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Coco Em on music and mobility for African artists
© Judith Scaled

Coco Em on music and mobility for African artists

After missing her dream show in Cape Verde, Coco Em reflects on her experience and denounces the difficulties faced by African artists on the international scene.

We sat down with Coco Em, between two courses she gives at Santuri East Africa Music Academy as a music production teacher. Initially here to talk about the hazardous British visa process, the conversation devolved into something else. After her harrowing experience with an airline which resulted in her missing the Terra Negra Festival in Cape Verde, the Kenyan DJ wanted to talk about music’s flow, not rhythmic but geographic. Interview.

You recently spoke out on Twitter to denounce a situation that affects many African musicians travelling abroad to perform. What happened and how did it affect you?

I recently missed a show in Praia at the Terra Sagrada festival and it left me disheartened. Not only was this a show that was booked and confirmed nine months prior, but I was looking forward to meeting and networking with the lineup and also fulfilling my dreams of performing in more African countries.

The irony of being barred from boarding a flight that was to ultimately circle back into Africa still baffles me today. The apparent issue was that I was to transit through Europe and because I had a valid Schengen, I was at risk of ‘disappearing’ in Europe. This was furthest from my intention, but ultimately I was a victim of profiling and the airline in question ordered that I book a return flight with their carrier to ensure that I would return. They rejected the return ticket I already had on another airline.

This experience still hurts me. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I was experiencing profiling from my own countrymen and women, or that they had reduced my years of hard work and efforts in honestly securing multiple travel documents to nothing more than a black African girl going to confuse white men and disappear in Europe ‘like we usually do’.

Financially this experience cost me my full performance fee and it cost the festival the entire return trip to Praia (through Egypt, Amsterdam and Lisbon). This was also a very big lineup – I was honoured to have been considered for it and it would have opened some doors for me on the international festival circuit.

You have denounced the fact it is cheaper to go through Europe to travel to certain African countries, mainly because these flights are scarce and therefore more expensive. Is it a common occurrence?

This unfortunately is a very common occurrence. I see flights coming directly from Europe into Africa which are around 500 to 600 USD, but flights out of Kenya to Europe for no less than 700 USD, sometimes all the way up to 3,000 USD. The flight I was barred from boarding cost about 2,900 USD and was set to fly through Egypt, Amsterdam, Lisbon and finally Praia, the festival destination. I once had to board a flight flying through Abu Dhabi and Rome just to circle back to Tunisia in 2019 – the festival which was booking me (Terra Negra) was completely unable to find a direct flight.

Do you feel it impedes the chance of success of African musicians abroad?

It definitely does impede the chance of success for a lot of African artists, cultural practitioners and other skilled workers. It is unfair that in addition to the time it takes to go through the stringent Visa processes, and the money it takes to pay for the applications, we now then have to also struggle to find flights that don’t cost an arm and a leg and don’t have us sitting in airspaces for sometimes up to 30 hours at a go in multiple connections.

African artists arrive in Europe exhausted after having to figure out these difficult travel logistics and are expected to still put on high-quality entertaining performances. I sometimes am paid a fraction of what I have to spend to even land in Europe because as of 2020 onwards (the period after covid), most European festivals stopped paying international flight fees for African artists. Performing for USD 1,000, only to pay for flights worth USD 1,600 and above and running the risk of being denied entry onto the plane is the extra baggage we have to deal with any time we decide to perform abroad.

You wrote to me about the profiling and discrimination towards Africans travelling abroad. What has been your experience?

I first experienced discrimination towards Africans when I travelled to Malaysia for my University education. When we disembarked from our plane at the airport and made a queue towards Malaysian immigration, I noticed a group of Africans standing to the side on my right-hand side. From a distance, they looked like they were just waiting for the queue to subside so that they could join in. But when we got closer, I realised that they had their hands held up with their passports in hand. Their passports were green in colour – this, I found out later, was the Nigerian passport.

This was the first time I was travelling internationally. First time also travelling without my family. It was a very jarring experience and I remember feeling that it really must be painful to be a Nigerian in this country. Little did I know that the experiences would extend deeper into the country with taxi drivers openly refusing to give Africans cab rides. One said to me, “I don’t take Nigerian!”) and others cornered me at the bus stop to ask if we had any universities in Africa and why I didn’t just go to my own African universities.

My personal experiences of being profiled started with my trip to Tunisia where I was set aside in a Nairobi airport and questioned for three hours by five airport officials. They wanted to know why I was travelling through Rome to go to Tunisia and I was growing more and more exasperated from explaining that there were no direct flights and that I was not going to Europe to disappear. A lady airline official (From Etihad) told me “We know what you girls like to go and do there”. She told me that a girl just like me had gone to Europe and flushed her passport into the toilet and that they had to be sure that I was not going to do the same. They also said that I would definitely be deported upon arrival in Italy – something that never happened! They made a comment on my boarding pass that put me on high alert – every boarding gate I approached (In Abu Dhabi and Rome) set off an alarm. I was subsequently questioned by airport officials in Abu Dhabi for an hour, and in Rome for about ten minutes.

