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Power, Art and Estrangement: The Mystique of Television and the Soul of Nigeria’s 80s Generation

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Lurking Fury

Back when I was in university our third year project for playwriting class was to write a play on the theme “the days of old”. We were to reflect Nigeria’s decline from its golden age into a 21st century cesspit. This was what the lecturer expected; it was not what he got.

The climax of my play had two young adults abandon their backward parents and move on to a new today – condemning the parents to lonely deaths. I reveled in the expectation of offending my lecturer who, under those circumstances, symbolized the older generation. I thought the play politically incorrect to the point of disturbance, that was until I read what my classmates had written.

We were about 20 taking the course, and excited to see what sentiments my classmates expressed I skimmed through most of the other plays. Discovery gripped me! Almost every single person reflected the exact sentiments as I did, with even more shocking and offensive conclusions.

One had a son shoot his father point-blank in the head and suffer no repercussions. A daughter reversed a trend, this time she was the one who disowned her parents, forever severing them from their grandchildren. A son achieved financial success and abandoned his parents to a life of squalor, just as they had done to him in childhood.

We weren’t aggrieved sons and daughters spitting fictional dissent at our parents. We were a young, frustrated generation screaming under the scourge of oppressive gerontocracy.

A History of Estrangement

This experience echoed tensions prevalent in the larger society, tensions which I first observed in senior secondary school days. Tensions which now define the gulf of estrangement between two generations – children of the 80s and the generation of their parents.

Of course at the interpersonal/familial level the relationship between these two generations varied, from the very good to the horrible to the myriads between. However on the public scale the relationship between them was a definite unquestionable mess! Signs of dissonance first appeared – or became obvious to one’s perception – in our teenage years, the senior secondary years. To the older generation we suddenly became vagabonds and dissidents destined for failure and certain to be the ones under whose reign Nigeria will crumble like six-day-old agege bread left too long under the scorching sun.

The dividing line between discipline and abuse cracked, and from schools to homes to the streets, the younger generation was constantly under attack. Teachers ensured to include time in their lesson programs to remind us how useless we were and how our level of education was incomparable to theirs. Strangers and neighbours never missed an opportunity to ridicule us, ever equipped with anecdotes illustrating how much better they were at our age. Dinner in front of the TV was seasoned with chatter of how pathetic social circumstances surrounding us were, and how they were certain to get worse because we were certain to get worse. Though we were kids, we had already failed at being adults.

These psychological abuses scarred our growth into young adulthood, and with those wounds estrangement between the two generations widened. As we moved from childhood to teenhood, developing new social norms, the older generation realized we were nothing like they expected us to be. We had emerged from the nest with corrupted wings. Many attributes of olden youth which were the pride of then Nigerian society had been relinquished in favour of Western ways. We walked different (see how they are bouncing!), talked different (yo man, what’s up!), and dressed different (FUBU jerseys over baggy jeans were the shit!). Having wasted so much time in front of the television, we had been irredeemably ruined.

What the older generation did not realize was that it was in front of those televisions the battle for the younger generation’s soul was fought – a battle which the older generation lost.

Power Plays

Growing up TV wasn’t just a machine. It was a friend, teacher, seducer; a place where unhinged imaginations exploded into existence. It played important social roles – families structured activities around it, parents used it as a tool in child-raising; it was a status symbol and making the revered transition from black-and-white to colour TV was a statement of power (Nigga, we made it!).

This power is most evident in how televisions dominate our living space. Every physical object’s power is determined by its spatial value i.e its level of influence over us based on the physical and psychological space it occupies in our lives. Spatial value is determined by factors such as size, function, social perception and durability. A television is considerably sizable and takes a central position in our living rooms, commanding attention. Even if it’s small and placed in a corner, the room’s arrangement is focused towards the television – still a position of power. It serves vital entertainment, informative and communicative functions. It is perceived as both a household standard and an item of luxury. Though considerably durable it can easily be damaged, thus it must be treated with love and care. All these conspire to give the television amazing power over us.

So when the battle for the soul of Nigeria’s 80s generation began the older generation did not realize its main rival was one it had willingly brought into its homes – the television.

(Note: while I use the broad term “television industry” focus is on the entertainment division of the television industry. Also given that generational divisions have converging points, “the 80s generation” can be stretched to include children of the early 90s.)

Battle Grounds

If a society is restricted from interactions with other societies, cultural preservation is considerably easy. Since external influences upon young generations are limited there is little resistance against traditions. However the more exposed a society is to the wider world, the more it begins to compare ways of life. The more it compares, the more it ask questions about its way of life. In time, resistance against some aspects of one’s traditions must arise.

Therefore it was only inevitable that effects of globalization combined with the socio-psychological impacts (some would insist on “damages”) of colonization would see Nigeria’s 80s babies comparing its society to another which it was most exposed to – the West. And what medium made this exposure possible? The television.

Our very homes became battle grounds. Television was the nuclear bomb of cultural transference and the older generation did not arm itself well enough to face this Fukushima. Rather, a disastrous decision was made: the older generation assumed it did not have to fight for the soul of the younger generation. This seemingly stemmed from the expectation that the younger generation was obligated to revere and adhere to Nigerian culture. In the globalised world, this presumption is wrong.

Cultural preservation is not an obligation. It does not occur automatically, as if by default configuration. Culture must be consciously and actively preserved. The generation in seats of social and political power must consciously and actively pass on a society’s culture to the younger generations. This cyclical act is one of the many key functions of the creative industries. Unfortunately Nigeria is yet to evolve a social and political elite who understand, before even valuing, the pertinence of the creative industries.

