Burdens of (Art) Activism

When I first conceived the idea for this post, I wanted to title it, “Artists in Ghana be doing too much” or something of the sort. As life sped on relentlessly, procrastination grabbed me in a chokehold, and I continued to think about this post while never actually getting around to writing it, I realized that the issue that vexed me enough to conceive the idea was larger than I initially thought.

My thought process began with the topic of Poetra Asantewa, who had been on my mind increasingly, for various reasons.

In my opinion, Poetra is one of Ghana’s most prominent, internationally rising writers/poets. She’s done commercials, tours, residencies, solo shows inside and outside Ghana, operated on grants, is an academic scholar, as well as an entrepreneur in ways I cannot exhaustively name. Poetra is also one of the most practical examples of a lexivist I can think of. (In case this is your first time encountering this word, here is the summarized definition: “lexical” + “activist” = literary activist/advocate for word- or literature-related causes. And yes, I made the word up. About three years ago.)

She’s particularly significant to me because, not only did she kickstart my spoken word career by making space for me wherever she had space, but she has continued advocating for me to this day, both loudly and silently over the years since she discovered my name. Besides the personal relevance, she was and is heavily involved with an organization called Love Rocks, which provides e-readers and books to young children. She is also the founder of Black Girls Glow, an all-female residency program for Ghanaian audio artists. Additionally, she recently launched a new magazine called Tampered Press, to showcase the works of African artists (in more than purely literary media), with a bias for Ghanaian artists. Do you see where I’m going with this? What I’m trying to say is: Poetra be doing a lot.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, her career is saturated with good things. But there are things about the context of this otherwise stellar biography that I don’t consider good and which have nothing to do with her.

LoveRocks
Photo Source: LoveRocks on Twitter (https://twitter.com/LoveRocksOrg/status/654708396814282752)

While I am both in awe of and grateful for all the work Poetra does for the artist communities in Ghana and beyond, I often wonder why it seems that it’s necessary for her to be doing all this work. One may argue that it’s not necessary at all. On more than one occasion, she herself has said, in my presence, “Who sent me?” I acknowledge my own need to check myself, because I can’t pretend to know exactly how she feels about juggling all these things at the same time as being a living artist. I know that my sentiments are not necessarily hers, but still, however one looks at it, before and after all her activist work, Poetra Asantewa is a living artist: visual artist, poet, prose writer, stage artist, page artist, fashion artist. And I naturally assume that the primary function of a living artist is that they sit their behinds down (metaphorically; no shade to creators who stand or dance) and make art!

But what happens when you’ve grown up in a culture where sitting your behind down and making art is murderously unsustainable? Perhaps the answer is that this—this very lifestyle, which I’ve spent the past few paragraphs describing of one individual—is exactly what happens. All the excess work is not necessary… but it is. Art infrastructure in this country is a mess, and someone must address it. If it continues to be a mess, sitting one’s behind down to make art will continue to be a near-impossibility, and the pressure to abandon the entire field in favor of a more infrastructurally sound one will certainly increase. And it’s high enough as it is.

The question remains, though: whose responsibility is this work? Responsibility is the often-misunderstood factor that determines for whom certain work is necessary and for whom it shouldn’t be.

Recently, a Ghanaian rapper who’s been making hella waves lately did a mini-social media rant imploring the more established Ghanaian musicians to use whatever influence they’ve gathered to pull the more emergent, underground artists like himself higher. As much respect as I have for said artist, when I read it, I sighed and thought to myself: You’re talking to the wrong people, bro. It is noteworthy that this man also does what I consider to be activist work within the artist community (I use this word both physically and with respect to field of artistry) that he works within. So, when I say he’s talking to the wrong people, one of the “wrong people” in question is himself.

His statement testified to a mentality I’ve observed is particularly prevalent in—although, I’m certain, not exclusive to—the entertainment industry. People keep showing how they apparently believe that the establishment and maintenance of technical (infra)structure in Ghana’s entertainment industry are responsibilities of the entertainers themselves—which for God’s sake, is simply not the case. When we keep pushing our arguments as if it is the case, it is really our own selves that we are doing. The only thing I think is a legitimate career responsibility of an entertainer is to entertain. Feel free to disagree with me, although I will probably disagree with you back.