Moving on to another topic: the African Union Passport. Have you been following its inception closely? Is it something many Kenyan and African artists are hoping for?

This is something I have recently been very interested in. I am working on a project called Pass Pass and I am seeking to engage my peers in the arts and cultural scene as well as human rights defenders and activists and all skilled workers to discuss ways in which we can support the agenda for the African Passport.

After a bit of research, I managed to learn that there are many factors to consider before the free movement of African people on the continent can be actualised. I believe that the agenda can be achieved sooner than the proposed date of 2063. Kenya and Egypt are moving to abolish visa requirements for their people this year and so are Eritrea and Kenya as well as the Bahamas and Kenya. These positive steps test out a module that is meant to apply to the whole continent. Some countries such as Congo, Libya, and Mauritania, owing to so much external interference, the theft of their resources and the systemic creation of instability within their (imaginary) borders, have been left far behind on the development scale. They have been left with unstable economies still at the mercy of world markets, with political instability and with almost no working public service structures for their people. These countries will need a lot of support from the rest of the continent (as well as those in the West who have contributed to their current situation) so that they may be able to open their borders for the free movement of African peoples.

How do you think it would help African artists? And musical creativity on a broader scale?

African artists will benefit from free movement as this will make many dreams of collaborating with other artists from the continent a reality. A lot of skilled workers and artists want to travel across Africa to study, learn and exchange experiences with their peers but travel within Africa is so complicated and very expensive.

Something that fascinates me is the movement of the language across our (imaginary) borders and the similarities in some staple foods. Pap in South Africa and Nigeria is similar to Ugali in Kenya, which is similar to Nshima in Zambia. The culture of wrestling among young men in Senegal looks very similar to that of young South Sudanese men. How did these cultures move across these lands?

Why do you think the project has stalled in the last few years?

I imagine this is because even though Africa has made many progressive strides, there are still very many challenges that exist on the continent today. Those that have suffered political instability and war are faced with challenges ranging from lack of work opportunities for their traumatized youth, lack of working public service systems, corruption and external interference from neighbouring countries and the Western world, neo-colonialism, and so on. We still have a way to go before they can confidently open their borders to other people.

The idea to open up our borders for free movement and trade is still possible, but the obstacles complicate things. I believe having more access for those who would like to conduct intercountry trade and those who would like to partake in cultural exchange programs such as artists, musicians, DJs etc, could spearhead the African passport agenda and could be used as a mock-up of the actual movement to assess the challenges.

Another issue is that flights within Africa are very expensive. I learnt recently from Berlin-based Kenyan journalist Eric Sumba who was a panellist on our first Pass Pass series of conversations, that countries and airlines actually have to pay for airspaces they fly over. We have plans to involve airline officials in our next series of conversations to better understand why the routes they take are so expensive and therefore why the fees are so steep for Africans to travel within the border. In some instances, it is much cheaper to fly from Europe than it is from one African country to another. It costs about USD 900 to fly to Congo from Kenya on some airlines.

You also wrote about “culture vultures”,. Do you feel other artists are borrowing from what African artists are creating for their own gain, without giving proper credit?

It is a fitting term for people and organizations who embody a culture, to reap the benefits of it without paying any sort of homage to the creators. Those who do not educate people on the origin of the cultures they draw inspiration from for their own artwork are culture vultures. They are just there to take and take and take. Those who also do not seek to connect with or collaborate with or learn directly from the original creators or those who practise certain cultures are culture vultures. The genesis of ‘world music’ was from culture vultures who not only made millions from this new genre, but they successfully misled a generation of people about the meaning and origin of the samples they used.

This is a segway but I cannot believe that I found out that techno music actually originated from black people in Detroit city when I was 36. I thought it originated in Berlin. And though the culture has been appreciated, embodied and recreated by people in the Western world, there is a power imbalance between the people who started the movement and those who now showcase and benefit from it financially.

I would like your opinion about how some African-American people portray Africa. Like Beyonce in her Netflix film Homecoming or how Kendrick Lamar put on a show of his ‘Coming Back‘ to Ghana like some kind of return to his roots…

Profiting from the music, dress, spirituality, and cultural artefacts of marginalized groups and more so people of colour is something I have a problem with some artists.

I am an African living on the continent. I cry for Africa because either we are being portrayed as savage people who walk barefoot, battle with flies and have fat corrupt leaders, or we are kings and queens – black girl magic beings. It is as if the world cannot believe that we are capable of being regular, sometimes boring human beings.

