Write-Ups for PARISSOWETO

Parissoweto

Parissoweto is an online music exchange project between France and South Africa which I founded in order to contribute to the cultural relationship between the two countries. The particular focus here is on independent artists. All the write-ups and their French translations can be found here.  

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READ SOME EXTRACTS BELOW:

Guy Buttery | instrumental guitar folk, Kwazulu-Natal (ZA)

“…His compositions are rich with nostalgia and longing, yet propelled by an ever-present sense of optimism. There is a cinematic quality to the songs, as though they are images or sequences, with Buttery cleverly crafting soundscapes to capture moments in time: impressions of light, shadow, movement…; of laughter and silence, introspection and memory. When words fail to transcribe our experiences and impressions, it so happens that other forms of art exist to externalise them. Guy Buttery, the down-to-earth bloke with a guitar, unwittingly, achieves exactly this.”



The Wild Eastern Arches | psychedelic garage rock, Cape Town (ZA)

“The Wild Eastern Arches seem to flow naturally out of their environment: it’s been some time now that Cape Town has become the country’s burrow of alternative cultural activity, determined in its DIY spirit to produce works of quality. The Wild Eastern Arches explore psychedelic garage rock by layering tones and textures and creating experimental soundtracks to long, fuzzy summers. Their unhurried melodies create a sense of languid anticipation, of days patiently turning into nights; and seem to seek out the fleetingness of youth, and eternalise it, like in “Fever Dream” (from their first critically acclaimed EP, “Mountain”). Reminiscent of The Dodos-meet-The Doors, the Wild Eastern Arches move into more mature, more sophisticated territory with the release of their latest full-length, “Salamander Sun”, leaving the listener with songs like blurred impressions; the quiet burning of the golden age. The paradox here is that when listening to the Wild Eastern Arches, you never seem to leave this transient space.”



Dirty Deep | dirty blues, Strasbourg (FR)

“[…] Initially touring as a one-man band, guitarist and singer Victor travelled with his dirty-blues stash (slides, harmonicas, guitars, homemade percussion contraptions) across Europe to “spread his gospel”, as it were. Today, Victor is accompanied on stage by Geoffrey Stoep, an excellent hip hop drummer from the group Art District. The result is a balls-to-the wall blues explosion straight out of the Delta. Dirty Deep’s influences lie in the raw, early blues of Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker and Son House […] Victor does much to keep his blues roots relevant […] translating his heroes’ songs and tales within a more contemporary, heavier, almost grunge-like dialect. By keeping it simple and honest, Dirty Deep rekindles the heart of rock and roll music today and compels one to move to his foot-stomping tunes: Dirty Deep’s music is of the kind of brute honesty that is often amiss in our age of posh, clean blues productions.”



Johnathan Martin | folk / blues /rock, Pretoria (ZA)

“Johnathan Martin creates and operates through and in response to music; as a necessity, as a life-source. Johnathan Martin’s relationship with music is reciprocal. His songs are therefore alive in their sincerity, their vulnerability and most of all, their beauty: layers of tones and textures are carved into haunting melodies that, despite the burden they carry, seem to have been composed effortlessly. As such, it is safe to say that Johnathan Martin is one of South Africa’s finest rock vocalists and guitarists, having forged a singular style over the years as guitarist alongside Piet Botha in Jack Hammer, as former frontman of No Quarter and currently playing in his own rock outfit, In My Blood. Within his songwriting you will find references to Neil Young, John Martyn, Alice in Chains, Led Zeppelin, Guns & Roses, as his deep appreciation for these musicians informed his own playing. Perhaps you will also discern an uncanny musician’s curse of unrelenting passion that makes him bow to no one. As such, Johnathan Martin is far too unsung in the South African entertainment industry. But then again, Johnathan Martin, as he once said himself, is not a fly-by-night kind of guy.”


Carol’s Cousin | country-blues / folk, Giromagny (FR)

“No, the first and only album released by Carol’s Cousin, is no ordinary musical undertaking. No is a document, released some thirty years into Dom Ferrer’s journey. Born and bred in Savoie, Dom’s fascination with America – its wide open spaces, lakes and mountains and the stories contained within them first drew him there in the 1980s […] Dom Ferrer is a travelling man, a keen observer, a story-teller. His album is a brutally honest collection of a man’s journey into adulthood through to middle-age; and lays bare his own vulnerability, both in moments of hardship as in moments of euphoria and peace. The music is stripped-down blues-infused folk; the overall darker shades – minor chords, his matured, grated voice reminiscent of Johnny Cash and Nick Cave – are dotted with light, in the swaying melodies and bright whistles of some tracks. Despite the deep voice and all the grunge that goes along with the idea of a middle-aged rock ‘n roll poet, what remains the most haunting in Carol’s Cousin’s debut album is its fragility […] The crux of Carol’s Cousin’s journey is about venturing into the great unknown, by letting on that vulnerability is bravery.”


