Written on September 15th, 2009
Music is an amazing creature. It caresses the heart. It strokes the spirit. It inspires the intellect. It has served as soundtrack to a multitude of souls since the dawn of mankind and it continues to provide refuge, comfort and happiness. Despite the millions of songs created, across countless genres, through the centuries, artists continue to lay their creativity and souls on the line, mirroring our lives.
As former President Thabo Mbeki said, in 2006, “As life is like a kaleidoscope that is dynamic and ever-changing, music follows suit. Yesteryear’s music that was produced at different times and spaces reflected the morals, values and spirit of communities and societies of their time.”
The Arts in general serve as the voice for the soul of a people. Music, literature, sculpture, theatre, etc all have a space within society in one way or another from serving as a repository for history through to being the voice for the voiceless. As an artist of sorts myself, I try to stay connected with what is happening in that realm, although I keep up from a distance. Being an artist on this continent is hard so one tends to take time off to focus on other aspects of life, like putting food on the table and a roof over head.
I am back in my, “I’m an artist” phase and, as a result, recently attended the Moshito Music Conference and Exhibition early this month to gain what I hoped would be fresh insights on the music industry, knowing that some of the principles can be carried into other genres. To be honest, I didn’t really get anything new out of the experience; instead I heard a lot of the same gripes that artists have whenever there is a workshop, seminar, conference or briefing. The Government is not doing enough.
Yes. I do believe that the Government could do a lot more. The Minister of Arts & Culture, Ms Lulu Zingwana, was the keynote speaker at Moshito and, after only about 100 days in her post, I did not expect her to share anything profoundly new, and she didn’t. It does seem President Zuma is putting together a task team on creative and cultural industries but, to be honest, I won’t hold my breath.
The thing is, we all need to take some level of responsibility without expecting the Government to fix things. They haven’t fixed the Arts yet and, even if they get on the right track, it won’t happen overnight. Artists need to take some power back and stop operating from a space of weakness. For some reason, while creativity to create beautiful art is in abundance, there seems to be a chronic lack of creativity when it comes to building a career in the arts. Frightening when you consider how often we hear of legendary artists dying as paupers, from Solomon Linda, Mahlatini to MaWillies. At some stage, the paradigm has to shift.
Anyway, the responsibility does not solely lie with the artists but also with the people. What is art created for but to communicate, engage, share with others. The last two months have been extremely artistic for South Africa with a range of major activities such as Joy of Jazz and Arts Alive with a rich variety of music, dance, poetry, theatre, visual arts and film. We’ve had artists on our shores from across the world, all gracing our stages with humility, gratitude and creativity. We have had our own artists step up on those stages with those artists and shown that we have what it takes to participate at the highest levels.
With the 2010 FIFA World Cup around the corner, everyone is looking at South Africa and now is the time to showcase what we can really do creatively. Now is the time to launch South African artists beyond our borders. Now is the time to share the strength of our hospitality, because once the football is over, what will we have left? Now is the time to do all this but, somehow, we aren’t. We continue to moan about what others aren’t doing for us. We continue to celebrate mediocrity and languish in the shallowness of ignorant prejudice.
Much has been said about this being an African World Cup but we continue to look beyond Africa for people to celebrate when greatness is on this continent. It is painful as a foreigner in SA to see the negativity that often presents itself, which kills the image of the country and its people. How are we going to welcome and host thousands, if not millions, of people from all over the world if we cannot even do right by our fellow Africans.
For example, for Arts Alive Speak The Mind poetry show, Bassey Ikpi, a Nigerian-American poet was invited down (from the US) to come and share her work with SA audiences. After two amazing shows and the birth of friendships with potential to last a lifetime, she was treated like a criminal at the airport when she was trying to fly back to the US, where she has lived since she was 4. Because of her Nigerian passport, they gave her hassles about whether she would be allowed into the US and she was threatened with deportation to Nigeria.
It took a Nigerian gentleman from the United Nations raising a storm for them to return her passport – which they were going to give to a flight attendant to hold until they got to US immigration – and to let her get on the flight. She is a resident there but, because they didn’t recognise stamp in her passport, they decided she wouldn’t be allowed into US, despite the fact that she flew into SA 5 days before from there.
It is through music and the Arts that we can forge relationships with the world as well as develop our communities. I know this sounds like unrealistic utopia but it is very possible, although not if we treat artists – both local and beyond – as second class citizens. These are the people who can serve as the best ambassadors for South Africa and carry the goodwill within their words, sounds, movement and images. We need to start treating them better.