The stability and structure of art industries, as several people seem to be overlooking, is dependent not on artists themselves, but on the work of individuals and organizations explicitly dedicated to making and keeping them functional. These may or may not include content creators themselves, but they need to include people for whom the technicalities of management are career strengths! Being a stunning vocalist doesn’t automatically grant you magical abilities to make a dysfunctional industry start working. The responsibility I’m talking about falls onto managers, company CEOs, business-savvy financial experts, talent scouts that aren’t necessarily artists themselves; coaches, teachers, institutions dedicated to maximizing the potential of artists (such as schools or ministries); rich people willing to sponsor shows, give grants, facilitate residencies, rent physical spaces out for events; governments who see the value of a powerful, national entertainment industry and are willing to invest in it the way they’re willing to invest in airports that make them look cool to visiting foreigners.

The point I am trying to make is that people have their respective roles, talents and professions. Placing responsibilities on artists, especially those who haven’t expressed that their self-perceived role is anything other than (or additional to) art creation is, to me, like saying, “Oh, you want to be a writer? Then you better find a job in the ink production industry, so that shops can sell pens to people who want to be writers.” It’s a bit kwasia, to say the least.

Our misguided sense of responsibilities isn’t unfounded, even though it may not be the most sensible thing. I suspect a huge contributing factor to our misguidedness is that artists are generally the most hyper-visible individuals in their respective industries. It almost goes without saying; they’re the faces of their professions because they are the ones into whom resources are being pumped and around whom marketing is centered. When people think of the music business, I suspect they think of their favorite musicians long before they think of the manager hustling her butt off to get them gigs, or the CEO calculating money earned from streams the past month and trying to figure out how to double that figure for next month. For this, I blame miseducation more than anything else. I don’t think the general public is sufficiently made aware of how much behind-the-scenes work it truly takes to make certain things run. (I suppose the only reason I have an idea is the brief period I spent being part of a group that was a creative collective in practice and a record label on paper.)

I have recently come to understand that the burdens we place on artists are often for them to essentially become activists—something a bit more profound than simply artivists. And although I myself self-identify as a lexivist, it would bother me to no end if people consistently expected me to spend more of my time fighting wars to prove literature is relevant than sitting my large behind down and composing actual sentences. Because at the beginning, middle and end of the day, I consider myself a writer first.

 

Allow me to briefly digress in saying that the attitudes we bring to art activism extend from and flow back into the attitudes we often have regarding survival activism. We apply a similar misplacement of responsibility within some of the more traditional and politically popular modes of activism such as feminism and mental health awareness. In a way that should not be automatic, we seem to be consistently expecting—foremost and sometimes solely—the members of whichever oppressed or disadvantaged group is in question to do the activism that promotes their own bests interests. Think about how counter-intuitive this is. The people who are already suffering are the ones being made to expend even more energy to trouble the culture and save themselves.

In a world that was ideally on its way towards fixing itself (because an ideal world wouldn’t have these oppressions in the first place), members of any non-oppressed population would be at the forefront of trying to relieve the burdens of the oppressed, not add the burdens of activism to the oppressed’s already-plentiful troubles. And if we have any sense at all as humans, honestly, what we should be doing is constantly fighting for each other—especially in the most dangerous situations. (In a country where certain identities can get a person stoned just for existing as they are, do you think their communities would hold on to the stones in their hands long enough to hear them speak?) I would rather that nobody should have to fight for anything at all, but we live in a morose and fallen world. Still, even with the necessity of fighting reluctantly accepted, why should it even be anyone’s responsibility to do anything other than one’s own work (which is one type of fighting), or to live one’s own life as oneself (which is also its own type of fighting)?

Take my relationship with mental health activism, for instance. Most of the time, when I witness mental health discourse—an alarming amount of which, especially on the internet, is highly problematic—I simply get tired and tune out. The energy that I don’t even have enough of to get out of my bed, no, is that what you want me to now go and shout with? Pardon me, but I’m too busy trying to remember how to breathe. The only times I feel capable of even being a mental health activist are moments when I’m not suffering. But when you’re systematically oppressed (woman, race minority in your country, sexual minority etc.), are you honestly ever not suffering?

“Black people. Women. Queer people. Disabled people. But we are nobody’s saviours. We’re people without answers, too, who to varying degrees are all already sore from advocating for ourselves in our lives – against strangers, against life, against even our families.” – Eloghosa Osunde

 

To return from my digression, I think we, as a society, ought to become mentally mature enough to let artists make art, because heaven knows the act of creation itself is often maddeningly difficult, especially in some of our culturally-specific art-hating cultural climates. We also ought to dispel within ourselves the notion that only artists have anything to contribute to art industries. We need the businesspeople, the rich people, and yes, the people trying to get rich off other, talented people. (Within ethical means, hopefully.) If we keep distracting artists, they can’t actually do their work. And if they do manage to work anyway, it’s often in the midst of unnecessary struggle (this “hustler” lifestyle that we honestly have to grow up enough to stop glamorizing) or producing sub-par work because the requisite time, energy and expertise weren’t affordable during the creation process.