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How Many More Years: Robert Plant and The Uninterrupted Shape of Songs

Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters -
Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters – “Lullaby… And the Ceaseless Roar”

Take me to the western shore
Where the light moves bright upon the tide
To the lullaby and the ceaseless roar
Where the songs never die

– Robert Plant, “A Stolen Kiss”, Lullaby…And the Ceaseless Roar (2014)


GIG REPORT: ROBERT PLANT & THE SENSATIONAL SPACE SHIFTERS, NUITS DE FOURVIERE, LYON – 27/07/2015

DISCLAIMER: The audience was not allowed to film or photograph the show – all live photos are therefore of their show at Les Eurockéennes music festival, Belfort, France (2014)


There he is, clicking his fingers to the beat of “How Many More Times”; there he is, in the golden tone of his voice that carries every moment, every song. There he is, conversing with the blues that stirred him as a young boy. There he is, unaware of the generosity and span of his gift, humbly thinking he has taken more than what he has given. There he is, moving about to the blues beat, seeming light, seeming swift, unburdened by his own aura that cannot be contained in just his voice or to the space on stage. There he is.

Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters spill onto stage with an unexpected, high-energy version of “Trampled Underfoot” – one of Zeppelin’s latter, and perhaps lesser explored pieces. It is heavy, unlikely, wonderful. It sets the tone rather well, as the Sensational Space Shifters go into their psychedelic West-African drone number, “Turn it Up”, off of their latest album, Lullaby…And the Ceaseless Roar (2014) – Plant’s first full LP featuring original songs (and not renditions of traditional songs) in ten years. With the song, the band delve into their unique energy – the song in itself is like the Space Shifters’ mission statement. It is followed by a slower-paced “Black Dog”, during which Robert Plant’s vocals soar. The song turns into a rhythmic jam session with Juldeh Camarah on the ritti (a West-African fiddle). Camarah is of one the new members who had been added to The Sensational Space Shifters – formerly known as the Strange Sensation, operating between 2001 and 2007 alongside Justin Adams (former producer for Tinariwen), Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson, Billy Fuller, John Baggot and Dave Smith.

They surprise with “Another Tribe”, a song off of The Strange Sensation’s Mighty ReArranger album. It was during these years that Plant and the band went to Mali’s Festival au Désert, and that he subsequently performed with Tinariwen. There are also tales of campfire jams with the late great Ali Farka Touré…

The band then continue into “Poor Howard”, from Lullaby…And the Ceaseless Roar. This song has an interesting story – there is a Leadbelly recording of this song, “Po’ Howard”, but Plant also recalls singing this song as a kid growing up in England. It might have travelled to America through British settlers. The album version of this song perfectly encapsulates Robert Plant’s musical journey: the song has a seemingly country-feel to it, due to the banjo, and the ritti’s fiddle sound. This turns the song into a very rich conversation between country-blues and West-African blues, yet it also reflects on Plant’s exploration of Celtic sounds, and its place in Americana music. At the concert, the song is handled differently, as is expected of The Space Shifters, and “Poor Howard” becomes a Bo Diddley-like jam, except Justin Adams is plucking away at the gimbri (Moroccan string instrument). Plant urges the crowd to listen – “Ecoute!” he exclaims,  before introducing Juldeh Camarah. Everything is an exchange and a celebration of music. The melody of the song has been transformed completely – it feels like a moment that cannot be relived; it is truly sensational stuff. No really, it is fucking cool.

Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters at Les Eurockéennes (Belfort, 2014) - Photo by Jannike Bergh
Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters at Les Eurockéennes (Belfort, 2014) – Photo by Jannike Bergh

Robert Plant then chats to the crowd, about Lord knows where he would have been if it weren’t for blues music from the Mississippi Delta-via-West-Africa “that made its way to the rhythmn & blues clubs in the United Kingdom in the late fifties and early sixties.” Lord knows he almost became an accountant, but then “a lot of songs were taken into the heart of British music,” he explains – and it went to the heart of this young singer and it would never let go, but it would always move around, evolve…  He apologetically adds that they, Led Zep, Cream & co, may have “fucked it up.” The band then goes into their rendition of “Spoonful”, which Plant says he first heard when he was “minus 40 years old.” It starts out like a sinister trance; Robert Plant’s voice transcends the eerie tones, even when he whispers. And when he howls, it is perfectly conducive to a trance; it is ancestral, runs deep; rings up Howlin’ Wolf…

The tone changes when the band play “Rain Song”, which is the only Led Zeppelin song played like the original version. It does feel strange to hear these songs this way, without Jimmy Page or John Paul Jones, perhaps only because it seems so easy to detach the songs from Led Zeppelin when Plant is cloaking them in his own explorations. But the moment is bigger than the slight predicament, and the epic build of this song, with everything so accurately in place, moves me to tears.

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Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters at Les Eurockéennes (Belfort, 2014) – Photo by Jannike Bergh

Now, after seeing Robert Plant for the third time – first, with the Band of Joy, and the second and third time with The Sensational Space Shifters – it has become clear that he loves playing medleys. I, for one, love it when he plays medleys.

There is a 20-minute long live version of “Whole Lotta Love” on the How the West Was Won live album (1973), where it goes into an extended psychedelic jam, followed by a few rock ‘n roll numbers like “Let That Boy Boogie”, “Let’s Have a Party” and “Hello Mary Lou”. Many songs throughout his set, as with the previous shows I attended, are medleys. They serve to connect songs, and moments in history.

