Fahamu (Oxford)

22 June 2012

Africa: Turning Tables in Hip Music

East Africa's music videos periodically engage in regressive gender politics. But one could still trace female agency and empowerment and immediately begin to counter notions of male dominance.

It's a bit of a cliché to decry the demeaning depiction of women in music videos, but Loverance's "Up!" featuring 50 Cent deserves a re-hashing of that old argument. The anatomical description of exactly what the male persona is interested in reduces the female half of our planet into walking sex objects. What the woman has, the man wants and "really, really "needs. The result of this heterosexual match-up? The woman's moans and groans and a lot of visceral liquids. Globally, the black female body undergoes similar real or figurative assault--from rape as an instrument of war in Darfur and the Congo, to dancehall lyrics from the Caribbean which deploy rhetoric similar to 50 Cent's.

What I am most interested in, however, are those moments when patriarchal hegemony exposes fissures. No single form of domination has the potential to entirely overcome resistance. Colonial forces succumbed to indigenous political agitation during the 1950s and 1960s in Africa, just like women's liberation movements began to retract male supremacy.

In similar ways, arguments constructed in the entertainment industry about male-female relations betray moments of dissonance. East Africa's music videos periodically engage in regressive gender politics. Thankfully, however, it is easy to trace female agency and empowerment and immediately begin to counter notions of male dominance.

I would like to look at three tracks: 'Binti Kiziwi' by Zanto, 'Sinzia' by Nameless, and 'Ĩno nÄ© Mà ©mà ©' by Murimi wa Ka-Half. For all three songs, I will discuss both the lyrics and the accompanying videos; each representation by the respective artist does unique and complementary work in communicating its message.

Zanto's record works hard to place the female body on a pedestal -- an act that silences women rather than according them due agency. 'Sinzia' by Nameless demonstrates fissures in the fiction of male control; ultimately, however, the music video resorts to heterosexual configurations to maintain men's assumed control over women. Wa Ka-Half's music is a wonderful contrast to Loverance's Up! In the former, all references of violence are male-oriented; unlike Loverance and 50 Cent's song though, the only thing getting "beat" in Wa Ka-Half's song is the man.

Masculinity silencing women, attempted in Up!, is best exemplified by Zanto's Binti Kiziwi [1]. The Tanzanian artiste sings about a deaf and dumb girl with whom he is in love, but is unable to communicate his emotions. The singer can neither rely on language nor the girl's friends to send his missives of love. The symbolism of a woman who, though pursued by men, cannot speak for herself is the ultimate fantasy for conservative patriarchy. The woman cannot "talk back;" she neither fights back nor seeks to assert her presence. In the lyrics she is not heard, and in the music video she is seated for the entire length of the song. Although the camera follows the male singer and his retinue in various parts of an urban area -- presumably Dar es Salaam -- the woman sits on a tree trunk and waits.

However, the video is very astute in its discussion of the power of visual texts. The video, directed by Adam Juma, is a meta-commentary on visual studies and their effective ability to communicate across barriers. Having failed to secure his beloved's attention, the male persona in the video -- performed by Zanto -- uses sketched drawings to pass on his message. In one scene he is shown working on pencil figures while seated in a commercial structure. Both the viewer and the woman whom Zanto is wooing get to see the drawings at the same time. The sketches depict a man, who is dressed like Zanto, and a woman, dressed like his object of affection. They also depict a heart-shaped love symbol -- eliciting a smile from the girl. Finally, they depict another representation of Zanto with tears spilling from his eyes as he gestures rejection with his hands. The whole package is complex and connects with viewers on different levels: the lyrics, the music video, and the drawings featured in the video.

For the most of the song, the woman is an object to whom Zanto directs his attention and emotions. It is not until she places her hand in Zanto's open palm that she asserts her own subjectivity. She can now exercise her agency to make choice: accept him or reject him. The smiles on the couple at the end of the song demonstrate she chose to welcome him into her life. Zanto, who has been kneeling in front of the girl while showing her the drawings, takes the arm she offers and kisses her on the back of her hand. These gestures are all part of the vocabulary that his viewers comprehend; he is aping a proposal as depicted by Hollywood and his kissing gesture suggests he regards her as some kind of royalty. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely because she is placed on a pedestal of beauty, the woman has no voice, and her choices are only celebrated to the extent that they coincide with those of the man after her.