To conclude, here’s another quote from the Longreads essay I quoted from above, which I personally relate to.

“Something I’ve come to understand since becoming a full-time writer is that when we do things that deplete the spirit or clog us at the heart, it becomes more difficult to do the work we’re good at; the kind where our voices stand apart from echoes, strong enough to shape collective consciousness. When we get distracted by what other people want from us, the work takes longer. And when we leave our roles to underplay the work we do, we don’t win anyway.” -Eloghosa Osunde

What I’m trying to say is that human beings should, firstly, be empathetic; and secondly, have sense. I know that neither of these things is easy. I don’t know why I’m writing this.

-Akotowaa

Dear Upcoming Creator/Artist

Dear Upcoming Creator/Artist,

I hope you find your target audience, and I hope you realize early enough who your target audience is even composed of. Some of us are fortunate enough to start our creative endeavors from a community we have long since been entrenched in. However, some of us have not. Some of us are programmers whose friends don’t give a damn about apps or code. Some of us are aspiring fashion bloggers whose friends don’t give a hoot about the concept of color blocking. Some of us are poets whose friends honestly care nothing for wordplay. Thus, your friends are not always your target audience – which is not to say that they can never be. But, I hope you realize this sooner than later: your friends are not necessarily your fans. And I know how painful it can be sometimes when it doesn’t look like your friends are giving you the support you think you should be getting from them. But you must understand that sometimes, they simply and innocently do not care, not because they dislike you, but because your interests and theirs don’t align. I hope you get over this quickly. I hope you realize also that your brand will never grow wildly if it is composed solely of your friends. Perhaps you should focus more on pushing your work to its relevant audiences than you should concern yourself about whether or not your friends are paying attention. If thou art a photographer, push to the photography lovers (not just the friends who want free profile pictures and the opportunity to add the word “model” to their bio). If thou art a musician, push thy work towards music lovers, and so on. Hopefully, in time, you will build a legitimate base of genuine admiration, as opposed to occasional polite smiles and obligatory retweets.

Sometimes you will have to choose between being real and being successful. I do not intend to condemn either side, at least not here. This choice will depend on what you entered your industry for. If you entered to get rich or famous or both, well then do what you got to do to get there; you can’t be a “sellout” if you were never anything different before your “sellout” phase, because there was nothing to be sold in the first place. However, if you came into your game with the intention of changing it, I want to let you know how likely it is that the opportunity to sell out will present itself to you many times, and in those times, you will have to choose. Although it may not be lucrative, I sincerely hope you choose to be real. But listen, and this part is extremely important: sometimes, being real and being successful may happen to you at once. If it ever happens, you need to hold fast to your integrity and shut your ears to the BS that is almost certain to start flying around. Some people get their highs off spreading rumors that all success is a result of selling out. But I need you to remember that there are people who do get successful from being consistently authentic, or likeable, or useful, or different. Thus, if you know for a fact that you have been what you are without compromise, don’t beat yourself up or give yourself crap about not “deserving” what you’ve gotten.

You do not need to be friends with everyone. Sycophancy lands you in trouble – and it may be covert trouble, trouble that the whole world does not see, trouble that they may even perceive as part of your success. Trouble comes in many forms: deals you can’t get out of easily, obligations you can’t refuse, collaborations with people you had no intention of ever working with, the release of products that do not align with your own brand or ideals, debt, and the list is never-ending. The people who propagate all the supposed rules of all our industries constantly harp on about “networking” – and while it is true that a lot of progress is dependent on relationships with people, you must know that they must be the right people. There ought to be no condemnation for attempting to get close to people who are already doing work that you admire. There is, however, much danger and tiresomeness in trying to get close to people because you’ve heard or seen that they are “important” in your industry. You may have nothing in common with them. Some of the most lucrative connections might also be the ones that require you to sell out. Additionally, in every industry, naturally, not everyone will agree all the time. You will lose yourself faster than you can blink if you go around trying to please every damn one – even those warring with each other, those who don’t like you, and those you disagree with. Don’t burn yourself out; learn to be comfortable with surrounding yourself with people around whom you are comfortable. (Note: being comfortable around a person or company is not equal to agreeing with them 100% of the time. Do not make that mistake either.)

