Category: Arts + Culture


11912977_10153422834902559_300575038_nJust one visit to the memorial will be the best history class you’ve had in a long time. During the Rwandan Genocide, “Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines was used to incite hatred, to give instructions and justify the killings” – writes the memorial. In this post, I dissect the roles played by media and church in the propagation of the genocide, and a peaceful way forward.

Role of the Media

Media propaganda played a big role in shaping the events that led to the genocide. While at the memorial we see archives of sample newspaper cuttings over a span of a decade. They are all spreading malicious lies, hatred and implicating one tribe against the other. This is what served as a backbone of fuelling genocide.

We also see the 10 Commandments of Hutus drafted by a certain bishop. Everybody was expected to act on the 10 commandments just like they did to the ones in the bible. So ridiculous. Bonheur narrates of how the propaganda conditioned people’s minds. “If you take life from someone even before you kill him [it means] the killer is not a human being but a killing machine. A young man could attack a whole group [of people] without resistance because they had already killed in their minds. They were successful in killing and wiping out families – why women and children were largely attacked.”

11894832_10153426890767559_604674739_oThe international media also played a big role in the wrong definition of the genocide. They largely reported that genocide was an outbreak of African war against different African tribes. Very few accurately reported the real cause of the genocide. However, many were accurate in reporting on the kind of preparation and training for the genocide. The international community was warned about the impending massacre but they never ran to Rwanda’s rescue or responded positively. Bonheur says, “1,700 militias had already been trained and 300 more were supposed to be trained each week, with a capacity of killing around 1000 people in 20 minutes, revealed Jean Pierre (coded name for his security)  one of the trainers from the ruling party.”

By the time we are done with this part of the history lessons, one thing is clear. The genocide’s wrath left many scathed. Those who set out to kill others were highly effective as successful. Many families had Tutsi and Hutu members in one household. The segregation between a people ran down into families, ending up separating siblings – making them arch enemies. Bonheur remembers his father’s survival tale. Militias had confused him for another man and missed to kill him. – “even though he was killed later.”

We also visit a space designed like a darkroom. There are hundreds of pictures of those killed, hanging on walls and on strings across walls. They were retrieved and protected here as memorabilia. There are also some personal effects like ID cards, shoes, bracelets and dresses put here.

Role of the church

More than 80% of Rwandans were Christians. 35% of all the people who were killed during the genocide died in or around church.I am very disappointed by the Catholic Church when I learn that they did not fight to save lives during Rwandan Genocide. Instead some priests ordered killings, and at times the church was in collaboration with a biased government. “The churches were no longer sacred,” says, Nelson – our other host. A lot of people ran to church for refuge – the safest place anyone can think of when in danger. Because they had a majority, the church’s role to “fight the genocide would have been more effective than any other institution,” notes Bonheur.

This part of the memorial has blue cathedral windows. It feels likes I am in church.

The Road Travelled Vs a Peaceful Future

80 % of Rwandan children experienced death in their families. 75% witnessed it and 90% believed that they would die. They are today the majority of Rwandan grownups. The memorial writes, “The international Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), based in Arusha, Tanzania, was established by the UN Security Council in its resolution 955 of November 8, 1994 to prosecute high-level organisers of the genocide. After nineteen years the Tribunal had completed 75 cases with 12 acquittals and 16 cases pending appeal.”

Not all Hutus were killing others. Some worked tirelessly to save lives. After the war, many refuges fled to Congo and other parts of the world. Survivors were left devastated and traumatised. They had to start a new life. They had to find their people’s remains or identify where they were killed so as to start the mourning process. Today the government gives 5% of its budget to survivors’ care – this includes psychological healing.

Despite all these efforts, Bonheur says that the genocide is still being denied. “We (Rwandans) are still fighting against the denial,” he says. However, “We are trying to build a peace that can never be broken,” he asserts, adding that it’s all in line with rebuilding the country’s socio-economical cloth. The memorial also runs several peace programs that have since started similar projects in Kenya and South Sudan.

I am very proud of Rwanda’s heritage and their motivation to remember the genocide. I wish international media as well as Africa media would sensitive people on the genocide more to avoid its recurrence or a replica. Visiting the memorial reminds me of Kenya’s post election violence. I don’t think Kenyans would even dare fight if they really understood the loss, and depths at which the genocide has taken Rwanda, to date.

