Contrary to what many Africans at home would think, African Artistic heritage is highly appreciated in the West and revered for its uniqueness and closeness to nature. Many entertainment buffs in the West are great fans of African Artists and artistic performances. For such fans it has always been very unique and thrilling to see an African play, dance, movie, etc. All over Europe, Britain, America, etc., people clamor to see African performers or artists do their thing. Ipitombe rocked the western world several years ago. So did Sarafina, and even now, "The Lion King" continues to rock the stage a la Broadway, Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" is the book that everyone wants to read, etc. etc.
With the preceding point, one would wonder why little recognition has been given to African Artists, arts and entertainment when compared to the accolades and awards showered on their Western counterparts. Despite the richness of talent possessed and displayed by the African Artist, it is still difficult to place an African Artist side by side (financially) with other renowned artists of the world. Yes, Africans have won a few awards here and there for their great artistic works but is the African Artist recognized for his worth and value outside Africa?
It has been of concern that African Artistic heritage is under pressure because most artists and entertainers end up poor or destitute after they have spent considerable time of their lives entertaining their people. The effect of that is that many talented Africans are choosing other vocations instead of the expression of their talents. This is thus leading to the extinction of African Artistic heritage. Because of the lack suffered by the passing generation of African Artists, many African Artists today are motivated by the commercial gains derivable from the expression of their talents rather than the love it. Moguls and Godfathers of the entertainment industry who have the power and money to make things happen are beginning to influence the impression of African culture. Producers, Writers, Directors, etc., are finding themselves in situations where they sacrifice or substitute the true substance of African cultural artistic heritage with commercial (and most times, Western) flavors aimed at making quick money.
The common excuse for this new age money driven motivation of some African Artists is that they have to make a living. It is difficult to argue with them on this point because the African Society and African Governments may not have done enough to make sure that the true African Artist motivated by the desire and love of the arts and culture does not end up like a destitute unable to take care of himself after the fame is gone at old age or upon retirement.
DIFFERENCES IN APPRECIATION
The concern is; whereas the average artist or performer is not only revered and financially rewarded in the West, African Artists usually enjoy the temporary fame that comes with the talent they display. When the glory of such talent subsides due to age, or performance exhaustion, nothing is heard of such artist anymore. It is not uncommon to hear about many star entertainers from the West who have fleets of businesses and investments that sustain them after the glory of fame has waned. In the West, a star artist is an industry and every thing he touches or does is money. Multi-million dollar companies are quick to offer endorsements once a star is born. For their part, the artists realize their worth and try to live exemplary lives. They try to be good citizens. They avoid making careless statements or unnecessarily dabbling into politics though that has been difficult. They set up foundations to help the less privileged, and make themselves available for programs that reach out to the community and the youth who look up to such artists as idols. Regardless of the fame and glory of the artist, the law applies to him equally although he may get away with certain things sometimes due to his stardom. But there is no blatant display of being above the law. The authorities hold the artists accountable if he breaks the law. It is like a cycle, and everyone tries to play his role. It is not a perfect system but certainly efforts are made to keep things working.
The same may not be said about the African Artist in the African society. Endorsements are hardly signed. The artworks, music, film, are hardly preserved, and royalties are almost non-existent. Many do not see piracy as anything to worry about since most rarely appreciate the fact that the artist ought to be sustained by proceeds from his work. Another fall out of this is that most artists leave for abroad hoping to break into the world entertainment main stream. Yet again, many of these artists being misinformed end up disappearing into the underground of the foreign country he has migrated. His popularity is wasted and fizzles away like a disappearing act. It would take time for the artist to overcome the maze that clutches the average African immigrant like an inescapable cobweb.
UNAPPRECIATED OLD GLORIES
Many of us know of great Artists and entertainers like Manu di Bango of Cameroon, Fela Anikulapo Kuti of Nigeria, Miriam Makeba of South Africa, Eddie Ugboma (one of the first African international actors/Directors), just to mention a few. These among many others too numerous to mention here helped to put African in the world map of artistic reckoning. However, how many of these artistic gurus have we Africans honored and really helped as they begin to get over their prime? Worse still, it is very disheartening to note that such great talents like the famous Claude Eke ("Jegede Shokoya" of Masquerade) do not get any befitting assistance from the people and government of their country and continent when they retire or begin their descent from the hill of popularity. There is hardly a Nigerian who did not enjoy some laughter and happiness while watching those great talents that featured in the popular "Masquerade" show one of the first and oldest running television dramas in Nigeria. Entertainers like these invested all their time and life into entertaining their people. They did not have time for a second job. They did not get any endorsements or have enough money to set up major business ventures. Their names were praised but hardly paid for. No brand name companies that brought returns for using their names in businesses like designer shoes, clothing, cologne, etc. Actually, most of these artists were barely paid their salary, yet they continued to be in the entertainment world due to their "love of it," and when the salaries ended, they found nothing to live upon.