It is very likely that there will be seasons. Seasons are as natural for the creator as they are for the weather. You may have peaks, where you are the hottest thing on the charts, or getting booked so much, you have to start turning things down. In such periods, it is as easy to get over-whelmed as it is to get complacent, or think you’ve finally “made it.” Thus, it might surprise you when, in a few weeks, months or years, the attention begins to dry out and you are no longer at the forefront. You may feel prematurely washed out, or irrelevant next to what appears to be a new wave of popular creators on the market. But don’t stress yourself out; no one act should expect to be the most relevant at all times. Instead of getting discouraged, use your time in the shadows to practice and improve on what you do best: creating. You can only market the same product so many times, or ride off the wave of your hit single for so long. At some point, you are going to have to sit down again, in solitude or with your team, and get back to trying to produce some excellent material. In your driest seasons, when it starts to bother you that nobody is paying attention, you should probably ask yourself, “Would I still want to do this if no one paid attention?” Your answer needs to be “Yes.” If it is not, you may want to re-evaluate your career choice as a creator. Let your dry seasons not shake you.

Don’t plague yourself too much about relatability. In my humble opinion, creating with the intention of portraying one’s personal truth is eons more important than creating “relatable” content. An obsession with relatability may lead to some of the most inauthentic content a person could ever create. And there is a reason why “mainstream” content is both as popular as it is and is insulted as often as it is: at the same time that people consume what the mainstream offers, they have an acute awareness of things that appear to be geared towards falling in line with some sort of trend or majority. I think, more than anything, the person whose relatability you should aim for the most is yourself. Because, as obvious as this fact is, you are a human being – and for just about anything a human being experiences, I assume there are other human beings that will be able to relate. You may think I have just asked you to do the very thing I previously told you not to do, but I entreat you to re-analyze it. Telling your own truth the way that you know it is very different from approaching from the angle of intending to create something “relatable.” For the former, relatability is a fortunate, treasured consequence. For the latter, relatability is the goal, and consequently, the content might be generic. Also, here’s a fun fact: not all humans have the same experiences, and there will always be people complaining that there’s some certain group to whom your creations are not valuable. I advise you not to care too much all the time. In line with this point, here are some wise words from Jayso:

“Listen miss me with the punning and the criticism

I be going ape on every take, that’s lyricism

What’s up with all these Cupid basic writers

Talking ‘bout your verses no dey mean a thing to trotro drivers

That be cool but who said I am right to rap for all you hypers

I am hyperactive lyrically

I write like it’s for cyphers.”

PS: the song the lyrics came from is “Pop Mandem” by Bryan the Mensah.

Remember that the industry doesn’t love you. And neither do the people. Whichever industry you’re in does not exist to be especially interested in your success. If anything at all, it is bent against you, set on your demise, like every protective being is bent on preserving their property or community as it is, and wary of allowing entry to strangers. If your entry and rise is too easy, it may be cause for concern; you may have to deliberate upon whether or not you’re being exploited and decide what to do about it, even if that ends up being “nothing.” Remember sycophants are real. The people who want to get close to you if they see you as famous, or with the potential for fame, are vipers. Don’t inflate from how much they gas you – even if the gassing is genuine. The industry loves no one, not even the people at the top of it. That being said, kill your ego, your sense of entitlement. It is not the duty of those higher up to pull up those lower down, although it is noble to support upcoming creators in whom one sees something worthwhile. And that’s the main thing: whatever you create needs to be worthwhile, and even when it is, you must still expect nothing from anyone. The industry doesn’t love you, but three things remain key:

  1. Mind your business (which is creating)
  2. Do your work (which is creating)
  3. Make good art (which is your business, which is your work, which is creating).

-Akotowaa

This Is The Thing You Romanticize.

The poet, he was afraid
to call himself a poet,
wondering if his words qualified
and if practicing the craft was enough.

 

The internet, it spoke
of inner demons countless,
tortured artists abundant,
and pain like it was art’s only fuel.

 

The poetess, she told me
there was nothing to be glorified
for those characteristics
that should otherwise land one hospitalised.

 

I myself once asked,
“Are we in pain because we are artists,
or we are artists because we are in pain?”
And now I answer: Neither.

 

This is the thing you romanticise:
A lie. We did not invite pain
like it was a necessary ingredient
to make us who we are.

 

Before I was accursed,
I was writing.
As I am being set free,
I shall write, and after.

 

If to call oneself melancholic,
constantly wear black, and declare
oneself as troubled is one’s ideal state,
This One is doing Art awfully wrong.

 

I am creation. My God
did not create in perpetual sadness.
He did not create creatives
to strive for chronic depression.

 

My art is not
The Crying Man’s Sole Solace.
It is just that I myself cry;
But you need not.

 

The next time you romanticize
the demons and their poets,
may you be afflicted by a joy so deep
it moves you to bear your best creations.
-Akotowaa