ARTiculate Africa 2017: On bended knee, we fight back

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Fred Khumalo

The ARTiculate Africa literary festival took place from 29 September to 1 Oktober 2017 at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli ICC in Durban. Fred Khumalo shares a part of the speech he delivered at the festival.

The great American novelist William Faulkner once said every novelist is a failed short story writer, and every short story writer a failed poet. According to this logic, the poet is the master communicator. This is because in a few words the poet can reduce a person to tears, or inspire a someone to pick a gun and go to war, a feat that might take the average novelist hundreds of pages to achieve.

I want to complicate Faulkner’s assertion. I want to suggest that in fact the poet is herself a failed musician. Because a musician can with one phrase transport the listener to a universe she’s never experienced before; she can make the listener believe that she too can sing, or play the saxophone.

It’s therefore not surprising that many writers draw inspiration from music. When you’ve written a beautiful novel, the reviewers will say the writing is lyrical, it is full of music.

But musicians, too, get inspired – by books, by fiction. For example, in 1957 the great Duke Ellington took the world by storm when he released his twelve-part jazz suite called Such sweet thunder, named after a line in William Shakespeare’s A midsummer night’s dream where we eavesdrop on Puck as he says: “I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.”

Thirty-four years later, the jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis gave us the album The beautyful ones are not yet born, an album inspired by the novel of the same name, published in 1968 by the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah.

If you’ll allow me a brief moment of hubris: my 2006 novel Bitches’ brew was inspired by a Miles Davis song of the same name. It is instructive that in his profound analysis of Davis’s Brew the critic Greg Tate reverts to literary comparisons: “The difference between (Davis’s previous records) and Bitches brew is the difference between Alex Haley’s Roots and the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Where Haley prosaically told a people’s hellish collective history and redemption, Marquez through more poetic language uses history as a means into his folk’s collective unconscious, that Jungian hideaway where the spooks really sit beside the doors to the kingdoms of heaven and hell.”

In summary, Miles Davis’s Bitches brew, in turn, was inspired by the famous opening scene to Shakespeare’s Macbeth where the three witches are concocting a magical potion, a witches’ brew!

You see, this symbiotic relationship between the various art forms is powerful. How novels bleed into movies, and vice versa.

But what’s the importance of this – why am I bringing it up?

I am using these examples of one artist inspiring another as a springboard from which I launch my brief assessment of a different kind collaboration, a different kind of symbiosis. A political symbiosis between progressive forces in South Africa and the US.

At the helm of the civil rights movement, Dr Martin Luther King consciously decided that acts of civil disobedience would be done peacefully. He proudly noted that in mapping out his strategy he had been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. As we all know, Gandhi experimented for the first time with passive resistance here in South Africa.

Almost a decade after the civil rights movement, we saw in South Africa the emergence of the black consciousness movement which sought to take our anti-apartheid struggle to the next level.

Steve Biko, who was the public face of black consciousness, unashamedly pointed out that his brand of BC had been inspired by the fiery oratory of Malcolm X and the public-spiritedness of the Black Panther Party.

Indeed, through the Black Community Programmes Biko emulated what the Black Panthers were doing in the United States – launching a series of community upliftment programmes, so that black people could take charge of their lives, their destinies.

You see, our struggles are intertwined.

In the late sixties and early seventies, when tens of thousands of black South Africans left the country of their birth and fled into exile, ending up in the German Democratic Republic, the Soviet Union, elsewhere in the African continent, the entire diaspora, our brothers and friends in America welcomed them with open arms. They opened their hearts, their homes and also their wallets to our people who were hungry, homeless and in desperate need of a proper education.

Were it not for the selflessness and the generosity of Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Maya Angelou, the lives of Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Miriam Makeba, Willie Kgositsile, Lebo M and others, would have been different. In short, South African art would have been poorer. Lebo M wouldn’t have given the world The Lion King.

Our struggles are intertwined.

In the 1970s, right through the 1980s, the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Harry Belafonte again, were at the forefront of a very vocal anti-apartheid movement in America.

In its various incarnations, the anti-apartheid movement in the US led to the cultural boycott and the withdrawal of American companies from apartheid South Africa. I can stand here and say categorically that their efforts made a huge dent in the apartheid machinery. So we are grateful to have them as friends and brothers.

Our struggles are intertwined.

In 2015 South African students embarked on a campaign to decolonise education, to open the doors of learning to all. But to pave the way for the campaign they set about getting rid of statues and edifices which were a tangible manifestation of colonialism. One of these was the statue of Cecil John Rhodes which towered like a colossus above the gardens at the University of Cape Town. At the instigation of these students the statue was removed.

The #RhodesMustFall movement suddenly grew wings. It flew to the UK, where it made its presence felt. Then it flew to the US, where our brothers and sisters took to the streets instigating for the removal of statues that celebrated a racist, oppressive side of America. We all know how that peaceful protest led to violence being visited on innocent black people by right-wing racists in the town of Charlottesville, Virginia. One person was killed. In the face of all this, Donald Trump failed to condemn the racist right wing.

In response to Trump’s belligerence and implied defence of the right wing, this past weekend numerous players in the National Football League refused to sing the national anthem. Whenever the anthem is sung, they peacefully kneel on the ground. It’s a potent protest that has since been joined by many brothers and sisters in America. This week we saw Stevie Wonder taking the knee. Pharrell Williams followed suit, as did John Legend.

In the face of all this, President Trump has complained that these black people are unpatriotic and ungrateful. He says if they want to protest, they must do so in their own time, not at the football stadium, not in public.

You see, the carrot-faced president still believes he is the master who can tell black people how to conduct their lives.  You kick me in the face and expect me to come running to you, going, “Massah, Massah, you just kicked me in mah face. Is it okay if I cries, Massah, is it okay if I cries?”

Carrot-face, please, those kinda niggers are long dead and gone!

As a South African writer I cannot stand by while my friends and comrades are being abused, my brothers who were there for me in the hour of need. I do not manufacture guns or bombs. My pen is my machine gun. My words are my bullets. I committed myself a long time ago that I shall use my words to fight injustice wherever it shows up. Not for me the Hegelian self-conceit of The Absolute Idea. “The idea, as unity of the subjective and objective Idea is the notion of the Idea – a notion whose object is the Idea as such, and for which the objective is Idea – an Object which embraces all characteristics in its unity.”

I do not indulge in ideas for the sake of glorifying them. I want to use them as a springboard into something more worthwhile, or tangible if you want. In this regard, my fellow traveller would be George Orwell in so far as he apprehends the writer’s role in society, while also being sensitive to the aesthetics: “My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.”

I think I speak on behalf of many artists gathered here when I say it’s incumbent upon us to stand up and be counted. Our American brothers were there in our hour of need; we cannot all of a sudden abandon them in their hour of darkness.

Because our struggles are intertwined.

(Based on a talk delivered at the Essence ARTiculate Festival, held at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli ICC in Durban, 28 September 2017.)

  • The author of Dancing the death drill, among other titles, Fred Khumalo is a fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

Also read:

ARTiculate Africa 2017: A book and art affair 

Mikhail Peppas, Sanabelle Ebrahim 
Lifestyle and entertainment 

"The showcase engages literature and visual arts enthusiasts in conversations around industry best practices and provides an opportunity for the public to meet bestselling and upcoming writers and artists." Mikhail Peppas and Sanabelle Ebrahim share Visual voice's photos of the festival.

ARTiculate Africa 2017: Enkele indrukke 

Clinton V du Plessis 

"Jy sal ver moet gaan soek om na nog so ’n uiteenlopende, imponerende lys sprekers onder een dak te kan luister."

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