In a globalised world, transference of culture becomes not only inter-generational but international. Depending on your stance, or on intricacies at play, this transference of culture from one nation to another may be an intrusion.

There are many reasons why a nation would want its culture to gain relevance in other countries, chief among them are political and economic benefits. The West understood that the young generation was the prime candidate to be seduced, so while Nigeria waxed hypocritical about “catching them young”, the West actually caught them young.

Battle Strategies

Make no mistake what was sought was authority over our beliefs and dreams, our likes and dislikes, our loyalty, our future buying power, our soul. Both parties at war shared this one desire, what differed were the strategies of choice. While our older generation’s strategy was defined by power, apathy and drudgery; the West’s strategy was defined by art, artifice and creativity. While the West involved itself in our childhood/teenhood, our older generation pushed itself away from it.

In television these differing strategies manifested in the form of content created. You see, if television was a nuclear bomb, TV shows were the enriched uranium that made it go KABLAM! (Nickelodeon pun intended.) The West came to the party with an abundance of youth-attractive content, most of which was excellent. Our older generation came with very little youth-attractive, content most of which was mediocre.

From our infancy to puberty there just was not enough Nigerian content for young people to find appealing. The psychological abuse from society around us further worsened an already delicate situation. So, Western content became our custodian, our haven. Television, our third parent, was our escape from a society constantly berating us. Television didn’t oppress us (at least not directly), it embraced us.

Childhood

As a child Sesame Street made learning absolute fun! It hypnotized me with that infectious theme song – on our way to Sesame streeeeet!. The Muppet Show, Looney Toons, Tom and Jerry were outlets for my insanity. The Great Space Coaster was a thrill ride (Gary Gnu!). Towser and King Rollo tutored me in rascality. I didn’t know it then but Fraggle Rock aptly captured the estrangement, survival and rebellion of my generation. Super Ted was just a boss! I wish I owned Sport Billy’s bag of everything.

Knight Rider defined what it meant to be cool. Dr Neinstein from Terrahawks taught me it was cool to be smart. Alf, V for Visitors and Small Wonder made me marvel over the possibilities of extra-human existence. Telematch (the greatest game show ever!) made me a lover of contraptions. I gorged myself on the mischief of Rentaghost, the space adventures of Galaxy Rangers and Silver Hawks, the heroics of Father Unwin and shrinkable Mathew from The Secret Service. I laughed endlessly at the clueless bravery of Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. Freakazoid was my hero, my junior secondary school moniker. Don’t even get me started on Pinky and the Brain – zort! And has there ever been a duck cooler than Ovid?

Some shows left remarkable imprints on my life. The Littlest Hobo mirrored my desire to help people yet be left alone to my whims – to this day the theme song remains the anthem to my loner life. Good Times and Mixed Blessings brought racial issues to my awareness with the warm severity of humour (Good Times especially taught me that a social group must question itself as much as it does others if it seeks genuine growth). Magnus Pyke in Don’t Ask Me answered questions I hadn’t even thought about asking. Big Blue Marble taught me this world and its people are beautiful. Keeping up Appearances remains a vital guardian against self-induced hypocrisy. In The Wonder Years I confronted, sometimes fearfully, a silent and indescribable sadness that seemed to me a natural part of childhood and growing up. From it I learned about family and friendship, and was warned about the trap of tortured love – a warning I still haven’t heeded.

Others taught me things about writing long before I knew I wanted to be a writer, planting invaluable lessons in my subconscious. I didn’t know it at the time but We’ll Tell You A Story played a major part in me becoming a storyteller – I sat before Christopher Lillicrap with bedazzled eyes, listened to him, with that big book in his hand and that guitar slung across body, and just wanted to weave fiction that took people to the places he took my imagination.

Voltron (the most awesome cartoon ever – Power Rangers can kiss my ass!) taught me how a powerful idea can become a template, defining standards for an entire genre. In G-Force I learned how to give such a template unique twists. In MacGyver and Captain Planet I learned how formula can strangulate art. From Thundersub I learned serious content, handled aptly, can engage minds of young people. From Tales of the Unexpected I learned the value of a plot twist and the impact of suspense. And it probably has something to do with my love for the macabre. Samurai X (ya, not a show from the West but we got the English dub version, so on a technicality …) burst into our lives with never before seen pizazz, instantly winning the affection of an entire generation of teenagers. For me this would later expand into an adoration of anime/manga and the storytelling styles of the orient.

Yet as I watched these shows a dissatisfaction in me kept on asking “where is the Nigerian content?” Where are we? Why are we as a people not on this magical platform? Sure there were great shows: Tales by Moonlight, Third Eye, Village Headmaster, Cockcrow at Dawn, Icheokwu (one of the best shows in the history of Nigerian television); but they were so few and scarcely lasted on our screens. How could television – Western television – not win?

Victory, Defeat, Constant Wars

Victory was not total, television alone, regardless of its might, cannot wipeout an indigenous culture. Today, the 80s generation stands in a peculiar position. Unavoidable environmental influences plus the realizations that come with adulthood have thrust us into a re-evaluation of our past as we seek to build a future upon it – perhaps also against it.

One man may be able to refuse the blood birthed into his veins and become the adopted child to another land, but a generation cannot. Neither can we deny that influences which shaped our childhood, though external to our culture, are inseparable from who we are today. A part of the older generation has accepted this; another has not, and perhaps never will accept it.