The commercial nature of this relationship is not explicitly alluded to in Zanto's lyrics; however, the fact that it is staged at a curio shop forcibly brings a discussion of economic and monetary exchange to the fore. Curio traders sell "cultural" items to tourists seeking a physical souvenir to complement memories of their travels. In modern day tourism, an individual has to return home with an object that supposedly captures the essence of her destination. Dragons might epitomize China, while lions, elephants, giraffes and buffaloes do the same for Africa. In Zanto's music video we catch glimpses of necklaces, cowry shells, batik prints, wooden sculptures etc. stock generally found in such shops. Despite Africa's international acclaim as a tourist destination waiting to woo its visitors with safaris, pristine beaches, and snowy-capped mountains, the majority of tourism is foreign-oriented and domestic travel only makes a small percentage of earnings garnered. Thus, many of the clients to whom curio traders sell are foreigners, especially from Europe, Japan and North America.

There are many levels of economic oppression in this scenario. The juxtaposition of women's bodies and cowry shells, immediately invokes the African slave trade. This is further reinforced by the location of the music video--Dar es Salaam, and the nearby island of Zanzibar were key transit points for trafficking humans. Tourism depends upon its connection to prostitution and drug trafficking to ensure clients get as enjoyable an experience as possible. All these economic exchanges reinforce a form of marginalization that is similar to that invoked by Zanto's song. Zanto places a beautiful woman on a podium; she is separated from production and is not seen engaged in any form of labor. She is twice handicapped--physically due to her deafness--and economically--due to her inability to produce. The moment she places her hand in Zanto's she places herself at his mercy. He turns into her "knight in shining armor" who will support her, not only emotionally, but also materially.

'Sinzia', by Kenyan musician Nameless, stages a possible response to Zanto. 'Sinzia' is similar to Zanto's music in that it also features a voiceless woman -- portrayed as the epitome of beauty -- and who is made the object of male attention. She transgresses the construction of an unproductive female figure that Zanto advances and is thus a double threat: virile and productive. However, the music video resolves this conundrum by providing the woman with a male escort. Masculinity can rest at ease knowing that its mechanisms of control have once more won the day.

Nameless's song features an attractive young woman, who first appears on camera to apply make-up. She is a housewife; she cleans, cooks and does laundry -- remarkable at a time when high educational achievements in East Africa mean more women hold professional careers outside the house. The above traits make her extremely desirable and the men she comes into contact with openly admire her and jostle each other to attract her attention. This happens when she ventures into a male homoerotic space -- a construction site -- where she delivers food. Unlike the woman in Zanto's video, she is productive and seems to run her own catering business. As the only female figure in the song, she is very prominent and is recorded dancing to the music in several scenes. Her singularity offers her more agency than that accorded the two women in Loverance's and Zanto's tracks. This is further supported by the fact that she is an entrepreneur who is engaged in a profitable business.

Precisely because of this, she is the embodiment of masculinity's worst nightmare. The fact that she is a threat is well demonstrated by her incursion into a homosocial construction site. Before she arrives, the men are peacefully working together. Her presence, however, causes workplace accidents--one man falls into a barrow while another applies paint onto a colleague as the beautiful woman's figure distracts him. She is also the cause of male-male competition that was absent before; the men push each other to get closer to her and, supposedly, be the one to tame and/or mate with her. The lyrics also support a reading of the virile and productive woman as a terror to masculinity. The chorus repeatedly references dreams and sleep whenever the male persona--performed by Nameless--reflects on the woman's beauty.

Nasinzia nikikuwaza (oohh!) x2

Miaka rudi miaka nenda

Nasinzia nikikuwaza (oohh!) x2

Kila siku ya kalenda

Sleep takes over me when I think of you (oohh) x2

Year in, year out

Sleep takes over me when I think of you (oohh) x2

Every day of the year

It is clear that temporality is a key issue in the affection that the men have for the woman. However, her presence and her personality are not compatible with traditional masculinity. That she is both sexually available and economically productive is too much for patriarchy to bear. She must be tamed. It is important to note that the lyrics themselves do not betray any gender tension. They could be understood as a love song for a woman whom a man admires. However, the music video, as a visual supplement to the song, adds several debates to those of love as communicated by Nameless's words.

The music video resolves the dilemma it sets up for the audience by attaching the woman to a man. After she serves a meal to the construction workers, the young woman is picked up by a man driving a white pick-up truck. The vehicle and the appliances in her house show she is clearly living a very modern life. However, the kisses she and the driver share demonstrate that she has been controlled through a heterosexual relationship. Although the male construction workers are sad to see her leave, they are at least comfortable that she is in the arms of another man.

The inaudible female body, present only to be "seen and not heard," appears several times in East Africa's hip music videos. Ĩno nÄ© Mà ©mà ©, by Kikuyu musician Murimi Wa Ka-Half, explores the relationship between a young man and his girlfriend, a woman who, in addition to being a few years older than him, is obese -- her main identifier in the song. "Mà ©mà ©," is a nonsense Kikuyu word that has come to mean "fat person" after the song appeared. The song and the accompanying music video depend on several assumptions about a "suitable" woman. It depicts the man's girlfriend as an unsuitable match, except that the man has no choice due to economic constraints.

