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Critics are right about Rick Ross’s use of local Nigerians – but the Sapeurs in Solange’s are more than background artists

I follow a few foreign correspondents on Twitter, western reporters whose patch is large swaths of the African continent, and many of them retweet some of the replies they receive from their followers. These people often exhort the journalists to report “positive news” and criticise them for writing about corruption or other bad behaviour that’s blighting their corner of the world. And if I’m honest, I understand where many of the complainers are coming from, even as I don’t often agree.

I was reminded of this earlier this week when Solange released the Cape Town-set video for her new song, Losing You. The video features the pop star in a series of beautiful outfits alongside a troop of American friends as well as members of Le Sapeur community – a Congolese subculture that has its own fairly established chapter in South Africa. Solange was inspired by the work of Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni, who shot and collected images of the La SAPE (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes) community in his book, Gentlemen of Bacongo. It is a dreamy, colourful four minutes.

A few weeks prior, hip-hop star Rick Ross had released the Nigeria-shot promo for his single Hold Me Back. In contrast to Solange’s effort, this is a grittier offering, starting with a Biafra news spot from the 1960s, is shot in stark black-and-white in Lagos (Sura Market and Obalende neighbourhoods), with even starker imagery – crying children (and in a couple of scenes, reaching for the dollars proffered by the rapper’s crew), rubbish dumps, men praying in a mosque and even a couple of photogenic goats. Prior to shooting the video, he’d tweeted: “Other rappers won’t come here. I’m filming a video and performing here.”

The two videos – one more than the other, granted – have garnered a good deal of comment and criticism. For many, whether going the circuitous or straightforward route, the conclusion is that these artists are exploiting “poor Africans”. A lot of people on music blogs expressed their fury at Ross’s video, criticising what they saw as “bad publicity” for Nigeria, while others praised him, saying the video shone a light on the desperate poverty that is the reality for many.

I should probably qualify that I’m not a fan of Ross or his music. And when I watched his video, I struggled to find a discernible message in it (a charge I could level at a lot of music videos, to be fair). Is the video telling us anything new? Is it a comment on Biafra (written about this week by Chinua Achebe)? Can we honestly say we in the political west are still unaware of the grinding poverty of poor people around the world?

It’s a confused video, bathed in the usual machismo of rap. My problem with the video is not the content per se; it is not a problem to depict the reality of a situation that affects millions of people every day. My issue lies with the eye behind the lens: what story is this recording of poverty showing? If Ross had filmed this video in Tower Hamlets, east London – one of the poorest boroughs in the country – for example, it would have represented an indictment of the way in which a developed nation like Britain allows its most disadvantaged people to live. Shooting it in Nigeria is not news – not to the poor people in the video, nor to the political class. In a world where Ross tweets before shooting: “Filming in the slums in Lagos. I just bought out the whole grocery store and gave it to the village. #MMG presence strong in our homeland”, and hands out cash to the kids, he has cast himself as the Great Emancipator. The poverty is merely a backdrop to his own personal narrative.

In talking about her video, Solange told The Fader: “I remember reading about [the Sapeurs] and thinking it was the most interesting and complex and unique thing that I had seen in a long time. We really want to capture what the vibe is.” It is to Solange’s credit that the Sapeurs who appear in her video seem to be more than just background artists. Their cultural existence is acknowledged and celebrated, not merely appropriated. It’s a lesson we could all do with learning.

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