The worst music with the best intentions? Insights on a Zimbabwean fundraising tune for Somalia

by Andy Kozlov

Yesterday I met a Zimbabwean hip-hop performer, writer and filmmaker Nonku Vundla a.k.a. Black Bird. Although our conversation was brief, it was one of those inspiring ones. In the two years that I am interested in all things Zimbabwe, rarely did I come across Zimbabwean creatives who are actively involved in helping other African nations. Yet this is what people like my new friend do.

Black Bird recently released a single titled “Prayer for Somalia” that will be featured on a fundraising compilation Hustle 4the Horn. The compilation will soon be marketed during a tour with other African and international creatives to raise funds to aid Somalia. The single will be part of her upcoming album titled Black Excellence.Do They Know It's Christmas - album

When I heard about this project I told her that some time back Steppes in Sync talked about Bob Marley’s contribution to the Somalian cause. Nonku got excited and asked me send her the link.

“Prayer for Somalia” was produced by Tatenda Chideme aka Klasiq of Global Records (Marlbareign, Harare) and on the single Vundla also invited Kenyan-based, Ethopian poetess, Nebila Abdulmelik to add a few lines.

“I hope this song will encourage the public to donate whatever they can towards organisations working in Somalia and assist in giving families food, water and other basics. From US$100, you can contribute to organisations like Horn Relief [founded by Somali-American environmentalist Fatima Jibrell], which is the organisation we will be raising funds [for],” she said in a recent interview with a Zimbabwean weekly The Standard.

Just like the starving children in Somalia, Black Bird was not spared from the same kind of fate (growing up) following the death of her mother in 1995. Of all the places she could ever imagine, she found herself trapped in an orphanage in Harare for two years.

News like this are certainly inspiring. It’s hard to accept it but, to some, they may be, on the contrary, frustrating.  In a recent post The worst music with the best intentions, an EU-funded online project This Is Africa wrote in a quite spiteful manner:

Say a prayer for the little black warriors (?!). Dear, oh, dear.

Apparently, the single will be used to drum up support for a compilation project called Hustle 4The Horn, which will involve her [Black Bird’s] touring with other African artists to raise funds for Somalia. The proceeds will go to a humanitarian organisation called Horn Relief. I’m not making this up. Looking forward to this, anybody?

And here’s “Walking To Somalia by the Chalice Reggae Band (Kingston, Jamaica), who were inspired to step up after reading a Newsweek article.

This is Africamanaged by an African and European crew,  goes even further in their criticism of fundraising creative projects by rhetorically asking, “NGO world and other do-gooders who haven’t thought things through, is the money, awareness or whatever else it is you hope to raise really gonna compensate for the damage you’re about to do?” This Ghetto Radio Foundation’s label finds it damaging to the image of beneficiary nation and everyone’s dignity the creatives’ propensity to overemphasize the addressed need or use unrestricted amount of sentimentality. According to them, “Too often the songs end up committing three crimes: one against music fans (whose intelligence is often insulted and who are expected to actually listen to this stuff), one against the intended “beneficiaries” (whose dignity is often trampled over) and one against art itself. With over two decades of “saving Africa” songs and imagery in our collective consciousness, who can now blame the global army of well-meaning DIY enthusiasts who get busy whenever a humanitarian crisis occurs anywhere in Africa and take it upon themselves to: 
  1. Find a sad song
  2. Find and stitch together images of starving Africans
  3. Give it an emotive title like “Every 5 seconds a starving kid in Africa dies”
  4. Add a self-righteous message (optional extra)
  5. Stick the finished product on YouTube to join the collection of other Africa-on-its-knees vidz so everyone can go on thinking, “Oh, poor Africa!”

According to This is Africa, the song that kick-started the whole “save Africa through music” business was “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. This was written by Sir Bob Geldof, the seasoned musician-turned- philantropist, and Midge Ure in 1984 to raise money for famine-hit Ethiopia.

Recently, Bob Geldof was quoted as saying: “I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ and the other one is ‘We Are The World’. Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter and it will be playing.

Terrible song, but for all its faults the writers at least credited music fans with some intelligence: The only reference to Africa were the lines “And there won’t be snow in Africa / This Christmas time.”

But then sometime between recording the song and sending it to the vinyl factory to be pressed they must have gone, Whoa! What were we thinking? Almost forgot the starving Africans! They also had second thoughts about the collective intelligence of music fans, because what landed in the shops was the sleeve at the top of this post.

No wonder the editors of the video for Band Aid 2 thought, hmm, mustn’t forget some “starving-Africans” footage this time around.

A year after “Do They Know It’s Christmas” came “We Are The World”, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

This was another bad song, but it could have ended up a lot worse: the lyrics originally included the refrain sha-lum sha-lin-gay (whatever the hellthat meant) because, hey, it’s Africa! As if that wasn’t bad enough, Stevie Wonder almost made it even worse by suggesting they replace this with something in Swahili. Fortunately, good sense eventually prevailed and neither sha-lum sha-lin-gay nor the Swahili line made it into the finished piece.

If “Do They Know Its Christmas” and “We Are The World” left us with the valuable knowledge that humanitarian concerns could be addressed with popular music, they also left many NGOs and artists with the belief that for cause-related songs to work they needed to be sentimental and, preferably, should portray Africa on its knees, implicitly or explicitly. It was an an anti-capitalist critique of this sort of tosh that anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba released Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, [released as criticism to Live Aid, a rock festival held in aid of charity efforts in Africa].”