At the beginning of the song, the artist portrays the male persona as a victim of economic hardship. "Ndà ©kire Nairobi, gà ©etha kÄ©barà ©a/ Itekà ©menya ngà ©tuÄ©ka ngà ©mbà © ya Mà ©mà ©" discusses how he travelled to Nairobi in search of satisfactory employment only to end up the slave of a mà ©mà ©. "Ngà ©mbà ©," the word Wa Ka-half uses to depict a parasitic relationship between the couple, denotes economic servitude; however, the sexual nature of this particular configuration is not lost to the audience.

Murimi Wa Ka-Half's is a heterosexual relationship gone wrong and the video, as the visual complement to the song, works hard to communicate this. The video shows the woman take several bites from a plate of food before sending the dish flying across a table towards the singer. Presumably, the woman has come to weight as much as she does by eating not only her portion, but also that of her "better half."

The music video also features a grazing dairy cow, ostensibly to support a line in the lyrics which says that the woman "eats like a lactating Fresian." This scene can be placed in contrast to that of a traditional and submissive mate, the kind Wa Ka-half thought he was getting. The suitable wife, supposedly, takes her husband's coat when he returns from work, prepares a warm bath and serves him a hot meal. What we see in the video, instead, is a woman who literally starves her partner such that his body diminishes, while hers expands.

Another way the woman is depicted as unsuitable is through her embodiment of violence. She is photographed chasing the man while holding a wooden cooking spoon and a machete. The cooking spoon is a banal symbol of male-oriented domestic violence; the machete, however, understood as male weapon suggests that the woman has crossed gender boundaries while simultaneously emasculating her partner. Neither the eating scene nor the domestic abuse are explicitly referred to in the song, indicating that the music video relies on a gender discourse that listeners to the song are expected to already possess.

There is, however, some correlation between items mentioned in the song and those that appear in the video. The chorus makes a connection between the woman and heavy farm equipment.

Earth-moving machines and an eighteen-wheel truck, shown in the music video to represent the woman, increasingly retract her humanity. She is an ogre, not only for her oppressive behavior, but also due to her eating habits, her size and her use of violence. The correlation between ogres as animals and the woman as an animal is achieved by referring to her as a "big fat cow."

Technically, the music video deploys camera shots from below to capture the woman towering the viewer and literally filling up the screen. Video manipulation is also clearly evident when used to magnify and enlarge certain parts of the woman's body, especially her buttocks as she faces away from the camera. This is an uncanny repetition of the Sara Bartman case; the black female body suffers similar distortion in the hands of white, or black, men. [3] The underlying concern that this particular woman is "not wife material" is fully encapsulated by the inclusion of slim, skimpily-dressed female dancers.

These, it seems, are the kinds of women Wa Ka-Half, as a representation of other Nairobi men, was hoping for. The female persona in the song is silenced and listeners do not get any of her opinions regarding the relationship. The male persona, as one variant of dogmatic masculinity, decries his emasculation and even calls upon his mother to pray for him to overcome his current tribulations: living with a Mà ©mà ©.

Religion is invoked as another mechanism to control female bodies gone wrong, since the man does not possess the necessary economic muscle to do so effectively. In the music video, however, the silencing and the de-humanization of the woman are not entirely successful. It is more evident that the man is living off of his partner who is effectively head of household. Standards of beauty rely upon visual texts to achieve dominance. Wa Ka-Half's lyrics borrow from western norms which privilege quasi-anorexic bodies as the ideal proportion of female splendor. The music video, however, offers the viewer a woman who deliberately defies such constricting definitions of her body, and confidently asserts her existence in a heterosexual bond.

Music by Wa Ka-Half, Zanto and Nameless offers an illustration of masculinity in its attempts to control women. Many of the mechanisms deployed towards this end are re-hashed from prior colonial encounters and are only new in the sense that they are currently used by postcolonial, rather than colonial, actors. Nevertheless, it is clear that women do not willingly stand by as patriarchy circumscribes their lives. Women actively engage with gender constructions, either to transcend them or at least to problematize them. This is possible because Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, like other East African urban settlements, harbor a diverse mix of cultures and norms. Part of the effect of such proximity is that traditions of resistance are acquired by, and shared amongst, marginalized groups. Whatever its conservative inclinations, this popular music also represents resistance against patriarchy.

END NOTES

[i] Kiziwi is the Swahili word for a deaf person

[ii] Kairasĩ is an illicit brew that is famous for its potency. Over the last ten years, Kenyan dailies have carried stories of people blinded or even killed after consuming illicit brews laced with lethal chemicals such ethanol.

[iii] Sara Bartman was a South African woman exhibited in European museums for her physical features, especially her buttocks.

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