Sunday, September 2, 2007

Should Artists Remain So in Politics?

First published in The Nation, August 29, 2007

Artists are national politicians. They speak for all people—and all is all is all. But when artists go into politics, do they remain national politicians? Not necessarily. They even lose touch with the masses, the sources of art.

MUSICIAN Lucius Banda had a show the other night, weeks after he was stripped of his parliamentary seat following a conviction for ‘uttering a false document and giving false information to a person employed in the public service’. Hundreds braved the biting cold of Limbe to watch him perform.

It was not songs from his latest Cell 51 Maximum album that gripped my attention. Neither was it the old songs like Mabala that struck my attention. I was rather touched at how much the patrons crammed the dancefloor when Banda played the UDF Boma song. It was difficult to tell if they were ignoring the political undertones in the song that was used by the United Democratic Front (UDF) to sell its candidate Bingu wa Mutharika to the people at the 2004 elections. Were the people dancing because of the irony the song created, since in Banda’s recent songs, Mutharika is an object of attack, nay ridicule?

Maybe the people were dancing to the beat, and did not care about the lyrics. Whatever the case, a thought ran through my mind: "Welcome back to where you belong Lucius, to entertain Malawians, regardless of their political affiliations. You should not have abandoned this anthill".

Still, I thought: "He will now renounce his political stance and get on to sing for the Malawian."
But that was not to be, as former president Bakili Muluzi has appointed the musician personal assistant, someone to carry Atcheya’s bags and run private business.

It is common for dee-jays, in their rightful minds, to play songs like Joseph Tembo’s Sizonyengelera, a campaign song for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) at parties, kitchen top-ups and other events. The dancefloors go agog, as if the people stop their ears for the song which is nothing but a trendsetter for a political party.

It was reported recently that Tembo is nurturing political ambitions, which would foster him down the political lane trodden by Lucius, Billy Kaunda, Aaron Sangala and Berson Lijenda in recent times. Another talented artist thinking he would serve Malawi better in politics than in music.

The Malawi Writers’ Union (Mawu) recently held its annual general meeting. Among the contestants was Sambalikagwa Mvona, who tried a hand at politics in 2004 but failed to make it to Parliament. His comeback, one can add, bears resemblance to a political ploy by Muluzi’s purported manoeuvring to get back to State House.

The renown writer, DD Phiri, in the heat and dust of that poll, said words directed at writing artists in the hall. These words could have meant much more to all artists, who are thinking of going down the political highway, especially where they take a partisan political stand.

"Even if you are a good president, people forget all about you if one or two presidents come after you. We know little of the politics of ancient Greece, but we still read the works of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, " said Phiri.

By extension, artists serve the nation better in the arts than in politics. Even where artists become presidents, the highest political office in most countries, as was the case with the Senegalese poet and philosopher Leopold Sedar Senghor, it is their art that sticks a little longer than their political legacy. We know little of Senghor’s politics, but Negritude, the philosophy he championed remains inspirational to thousands. It is still taught in colleges at all levels and remains an area of research for undergraduate and graduate students.
The other night, a couple of weeks ago, Nanzikambe performed their latest production: The Accidental Death of Democracy. A night after the performance, there was a get together and here, among the activities, the dramatists showcased their art, producing within minutes, sketches that exposed Malawi’s socio-economic and political situation. So touching were these impromptu performances, incorporating music and dance, so much that my mind laced back to the days of the late Du Chisiza Junior. Some day, I thought, some of these actors will join politics, like Chisiza.

At the height of his theatrical journey, Chisiza joined the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and was appointed Minister of Youth at a time the winds of change were quickly growing into a stormy gale. He, too, was lost in the democracy boulevard, since patronage to his shows dwindled, that he ended up holding shows for free.

I put it to a Zimbabwean lady who was close to me that some of the actors performing before us would some day opt for the more lucrative art of politics, where their acting, even in Parliament, would pay better perks. The lady, who has worked with Oliver Mtukudzi, gave me a piece of the situation in Zimbabwe.

"When an artist goes into politics, we tell them to stop performing. If anything, they should leave us as artists to give them entertainment. They need to relax and get entertained at the end of the day. Musicians who go into politics find no market in Zimbabwe," she said.

Is it any wonder, then, that in Zimbabwe the arts are ablaze, even when their politics is a seeming sinking quagmire? Any wonder that the Harare International Festival of Arts (HIFA) is an event to dot on the arts calendars of people from Africa and beyond? Is it any surprise that the Zimbabwe Book Fair brings together publishers, writers and literary agents from all over the world?

If there is one Zimbabwean artist who would make it big in politics, it is Oliver Mtukudzi. He was influential, using music, in Zimbabwe’s Chimurenga or liberation struggle that eventually saw that country gain independence under Robert Mugabe.

If he were a Malawian musician, Mtukudzi would have been in Parliament by now, taking sides on the budget-Section 65 gridlock. But he remains an iron fist in a velvet glove, hitting hard against the ills in his country. His Wasakara (Vuma) is used as an anthem by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in their campaign against Mugabe. You would think Mtukudzi would be joining the MDC soon. Not at all. "The opposition are using the song against Mugabe, but if at all they get to power, that same song will be against them," he says.