Adaptation presents itself as our wisest option, especially in the face of wider scale globalization spearheaded by the immensity of the internet. A people-defining ideology is the starting point of adaptation and all present and future journeys. A people-defining ideology would be a nucleus, balancing the plethora of external influences constantly flowing into our social consciousness with indigenous needs. This ideology does not exist. As such we can only manage haphazard attempts at adaptation, executed blindly, accidentally, randomly, instead of through conscious control.

This ideology does not exist simply because we have been unable to answer the question: what is the Nigerian experience? We have failed to answer this question because we are still unable to balance ethnic and tribal loyalties with a national vision and loyalty. Without answering this question the creative industries will struggle, if not fail entirely, to attain certain national and international heights; while other sectors, like the tourism industry, may not ever come to concrete and/or reasonable existence.

One need only look at today’s Nigerian television content to see the manifestations of this. While the volume of content has seen appreciable growth, indigenous content specifically created for children is still largely lacking. The little which does exist is so distorted by Western influence that it appears as a half-assed imitation of the real thing. And who wants to watch Avengers-Lite when they can watch THE Avengers?

This forces Nigerian children and teens seeking to engage with content that captures the Nigerian experience to turn to entertainment designed for the adult mentality. Yet again, given that a key percentage of the creators of such content are children born in the 80s, hence adults who grew up on Western entertainment, the Western imitation factor comes into play and ruins the indigenous potential, if there was any in the first place.

In the absence of a compass providing aesthetic, stylistic and technique/technical guides to indigenous entertainment of the past, a generation which grew up on Western entertainment, in the process of trying to create content for itself, turns to that which is in the archive of its (sub)conscious. Perhaps a neo-classical approach would help – a return to the classical, and supposedly untainted, African expressions from pre-colonial times. The (obvious) challenges in that approach are a discussion for another day and another blog post.

Adaptation, I reiterate, is our wisest option. We must filter influence from imitation. Personally I consider it pointless to reject Western influence because of a colonial past. Perhaps, however, having only a second or third-hand understanding of colonization makes this easier. But then, regardless of how it comes, isn’t external influence imminent and paramount to the introspection that leads a society to grow in consciousness?

The problem with adaptation is that for it to be successful it requires a fixed point to anchor the intricacies of balancing multitudinous influences – indigenous and external. This fixed point, like the beam used by a tight rope walker, is the people-defining ideology.The idea of what we are/what we aspire to be which we use to balance the blowing winds of influences from within and without. But in the absence of this people-defining ideology we are looped in a cyclical trap. Can you see it?

On Art and the Element of Play

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Great works of art carry a distinct mark about themselves – an element of play. Not play in the sense of drama/theatre but play as imaginative freedom, as unrestrained and childlike creativity. Play as a surpassing of ‘reasoned’ and ‘logical’ approaches to creation and tapping directly into the intuitive, the superior knowing of the aesthete needed for the art to truly be, to come alive.

Perhaps more than ever in the history of civilization, artists must protect this element of play in their works. Stubbornly, determinedly, artists must strive to see this element of play makes it into the final form of the art that reaches its audience.

Art in the 21st century exists against a backdrop of centuries upon centuries of predecessors, and having the methods and products from so so many years means producers/studios/financiers today have a large enough database to restrict (reduce?) art to a formulaic process. This, combined with advances in the craft of marketing which has improved the ability to sell (even questionable creations), means that the element of play becomes, to the producer, bothersome.

Why so? Because the element of play brings a strongly personal and often experimental voice to artistic creations it very often falls outside the scope of ‘creativity’ within the formula which producers and financiers are comfortable with. Also, misconceptions about what constitutes serious art makes some erroneously reject the element of play as juvenility.

For these two reasons (and possibly more?) artists who understand the true power of the element of play in their works must strive that bit extra to guard it. Sometimes this may mean playing the politics of the business behind the show, other times this may require educating the powers that be on the necessity of the element of play to the work.

Sometimes this element of play is enforced by artists who have attained top level of respect in their fields, enough to demand creative control. A favourite example is John Travolta’s reported insistence that the only way he would play the part of Charlie Wax in From Paris with Love is if he got to keep a goatee. The contribution of that element of play to the performance is obvious, Travolta had a blast! (Despite the movie being meeeh.)

Other times this element of play is enforced by unknown artists who merely posses the requisite testicular fortitude or care so much for it they are willing to sacrifice losing the job/contract/deal if that playfulness isn’t going to be part of the work.

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Producers, administrators, marketers, and people from the business side of creative industries will always hold little value for the inclusion of this element of play in artistic works. Often it is those with a background in the artistic side (former artists, appreciation for art developed in childhood, genuine desire for artistic/cultural development) who understand and/or are willing to take chances on the element of play in works of art.

What makes these people unique, and in my opinion, superior, is that they understand the value of creative ingenuity, of the element of play, to the business prosperity of the art. They understand that a work of art needs that incomparable spark, that inexplicable thing which can then be used to the benefit of the work’s financial viability.

Among artists and audiences we find, worrisomely so, a loss of value – or worse, of understanding – for the relevance of the element of play. Two reasons stand out for this: one is caving to the ever growing pressure from the business side to submit to the formula, the factory process of creativity. A second reason is the massive access to massive amounts of information in a global society whose cultural and artistic development isn’t being supported as much as its technological development.

