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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!

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WILDEST DREAMS: Taylor Swift at the Precipice of Prejudice or Ignorance

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A few days back Taylor Swift sent her Swiftlings into euphoric fits with the announcement that she would be dropping a video for her song Wildest Dreams on the 31st of August, the night of the 2015 VMA’s. Tweets announcing the video release and a 15 second teaser on YouTube contained enough mouth-watering features to get fans excited.

Apparently styled after The Notebook, the video appears to be set in 1950s Africa with Taylor Swift and Scott Eastwood entang– Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! REWIND! “1950s Africa?” As in: nineteen-fifties Africa? As in: the African continent in the years dated 1950 – 1959? Oh, boy!*insert facepalm emoji here*

Now, I don’t know how big the issue of Swift’s Shake it off video being racist got (didn’t really follow the story at the time, and as far as I’m concerned the video isn’t racist) but having tread into “are you racist?” territory before, you would think more aptness would be shown by the Swift camp when entering the mother of all “are you racist?” territories: the (mis)representation of Africans.

Not caution in the “let me present everyone as good so as not to offend anyone” sense. Rather caution in the “let’s get our details right so that we actually know what we are presenting” sense – you know, life professionalism dictates.

The possibility that a large number of people can’t fathom why a music video by a (though I detest using skin colour to describe any human being) white musician set in “1950s Africa” is (potentially) offensive suggests just how vacuous this great age of information is.

Here’s the thing: 1950s AFRICA IS COLONIAL AFRICA! Colonial Africa as in oppressed Africa. Colonial Africa as in socio-politically enslaved Africa. Colonial Africa as in European occupation of Africa and subjugation of Africans.

The last female mail carrier service. Photo: C.R. Dickenson, O.B.E, ex. P.M.G. Nyasaland. Donated 1982 (from Flinaa, USA). Mr. Dickenson, Spears.

The last female mail carrier service. Photo: C.R. Dickenson, O.B.E, ex. P.M.G. Nyasaland. Donated 1982 (from Flinaa, USA). Mr. Dickenson, Spears.

The way I see it there are only two ways this can play out: the video will end up as some prejudiced assed ish or some ignorant ass ish. I don’t want it to be. I would much rather be writing the fourth scene of my play or watching re-runs of House than bitch about two people kissing under the rain while zebras run around, but I just don’t see how else this video can end up if not in prejudice or ignorance. Consider the two likeliest outcomes:

1) The video turns out to be an inaccurate representation of Africa in the 1950s.
2) The video turns out to be an accurate representation of Africa in the 1950s.

Outcome A:
History and geography would probably crumple themselves into the foetal position and weep in agony if 1950s Africa in Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams video turns out to be generic Hollywood Africa. What greater embodiment of ignorance in the 21st century when a simple Google search with the phone right there in the palm of your hands will give you, at the very least, an idea of something you are clueless about?

The phrase “1950s Africa” doesn’t help either. That’s already a big fat finger pointing at ignorance. Saying “1950s Africa” in the context used is like saying “1950s Europe” or “1950s Asia”. That’s like me saying, hey I’m writing a new play and it’s set in South America of the 1980s … ya, but where though? Reducing the myriad of cultures and histories of a freaking continent to a set of stereotypes is …? No extra marks for guessing the answer.

Outcome B:
If the video turns out to be an accurate depiction of Africa in the 1950s it will be digging one of two graves for itself.  (i) It would be a critique of the colonial era, and we all know that isn’t going to happen, or (ii) It would be a celebration of the colonial era, inadvertently so, at the very least. Any need to explicate why both of these are graves? Good, didn’t think so.

And here’s the thing, except the time period the Wildest Dreams video is shot in changes, there’s no escaping the fact that it is occurring in colonial Africa. Only 6 African countries gained independence during the 1950s (Libya, 1951; Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, 1956; Ghana, 1957; Guinea, 1958) so it isn’t like the last days of colonialism in Africa. It’s smack in the era which means, if you think about it, Swift and Eastwood are playing the parts of colonials.

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It’s quite ironic that not so long after Taylor Swift’s mini-squabble with Nicki Minaj on Twitter OVER THE ISSUE OF PREJUDICE in entertainment/pop culture, a video teeming with such rich and colourful possibilities for prejudice would be coming from Taylor Swift.

Of course, music or a music video isn’t necessarily a representation of an artist’s personality or personal beliefs. For some the art reflects the artist, for others the art is just an image, a manufactured product. What cannot be ignored is what that art, artist, image or manufactured product advocates in the pursuit of its own success.

That’s why things like this are dangerous. On the 31st of August, 2015, Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams video will help millions of people around the world believe that Africa in the 1950s was Zebras running around buck naked or some other blindly painted portrait.

Things like this, in their institutionalised multitude, are the stumbling blocks to the flourishing of inter racial relations at the global level. A music video set in 1950s Africa about colonials falling in love (and getting to second base) is like a music video set in Auschwitz about two Nazi’s falling in love (und immer zur zweiten base) while the Jews watch from queues leading up to the furnace.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong and jumping the gun. Here’s expecting that I’m not. On the flipside:

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.

HENCH in “Coming Soon” & “U No Sabi Rap”

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If you love hip hop music from Africa, then this one will get you excited. June 8! Remember the date!

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