When he performed at the French Cultural Centre mid this year, Billy Kaunda, musician-cum Deputy Ministry of Tourism, was introduced to say something. Apart from clearing some myth about his silence in Parliament, he did a solo of his Lupanga.

It is worth noting that Kaunda once did Agalatiya in the heat of Muluzi’s Third Term bid. It was at a time UDF MPs wanted three court judges Dunstain Mwaungulu, Anaclet Chipeta and George Chimasula Phiri impeached for "misconduct" and "misbehaviour" relating to certain rulings they had issued.

A line in the song went: "Majaji akagamula mlandu oti siunakukomereni, mumafuna muzithana nawo." (When judges rule against you, you want to deal with them).

Now that Kaunda is a deputy minister in Mutharika’s Cabinet, would he perform that song, given that he takes off the ministerial mantle to perform live on stage? That would be tricky, given that the President and top DPP officials have seen works of the ‘mafia’ in the Judiciary, especially where judicial officers make rulings that are seemingly not in their favour.

Once, Lucius did a song in his trademark spoken word that went: "Amalawi dziwani kuti mavuto omwe alipowa sangasinthe ngakhale titasintha chipani cholamula." (Malawians must know that the problems we are facing cannot change even if there is a change of government).

That was in 1998, when the UDF was a ruling party. What would those in UDF, the party Lucius joined, think if the song were played given that the party is on the opposition bench of the political game as it were?

All this was to demonstrate a little how complicated matters become when artists engage in partisan politics. They close an eye on society and save more their political masters. Politics and the arts are always in conflict.

Artists tackle political issues which are in a way explosive. They defy authority and challenge the mainstream line of thinking. Art aims at the political as the ultimate means of emancipation, absolute freedom from commodification. Such freedom, defiance and challenge is lost when artists are attached to some political leanings and not others.

By being in the armpits of a political party, they are under some authority that invisibly forces them to shut an eye and an ear on some sector of society. Such artists are muzzled by politics and do not freely express themselves.

Hugh Masekela was influential in the South African struggle against apartheid. His voice echoed that of Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters. When apartheid crumbled, Masekela must have seen a life in politics, and share the fruits of their sweat in the struggle against that political system that put some races superior over others. Yet, he continues to sing for the people.

In an interview on Al Jazeera on July 27, 2007, he called South African politics today a form of amnesia, echoing his belief that politics had shifted from being people-centred to a cult of personalities. You would think of Thabo Mbeki and the persecution of his vice Jacob Zuma of corruption and sex charges and the recent firing of his deputy health minister.

When he performed at the Blantyre Sports Club, Masekela’s message was clear-cut and terse: "I have never been a party member. I disagree vehemently with most of the politicians."

In the final analysis, the act of choosing between politics and the arts, or walking the tight-rope of being a politician and an artist at the same time remains a personal choice. It is a choice that should be left to individual artists.

Sam Mpasu made a choice. He wrote a powerful novel, Nobody’s Friend during the one party era. The work tells of a macabre death of a man who leaps to his death from the fourth floor of a city hall in Malambia, a new African country. The dead man is identified by one man in the crowd. The man who knew the dead man’s identity was harassed, dismissed from his government post and charged with treason.

Mpasu was arrested for the book during Dr Banda’s rule, but when he was released, he recounted his prison sojourn in a moving work, Prisoner 3/75 of Dr Banda. I have never read a book that tells the horrors of the one party era prisons than Mpasu’s book. It ranks among the world’s top writing about life in prisons.

In a discussion on the Young African website whether Ngugi wa Thiong’o is the best African writer, some members suggested he was the best, while others thought he was no better than Chinua Achebe, Okot P’bitek and Wole Soyinka. One member based in Cuba, asks a simple question: "Have you ever heard of Sam Mpasu of Malawi."

Mpasu no longer writes fiction. He no longer writes biographies. He has found a better life in UDF and politics, where he has been Speaker of the National Assembly, a Cabinet minister, party Secretary General and now party spokesman. He is an influential politician so to say, for his political press releases on the UDF stand make good reading, bearing resemblance of some creative writing, somehow like the Chief Gossip column in the now defunct UDF News.

Ken Lipenga is another best writer Malawi has ever produced. His work, Waiting for a Turn, a collection of short stories, remains powerful. Even when he speaks, in Lomwe, English or Nyanja, his sentences are of an artist. One cannot forget the recent article, But death shall have no dominion which appeared in Malawi News at the time Malawi was mourning the First Lady Ethel Mutharika. It came after and was partly inspired by Mzati Nkolokosa and Bright Molande’s articles in The Nation. But the earlier works, while powerful, did not overshadow Lipenga’s piece.

Rumour in town has been that he has some works in print, but it is two years now and nothing is coming out. One can hope that when Mpasu, Lipenga and other artists in politics have free time from the political pressures, they get to read the latest books on the market, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizards of the Crow. The Malawian story from an independent eye is not worth telling.

Why have Ngugi, Soyinka and Achebe remained great artists? One reason—and it is a main one—is that they have remained artists. Of course, once Achebe and Soyinka were active politicians but that was in a revolution and, somehow, understandable. Once the revolution was over, they got back to the pen.

That night when Lucius played, it was perplexing to see how a man who represented Malawians as an artist reduced himself to a representative of a constituency (which he has lost), now a representative of UDF officials and not necessarily the supporters.

This is an artist misplaced.

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