Terms of the suspension-of-disbelief contract seem to have been forgotten, or breached. But not destroyed. Such is the innate beauty of art that at worst valuable aspects can only be forgotten for a very long period of time, but not destroyed. Art is energy, it cannot be destroyed.

However, now is the time to reignite ourselves with the power of play in art. The fire still burns in many. Among the best of humanity’s works of art we find this common thread – the element of play, that freedom and energy and endless possibilities of a child at play. Picasso said it best, “Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain a child when one grows up.”

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Whether the creation is comic, dramatic, horrorful, sorrowful, thrilling ecstatic … it is always there. That element of play. It’s Pacino on a saying hello to his “liru fren”. It’s Gaiman playing with gods in America. It’s Fugard murdering Sizwe Bansi. It’s Jim Carey yelling “sssmokin’! ” It’s Soyinka revelling in the duplicity of Baroka. It’s the swagger in Cumberbatch as he adorns Sherlock Holmes’ hat. It’s Coelho alchemising. It’s Sartre in a hell-room with three strangers. It’s Denzel Washington in the final scene of Training Day. It’s Ocampo finding faces in leaves and clouds, finding the beauty of a woman’s curvature in hills and flowers. It’s Rod Serling welcoming you to … It’s Achebe tearing the centre apart. It’s Donne daring death’s pride. It’s Shakespeatre at the steps of the capitol with Mark Anthony. It’s Nas telling you how It Was Written. It’s Michael Jackson grabbing his crotch. It is Stan Lee swinging around New York on spider webs. It’s Kendrick Lamar going “Tu-tu-tu-tu!“. It is Okigbo summoning Idoto.

That element of play is an electrifying spark, an erupting force, an indescribable energy that ignites your art. Find it! Create it! Protect it!

TIDAL Troubles: Jay Z’s New Enterprise and the Artist-Audience Disconnect

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Stream of consciousness blog post coming in 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 …

Friends, Romans, Tweeters, lend me your ears!

Jay Z took to Twitter yesterday to defend his new streaming music enterprise TIDAL, an attempt to counter criticisms and what he claimed to be a heavily sponsored smear campaign labelling the venture a flop. It was a rare sight, prior to the so-called rant (didn’t seem like a rant to me) the @S_C_ account had only tweeted 215 times since 2008.

Jay Z who NEVER tweets actually turning to Twitter to try and connect with people (which he – not that I mean to be cynical – may only see as connecting with the ‘market/customer’) garnered your typical internet trolling reactions, a lot of insightful opinions, and even business advice.

“TIDAL is for all” … No?

Jay Z’s tweets re-emphasised TIDAL’s selling points: it aims to empower artists, connect them directly with their fans (cutting off the middle man) and give music lovers more and better music. TIDAL is pro-artist and fan.

For now, it seems most people aren’t buying it. Among the many rebuttals three popular opinions stood out to me:

  1. At $20 per month TIDAL is too expensive.
  2. We see what TIDAL will give to the artist but we don’t see what it will give to the fans/audience.
  3. Even if I wanted to spend that amount of money, today’s mainstream music isn’t worth it.

These opinion reflect a deep disconnect in the relationship between artist and audience, which, in my opinion, has been present for a long time but masked by systematic marketing.

Is it worth it? Did I put enough work in?

The artist-fan relationship is founded on a special bond. Though one (artist) delivers a service (music) in exchange for capital ($) from the consumer (audience/fan) what actually connects artist and audience is sharing the experience of art.

This shared experience is amplified by the cultural ties of a music genre to its fan base. Thus the value of country music, hip hop, punk rock etc, extends beyond just music. (This is one reason why some artists despise referring to audiences/fans as ‘customers’ or ‘the market’.)

For the most part, people don’t mind paying for music so long as in return they receive an experience they consider equal or superior in value. This return in value is extremely important because it is the pivot around which the business of show business revolves.

Though a portion of audiences have for long expressed discontent with the value of mainstream music, producers and (in some cases) artists have been able to ignore the pressure to create music with more value. Two reasons why this was possible: 1) the proliferation of free music on the internet 2) marketing developed to such a systematically efficient state that sub-par products/services (the music) could be sold successfully despite discontent from the buyers.  

Once the pressure to create great music was no longer a motivational factor for mainstream success, a disconnect was inevitable. In this light, one key problem facing TIDAL is that it is trying to cash in on an artist-audience connection which no longer exists.

Devaluation

Take rap music for example, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s rap music wasn’t just music, it was a movement, a voice for a generation. The heavily ideological music of rappers like Tupac and Nas were an affirmation of the African American identity. Even the ‘I’m flossing like a boss’ music of rappers like Jay Z and P.Diddy were essential parts of the movement – they affirmed financial success as part of an African American’s identity.

However, the music, in its mainstream form, did not keep up with the shift in priorities of the audience. The music stopped listening to its fans. The audience’s value-needs expanded but the music stayed narrow. And when it realised it could still make money without listening to its fans, it happily jumped into that pool. (This circumstance is not unique to rap, it has manifested in rock, R & B and, yes, even pop music.)

While this circumstance offered short-mid term gains for artists and producers, it always threatened to backfire in the long-run. People have spent so long asking the music to care about them but it couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Today we have TIDAL asking people to care about it but they can’t give a rat’s ass.

Show me the money movement!

