A Pan-African Message for the African Artist

Art, in whatever discipline or dimension it takes, is at its core, expression. Whether performed or written impulsively in a cascade of carefree talent, or through intricate detailing and concise structuring, an artist’s priority is to express him or herself.

This expression is in some way, the artist hollering at the world to stop for a second and listen to what he or she has to say or display. It is the artist shouting from the town square that the townspeople should listen to the point the artist wants to make through his art.

According to mcgildaily.com, Pan-Africanism is defined as “a movement that seeks to deconstruct the physical and internal borders created by colonialism and foster solidarity throughout the African continent, uniting African people in the shared struggle against colonialism”.

Some messages in art are more subtle than others and require more thought to understand, while others are conspicuous. Complex or clear-cut, loud or silent, great or small, concise or carefree, one thing is certain–the effort the artist puts into art is done with the audience in mind, because what is art without anyone to see, hear, read, or feel it? 

The audience for African art is expanding with the times, and what this means is that the responsibility of the African artist to his or her art is also on the rise. In the current clime of telecommunication and the information boom, platforms for the propagation of contemporary art are more accessible to all and sundry.

Your mission as an African artist, if you choose to accept it, is to grow as an artist and increase the quality of art, use your art as a means to clear the misconceptions about your people. Also to create sustainable opportunities for the artistes climbing the rungs below you, thereby amplifying the voice of people who share the same heritage and milieu as you, and improving the lot of Africans as a whole. In essence, a widening audience mandates more content and increased quality.

The understanding of these demands and dynamics should impel the African artist to take it up a notch and unlock higher levels of creativity while amplifying the message(s) in the art. 

The roles of pan-African artistry have changed with the times and sociopolitical periods over the years. Considering the fact that one’s message must be era-appropriate, literary, musical and other types of artists of former times took it upon themselves to paint the picture of the hardships and troubles their people had to face.

A notable and key example of Africans who used their platform as artists to push pan-African agenda is the late Afrobeats patriarch and international musical icon – Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

Fela, also known as the ‘Black President’ and ‘Abami Eda’(roughly translated as “the strange one”) harnessed music as a weapon to fight the sociopolitical ills that ravaged a freshly decolonizing Nigeria from corruption and common societal ills to the slave mentality and inferiority complex that many years of slavery and subjugation caused.

Fela came from a wealthy family and was poised for a comfortable life in some other profession. But Fela had other plans and he etched his name in history using his lyrics and his voice to help repossess the African identity that colonialism robbed his people of.

Corruption, in the ranks of the military government of Nigeria was one of the major ills Fela led the charge against with his music. With iconic songs like Zombie, Sorrow Tears and Blood and Shuffering and Shmiling, Fela used his music as a voice for his people who suffered this time – not from external oppressors but from internal ones.

Fela paid a huge price for his “Afrobeats Activism”, being arrested over 200 times and subjected to inhumane treatment by the government he heavily called out but this price is dwarfed beside the legacy and impact he fashioned through his art.

2019 saw the release of Burna Boy’s “African Giant” – an astounding and eventually Grammy-nominated musical offering that echoed several Pan-African themes and ideals. The album was stylistically and thematically inspired by Fela’s resolve to galvanize Africans to be proud of and in themselves as a people and do better for themselves. The album was – among many other things a testament to the immortality of activism driven artistic expression.

Other examples include writers like Chinua Achebe who through his literature, preserved and told of the Igbo tradition and cultural values, fought political treachery and popularly recounted the many evils of the civil war and the injustices against the many helpless citizens of the now-defunct Biafra state.

Buchi Emecheta presented the world with a new version of what should be expected of the African woman in the 70s, setting the pace for future strides in African feminism and female rights. The famed Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka propagated his Yoruba culture heavily in the intellectual world, thus sparking a thirst for and a reverence for African culture in intellectual and literary societies world over, as well as standing up to the many misdeeds of the government during his youth.

Times have changed, and some of the troubles these artists used their platforms to fight are still present or even worse now. The role of a socially conscious Pan-African artist is to identify these troubles, speak about them by weaving the discussion into their artistry and if unable to proffer solutions, use his or her platform to inspire others to seek for ideas to make things better. 

Activism and Sociopolitical crusading might not be every artist’s cup of tea but the opportunity to use your art as a platform for improving the lives of yourself and the people around you is a privilege well worth considering.

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