By Ainehi Edoro
Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism Day 1
At up-scale academic conference in fancy Johannesburg Uni.
Everywhere is swarming with rocks star professors and genius graduate students well on their way to becoming rocks tar professors at some future time. It’s a funny sensation feeling like a fish out of water.
Units of coffee consumed 10 (out late last night drinking to wait out jet lag).
Units of alcohol 10 (to counteract caffeine jitters).
Average number of words written down per ten minutes of Appadurai’s one-hour talk 4 (very bad, would’ve done much better if I’d actually heard said talk for more than five minutes without nodding off).
Number of time raised hand to make a smart comment/question for the sole purpose of impressing my fellow participants (5).
Number of times succeeded in making actual smart comment/question (0).
Number of times star-struck at meeting rock stars…of the academic kind I mean (6).
Number of times tried but failed woefully at schmoozing with said rock stars (0).
May or may not have spilled a glass of water during a lecture in full view of horrified academics pretending that I did not just make an arse of myself.
May or may not have spilled a cup of coffee on someone an hour later. Again in full view of the whole room. And again received the horrified-but-pretending-you-did-not-just-make-arse-of-yourself look from fellow academics.
General assessment of first day at up-scale academic conference: not horribly bad seeing I actually feel quite up to the task of making a “detailed” journal entry of what actually took place.
10:30 Listened to Arjun Appadurai give a lecture on finance capital and derivatives. Said something about contemporary form of capitalism not being about commodities or surplus value but all about debt, derivatives, taking risks on risk. One hour of illuminating but hard, dense intellectual food. Chewy and slow to process.
2:15 Back from lunch. Was hanging out in the lobby area talking with…can’t remember who…when I heard music playing in the conference room. Sounded like a mix of electronic funk and maybe a touch of Afrobeat.
2: 16 Hurried off to investigate. Projector screen up. DJ mixers stacked in a corner. Room suddenly seemed lively. Less bare and boringly academicky. Ntone Edjabe was in the room chatting with Achille Mbembe and leafing through a stack of vinyl heaped on the table. Is he not the guy who founded Chimurenga? Shaggy-afro-headed, he is wearing a hat and a funky Ankara print windbreaker. Dressed for the part. The real postcolonial hustler!
Projected on a screen are past covers of Chimurenga. They are stunning, gritty, raw. I was struck by this one cover that had a group of three soldiers pursuing an Indian woman dressed in sari. She’s pretty, sexy, holding a gun, and on the run. To the right of the image is written: “Authority Stealing,” title of a Fela song. Fusing different cultural references and images to create something that is both urban and vintage, that brings together music, writing, and art is typical of Chimurenga, a hip, pan-African magazine where Africans write for Africans. Reminds me of Drum from back in the day. Trying not to seem too delighted that instead of another one-hour of “illuminating” academic lecture, we are about to listen to a DJ and a philosopher have a conversation about music and politics.
2:35 Ntone leans back against his chair. He is relaxed and ready to play. Achille a bit less so, but he’s smiling and saying something to Ntone in French. The music has not been completely turned off. It’s playing in the background as Achille begins the conversation.
2:40 Achille: “You were born in Douala. You lived in Lagos. How is that you’ve chosen, of all places, to settle down in Cape Town?”
2:41 Ntone: “Let me begin my response with music.”
Response is definitely odd in an academic setting where silences are awkward, where speech is the primary way of responding to an address. We all looked on, unsure, curious, expectant. A Soukous track comes on. Intoxicating in the way only Soukous can be. Despite Ntone’s invitation, no one danced. Music, he explains, is supposed to the danced to. A few participants swayed this way and that, but no one really danced. I wanted to dance. I wanted to dance so badly, but didn’t. No one dances at academic conferences. It’s just not done, like making out during a church service. In an academic conference you put words in display and not bodies. Honestly, it would have been weird if anyone had danced. Still, I couldn’t help feeling like a moment, charged with possibility, had been lost, in our refusal to take the risk of placing our bodies on display to our fellow scholars.
2:45 – 4:00 Going back and forth between the seriousness of academic discourse and the playfulness of the DJ booth, responding to questions first with music and only later with words, playing music long enough to make us shifty on are seats. I say it’s all play on form, play perhaps on the form of the academic conference.
As Ntone told us about his journey from Doula to Cape Town and the founding of Chimurenga, I was struck by how often Fela kept coming up.
Ntone: “I never experienced Fela as a musician only but also as a radical thinker, a revolutionary. He confronted power whether it came in the form of military dictators like Babangida, religious leaders, Abiola, Thatcher, Botha. In Cameroun, I was used to musicians and poets resisting power but it was done indirectly by not naming things or giving things a new name. But Fela named things, named the enemy, named power.”
Fela expanded the language of resistance, made it so that the language and form of music could absorb the pressures of the political. As Ntone puts it elsewhere, “By breaking the divide between the public and the private [Fela] expanded our vocabulary of resistance – the musician was no longer simply an entertainer.”
At one point, recalling the famous Fela quote, “Music is the weapon,” Achille says to Ntone, “If music is the weapon, who is the enemy?”
Even I knew that was a genius question. Ntone ended up not addressing the question but, I found this scribbled down in my notebook:
What does it mean to think of music as an instrument of war, as a force of survival in the midst of war, as force of struggle against war, as something that destroys, that implicates one in a state of war? War is threat to the life of the city. It interrupts that constellation of forces that make up the urban space. Perhaps music is the means through which the urban is perserved, survives, persists in the midst of crisis. Music is a way of introducing form/performance into the chaos that is war. Music names the enemies, placing them in an exposed and precarious position. Both in music and in war, life and the body are the central object of concern. In war, life is exposed to danger. Death is rife. Where war harms and mutilate the body, music is a state in which the body discovers its capacity for life, movement, and form.
Originally published in the JWTC blog.