At this concert, Plant refers back to “How Many More Times” from Led Zeppelin I (1969), a reinterpration of Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years”; it transitions effortlessly into “Dazed and Confused”, also from that first album. Robert Plant must be having a ball working these things out, because they’re damn fun to listen to. The most surprising moment was when he played “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” that went into “In My Time Dying” – two gospel blues songs; the former reinterpreted by Plant with The Band of Joy, and the latter, of course, a traditional gospel classic best known by Blind Willie Johnson’s version and reinterpreted by Led Zeppelin on Physical Graffiti (1975). Plant seems to be in conference with both the roots of his musical endeavours as much as what his experiments led to, and what it is all still becoming. There is so much going on in these song choices, in terms of where they come from, how they informed his Led Zeppelin days, and most importantly, how they stayed with him; as he is returning to them now, with the deepest sense of humility and gratitude.

Towards the end of the set, we are treated to Plant’s harmonica playing as they cover “Custard Pie”… It is not one of the ‘easier’ Led Zeppelin songs, and therefore unexpected. It is brilliantly done, going back to that funkier latter day Led Zeppelin sound with the added mouth harp and the heaviness that the Space Shifters manage to translate – Justin Adams and Skin Tyson have the ability to never, ever seem like they are uninspired twenty-first century guitarists aping famous seventies riffs – there is always a groove, movement, heaviness, breadth… It would seem there is a thousand songs within a song. It would seem that this is what Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters set out to do – finding a song’s essence, making it shine, like a pearl, when turned, reflecting a thousand different shards of light.

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Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters at Les Eurockéennes (Belfort, 2014) – Photo by Jannike Bergh

When the band plays “Whole Lotta Love”, it really is a homage to Muddy Waters, whose song “You Need Love” gave rise to the Led Zeppelin classic. Robert Plant sings lines from “I Just Want to Make Love to You”/”You Need Love” to the “Crawlin’ King Snake” beat; the song explodes into “Whole Lotta Love”, with Robert Plant’s vocals being the most powerful force emanating from that stage. The song travels through to West-Africa with Juldeh Camarah on the ritti; Justin Adams’ guitar-playing has a Touareg groove going on; Plant incites the crowd with his characteristic hand-claps; the rhythm section have completely changed the original beat. How many more ways will they play this song?

Back in 1975, an interviewer asked Robert Plant, “What’s next for Led Zeppelin?” He replied, “Heaven forbid, there’s so much to do […] I don’t see that there should be any time to stop.”

And here he is, still, Robert Plant; forging ahead, creating, taking from and giving back to the place where it all originated, to the ebb and flow of “the lullaby and the ceaseless roar / where the songs never die.”

There is not much more to say, except Thanks, and to hope that he will make it out to South Africa with The Sensational Space Shifters in all their splendour for all my friends to see, before he retires. X

Before you dismantle Africa

On the processes that have historically undervalued African lives

William Kentridge Drawing for 'Other Faces', (Protestors - close up), 2011 Charcoal and coloured pencil on paper 62 x 121 cm Source: http://www.artnews.org/
William Kentridge. Drawing for ‘Other Faces’, (Protestors – close up), 2011
Source: http://www.artnews.org/

No African is a foreigner in Africa! No African is a migrant in Africa! Africa is where we all belong, notwithstanding the foolishness of our boundaries. No amount of national-chauvinism will erase this. No amount of deportations will erase this. Instead of spilling black blood on no other than Pixley ka Seme Avenue (!), we should all be making sure that we rebuild this Continent and bring to an end a long and painful history — that which, for too long, has dictated that to be black (it does not matter where or when), is a liability. – ACHILLE MBEMBE, Africa Is A Country

No use in underlining the seemingly futile act of turning to writing during these turbulent times. How can the pen counter a grove of machetes, wrenches, spears slashing into history, making deeper cuts into Africa that no words know how to heal? How can a scribble of ink stand its own against the unfathomable spilling of blood in the streets of Alexandra? Of course it cannot do any of this. It can only beg the question, When will African lives matter?

When will this question matter beyond columns in newspapers or in Twitter hash tags?

The sheer brutality of the xenophobic attacks in Durban and Johannesburg this week is exposing a reality that turns stomachs. It is so uncomfortable, because of the scale of the violence and the knowledge that it is true. Most of us are only experiencing this through images and media reports, and perhaps many are turning a blind eye, apathetic and lethargic from their Sunday lunches; but viewed from afar, what is so unsettling is the realisation that the South African story is deviating spectacularly from its ‘miracle’ narrative of ‘Rainbow Nation exceptionalism’ that many of us still naively cling to (despite the plethora of crises that are increasing as Jacob Zuma’s presidency continue). And it is perhaps for this very reason that many of us are so unfamiliar with this reality – we have tried to avoid looking at the unravelling of our uniquely South African patchwork. It hasn’t been around for long enough to be gone. The little progress we have made cannot be undone just like that. It’s all we have left. And nobody likes to get woken up from a good dream.

How is it possible to believe in our ‘miracle nation’ when fellow South Africans dispose of such cruelty?

South Africa can no longer close its eyes, hold its breath and hope for the best. For too long this country’s deepest concerns have been ignored, cast aside, in the hope that it would just go away – much like running a red light, as one does in South Africa, fingers crossed that you make it through. This tactic has proven itself disastrous – our social inequalities are unbearable. It just cannot continue this way. And now innocent lives of foreign nationals are being lost at the hands of monsters. But that part we have all agreed upon.