Consider the refusal to identify with TIDAL in comparison to the cult-like followership with which people received enterprises like Wu Tang’s WU WEAR or Jay Z’s ROCAWEAR. In those cases people weren’t just buying into a brand, they were participating in a movement. More importantly, they felt they were contributing to a vision.

I reiterate: the business of show-business revolves around a healthy artist-audience relationship. When selling any piece of performance art (music, film, theatre etc) the superior producer aspires to create an artistic experience which transcends the financial cost of that art.

If after listening to that album or watching that film or play, the fan/audience is still ruminating on how much was spent then the producer and artist are doing something wrong. The least aspiration is to have the audience feeling it cost a little too much but it was still worth it. The highest aspiration is to have the audience feeling it underpaid for the art.

The greatest respect a person in show business can show an audience is return artistic value for their financial loyalty. Sadly, there’s not much respect for the fans in mainstream music and honestly even the fans show a lack of self-respect. This is one reason why Jay Z, an artist renowned for his skill in business is, at least for now, being disrespected for his business.

I for Indie

Is TIDAL doomed? I don’t know. Personally, I hope not. The music industry definitely needs a structural revolution. Even if its present format fails, I hope and trust Jay not-a-business-man-but-a-business-man Z will return to base and resurface stronger.

People do want to support platforms like TIDAL it just has to offer something to the people. And so does the music. Believe it or not some people take pride buying their music rather than downloading it. But when the system seems to be exploiting them, well, torrent sites are only a click away, no?

TIDAL needs to be pushed by the RIGHT FACES and super-star-rich Jay Z, Madonna, Beyonce ARE NOT THOSE FACES. Surprise-surprise but people don’t identify with mill(bill)ionaires asking for more money. Surprise-surprise but upcoming artists aren’t excited about bigger artists eating out of their pie.

I think, as do others, that TIDAL needs to have independent artists more at the forefront. I can’t figure out if Jack White, Jason Aldean and Arcade Fire are suitable or if they’ve been tainted by being part of the TIDAL 16. What independent artists would bring to the face of TIDAL is relatability; they’d bridge the disconnect in the artist-audience relationship.

To the audience their involvement would mean/suggest TIDAL does truly have benefits for indie acts. The impact of seeing indie artists being (sort of) backed by a Jay Z, Madonna or Jack White would also help break down barriers from the artist-audience disconnect.

Another advantage indie artists would bring is using the right language in trying to get people to connect with TIDAL. From day one Jay Z’s language has been wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. It sounds like bullet points from a business proposal. Even reading about TIDAL is a bore. Nothing to get one excited about having better access to music. It’s all money, percentages, shares, subscriptions … egh! It should be about the love of music, the shared experience of art.

And just to reiterate, the artist-audience disconnect means that the super-star-rich likes of Jay Z and Madonna are not the right people to be talking about sharing the love of music (for $20 per month).

Niggas in Paris, Cousins in Nigeria

A quick word must be said on Jay Z’s comment about his ‘cousin moving to Nigeria to discover new talent. First off, his cousin moved to LAGOS, not Nigeria. Don’t get the wrong idea now, Lagos is in Nigeria (No, CNN it’s not the capital, and neither is Nairobi) but that cousin is highly unlikely to have any impact beyond specific vicinities within Lagos. Heck, beyond specific offices.

Secondly, that cousin is highly unlikely to discover any new talent. And no, not because there is no new talent but like any industry, those at the top will place a stranglehold on the cousin going beyond them – if said cousin even intended to search beyond them in the first place.

Indie artists in Nigeria are likely to gain nothing from the presence of Jay Z’s cousin, while a few already at the top will be presented to the global market as new talent. Indeed, to the global market they are new talent but it would be a deception to present rich Nigerian superstars as TIDAL’s contribution to Nigerian music.

Vulnerability: the art of empowerment

My final thought on TIDAL is this: I do believe Jay Z would put TIDAL in a better position to gain more patronage if he made himself vulnerable. Jigga maybe needs to just put himself out there, financially, reputably  – sometimes the safe card is your enemy.

If Jay Z set TIDAL up in a way that he (and all/some of the TIDAL 16) are taking some sort of pain or loss in order for new artists and music lovers to have a better artist-fan relationship (which actually means more patronage for TIDAL) people would be more willing to back the enterprise with massive support.

Vulnerability is a reverse way of being in control. It’s an art no other artist knows better than actors. In order to gain control of the audience, the actor makes him/herself vulnerable by opening up completely. This forces the audience into an emotional and psychological corner from which they capitulate by giving themselves over completely.

The rule of thumb is: all things being equal, if two actors are in a scene and one is naked, that is the one who is in control because he/she is more vulnerable. However, that’s not to say I’m suggesting Jay Z should get naked on TIDAL, especially not when Alicia ‘Aphrodite’ Keys is in the building.

James DeMonaco’s THE PURGE, Nigerian Elections and the Catharsis of the Progressive Spirit

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How does a horror thriller starring Ethan Hawke and set in the USA of 2022 relate to Nigeria of 2015 and its near future?

A pretty cool concept

2022, the United States of America. Crime and unemployment are at an incredible low of 1%, business is booming, the people are happy. To maintain this status quo, the “New Founding Fathers of America” instituted a national ritual known as: the purge. Once every year, for a 12-hour period, every conceivable criminal activity becomes legal. Kill, maim, steal, rape, vandalise! The aim is to provide an opportunity for the American people to release all repressed emotions and aggressions. This is the world of James DeMonaco’s The Purge.

