Chinua Achebe.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Miriam Makeba.
Kofi Awoonor.
Fela Kuti
Ama Ata Aidoo.

All of these people are celebrated for being writers, poets, playwrights, musicians and activists. They’re celebrated for their creativity and their innovation. These are people my parents tell me stories about. These are people who names can be found in text books for the contributions they made to Africa and to society as a whole. These are people I’ve heard my parents call “the giants of Africa”.

But the same people that we celebrate…that our parents celebrate, are being told that in order to be successful they must become a lawyer, a doctor, a nurse, an engineer. These same people are sitting in college classrooms all over the world, majoring in something they find no happiness in. They are being discouraged from exploring fields in writing, in the fine arts, in theater, in dance, music…in any career that uses the right brain more than the left.

How quickly our parents forget that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Fela Kuti are not known for their net worth. How quickly they forget that Kofi Awoonor did not practice law or medicine but still left a significant impact on the world.

Who will be our Chinua Achebe?
Who will be our Miriam Makeba?
Who will be our Ama Ata Aidoo?

If we are all expected to become lawyers, engineers, doctors and nurses, who will tell our stories? Who will paint our stories? Who will preserve our stories?

Yes, doctors are important, lawyers are important and engineers are important but so are the arts. The issues in Africa cannot be fixed just by doctors and lawyers. Africa cannot evolve just through the medical and law field. In order for us to advance and help our continent evolve we must be a well-rounded people. We must be able to approach issues on our continent from different perspectives.

I am reminded of a video I came across on tumblr. I can’t remember the source or name of the show but a guest on the show was explaining why the government needs to have people who specialize in other fields. He explained that the problem with the government is that it is filled with lawyers, politicians and business men. All of our decision makers majored in the same things. Political science, business or law. He made the point that due to the lack of diversity in our government, decisions are made through a tunnel lens. They approach issues from a business, law, or political science perspective.
But imagine if we had people who were artists, dancers, actors, designers, hair stylists, poets, authors, anthropologists, psychologists and so on involved in the decision making process. Imagine the difference we would see in our policies. We now have fresh new lenses. We now have people who are thinking outside of this political bubble.

This is what Africa needs. We do not need to create a factory of lawyers, nurses, and engineers. We need variety. We need everyone with all their different skills to contribute to our mother. We need not look down upon the arts because quite frankly, Africa is the arts. Look around you. The music you listen to, the prints you wear, the hairstyles you see, the art you find in museums… these were all influenced by Africa.

  • Tafari Melisizwe

    An excellent and most timely article. Narrow… or shall I say uncritical definitions of success (which really functions as the absurd notion that the closer we can approximate ourselves to occupations [read status] that are considered the at apex of the Western social order, the more value our lives will have) inevitably lead to managed outcomes in the sociopolitical, cultural, and ultimately national (and international) arenas. As stagnating as this mindset is. in my estimation it is the logical conclusion, and subsequently, preferred trajectory of a collective populous whom came of age in an era where management of the (neo)-colonial political order became the prime-directive in many African nations. Political Independence without cultural reclamation/restoration, appraisal, and development certainly cannot produce substantive national empowerment relevant to a people’s needs, for in a situation such as that, there is no ‘development with identity’. Uncritically assuming other’s definitions of or for us about our reality and how to deal with it can be at best problematic, and at worst, move us out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire. We gained nominal independence and failed to answer the critical questions of the era for ourselves, namely: “Who and what is an African (or on the national level, Nigerian, Zimbabwean, Rwandan, etc.) in the 20th century and what are the cultural, psychological, metaphysical, political and material intentions of that (or those) definition(s)?” Most of those that attempted to answer that question in political terms were assassinated, jailed or assimilated (Nkrumah, Cabral, Sankara, Sobukwe, Machel, Biko, Saro-Wiwa, etc.) We saw the similar things happen to journalists, musicians, poets, painters, etc. (remember, Fela’s mother was tossed out of the 2nd story of Kalkutta Republic)… For those able to “leave” or “flee” Africa geographically, usually they were met with the not-too-convenient reality that the single-unifying thematic of the world at that time (and I’d argue that it still is today) is Anti-Black Racism. The immediate post-colonial era was marred with sheer psychological terrorism due largely to the still enduring attempt/struggle to reconcile western definitions of being and lust for infinite power with African realities, and in that we find many parallels with the children of the Civil-Rights era (mostly our parents in the US) and the teenagers/young adults of apartheid-era Azania. I think the psychological trauma inflicted on and endured by our parents; coupled with the fact that while the aesthetics of colonial domination had changed, its mechanisms, institutions and systems of being remained largely untouched structurally, initiated a sort of deep subconscious fear-based dulling of their senses to protect against the social, psychological, economic and bodily onslaught they were faced with. The logic was revolutionaries get killed- artists, be they painters, writers, musicians, poets, etc., typically push the envelope – because of this, artists are seen as revolutionary and get killed – its better to do the work of saving/protecting those still here so that they might have a chance at a future we hope for but can’t quite see….We find similar things with parents in the US of the Civil Rights era whose children often don’t know what their parents endured (and that’s not to say every parent did), for the memories of the experience(s) are often seemingly too painful for their parents to reconcile and share. Better to hide the pain, because healing through and sharing it it means re-visiting the lived-experience of the bombs, police dogs, fire-hoses, gunfire, assassination attempts, searches, batons, pleas for help and more that we only read (even in our most empathetic ways) about. Not saying I agree with the logic at all (because I don’t lol), but understanding and contextual analysis is important.