The perpetrators were not born intrinsically evil. It is fairly easy to deduce that only a sick society can push its citizens to such inhumane acts. And there are millions of others, equally riddled by the same societal ills and inequalities, who resist this pitfall, who will never even be tempted into doing such a thing – those who show kindness and compassion to their neighbours despite being destitute. We should remember that these people are still the majority.

What has been ignored for too long are the processes that create these ‘monsters’. Nobody will accept complicity, and finger-pointing persists. On the one hand, a large portion of white South Africans blame inefficient government for issues that often extend further back into the past, and they are dismissive of the fact that centuries of economic exclusion have recklessly cast millions of black South Africans in a sort of socio-economic ‘no exit’ that will remain a reality for generations to come. On the other hand, the ANC systematically blames white rule for issues that have either worsened or arisen out of the ANC’s own mismanagement. The ANC would rather plunder the country in the dark than govern efficiently, all in the name of a misapplied ideology and misappropriated funds.

Today, there seems to be little space for post-apartheid South Africa to recognise its collective misconduct. All that is being perpetuated by dominating discourse on either side is that there is Us, and Them. On the surface there is little regard for all the richness and complexities that fill the space between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ – that which, in the spirit of Ubuntu, connects us.

As a white person, I can only speak from my own vantage point and I am really not comfortable speaking ‘on behalf of white people’ as though we are all one homogenous blob of like-minded whiteness. But I have much in common with other white people in South Africa insofar as the fact that we form a minority that historically benefitted from centuries of oppression of San, Khoikhoi, black, Coloured and Indian people. I have much in common with white people around the world insofar as white people have never been typecast, over and over again, as primitive, dangerous, uncouth or automatically considered as downtrodden, disadvantaged, poor. I have much in common with other white people insofar as Western history is taught as being central to how our world works, and as such, being white is being at the centre of everything.

When Achille Mbembe says, ‘to be black is to be a liability’ in reference to Africa, – it is quite unsettling when considering the amount of young black men shot and killed by white police men in America. In a different context, ‘to be black is to be a liability’ also extends to humour, and Western ‘irony’: a person’s blackness is supposedly something to be laughed at – when a person’s accent gives away a different background or culture, why is the reaction to laugh and to mock? Why does this premise even exist? It only reflects what centuries of colonising and patronising achieved.

So I cannot, as much as I would like to, proclaim that we are all the same, that there is no such thing as ‘race’. While I firmly believe in the intrinsically ‘bastardised’ condition of the world – in the way the diaspora of the world today means that we are all made up of many different interactions and configurations, have intermixed over the ages — one cannot consider these processes of ‘bastardisation’ without being painfully aware of how history unfolded in (and been willed into) favour of the West, and how society has always been forced apart, despite our tendency towards miscegenation. In parallel to our moving towards each other, we have been pulled away from each other; borders erected and people classified according to race and treated accordingly. South Africa’s very own process-of-becoming is perpetually plagued by this tug-and-pull between apartness and wholeness.

When I was writing my thesis about this topic a year ago, I focussed on the idea of movement – the idea that a dynamic force is pulling South Africa forward because it is a country that is defined by the influx of peoples and by its own métissage and dynamism, something which has become South Africa’s motor. The very thing that defines South Africa’s character – movement, progress, flow – is what is under attack today.  I suggest you read Achille Mbembe’s powerful commentary on the matter; he offers insight into the phenomenon of Africa-turning-on-Africa – and asks why “has [South Africa] historically [been] represented a “circle of death” for anything and anybody ‘African’?”

*

An almost farcical interlude to these attacks was the much mediatised removal of the Rhodes statue. Now, what has been so farcical about this event was the number of people mocking the protest itself. Many asked what the point was in removing an ‘object’ from a ‘place’ (preferring to focus on other pressing issues, like electricity cuts), and soon social media was a-buzz with sarcastic memes about statues being vandalised all over the place, dismissing one of the most important debates on whiteness and white privilege the country has had (and needed) in a long time. Some people at least acknowledged that statues are connoted, but they did not go much further: “leave it alone, it’s history!” they would say. So, to some, the statue represents ‘history’ only – or a sort of Anonymous History, an intangible, unintelligible thing that is just there; and so the statue, too, is just there, being historical. But ‘historical’ seems to bear no further impact than being something that vaguely reflects the past. As though history is not heavy with processes of conquering and casting aside, the impact of which is still playing into our everyday lives – for some it is just more comfortable than for others. For a privileged minority, I suppose ‘history’ is reduced to just that – the past. When people say, ‘What’s done is done’, they refuse to grapple head-on with the consequences or impact of past actions. If statues really were only inanimate objects erected for decorative purposes, one would certainly not opt for an old geezer from colonial times to spruce up the campuses of our great educational institutions, such as the University of Cape Town, right? That is what public art is for; but statues celebrate something – usually a legacy. For me, the removal of the Rhodes statue was a no-brainer. It was in fact surprising that a statue so accurately representing South Africa’s burdens had remained intact, peering over Cape Town, its affluent neighbourhoods and shanty towns nestled side-by-side, for so long. People do not have to worry about ‘forgetting’ history by removing this statue either – one look outside your car window during your drive from Pretoria to OR Tambo airport would suffice in order to not forget the effects of the racial economic segregation which Rhodes pioneered in the 1800s and Afrikaner Nationalists pushed to its conclusion in the twentieth century.