Beneath the surface

But the purge isn’t actually about releasing repressions, that’s just on the surface. Its actual function is related to power and submission. In the pseudo-utopia of DeMonaco’s 2022 the purge is a socio-political structure used by the powers-that-be to keep the people under submission, a trap of docility. This is the same effect the purge of elections has on the Nigerian people.

Catharsis

In his Poetics Aristotle highlights a socio-political relevance of purgation. Watching the tragic hero suffer through torturous experiences, the audience undergoes a catharsis, purging itself of hubris. By extension, society is also cleansed.

The flip side to purgation is that it could rob society of its progressive spirit, sapping the passion needed to confront challenges of the world. Should one form of energy (angst, frustration, etc) not be separated from another (passion) catharsis would see both expunged, creating a docile populace. This is a passive catharsis.

As history piled upon itself and socio-political concerns diversified, so also did the nature of catharsis. From this arose, an active catharsis. Unlike its antithesis, active catharsis works in tandem with the progressive spirit. It is marked by a desire in the man and woman on the street to exert more influence over political structures.

We can turn to art for an example of how this works. A film, play, or song built on active catharsis deliberately leaves the experience of purgation incomplete. It engages audiences and stirs up their repressions, bringing anger, frustration, desperation and more, to the surface, right to the very point of catharsis but it doesn’t provide a release. This leaves a storm of dissatisfaction brewing in the belly of the audience. Therefore, to complete the purgation, the people must take those awoken repressions back to society and release them in their streets, homes and offices.

Whether the medium is art or something else, the process and effect is the same. In this light, we can associate active catharsis with times such as the US of the ‘60s/’70s and Nigeria of the ‘10s. Used properly, active catharsis can lead to an outpouring of the progressive spirit unto society. Of course in excess even the progressive spirit can turn destructive.

How does the interplay of power and submission manifest in each case? Where catharsis is passive, power is with the ruling elite and the people give in to submission. Where it is active, more power shifts to the people and the political elite must give more room to submission.

This is the foundation upon which the 21st century Nigerian purges have occurred – a catharsis which presents itself as active but in truth is passive, caging Nigerians in docility.

2015 Elections

The elations following the announcement of General Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s next president are historical for many reasons but most of all for its significance for the Nigerian people. It was the first time an incumbent president was not only defeated by an opposition, but kicked out of office by the Nigerian vote!

A resounding sense of empowerment followed: the peoples’ votes count! Democracy works! From this sense of empowerment has emerged a popular thought, one which seeks to capsule the peoples’ newfound might:

“Now our politicians know we are not joking. President Goodluck didn’t deliver and he has been kicked out of office. If the new president doesn’t deliver, in four years he will be kicked out of office. We will keep doing so until they get the message and do what is right.”

Nigeria election

The voice of the empowered?

On the surface this thought suggests empowerment, but peel at its layers and we find it is a far weaker position than its speakers realise. It presents the power of the vote as an active catharsis but in actuality it is passive. Why so?

Nigerian elections: a false active catharsis

In practice, Nigerian elections function (incidentally and deliberately) as a passive cathartic structure while masquerading as active. The elections use ‘hope’ to create a loop within which Nigerians are kept docile, submissive to oppression. At no time in our democratic history has this been stronger than in the 2015 elections.

Summarised into a historical timeline starting from Nigeria’s first democratic regime, we can examine how this loop works (note: each ‘purge’ is an election period):

  • The 1999 purge: frustrated with the terror and excesses of now-ended military regime, Nigerians are hopeful of progress under civilian rule. Nigerians vote a civilian president into power. Hopes, fears and frustrations carry us through…
  • 2000 – 2003: no major progress in the Nigerian condition. Nigerians look to the future for improvement. Hopes and frustrations climax in…
  • The 2003 purge: despite frustrations with the president, no concrete alternative presents itself. The incumbent uses power to ensure his stay in office. Deflated, Nigerians hope for progress in the future. Hopes and frustrations carry us through…
  • 2004 – 2007: no major progress in the Nigerian condition. The ills of corruption persist and new woes fall upon us. Angry we are determined to see the president not remain in power. Hopes and frustrations climax in…
  • The 2007 purge: a new president is chosen, a soft spoken apparently good-willed man (with a shoddy liver). Nigerians hope he will be the change they have been praying for. Hopes, fears and frustrations carry us through…
  • 2008 – 2010: the new leader dies. His deputy takes command. The Nigerian condition continues to worsen. Hopes and frustrations climax in…
  • The 2011 purge: the deputy is retained as president. As a man who once had no shoes, we hope his empathy will make him do right by his country. Hopes, fears and frustrations carry us through…
  • 2011 – 2014: the Nigerian condition worsens to dire and pitiful states. Woes increase: poverty, corruption, unemployment, and more. The man with no shoes now has shoes and can no longer empathise, he must leave and this time we can’t let the ruling elite manipulate us any further. Hopes, fears, desperations and frustrations climax in…
  • The 2015 purge: a new president from an opposition party is chosen. For the first time, Nigerians have made their votes count by kicking out an incumbent. We hope the new president can be the change we pray for. Hopes, fears and frustrations carry us through…
  • 2016 – ???

In generic terms, it is as simple as this:

Unending cycle

Vicious cycle

Cathartic deception

Build hope, lose hope, build angst, purge angst – repeat.  This is the cathartic deception, a loop sustained by blind hope, a rise in frustration then the calm after frustration has been released through the ritualistic purge of elections.