    The logic is, doctors, lawyers and engineers don’t (often) get assassinated because these occupations (for now) usually exist in a work environment where ownership is almost exclusively non-African, and thus, (erroneously) assumed to be politically neutral and bodily safe space lol. Thus, they are “noble”, “commendable” and “respectable” occupations to assume because their association connotes a degree of presumed financial stability and social capital (for them to brag about you). Much like many of the parents of African-descendants born in the US, we’ve allowed our imaginations to become incarcerated not behind bars of acute oppression (which most certainly still exist), but rather by the tethers and embers of the memory of terror endured. As a good friend of mine once said, “We (Africans) are not free, we’re just loose; their (the architects of global inequality) hand is still securely on our leash”. It’s up to us to cut that leash! Our parents have the best of intentions for us, I never want to lose sight of, or diminish that fact; however, I think to some extent, their aspirations for us are historically compromised because their emanating from a trajectory not of their own making. As Frantz Fanon said, “Each generation, out of relative obscurity, must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it”. I’d argue that many of our parents were/are FANS of Kuti, Makeba, Mapfumo, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Sonyinka others as opposed to being in ideological/operational concert with them. It’s a subtle but important distinction; there were many fans of the civil rights movement who never endured so much as a flat tire, but were the first in line to receive the fruit’s of revolutionary labor because it was politically expedient and economically advantageous to do so. There’s a lot of truth in the Boondocks episode where Granddad is telling stories about how he was ‘in the movement’ and really wasn’t.

    I think one of the major flaws in western thinking that we’ve assumed is the ascription social capital to individuals relative to where they exist in the capitalist occupational hierarchy. No one aspires to be a janitor, plumber, garbage collector or assume similar occupations because by some form of twisted logic (informed also by monetary politics), they are seen as undignified, uneducated and invisible positions; they aren’t en vogue for social discourse and what we’re really saying is that we don’t give equal value to work well done…But I hope it’s safe to say we all know these are vitally important occupations for society to function. Art, and by extension, the artist in many ways (and most unfortunately) is treated with this same style of ‘tolerated contempt’ because the path of an artist (or to politicize it, an African artist whom centers, highlights, and encourages critical thought and dialog on the African experience) doesn’t fit neatly within his aforementioned hierarchy. If we really want to dismantle the parental angst against artistry in all forms, we have to elevate the social and material implications of being an artist in 21st century society. We have to uplift, inscribe, expand on and substantively support artists both within and outside of their artistic products. Aidoo, Nimo, Kuti, Makeba and those like them are nice to bring out when we want to defend our ‘Africaness’ (Which is disrespectful to their ongoing and living legacies), but they’re too dangerous of a possibility for many of our parents (and for that matter society) to comfortably encourage us and develop/provide space for us to explore, cultivate, hone and share our artistic gifts.

    Lastly, (I think at least haha); The African renaissance must be predicated on the diversification of streams of activity and activism that have the political and cultural intent of instigating critical thought, dialog and action engaged by we ourselves as develop and refine what it means to be African in the 21st century and beyond. Artists, of all kinds, have to locate themselves at the center of that dialog. Thomas Sankara once said that ‘we must dare to invent the future.’, and the extent to which we develop the courage to do so depends vitally on the ability of our artists to create, inform and inspire thought, dialog and action. Let the historians of the present and future document our successes, contradictions and shortcomings, and let the youth of the future decide whether our actions and ideals are worthy of further cultivation. For those of us in the present: Create like your life depends on it.

    I do think your writings and this blog answer the question your title asks though, and for that, thank you! Additionally, artists like Adichie, Blitz the Ambassador, Akosua Adoma Owusu, Driemanskap, Kanyi, M.anifest, Femi and Seun Kuti, Fatoumatta Diawara and to a lesser extent K’naan are actively archiving and transmitting our history; a living history indeed.

  • yesterdaynite

    I love this!! I will tell the stories!! what a great article