 *

Why is being black in Africa a curse? After the Afrikaners were defeated and humiliated by the British during the Anglo-Boer war through Scorched Earth tactics, and thousands of women and children died in concentration camps, the National Party, whose aim was to re-instil pride among the Afrikaner people, sought to consolidate their power: they would do so by cordoning themselves off, by building an idealised haven in the clouds, so to speak, and by institutionalising a system of racial segregation and black economic exploitation. They would thereby immunise themselves against any further threats to their existence. Once more, black Africans paid the price.

What has been so difficult to drive home in the Rhodes debate a few weeks ago, is what came alive during this week’s attacks: the fact that these brutal processes of exploitation created a society that is so acutely off-balance, so deeply miserable and desperate that Africa turns against itself. The powers-that-be around the world that keep large pockets of Africa poor and powerless indeed continue to divide and rule.

Just think of Marikana: South African police against South African miners in the name of a mining company that isn’t even South African-owned. If our discourse can’t move forward and rid itself of the hierarchical patterns that perpetuate the little value society, in their daily attitudes, attribute to African lives, how will we move forward at all?

Africa has bled too long at the hands of other people’s battles. We need an Africa that is for-Africa, one that actively counters the idea, as Mbembe describes, that “being black is a liability”. In order to make these mind shifts, it is necessary to remove symbols that celebrate the systematic dismantling of black Africans. If you refuse to understand why Rhodes had to go, how will you attempt to understand the deeper complexities giving rise to xenophobic violence? These issues are related, because xenophobia is the opposite of what it means to be African.

* * * * *

I would like to emphasise, in the form of a disclaimer, that this article by no means seeks to make argumentative shortcuts or draw direct lines between Cecil John Rhodes himself and last week’s xenophobic attacks (some people tend to overlook details). I can neither claim to know or understand the socio-economic contexts of the perpetrators or their victims, it is something that I am still trying to wrap my head around. This is an attempt to respond to white discourse (as perceived on social media) that dismisses South Africa’s particular history of oppression. It feels like I am saying the most obvious thing that can be said about South Africa, and yet it remains a challenge. We cannot move forward without acknowledging that this discourse has to change. This article also doesn’t seek to tell white people that they are not feeling guilty enough; it merely seeks to shed light on the dismissive, destructive nature of a dominant attitude.

 

Two Weeks Later: On White Noise and Winter Woes

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Two weeks is a strange thing. Time is a strange thing, of course. What is it about two weeks, though? It is a moment in time that can fly by in a daze and be perceived to be much shorter; it can also feel like an unsurpassable void one has to cross in order to get to the other side of the fortnight – to a place where more promising things await and we only have our daydreams to carry us there.

It has been two weeks since January the 7th, 2015.  In France – as I imagine elsewhere in Europe – the month of January does not really have a particularly good reputation. The Christmas holidays are over, so all the twinkling lights are gone. Most people are broke and winter is at its most persistent. January is generally a dreary blur following the festive season. One tends to wish, to curse the days away until spring comes – in the hope that it arrives on time, of course.

January up north is a rather bleak time of the year, if we can be honest about it.

***

It has been two weeks since that very strange day in France. Two weeks that feels like a shapeless moment in time, neither long nor short, even though there is still much of January left.

On that strange day, two weeks ago, three older men who drew crude pictures for a living were seated around a long table alongside their editor and fellow cartoonists, some half their age. Their economist friend was there, too. He was pushing seventy. They had just done a feature on Michel Houellebecq, a very good friend of the economist in question. Houellebecq thought their cover page of him was ‘not bad’. The satirical newspaper had taken the piss out of him, and he had thought it adequate. But it is for other reasons that he is no longer interested in promoting his new book, Submission.

The staff meeting following the release of the latest issue, with a caricature of Houellebecq on the cover, had just ended. A few minutes later, if it was that long, an uncanny two weeks had begun. Hot off the press, a drawing inside the January 7th issue pondering the absence of djihadist attacks in France jokingly assured its readers that an attack in the New Year was likely to be imminent. Signed Charb. And so it was.

An hour later, the unexpected news had already broke and a video of two armed men shouting ‘On a tué Charlie Hebdo!’ (‘We killed Charlie Hebdo!’) had been uploaded to YouTube. Some guy working for an ad agency had put together an image in response to the unspeakable news event. He had written ‘Je suis Charlie’; social media did the rest.

Two weeks later and our easily satiated consumer culture is no doubt bored of being Charlie. It has been a bit much, really, all this white noise, all this posturing by X and Y, and Z and #! against each other. Actively being or not being something is quite a tedious undertaking. We all seem to choose, consciously or unconsciously, what we are. What does being Charlie even mean? The detractors were quick to point out everybody’s hypocrisy (as they do): the presence of certain very questionable heads of state at the solidarity march no doubt left many confused as to where they ought to situate themselves; and the millions who were brandishing their ‘Charliness’ were accused of never having opened the weekly prior to it being ‘canonised’ by a terrorist attack. Factions emerged around the globe: the “Charlies” and the “anti-Charlies”; and within those factions, even more factions emerged, a bit like Russian dolls. Some “anti-Charlies” were people who supported the Charlie killers in what they considered to be a fight for Islam, or they were plainly incensed at the blasphemy of the newspaper. So naturally, they were not going to be Charlie. Elsewhere, though, the “anti-Charlies” were more subtle: they were not to align themselves with a newspaper which, according to them, had ridiculed an oppressed community. Or they thought it vile, crude, not their cup of tea. Some were honest about the fact they just cannot claim to be Charlie, because they simply are not as courageous, or do not have the same appetite for subversion.