Tweet screenshots

The power!

This 2015 the ballot-power to eject an incumbent has given us a taste of empowerment but we overestimate the value of our votes by believing that alone is enough to effect political change. It isn’t! The passive catharsis of the elections is merely fronting as an active catharsis.

This front makes the illusion harder to spot. Have we the people not made a great achievement by demonstrating that democracy in Nigeria works? Indeed we have but perhaps an analogy will help illustrate how the illusion works.

In Krabi, Thailand, there is a place known as the Tiger Cave Temple.  To reach the summit of the temple requires climbing a whopping 1237 steps. The temple’s summit symbolises good governance and a thriving Nigeria, and so dire is our condition that we have been at the bottom struggling to climb the first 20 steps. Then, with a swift and sudden burst of energy we climbed 200! And now we celebrate this achievement ignoring the stressful fact that we still have 1037 steps to climb (Can you blame us?). Rather than continuing our climb we want to stop at the two hundredth step and hope the political elite will lift us to their backs and carry us the rest of the way. They won’t!

Beyond the purge

To expect that the fear of being kicked out of office will spur a notoriously corrupt political elite to “turn a new leaf” is grossly naive.  Revisiting the ‘popular thought’ discussed earlier, this naivety is glaring:

“Now our politicians know we are not joking. President Goodluck didn’t deliver and he has been kicked out of office. If the new president doesn’t deliver, in four years he will be kicked out of office. We will keep doing so until they get the message and do what is right.”

Nigerians' opinions

The power! The power!

The subtext of these thoughts reflect a people about to submit to the docility of passive catharsis.

The power of the vote puts a politician in office, it has no power over what the politician does in office. In the 4 year period while waiting for the next elections/purge, millions of lives can be ruined and industries damaged severely – especially taking the decades of ruination that the Nigerian economy sits precariously upon.

For the Nigerian vote to have power beyond the purge a new system of governance is vital, one which holds public office holders to account. For the Nigerian vote to be truly powerful, it needs to evolve into checks and balances which pressure politicians and public office holders to deliver on their duties regardless of elections.

Efficient governance is a system. A system does not hope for good natured hearts in order to be efficient. In fact, a system bends the nature – good or bad – of people who work under it to its order. Consider tellers at the bank, some may be saints others the biggest thieves West Africa ever saw, but they work within a system and are pressured by checks and balances to make ensure the deliver on their duties, and efficiently so.

The elections process is not inherently a passive catharsis, it is merely used in such a manner. Can we not turn this into an active catharsis? Can we not move beyond hope and passive observation to active participation?

It took 16 years before we learned the power of the Nigerian vote, a lesson we could have learned in a much shorter time. Will it take us another 16 years before we learn we need to be active participants in governance? Or will we continue to be like Ethan Hawke’s family, shutting ourselves in and hoping to make it through the 12 hour terror of The Purge?

Buhari Goodluck Jonathan

Hire and fire

The power?

The four year plan

The … the … power?

Of Public Piety and Private Putrescence: What Does the Anti-gay Law Say About Nigerians?

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There’s a house on the street on which you live, the best of all the houses. In architectural sublimity no bungalow or duplex compares. You admire this house – no, envy it. You promise not to ogle it every time you walk by – you always break this promise. You wish you were the one who swaggered out its gate every morning, graciously ignoring – like any half-decent celebrity – the paparazzi-eye-flashes-of-jealousy from the neighbours.

One day, you walk into this house – maybe on an errand, maybe you’re now friends with the owners, maybe you’re a Jehovah’s Witness on a Sunday-salvation beat – whatever the reason, you walk into this house and as you stand in it, disappointment drowns you. This house, this dream abode which commands awe and respect from without, within is an unkempt ramshackle interior decoration of sullen existence.

***

The President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria recently signed into law a same sex marriage act which, amongst a host of holier than thou edicts: outlaws same sex marriage, prohibits any “public show of same sex amorous relationships”, and promises imprisonment for anyone who even witnesses a same sex marriage – good luck driving with your eyes closed as you pass by your rebellious gay neighbours’ wedding ceremony.

The venomous glee with which, most likely, majority of Nigerians met this gayvelopment has shocked some people. Mass hysteria reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials swept social media and the streets, with suspected homosexuals getting arrested in some states by the superior and sin-less heterus sexualae.

While this law raises pertinent questions about the contemporary relevance of orthodox religious beliefs, homophobia, our treatment of minorities and more, what intrigues me the most is what it says about our social consciousness and approach to life; about our perspective of right, wrong, and the indispensable grey area between; about our definition of greatness; about our value for truth.

Now, Nigerian (indeed African) culture embraces flamboyance, and in its egotistically evolved state, adores ostentation. The ‘big man’ is he who has the biggest yams in his barn (and in his pants), drives the biggest SUV, swaddles himself in the most regal clothes, owns the most cows, sprays the most naira at sister Clara’s wedding, speaks the biggest grammar (shout out to Honourable Patrick Obahiagbon, I see you bruv!) , or owns the most expensive house in Maitama. But the wealthy Nigerian doesn’t merely possess these things. No, he publicly displays the profundity of his possessions with boisterous galore – hyperbole is ever so important in these matters.

The essence is the outward show of achievement, the razzle dazzle. It doesn’t really matter if, just like that house, there is no concrete inner worth. Who cares? Pfft! The illusion, so long as its histrionics are upheld properly, far outweighs the reality. It doesn’t matter if you are dying inside, just make sure on the outside you look like you’re LIVING LARGE.

