Freeing the audience: Women in live music
At the beginning of February, an unusual concert was staged at the Goethe Institute in Kampala, headlined by Nneka, the world renowned young African icon. She was accompanied by Ife Piankhi, a popular poet and jazz singer in town, Tshila, a crossover Afro Soul icon, Keko, the undisputed leading female rapper, Irene Ntale, the gorgeous lead singer of the titan Uneven Band, and MC Flower, a 10-year old rapper whose skills pretty much impressed the entire crowd.
Written by Serubiri Moses
A concert like this was bound to send shock waves in the rather male dominated territory of Ugandan popular music. Women, previously viewed as backup dancers and singers, were commanding one stage and not tending to the needs of the male audience alone, as you will find in the following discussion with Tshila and Ife along with photographer Roshan Kharmali, the proprietor of Poetry in Session.
Ife: My motivation is to touch the heart, because what I have seen of the world is that we are living in fear. That means that we are not connecting with each other. You can have superstars, but even Nneka still needs her musicians. She still needed female musicians to create a vibe which she could fall into. And we did just that. Even though her music is global, and worldly accepted, we enhanced it that night.
Secondly, it’s about empowering people, so that we can get out of suppression. I want to instill in people that they have the power, the ability and the potential to do anything. That is the message. But you have to understand that there are not many artists like that.
Tshila: But you know, the biggest thing is motivation. People often say: “If I don’t get that money tonight, I’m finished. I won’t pay my rent; I won’t pay my bills.” Yes, to a certain degree we are all like that, but there are people who are driven to desperation, and subject these demands to music.
The Artist Potential
Serubiri Moses, writer: And isn’t always the danger of not surviving the real fear at the end of the day?
Ife: Yes, and it is because we are not taught about our full potential. We are not empowered. For me these are the spiritual, esoteric matters. The fact that we live in fear; that we do not trust (others). I go out because I love music; because that is how I express my deepest thoughts and feelings.
Tshila: Personally this is the moment when I am most complete; when I am singing and communicating. I feel like I am connecting with (the listener) on a higher spiritual level …
Ife: … and this is what is so powerful about Nneka. She is in the commercial world, but she remains true to the essence. It is hard to walk this line if you are not grounded in something. For my part, this is what I want for every artist I work with.
Women in Live Music
Nneka and the Ugandan female musicians that performed last month have a connection to Liberty, a robust woman who brings peace and freedom to society.
In New York harbor stands a tall figure of a draped woman holding a torch in one hand and a book of laws in the other. It is of course the ‘Statue of Liberty’ (1886). It is a peaceful representation of liberty, as opposed to the French painting by Eugène Delacroix called ‘Liberty Leading The People’ (1830). In contrast to the graceful statue, a woman personifying Liberty appears manly with one breast in open air, holding the French Revolution Flag in one hand and standing on a pedestal of dead men. In what seems like a reversal of gender roles, a woman ultimately leads a country out of chaos and into freedom.
Men often times, are incapable of the abilities of compassion and nurture that women have. However, both these artists agree to being “directed” or at some point mentored by male artists, and like Nneka, they often show the influence Bob Marley in their music.
Writer: When Nneka is up on stage, because her music is so embracing you see a very feminine character, but her message is very masculine. There is a complex.
Ife: There shouldn’t be a complex.
Tshila: I’m with Ife; just because I look a certain way, or (my) body is in a certain physical form, it doesn’t mean I cannot take on any gender role. The only thing that limits (me) are actual physiological things; a man might be stronger in a physiological sense, but he might be weaker in a spiritual or emotional sense.
Writer: But when a man is conveying a message to an audience, isn’t it very different from when a woman is doing it?
Ife: I don’t get you, because when people perform, they are tapping into something more than themselves.
Tshila: They are tapping into something that doesn’t exist on a physical level, neither as a man nor a woman.
Writer: Are you sure? Because I think that masculinity can be used, similar to how femininity can be used. And I believe this is one of the things that trap artists, that they must break out of.
Tshila: But you see, I don’t think that is relevant when it comes to Nneka. When you say “using your femininity”, then I imagine a woman on stage, gyrating in short miniskirt and high heels.
Writer: But that is exactly the kind of artist that I have seen so many times in this country!
Ife: Well, I am not negating (women artists who do) that. Because I went somewhere the other day and I saw some go-go girls, but (they were) beautiful dancers. But am I going to say “she can’t do that”?
Tshila: If (she) doesn’t have a spiritual connection with you, then (she is) going to use her physical assets and take advantage of the fact that there are males in the audience, to detract from the fact that (she) doesn’t have the talent to express herself in a spiritual-intellectual way.
Rosh: Everyone in life uses their femininity or their masculinity in whatever they do.
Tshila: It was empowering to see a whole line up of female artists, entertaining and holding the crowd like they did. They probably inspired a lot of girls and young women in the audience who may have felt limited by their femininity.
Writer: And men too, who feel limited by their masculinity…
Writer: …or limited by their lack of feminine qualities, because some men in our society feel they do not have to deal with typical feminine qualities. Take me, for example, I don’t think I must be orderly (like a woman), because I have a woman that does that.
Tshila: We were five women standing there, commanding the stage, but also making people wonder “okay, so why are there no guys on that stage?” I believe it had quite a significance for us, to tap into that and experience how it made an impact on us mentally in terms of sharing a space of feminine energy.
Vagabonds in Power
Fela Kuti’s messages like ‘Vagabonds in Power’ and ‘Teacher, Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’; as much as they were addressing post-colonial corruption or foreign misconceptions about African identity, they were put out there in a straight forward manner. These messsages were launching an attack very different from post-colonial women figures like Wangari Maathai who preferred to plant trees instead.
Writer: Nneka had Fela Kuti’s message right in her head, she had Bob Marley’s message right in her head; wasn’t that very masculine?
Ladies: Nooo, it wasn’t… watch it. It’s the message.
Ife: In reality the stage was balanced, because all the (backup) musicians were men.
Roshan: So it’s not about the femininity or the masculinity, it’s about the message.
Tshila: The people commanding the show were females. Ife, Irene, Keko, Flower and I.
Ife: We complimented each other. That is what women do. We include; we’re inclusive.
Tshila: So maybe, those are the few things that came out of the (concert). People say women are a certain way around each other. So you’ll get the jealousy, pettiness and bickering, but we didn’t have that, we didn’t experience that. We complimented each other.
Writer: That is extremely rare, isn’t it?
Roshan: With women you will generally find – if the goal is set – that everyone will try to work together to reach the goal. This is a feminine trait; it is more important to reach the goal together than to reach it by yourself. Without Ife I will not reach it. Without MC Flower I will not reach it. Without Tshila I will not reach the goal.
Ife: And that was the feminine energy of the night!
These are tryin’ times
These female artists have a point in stressing a different approach to performance music. In our popular culture atmosphere, this rat race of pageants of the most righteous (who can go to church most often); the most wealthy (who can raise the tallest building); or the most educated (who has the most degrees); is damaging the industry.
“These are tryin’ times,” Roberta Flack sang.
This feminine energy is important in bringing the community together, through collective nurture, a womanly essence. In this concert, a pact of unity between the women touched the crowd, which then responded with ecstatic shouts such as “Vagabonds in Parliament!” evidently experiencing both the freedom and inspiration received.
Serubiri Moses has been published in The New Vision reviewing live music. As a poet, he is featured on the pan African website, Badilisha Poetry Exchange.