But what has been so acute in this whole debacle of being or not being Charlie was the “either/or” approach in so many publications: either you defend free speech or you defend islamophobia; either you criticise the West or you embrace it; either you are blind to your own privilege or you are completely guilt-ridden; either you are a ‘moderate Muslim’ or you are a religious fundamentalist; either you are a victim or you are a rebel; either you are French or you are of “[……] origin”; either you support Dieudonné or you want him silenced; either you give a fuck or you don’t. And so on.

It is therefore pointless and self-defeating to single out a writer, a news channel, a spokesperson or a country, because there are many who have either one view or another and if you are vaguely affected by or interested in this story, you have read them all. Many contain empty designations, such as the recurring ‘moderate Muslim’, repeated so often it is misrepresented as a truth, only it is devoid of meaning and merely upholds myths of people existing as binaries: as either moderate or extreme. Meanwhile, it dismisses the fact that every human being is complex and multifaceted, with their own agency and ambivalences.

If anything, it is safe to say that hashtag-speak has revealed its limits and reduced the possibility to have meaningful, nuanced discussions, because it implies you are either like #this or like #that.

These categorical conclusions have come to define the discourse surrounding the attacks on January 7th, 8th and 9th. This pattern of thinking can be illustrated by the trivial example of the annoying person at the party whose penchant for incendiary comments would lead him/her to say things like, ‘AC/DC is way better than Led Zeppelin’, like it is even comparable. Back to the less trivial topic in question, it is the very staunch nature of these unequivocal reactions that lack awareness of ambiguities, complexities. It is a tendency that needs to put things in boxes first and then weigh them against each other. This approach refuses multiple perspectives – which is frankly a strange approach to have, given the wealth of knowledge we have at our fingertips today. Although, a failure to understand French laïcité on the part of the international press probably comes from not having been immersed in it (it took one colleague to boycott a Christmas party once in the name of laïcité for me to really get it), and no amount of Google can necessarily curb misinterpretations, as was the case with many English-language publications missing the point about Charlie Hebdo’s irreverence. It just shows us how little we know about each other, even within the West. We are disconnected, alienated, stubborn…

The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of the dangers of the single story: “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become,” she explains in her TedTalk. As a child, she grew up thinking that she either had to write like the authors of the British books she read, or she had to write of her ‘authentically African’ experience as a Nigerian girl. Meanwhile, her multiple perspective meant that she forged an independent, strong-minded voice that serves its own purpose. A voice that is neither coloniser nor colonised, and resounds because it is free.

The single-story narrative lacks context, nuance and therefore casts people into grouped entities, generated by prejudice, biases, and stereotypes. It is a superficial, self-congratulatory discourse. The single-story narrative is not self-aware, because if it were, it would see its own contradictions. It is not humbled by the incredible vastness of what it does not yet know and what it fails to understand.

It is for this reason that making sense of the ‘white noise’ that has dominated these past two weeks has been so tiresome. If we have learned anything from this story, it is that everybody is entitled to an opinion. In an ideal world, these opinions would be raised to listen to each other and not speak against each other. Engaged dialogue is the only way forward to avoid the single-story trap.

***

In conclusion to my final say on Charlie Hebdo and its victims, I would like to refer to a remark made by Homi Bhabha in an interview with the journal The Third Space. He said, “subversion is negotiation; transgression is negotiation.” The cartoonists who died for their drawings on January 7th were negotiating towards a critical understanding of their own society. It is these transgressions that split open the single-story narrative and expose society’s hierarchies and contradictions; without these transgressions, there is no dialogue. Without dialogue, we cannot rethink our perpetually changing, dynamic society. Perhaps, with time…

For Charlie Hebdo, It Really Was About Freedom of Speech

Cabu: forever young // Image source: France Inter [http://www.franceinter.fr]
Cabu: forever young // Image source: France Inter [http://www.franceinter.fr]

It’s been surreal. The embodiment of French laïcité and free speech, decimated, in one brief moment. The unjust deaths of cartoonists Wolinski (80), Cabu (76), Charb (47), Honoré (73), Tignous (58) and the ‘atypical’ economist Bernard Maris (68) have hit the French public very hard; Wolinski and Cabu having been at the helm of all that is transgressive since the May ’68 Revolution, and whose legacy therefore spans over three generations. Cabu, the perpetually smiling, fleur-aux-dents joker who incarnates that red-nosed, red-cheeked, anarchical joie de vivre so typical of the ageing French left-wing. I have had the privilege to spend a soirée or two with similar post-68 remnants; with their dishevelled grey hair, their Gauloises without filters, rosé and jokes overflowing. Spontaneous singing. Laughter, laughter, all around.