I empathize with any African American or Westerner seeking to connect with their ‘roots’ in whichever capacity they feel is good to them. Africa offers beauty, adventure, warmth and spiritual fulfilment. Spirituality is a deeply personal journey as well. I have witnessed black people finding a lot of meaning in their lives and filling spiritual voids within themselves after travelling to Africa. And though I do not want to judge Beyonce’s Homecoming film or Kendrick Lamar’s show Coming Back, I feel the fantasy way in which some African mythical narratives and practices are portrayed poses a danger to the people that follow these practices. These people are at the mercy of the definitions that Hollywood offers the world.

I particularly find the Black Panther and Wakanda Forever movies problematic. They find it quite alright to portray Africans as a people a cocktail of mashed-up cultures and languages – in the case of Wakanda Forever, some chiefs speak Zulu, have exaggerated Nigerian and South African accents and dress in traditional clothes and hair of the Himba from Namibia, adorning piercings of the Mursi community from Ethiopia. As an African, this is jarring to watch, and annoying to listen to. I can only imagine a Westerner with little context of all these cultures thinking that when they take their next trip to Kenya, they will hear me speak in what sounds like clicking sounds and that my grandparents pierce their lips. Offering these cultures on screen with no context is misrepresentative and disrespectful to those who practice them.

Because of this fantasized caricature of what Africans and our culture are, we run the risk of being treated as non-human, demigods, kings and queens who are all beautiful, wealthy, good and magical beings that feel no real pain. We also run the risk of our cultures being disrespected. I learnt from working on a film with a South Sudanese director (No simple way home by Akuol de Mabior) that filming dead bodies is a big taboo in South Sudan and thus is to be avoided. But Western media somehow cannot miss an opportunity to film a dead body whenever there is conflict on our land.

It is also interesting to note that those who suffered colonialism had their cultures stripped away from them, declared satanic and in some cases forced into Western religious practices. We now have a scenario where we are actually absorbing these made-up renditions of our own cultures from the West and taking them on as our own, because we lost our links to a lot of these practices. African people are humans who are complex and capable of being wonderful and also deeply flawed. It is assumed that we hold all the answers to all the questions of the world. This fantastical way of looking at people stops people from offering any criticisms or solutions to real problems, outdated systems of governance, and mistreatment of the people.

Are we, as listeners and partygoers, also guilty of forgetting about the contribution of African artists?

I think listeners are sometimes more conscious than partygoers when it comes to artistic contribution. A listener is more inclined to look for the artist they are listening to, find out more about them and maybe get more of their work if they like what they hear. A partygoer’s main priority is usually to have a great time – regardless of what’s playing or who is playing it. They may use an artificial stimulant to heighten their sense of a good time. Basically, it’s all about the good times. If you ask them what the third record the DJ played in the night, more often than not they cannot remember if they don’t already know it.

I think more people who often forget the contribution of African artists are music producers, especially those who create edits and remixes sampling original African productions. If one has the capacity to seek out the original composers of a track they would like to sample, they absolutely should. Offering a fee for the sample is one way to give back to the original composers. Crediting them in the compositions is another, and perhaps inviting them to studios would be yet another way to show gratitude for their contributions. I am happy to say that I know quite a few Western producers who seek out collaborations with African artists in their works, and sometimes manage to bring them out to the Western world for small tours. This is a great way to bring a face to the artist and to the sounds people hear and love.

How can artists in the Western world who say they empathize with this cause support you?

African art feeds a lot of people in the world. It inspires a lot of artistic movements globally. Africa is often the last to reap the benefits of all the beauty it inspires. Artists in the Western world need to be more conscious of our situation as artists working and travelling from the global south and other parts of the globe.

I am currently working with a great organization called Norient which allows for freedom of expression with limited bounds. Honest creative expression should not be controlled. It is a window to different people’s worlds. Those who seek to control this freedom, fear the truth and the change it might bring. As a Kenyan artist, Norienthas uplifted me to a position of authority because they believe in my abilities. I am honoured to work with an organization that does not limit my creativity and my voice and instead seeks to support and nurture it. All art forms presented are in the actual voices of the artists, carefully curated by a diverse team and packaged for consumption by a global audience.

Artists in the Western world need to advocate for their countries to stop interfering in African affairs, be it political, theft of resources, or unfair trade. All of these affect the people and the artists of Africa in some way. Artists in the Western world need to know how difficult it is to secure visas to their countries for Africans. I need at least a month to prepare and apply for visas in processes that are often very complicated and expensive. Artists from the Western world need to be more conscious of the people that make the music they play, remix and perform. We need allies in the Western world, to collaborate with and to brainstorm ideas to make our world freer for us to explore and benefit from.