But not before our Canadian friends released this into the world:

And other artists remained undeterred.We were also left with the idea that the first priority of the song is “the message”. After all, many people bought these singles because they felt good knowing the proceeds were going towards a good cause and not because the music was any good. Thus it is that the phrase “charity single” came to strike fear into the hearts of all. Be honest, when you hear those words do you think, oh, this might be good, or does your heart sink in anticipation of something awful you ought to listen to and perhaps buy in spite of how it sounds?

The most recent culprit, according to This is Africa is “Proud To Be by Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Youssou N’Dour.

Counterfeit drugs are a serious global problem that require mass educational campaigns, so we understand why Interpol thought it’d be a good idea to get two major artists known for their commitment to humanitarian causes to record a song about the dangers for the African “market”. Unfortunately, it would appear that Interpol’s brief demanded the inclusion of certain words, phrases and warning. What we have here is a mess that few, but Interpol officials, are likely to pay much attention to.

Say no to counter fake medicationBad medication is in circulation Interpol has them under observation Work together, save the world, save Africa (cue images of dancing Africans, followed soon after by obligatory image of smiling kid)

Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Youssou N’Dour are great musicians and know better than we do that if you start off with a set of words and phrases you simply must include in your song then what you are doing bears closer resemblance to building a wall than making music.And by being this direct and didactic the intended audience is credited with little or no intelligence, i.e., we better spell it out otherwise they won’t “get” it. I find it hard to believe either of these artists believe that, which is why I think the fault must lie with their brief from Interpol. You can bet your ass that similar campaigns elsewhere in the world will not include such patronising tosh.It really doesn’t have to be like this.

They compare the above with 2Face Idibia‘s response to the same problem.

Sure, it’s not his best song, but it’s not bad at all, and he clearly approached this like an artist, and not as a bricklayer.

First of all he personalizes it by making the character he’s singing about a friend, which, by implication, means he isn’t talking down to the audience. Secondly, you can tell there were no officials looking over his shoulder while he composed the song or while the video was being edited, no one demanding images of dying Africans. No such images in the Yvonne Chaka Chaka video, either, but they went for the opposite cliché: smiling, dancing Africans. When it comes to cause-related music videos it’s often this or Africa-on-its-knees. Still.

So what This is Africa suggests as a way to make a good fundraising song? They point at two recent projects that they believe any NGO or artist thinking of making cause-related music ought to study before they put pen to paper.

Celebratory and inspirational; Akon wrote this to raise funds for his charity Konfidence, which he set up to provide aid to underprivileged children in Africa. You wouldn’t know it to look at it: no shots of underprivileged children, and no strategically-placed shots of smiling kids either. Good music and vid, does the job with everyone’s dignity left intact.

The Democratic Republic of Congo might be home to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, but this Oxfam-initiated project involving DRC Music (Damon Albarn and some other artists from the UK) and Congolese artists, is about music first (you can listen to more tracks here and here) and is interested in tapping into Congo’s strengths than in portraying the country on its knees.

As for my new Zimbabwean friend Nonku, I am still inspired by what she is doing. Her single may be one of those that This Is Africa is complaining about but her personal experience is certainly something that adds a fresh image to brand Zimbabwe – saying Zimbabweans are not stuck in their internal issues and are involved in the issues that have to do with the rest of the continent.

Nonku’s piece may fall into the trap of Africa-related cliche’ but we all learn from our previous experience and her next fundraising tune could contain all of the necessary elements to become a benchmark cause-related music piece from Africa.

Nonku Vundla, Zimbabwean author of a new fundraising tune for Somalia

“As part of the project I will also be visiting Tongogara refugee camp near Chipinge which houses residents from various African countries like Somalia, DRC, Angola, Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan and Zambia among  others,” Nonku told The Standard. She said by visiting the camp she hoped to popularise the place to others and to better understand the plight of Africans coming from war and famine-torn nations.

Vundla said the Zimbabwean government had done a wonderful job by providing the refugees with a place of safety.

“Together with the United Nations, the government provides food basics for over 4,000 refugees, half of them being under 18 years. Despite these interventions more still needs to be done and I hope to bring awareness to the average Zimbabwean.”

Tongogara camp was established in 1984 to house Mozambican refugees. At the time of the Mozambican repatriation operations in 1994, the camp was home to some 58,000 refugees. After more than 20 years of operation, the camp has more of a village character than a camp fell. There are permanent housing structures with electricity, schools, churches, a mosque, a police station, shops, a clinic, and at least two bars. The camp is fairly isolated, however, with the nearest major city (Mutare) about a two-hour drive away. The area is very dry, and heavily dependent on irrigation, which in turn is dependent upon increasingly scarce power and fuel supplies. A lot needs to be done, as this grim account from the Tongogara camp shows. So, maybe some Somalian artist out there could come up with a creative tune to tackle the issue!

Born Nonkululeko Vundla in 1983, Nonku (Black Bird) completed her high school in Sandton before studying film-making and broadcasting at Allenby Campus in Bramely, Johannesburg. Black Bird has worked at various South African and Zimbabwean recording studios as both a studio manager and as a recording artist including as a voice-over and scriptwriter for radio adverts and radio station jingles).

Some of the artists she has done collaborations with include: legendary guitarist Andy Brown; Zimbabwean rappers Outspoken and Upmost from the duo Dialectric Blue. The South African hip hop artists she has worked with include producer Hoodlum, Metaphor, Baleloko producer Shem.

After working at M-Net as producer, writer and director for a short film called In The Bedroom in 2002, she went on to work at Channel O as a writer and website editor for the music channel’s official website for most of 2008. UK’s BBC once featured her on their website and radio program.

This year, she was the first female hip-hop artist to be invited to perform at the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA).

You can write to Andy Kozlov on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com

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