Appearance wise, he has a certain hipster swag that definitely gets the girls’ attention. That and his self assured and “but I am a nice guy” playful demeanour on stage makes it difficult to not pay attention to his presence and performance.

Junior Brown, has the spirit of a skilled hunter and the moment he steps onto the stage you are wowed even before you hear his deep and captivating voice. He is a dedicated artist and lyrical master and this showed when he performed that night in spite of having lost his father the night before. He exudes an energy that makes him come across as sincere in spite of his efforts to come across as blaze and “chilled”. He has a way of seeking his audience out without even trying and drawing them into his presence on the stage and the message he is conveying by the way he strings his words together in his rap. The moment he went down on one knee in prayer during his performance of the song The Realness was very powerful and moving and put weight behind two of his lines at the beginning of the song where he says “presence of a king, pachivanhu ndiri mambo” which in English translates to “in our culture (Shona) I am a king”. It’s no wonder the crowd went totally wild when he go onto the stage.

Tinashe Sahanga aka Karizma is a young and talented up and coming Zimbabwean MC who until a little over a year ago had been based in the UK for 12 years. He is back in Zimbabwe and has taken the airwaves by storm with his single from his mix tape No Guts No Glory version 2 The Homecoming, Tsvarakandenga featuring UK based brothers BKay and Kazz and quickly making a name for himself. His strategic collaboration with the likes of Take Fizzo, Tehn and Jnr Brown has positioned him nicely on the Zimbabwean hip hop scene. He entertained the crowd with another gem from his mix tape titled Ma Passport which he performed with Junior Brown. With his Cool kid swag and playful boyish charm coupled with his skill of stringing together words that the young and hip Afropolitan can definitely relate to, one can’t deny that he is definitely a star in the making.

Zim hip hop is certainly coming up and starting to be recognised as an actual career and there are a lot of talented young MCs in Zimbabwe.

On the Thursday night I had the pleasure of attending the UK band the Noisettes’ show and see the famous, talented, stylish and beautiful Zimbabwean vocalist Shingai Shonhiwa in action. Their career has spanned over seven years and they have produced smash hits like Don’t Upset the Rhythm and Never Forget You. Their music easily puts you in a happy-go-lucky mood and the band had the audience dancing and singing along in spite of the fact that Zimbos are generally not known for their appreciation of indie rock. Her outfits and the extraordinary, witty and rather random personalities of her band mates were very festive indeed. What made this show even more awesome was the fact that the Noisettes were accompanied by three other great Zimbabwean female artists; Tariro Ruzvidzo aka Tariro neGitare, Chiwoniso Maraire and mbira darling Hope Masike although in this performance she was on the hosho and the queen of the mbira, Chiwoniso was doing her thing on, well, the mbira.

However, in spite of all this Zimbabwean awesomeness my personal ultimate experience at Hifa was seeing Senegalese singer and guitarist and human rights activist Baaba Maal in action. It was, as expected, a performance like no another. The djembe drums played by members of his band, his powerful voice and stage presence and that of his entire band served to remind one of what it means to be an Afrikan. He sang, as always, in a language that all in the audience could understand no matter in the world they are from and that was the language of music and ancestry. What made this exhibition of Afrikan strength and supremacy were the messages he conveyed in between his songs. Messages of love, unity, respect for women and Afrikan pride. His inviting the great Chiwoniso Maraire onto stage with him rather unceremoniously from the crowd also helped this along of course. The visual and the energy of these two Afrikan greats together on stage was overwhelming and reinforced the Pan Africanist ideology of a united Afrika to all who were present to witness it.

In addition to the live musical performances at the main venues, there were music DJs who kept the party pumping till the early hours of the morning after the main shows as well as shows running parallel to HIFA at various other venues both in Harare and in Bulawayo by some of the artists who performed at Hifa. I was lucky enough to catch Hope Masike again but this time accompanied by her band and she had teamed up with Bokani Dyer at the Book Café on the Friday night. Hope’s relationship with the mbira and the hosho is one of true beauty. The combination of traditional Shona sounds and contemporary jazz carry her sweet and melodic voice right into the hearts of her listeners. This show in particular was especially excellent thanks to the accompaniment of South Africa’s very own Bokani Dyer’s keyboard. The son of musical legend Steve Dyer is a very gifted but humble young man whose music was greatly appreciated by the audience who were not disappointed in the performance in the least.

