In 2016, Mark Wahlberg, an American actor told Task and Purpose Magazine that Hollywood celebrities were supposed to keep their political opinions to themselves because, "A lot of Hollywood is living in a bubble. They're pretty out of touch with the common person, the everyday guy out there providing for their family."
In the American context, he made a fair (albeit debatable) point but in the African continent, his words are not a gospel truth at all. African celebrities (with the exception of a few) are not insulated from the suffering of the "everyday guy". In fact, most celebrities are "everyday guys" who are affected by bad governance like the rest of us yet they are almost usually silent about it. Their silence is embarrassing considering how improved governance can potentially change their own fortunes. Are they so ignorant to not see this clear connection or there are other factors at play here?
The Sauti Sol Factor
At the beginning of August, Kenyan mega-stars, Sauti Sol released a song pregnant with political meaning called Tujiangalie. A Quartz appraisal of the song noted that, "it offers a poetic appraisal on the problems currently plaguing Kenya—including corruption, mounting debt, economic inequality, a crisis of leadership, and the troubling connection between the clergy and the political class."
Speaking to Quartz, Bien-Aime Baraza, the lead vocalist of the band said, of the song, “It’s not about the people on the ballot but about the people who vote. And so we need to create a movement of young people who know that they are the change and who value their votes and who follow up on local leadership.” It all sounds good so far but there was a backlash. Some Kenyans were of the view that Sauti Sol was just venting and not calling for any real change. Others were more personal, arguing that Sauti Sol members were hypocrites who were quiet when people were killed in Kenya , when Miguna Miguna was targeted and people like Chris Musando were butchered. Others said Sauti Sol were just cashing in on the current mood in Kenya.
The controversy surrounding the song is telling: fans react. The song has a largely positive feedback but for some artists, airing political views is artistic suicide. It could eat into the fanbase and when you get your money from being liked, the risk of alienating a part of your fanbase is a risk too big. Maybe Sauti Sol can afford to be at the centre of such controversy since the group is now a continental powerhouse but for lesser stars, one lost fan is real income lost.
The Bling Factor
Jesse Weaver Shipley writing for Africa is a Country made a very interesting observation in 2014. Shipley noted that musicians like Ghanaian E.T. Mensah, Nigerian Fela Kuti and South African Hugh Masekela "were heroes and key social commentators" in the early colonial and early post colonial eras. There has, however, since been a dramatic shift which is driven by an increasingly consumerist world culture. Shipley says there is now , "...a new celebrity order which recasts collective racial and political struggle as dreams of personal pleasure and branded wealth." Instead of politically charged messages, the current crop of big stars is likely to be on social media bragging and boasting because they worked hard for their success and they owe no one anything.
Their stories will normally be rags to riches stories which can inspire the common man to keep working but even then, one would expect a little bit more empathetic use of their positions as community leaders to push for political reforms that make it easier to succeed if one has talent. Why would they rejoice in being the exceptions in countries of millions? It is a ridiculous form of narcissism that is as deceitful as it is embarrassing. The narcissism masquerades itself as inspiration for regular people to work harder but the mistake made here is pretending people are not successful because they do not work hard. People's efforts are being frustrated by inept governments thus making it insulting and disrespectful to suggest their struggles are because they are lazy. In February, Euphonik (a South African DJ) tweeted, "Imagine if you put as much energy and emotion into your own life and goals as you did with the politics of the country or other peoples business." He is an archetype of the mould of celebrities we now have: insensitive, tone deaf and egotistical.
While it is easy to judge these stars from the comfort of our unremarkable and mediocre lives, we need to also appreciate that prominent people are easy targets if they run their mouths about politics. The political context of a number of African states makes it dangerous to criticise even the most pathetic leaders and their policies.
Thomas Mapfumo a Zimbabwean musician has a good story to tell in this regard. Mapfumo, affectionately known as Mukanya in Zimbabwe, went into self-imposed political exile in 2000 after claiming his life was in danger. Oliver Mtukudzi, on the other hand, largely stayed miles from politics and earned legendary status on the continent. In 2009, Violet Gonda (then a journalist with SW Radio) interviewed Mapfumo who pointed out that his sales had plummeted as a result of government censorship. His escape to the United States of America also suggested he might have been at the risk of bodily harm. When celebrities are exposed to such risks we, the "regular guys", do not step in to help but watch on as another entertaining episode plays out before their eyes. After it is over, we move on and look for the next star. Selfish fans should not expect selfless celebrities. We need to protect the few who are fighting for us.
Header Image: Guardian Nigeria