This culture easily expands to other facets of our lives. When it comes to marriage, you will readily find among the yet-to-be-wedded those very comfortable, expectant even, of a poor marriage so long as their for-better-or-worse half is fine putting up the regular show of ‘a happy couple’. Our contemporary music and movies are notoriously shallow, but worry not, just make sure you hype! hype! hype! We gladly gobbled the art of branding and continue to master the skill of “packaging” not bothering to ensure content is up to standard. And when it comes to religion, we see ourselves as the holiest nation fertilizing God’s green earth (insert angelic-chant sfx here).

It should be no surprise then that a statement such as “homosexuality is not our (Nigerian/African) culture, it is being forced upon us by the oyibo (the West)” would achieve mantra-like status. So much so the friggin’ EU had to respond to that assertion. Of course, homosexuality can’t be an African culture! Not that those who would swear by that statement can tell you much about the confetti of cultures found within their state, let alone their region, let alone the nation, let alone West Africa. No! Yet there seems to be a general expert knowledge of EVERY African culture, thus absolute certainty that “homosexuality is un-African“. Well… umm… you know, so long as you ignore trivial evidence like the Yan Daudu of Northern Nigeria, historical records of transgenders in Eastern Nigeria, documented research into homosexual cultures in the Yoruba and Igbo (West Africa); the Lovedu, Zulu and Sotho (South Africa); the Kikuyu and Nandi (East Africa); the Nuer and the Zande (Sudan).

You see, homosexuality puts our public ostentation of piety at risk. And so everything must be done to cease zis madness, mein führer! Its irrelevant if the whole world has no qualms with the Nigerian brand of homosexuality, because, like all things ostentatious, the show is more important to the performer than it is to the audience. Of course such an attitude is not the special preserve of Nigerians but what I do find peculiar is the hatred unleashed towards the homosexual lifestyle in particular. In the list of cultures (used loosely) which smear our public piety, homosexuality comes a distant third behind the heavyweight champions: CORRUPTION and INTERNET FRAUD. So why do these CLEAR VICES not receive half the vilification spewed at homosexuality? The answer, I believe, has to do with money (Ka-ching!).

To our social consciousness crimes appear to be permissible so long as they lead to acquisition of wealth, “Times are hard, chairman, man must survive!” Any means leading to a fatter bank account balance, though rebuked, is ultimately justified. Gross corruption and internet fraud (famously celebrated by one Olu Maintain), though more damaging to our dignity than two dudes or chicks trying to get freaky with each other, are much less detested because if successful they culminate in the possession and expected parade of affluence.

The future pilfering politician and potential yahoo-yahoo boy (that’s Nigerian slang for an internet fraudster) inside us sits by our left ear, whispering sweet nothings filled with promises of you one day being the BIG BOY. So, yes, fraud is illegal, and corruption is crippling our country, but some day I may be the one to benefit from it – “all na hustle” (note: pronounce as huzzle to win extra street cred points).

Nietzsche said, “morality in the individual is herd instinct”, and the instinct of the Nigerian herd has been programmed to ATTACK! Destroy any and all that threaten our public piety; if you must be putrid, keep it private – though even that is now under threat. I do not find this urge to attack, to kill, strange. Apart from a manifestation of the animal that is man, orthodox religion trains society in the distasteful arts of physical and psychological violence – sugar coated in righteousness, of course. Large scale bloodlust is a natural by-product; with morality as our justification we become blind to our own hypocrisy, double standards and fear of facing the challenges of dealing with TRUTH.

***

There is a house on the street on which you live, and now that you stand inside it, it doesn’t seem like the best of all the houses. Eroding walls, half broken tiles, tattered furniture, brown blobs all over the ceiling marking spots where rain snuck in past the roof, drapes draped in dust, bathtubs neglected to rust… But worst of all, this house is soulless. It is lived in but it has no life. This house is just a house.

You leave this house and return to the wider world, half disgusted at its pretentiousness, yet half amazed at the braggadocio with which it parcels its lie. You want to tell the neighbours taking Facebook-post-photos in front of the oh so elegant gate that it’s all a sham, a facade. But will they understand? No, will they care? And why should you? Why should you care? Isn’t it still a beautiful house? Isn’t it still the jewel of the street, the talk of the town? How the owners chose to live within it is not your business. It’s still a beautiful house and everybody loves it. Why shouldn’t I?

You begin to walk back to your own house, a thought dancing around your mind – you know, maybe I should put some more effort into beautifying the outside of my house.

ABOUT THE WRITER (this is where I talk about myself in the third-person)
Africa Ukoh (@Pensage) is a playwright, screenwriter, actor, stage director and creative concept developer. He has been the recipient of awards like the BBC African Performance competiton (1st runner up, thank you very much) and the Stratford East/30 Nigeria House prize. He co-founded a new age arts initiative called African Renaissance Theatre and Entertainment. Some of his works have been produced on platforms such as the BBC World Service, Voice of Nigeria and Sentinel Nigeria magazine (shey I try, abi?). If you love literature you can check out some of his works here, here and here (also, a play of his was published in the 2012 Sentinel Annual Literary Anthology, in case a copy actually exists). If you love theatre check out a review and photos from last year’s performance of an award winning play of his.
Ps: he is also looking for a job because these bills ain’t gon’ pay themselves!

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