That same night at the Book Cafe, Japanese mbira player Sakaki Mango also wowed the crowd with his very eclectic brand of music. Mango has taken the mbira from its Afrikan context and added elements of traditional and modern Japanese culture to create a unique and deeply spiritual but modern musical fusion of rock, traditional Japanese and Colombian cumbia music and electro which he sings in his native Japanese.

All in all, HIFA was well organised and the venues were secure and family friendly not to mention pocket friendly as festival goers were permitted to bring in their own cooler boxes with their own refreshments, this in spite of the various food stands and strategically positioned and well stocked bars all around the venue. This in – good – faith allowance really made up for the rather pricey tickets that cost anything between US$8 and US$15 a pop, I must say. Unfortunately I did not manage to catch any of the literary workshops or the theatre productions this time around but if word on the proverbial street is anything to go by, they were just as amazing and worth the trip from whatever corner of the world one may have journeyed from in order to be a part of this extravaganza. The craft stands and fashion shows also exhibited the various talents coming out of Zimbabwe.

Ours is a country often incorrectly portrayed in the international media as a desolate country in turmoil on the brink of conflict but events like HIFA do a good job of dispelling these misconceptions and instead show what a “heppi”, vibrant and welcoming country it is, so full of life, energy and promise. As a devout lover of the arts and firm believer in their importance and influence as well as a proud Zimbabwean Afrocentrist, I am truly encouraged by my first HIFA experience in four years since moving to South Africa and by my reacquaintance with Zim hip hop but I also remain cautious in my enthusiasm as we are still to see in which direction our young artists, especially in hip hop, wish to take our country. Are we conscious of the kind of art we produce as young Zimbabweans who will one day be the elders of our societies? Art is not a toy or something to be trifled with after all. In our quest to express and entertain we must also always remember that we also instruct those who take in our art. It is both a tool and a weapon, depending on its bearer, and should be respected as such. It is so easy and even tempting to get caught up in trends, Western pop culture that is not necessarily edifying or constructive and the “yolo – bitches&hoes – drank – in – my – cup” lifestyle but I think that it should not come at the expense of the kind of future we want and most importantly need to build for ourselves as Afrikans. I certainly look forward to my next HIFA experience and being about that (hip hop) life in Zimbabwe again.

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2013 in Afritude, Art, Culture, Music

 

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I am Afrikan! But What Does it Mean to be Afrikan? (Part 2)

In the past few months I have had to sort through some of the internal debates I had been having with myself on certain issues which in the whole look at interrogating our Afrikan identities, both as sub cultures and as a whole geographic culture. There is a plethora of sub themes to this of course that I will not get into here. In the first part I have already addressed the neo sub culture known as Afropolitanism and in this part I want to tackle the issue of language as an identity marker of Afrikaness that was addressed by one of my favourite Afrikan women writers and bloggers, Spectra Speaks.

In her post, Spectra unpacks the issue of Afrikan vernacular languages being used as the bar to determine one’s Afrikaness. She points out that Afrikaness is defined by a plethora of things and just because one does not speak an Afrikan language, it does not make them any less Afrikan than those that do. She also unpacks the reasons as to why some Afrikans today cannot speak their mother tongues. It is a well argued and balanced article and I certainly get where she is coming from. In fact, I can relate as I am an Afrikan, born and raised and still resides in Afrika and I speak and write better English than I do my vernacular languages Shona and Zimbabwean isiNdebele. My default setting is English. I dream in English, express myself best in English and when I phahla (communicate/pray to the emissaries of the Creator, my ancestors as I find myself on the path of ubungoma* ) I struggle with keeping to Shona or isiNdebele and often find myself reverting back to English.

I am often asked, be it here in South Africa or back home in Zimbabwe, if I have ever lived in the United Kingdom or the United States as I have what I can best describe as an Afropolitan accent. I have just recently returned from a trip to Zimbabwe and while there a few fellow Zimbabweans asked me where I am from. This reality of my life is due to various factors throughout my upbringing which include my families (both natural and adopted), some of the schools I attended, my social circles and probably television as well. I have never consciously worked at developing this accent and if anything, any effort to manipulate my accent has occurred in recent years where I have found myself trying to make myself sound less “foreign” and more “Afrikan”.