THE CLAMOR IS ON
Interestingly enough, regardless of the challenges faced by today's African Artists as well as the difficulties encountered by many erstwhile African Artists after the glory is gone, many young Africans still clamor to be in the entertainment industry. On the face of it, that would seem like good news since it could mean that Africans will always have Artists to carry on the legacy of expressing African Artistic heritage. However, the true question is what is the motivation of these aspiring artists, and when they make it, if they make it, what will they express or represent? Will they for the love of the culture make choices that preserve African Artistic culture or will they for the love of fame and money make choices that have only commercial gains? Statistics have shown that many young Africans today are aspiring to become stars in the entertainment world mostly because of the fame and stardom. Many others are aspiring for the wealth. Statistics have also shown that less than 1 out of every 100 aspiring artists make it to such stardom or financial comfort that they have aspired. More worrying is that some of these young aspirants fail to take up secondary vocation or education which would serve as a cushion for making a living should the artistic career never take off. Usually, by the time the reality of the situation dawns on such an aspirant he has spent his entire lifetime hoping to make dreams that never come through. Disillusioned, such an artist or aspirant could become a burden to himself, relatives, and the society.
SOCIO-CULTURAL AND ECONOMIC DIFFERENCES
The United States of America is the "dream country" mostly because many individuals realize their aspirations in the American environment but this is mostly with the help of the socio-cultural and economic structure of the society, which strongly rest on the theories, and practices of capitalism. The typical African society is not a capitalist society. Capitalism is a foreign concept imported to African during the incursion of the west and colonialism. In the true African society creative artistry is a way of life that is seen as a gift of God. It is not a money making machine. A typical African who is talented would find it an honor to humbly demonstrate such talent for his people especially during festivals, ceremonies, and occasions. Such artist is compensated by the generosity of the people entertained. He does not live by charging the audience. In games and sporting activities like dancing, hunting, fishing, wrestling competitions, etc., the entertainer (dancer, hunter, wrestler, etc.) could win laurels or trophies for his gallantry or talent. Spouses could be won the same way. Conflicts could be resolved the same way. In other words, the typical African Artist or entertainer is more of an asset to the community than to himself.
The preceding point is an essential one to note for there to be a lucrative discourse on how to sustain the African Artist while promoting the African Artistic heritage in a twentieth century world where the Hollywood industry dictates the pace of artistic excellence, compensation, and accomplishment.
So, after all said and done, one is wont to ask, - Why are African Artists and entertainers (including sports men/women) not being properly compensated for the expression of their artistic talents? Why do they have to retire into lack and oblivion after what would appear to be a successful career? Is it as a result of abandonment by the fans that cheered and supported these artists when the goings seemed great? Is it as a result of the lack of interest by African governments to establish a system that could help these artists plan their lives and invest their earnings in profit making ventures against the days of lack or old age? Is it as a result of the making of the artists who let the fame get into their heads? Is it because the artists get carried away and become pre-occupied with the pleasures of the moment while forgetting to plan for their future or retirements? Is it because of the lack of educational background that would have helped these artists setup themselves and organize the gains that could come from their talents? Is it because of the exploitation of Managers or recording companies that represent or produce these artists? Is it because of the fact that African entertainment culture and heritage is originally aimed at entertaining the people rather than a means of financial comfort? Is it because of piracy and copyright violations that rob the real owner of an artistic work from reaping the benefits due?
©2004 Oliver Mbamara, Esq.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Oliver O. Mbamara is a filmmaker, director, and actor with such films to his credit as "THIS AMERICA,” “SLAVE WARRIOR," "SPADE: THE LAST ASSIGNMENT," which he wrote and directed. He is also a judge with the New York State office of Administrative hearings. For more about Oliver O. Mbamara please visit www.OliverMbamara.com