Wolinski and Cabu. // Image source: Paris Match
Wolinski and Cabu. //
Image source: Paris Match

And, only now that Wolinski has died in the most horrendous way possible for being who he was – unapologetically subversive – I came to know his work better and I suddenly understood why most of my friends here in France have such an appetite for erotic humour. It is quite simply part of their cultural make-up, instilled in them by historical figures such as Wolinski. A veritable grandfather of off-beat French humour. When Wolinski was asked what he would like one to do with his ashes when he dies, he answered that he would want his wife to pour them out into the toilet, so that he could admire her behind from down below, every day. Some may call out ‘sexist’; yet his daughter believes that, on the contrary, her father was a feminist.

AutWolinski11_07082008_135500Bref. The people I have come to know and love here in the eastern French town of Besançon where I’ve lived since 2010, are all twenty- to thirty-somethings, and inherently scholars of Cabu and Wolinski. And now I understand even better than before, that, having done away with religion altogether, French society liberated itself in a way that is hard for people having grown up in religious societies to fathom. I can see how my Calvinist heritage and Christian upbringing in post-apartheid South Africa have had me snicker many times before, involuntarily, at what I thought was sometimes a perverted sense of humour chez les Français. The kind of South African schizophrenia about what may or may not be said is too great a topic to get into today, and something which I preoccupy myself with often enough to put aside for one day. Let’s just say that I have been overwhelmed, and at times, concerned, with the ease with which my friends in France utter things that are either politically incorrect taboos or just completely perverse.

Over the past few years, though, a part of me has come to adore this seemingly innate rebellious spirit about the French – if only, perhaps, because their attitude seemed like the acceptable attitude to have: I had rejected religion around the age of 17 or 18, and had developed a thirst for subversion and manifestations of anti-Establishment sentiment through art, music and literature throughout my high school years, when the absurdity of authority and its accompanying character trait of hypocrisy became too much to bear within an Afrikaans high school (one that actively tried to condemn “non-believers” and rock and rollers to hell. Nevermind that there was a revered rugby-playing murderer in our midst, but I’m digressing…).

Despite my appetite for subversion, I would often find myself at odds with the ‘caricatural’ way in which French people I encounter would mock or satirise people of African, Arab or Asian descent. It’s become a daily battle, not knowing when to be openly vexed or to pipe down, aware that any attempt made to underline their (what I identified as) ignorant Euro-centrist whiteness would be scoffed off with a shrugging of the shoulders and a ‘you don’t have a sense of humour’ retort.  ‘Come on, laugh a little.’

Granted, I am not what one would call in French “grande gueule” (big-mouthed) and I probably have piped down far too often for issues that are incredibly close to my heart, all in the name of their worldview and their idea of humour.

I still do not sit comfortably with this. But the attack on the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists made me acutely aware of my personal love-hate relationship with France and the French. The news of the event left me speechless and incredibly sad, similar to when someone hurts your family. Young and old have been in tears over the loss of emblematic counter-culture figures like Charb and Cabu. I find it sad that crying over Cabu, Charb et al has been transformed into online media tirades about how the discourse of freedom of speech is the West’s way of asserting their power over things they reject, like Islam. This is sad, too. This is the point. It is all so terribly sad. The whole event is tragic on such a monstrous scale. And there are firm sets of beliefs on either sides; and there are people who are likely going to be unwilling to acknowledge the complexities and ambiguities contained within it all.

Despite the fact that I agree with the assertions made over European values being used to maintain power structures that serve a small elite, I still think my friends have the right to mourn the death of Charlie Hebdo (in light of the anti-#JeSuisCharlie campaigns on social media), and that this should be the focus right now. And I want to be able to say that we are all Charlie, because the magazine, along with its predecessor, the “inane and nasty” Hara Kiri, are to France what Bitterkomix and Voëlvry movement were to some South Africans, perhaps to a lesser degree, but nonetheless…  The few who do revere Anton Kannemeyer’s irreverence can only imagine what it must feel like to actually have a thriving subversive comics scene. In any case, let us not forget that Charlie Hebdo was severely judged, criticised and dragged to court on several occasions. Hara Kiri was banned after mocking the death of former French president and war general, Charles de Gaulle, in 1970.  Not even the ‘father of the nation’ managed to escape unscathed from these bunch. Cabu was a self-declared anti-militarist after forced military service led him to spend a few months stationed in Algeria, during the war. He came back and did Hara Kiri. It just shows how Cabu functioned; serving la patrie was not really his thing, you see…

There is little doubt that the satire to have come from the pages of Charlie Hebdo did not come from a mean-spirited, or ‘evil’ place and that they only sought to poke fun at (whilst criticising) what the editorial team considered to be society’s evils. Religious fundamentalism happened to be one of their main concerns, as much as the rise of the far right in France and their homophobic, islamophobic and xenophobic agenda.

As such, another point I would like to raise is that the perils of religious fundamentalism are one of the reasons France is a secular state in the first place. It is a society that is supposed to be based on universalism. A beautiful idea, in theory, which has more or less worked out well, until now. This is a simplistic way of putting it, since the attack came at a time of political turmoil and confusion alongside a rise of xenophobia and islamophobia, especially in the extreme right’s quarters. One may even evoke a maxim from Animal Farm, with regards to this universalism: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others…’ While we may talk about social inequalities in France and its correlation with islamophobia until we are blue in the face, it is important to assert that the Charlie attackers by no means represent, or contribute to, or aid the French Muslims’ cause by avenging Mohammed in the bloody and fascist manner in which they did. The repercussions of this will be deeply felt by different Muslim citizens and communities all over France. At the moment of writing this, more and more reports are coming in already of Muslim sites like mosques being targeted by islamophobic groups. I hope that France will do its best to protect all its citizens.