However, in spite of all of this, I am inclined to disagree a little with Spectra. I believe that language is a very important and necessary identifier. This is not to say of course that we should then use it as an excuse to ostracize each other but I feel that we as Afrikans should acknowledge language as a very important aspect of our identity that needs to be preserved. I feel that making excuses for ourselves, especially as adults, is unacceptable especially if we have not made any feasible effort to learn that very important part of our identity.

I appreciate that our knowledge and command of global/western languages is important to our survival in this world that is increasingly getting smaller and smaller but this should not come at the expense of our own languages that have as much a right to survive and participate in the world as any other language. Spectra rightly acknowledged the important role that languages play in preserving what little has survived of our true history on the continent but I feel that she did not do justice to this. A huge chunk of our history was either distorted, stolen or completely erased and the very little that remains is mainly kept in the tradition of oral instruction.  The few secrets left are often found in the stories, proverbs and idioms that are often passed down from generation to generation orally and are often, or the impact thereof, lost when translated or over simplified in text which is also often translated.

For some Afrikans, the knowledge of languages like English or French is a sign of empowerment and makes them an equal deserving of respect. Why can our command of Afrikan languages not be as equally empowering? Upon starting on the book African Women Writing on Resistance edited by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Pauline Dongala, Omotayo Jolaosho and Anne Serafin recently, I was very disappointed to come across this piece by an Afrikan woman writer writing on “resistance”:

I remember crossing the border from Canada into the United States by car a couple of years ago. Since I was not Canadian, I was required to go through passport control, fill out forms and be finger printed and photographed as part of the US-VISIT security program. The officer who processed me, a white man, was patronizing and insulting. He spoke with exaggerated slowness, despite my Canadian accent, Western clothing and obvious ability to speak English…. Inside, I was fuming – ready to whip out degrees and a resume, thus proving my worth as an articulate educated woman of colour.

She qualifies herself and her right to respect based on her Canadian accent, her Western education and Western sense of style. Some might defend her and say that it is because she was in the U.S. and I will counter that by saying that I am sure that were she here on the continent she would still feel entitled to respect on the same grounds. Perhaps more entitled than the traditionally educated and traditionally clad Swazi woman with an excellent command of siSwati. My point is Afrikans are more ostracized, even by fellow Afrikans, for not speaking English or French or not adopting the appropriate accent than they are for not speaking vernacular. Afrikans will more readily ridicule a fellow Afrikan for speaking poor English than they will for speaking poor Chichewa. Poor English is often associated with stupidity and poor chiZezuru with affluence and progress. If knowledge and a good command of one’s vernacular language is good enough for the Japanese, the Italians and the English why is it not good enough for the Igbo, the Karanga or the Masai or any other Afrikan?  Why are we fighting for the right to not know our own languages while retaining the right to identify as “proud” Afrikans instead of fighting for the survival of our native languages as an integral part of our identity as peoples who have for centuries lived in a world that has tried to beat, chain, institutionalize and preach the Afrikan out of us?

Language is also a very important bridge between us and our ancestors. Of course, because they are spirits, they can understand us still, in whatever language we communicate to them and they will also adjust their messaging accordingly but this often times takes away from the weight and the depth of the message or the lesson. Communication is by no means one dimensional and the messages from the ancestors are very important to our quest to realizing an empowered future as Afrikans so when they are dumbed down, their value is in turn diminished.

In his poem Lament of the Images, Nigerian writer Ben Okri speaks of forgotten tongues. The tongues of our ancestry which were expressed in a multidimensional and interconnected fashion. The disconnection of which, has resulted in the Afrikan losing a significant part of their identity because they no longer understand their own language, no longer see its importance and subsequently no longer know how to fully communicate their value, worth and identity to anyone they wish to address or anyone who dares to listen.

A lot of things mean infinitely more or have a much bigger impact in our vernacular languages, not because our vernacular languages are anymore special than anyone else’s but because when we speak them we speak from our whole, from the sum of all our parts and not just from parts of ourselves i.e. the mind or the heart. I invite fellow Afrikans who find themselves in a similar situation (to mine and to Spectra’s) to not be content with justifying and defending the reasons they do not speak “Afrikan” but instead seek to rectify the situation imposed on them by colonialism, slavery and migration by learning their native tongues and doing a better job of teaching them to their children than some of our parents and schools did.

* ubungoma is the Zulu term for the calling to become a traditional healer and spirit medium. One is born with it and not into it

© Doreen Victoria Gaura/ Colouredraysofgrey, 2013

 

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