If anything, this cultural attack on France will force the country to reflect on the ambivalent nature of its society and would spark new debates about the functioning of multiculturalism within a secular society.

Of course, it has to be said that there is a certain untruth in the claim that Charlie Hebdo dealt with all religions ‘equally’, based upon the mere fact that Muslims are discriminated against in Europe, and that they therefore are not equal to others – not equal to the ‘natifs’, as Michel Houellebecq refers to ‘indigenous’ French people in his latest novel, Submission – because society wants it that way.  But these are ambiguities that Charlie Hebdo also dealt with; the latest publication of Charlie Hebdo criticised Houellebecq’s novel, which many consider to be islamophobic in its fundamentalist depiction of “moderate Muslims.” The novel was released on the same day as the last Charlie publication, and the same day of the attack.

While most of us are aware that we should be careful not to conflate Islam with islamist fundamentalism, so too it is important not to conflate the “Republican value” of free speech with the right to racism. Free speech is a noble value; racism is not. But in France, like in South Africa, there are courts to settle scores. An example would be a former member of the extreme right wing party, the Front National, who compared the French Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira, to a monkey (for the sake of context: Taubira is a black woman from French Guyane, and led the campaign for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in France, for which she received a terrible backlash from the extreme right). The party member in question was ordered a prison sentence of nine months. No holds barred in France, yes, but it might get you behind bars if it comes down to character defamation and hate speech…

While negative representations of Africans and Arabs in Europe are disgusting reminders of the continent’s colonial past, it is fairly safe to argue that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo did not have any colonialist tendencies of any sort, even if an increase in negative imagery of islamist fundamentalism had been perceived as a ‘caricaturisation’ of Islam (which, fair enough, is a valid argument). I still think it is important to emphasise the Charlie Hebdo team’s disdain for all religions, and therefore their irreverence towards religious taboos, as they were born into a secular state and schooled themselves in satire — the likes of Cabu and Wolinski having helped to forge French subversive humour; and Charb, about thirty years their junior, exercised his right to subvert and satirise religious bigotry until his death, as the editor of Charlie Hebdo.

Some feel that the discourse is being centred on ‘freedom of speech at all costs’ – especially at the cost of Muslims in general. In the online newspaper, the Daily Vox, journalist Asad Ezza wrote:

“If anything, the global media and analysts are only personifying their own internal bias towards Muslims, in what is otherwise known as Islamophobia. Unfortunately, and this is the crux, nothing less than fear, hate and distrust of Muslims lies at the very heart of this knee-jerk discourse, which does nothing to enhance or forward a meaningful discussion.”

I want to agree with the above statement, but I think it goes too far. I do not, for example, think for one second that shock and sadness over the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo editorial team inherently reflects some kind of innate islamophobia. While it is important to point out the ‘knee-jerk discourse’ — especially in order to curb islamophobic attacks — it is equally important to show that this is not the rule, because it might just repress the conversation. I find it absurd that mourning violent acts against free speech is equal to islamophobia. And is it too much to think that most people, surely, would know that terrorism and Islam are two separate things? (Or am I giving mankind too much credit here?)  Similarly, Charlie Hebdo argued that Muslims are free to agree or disagree with the magazine’s publications, and considered it condescending to assume that all French Muslims were not free to laugh at themselves; it is this very paternalistic—and patronising—system of thinking that the satirical weekly sought to bring under scrutiny.

It has been made clear on several occasions, in several interviews with the Charlie Hebdo team, that they were not hateful, racist or islamophobic: their only aim was to rattle the cages of society. One may feel that the only end to this, ultimately, is that the outcry on the part of conservative Muslims over blasphemy and so forth would cast Islam as ‘incompatible’ with a ‘free’, Western society – a discourse, some might argue, Western power structures would want to maintain.

And yet. It cannot be asserted enough that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, the victims of this attack, were against all forms of power structures and sought to undermine them all, and did so, in their weekly paper. Unapologetically. This is a very staunch point of view, but one that cannot be refuted: Charb often advocated his right to blasphemy, arguing that he could say or draw what he pleased, since he was an atheist (like a vast majority of modern France) living in a secular society, and was therefore unbridled by blasphemy. It is an attitude to life that few would be brave enough to adopt. It should be noted that Charlie Hebdo had a dwindling readership, precisely because it had always been so left of centre, continuously questioning the status quo.

Charb. Against the grain. // Image source: Paris Match
Charb. Against the grain. // Image source: Paris Match

Honestly, I am having a hard time understanding why people are being berated for their solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims for focusing ‘too much’ on freedom of expression, when the attack was so brutally symbolic.

The editorial team of Charlie Hebdo that were assassinated on Wednesday, 7 January 2015 spent their lives drawing silly pictures showing just how silly power struggles are. So silly, they got shot for it.

Let us hope that Cabu, Wolinski, Charb, Tignous and Honoré did not die in vain.  Let us hope that satire and the world’s ability to criticise itself whilst laughing did not die with them.

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