11914235_10153422835517559_1673735365_oAs we leave the memorial, Bonheur bids us farewell and everyone immediately walks into the car. I remain behind to chat with Bonheur, thanking him for his time and taking us though their history. I ask him about his experience during the genocide. He lost his mother and five siblings in the terror. His voice trembles, making me start to balance tears. “I can’t talk about it now. I am so glad to have survived,” adding, “I owe my life to the woman who saved me.” I want to hug him so tight and reassure him that I feel him. But I am afraid because we just met today and I don’t know him like that. I don’t know what to say, other than, “I am sorry about your family, glad you are here today, and thank you.” There is power in this man, standing here in total belief in redemption. I am inspired.

As we drive out of the genocide memorial towards town for dinner – my heart is heavy. I watch my surrounding. I see happy people, children playing, beautiful streetlights and just normalcy. It’s unbelievable to imagine the massacre that was on these cool streets some decades ago. I wouldn’t have been here then. But I am here now, wondering whether the Rwandan obsession with cleanliness is to sanitize themselves from the deep scar.

Whatever the case. It shall be well.

Read the first part of my tales about Visiting Kigali Memorial here.

BONUS: My condolences and love to all the lost souls and survivors. Thanks Bonheur, Bruce and Nelson for the trip.  Guys check out the memorial’s website

11873171_10153422857597559_847123258_oNo matter which part of the world you come from, this is the one place you must visit in your lifetime – to be reminded and re-educated of life’s fragility and the danger of the human vulnerability.

In 100 days, an estimated 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed in the genocide. Imagine what the world would be if we actually spent 100 days making love, and not war. I was just a kid during the Rwanda Genocide but I was conscious of what was going on, and since vowed to visit the memorial at my first chance in Kigali.

I am in Kigali for only 24 hours. As soon as I arrive in Rwanda, I ask our hosts right at the airport about how far the Genocide Memorial is and if it opens on Sundays. Thankfully, they open on Sundays too.

Read about my 24 hours in Kigali

Accompanied by Sauti Sol and some of their band members, we head over to the memorial on Sunday afternoon. I am so touched that the management stayed open past working hours, for us. We are met and welcomed by the best historian and guide I’ve met in my history of visiting museums and places – Bonheur Pacifique. Quite the name!

11894729_10153422863502559_843035090_o (2)The remains of over 250,000 have been buried here at the Genocide Memorial, set up to prevent mass atrocity and genocide through education. I am impressed by the structural prowess behind it and the neatness and cleanliness of the memorial. Nestled above one of Rwanda’s many hills, overlooking the beautiful picturesque view of Kigali city, this has become Rwandans place of reuniting with the ones they lost in the genocide. I am embraced by a feeling of serenity, peace and purity soon after walking in. I am suddenly empowered to be strong-minded and brave. I am ready to learn about the genocide atrocity. Something tells me that I won’t sob here, today.

Honouring Rwanda’s Lost Souls

We start the visit by watching a short film at a small and intimate film room with wooden benches. The film is about survivors of the genocide, recalling the events that lead to losing their families, and how they have since found closure at the memorial. I am very touched by the story of a middle-aged man recounting how his whole family was slaughtered in a stadium, where they had been seeking refuge. “I looked over and saw my mother bleeding. She raised her dress to show me my small brother lying beneath her – dead. When I started to cry, she told me to shut up. And if I were to die, then I’d rather do it with grace. I ran off and never looked back. That was the last time I saw my family alive.” I am crying writing this because it pains me. At the memorial, however, I only shed one tear because there was a big voice of reason that asked me to remain strong for these poor people. Another woman recounts how her family’s beloved neighbours turned against them during the genocide, ending up murdering her siblings and parents, retorting that she will never trust a friend. At the end of the film, all the survivors praise the memorial as the place where they unite with the loved ones they lost.

11909735_10153422837432559_398114512_nWe then head over to the mass grave, situated in the garden area, to lay a wreath of flowers – the first thing done for anyone who comes here, states Bonheur. I haven’t even gone into the memorial yet I am so overwhelmed by the spirits here. I deeply empathise with their families and hope that they have found rest. The black and white colours on top of the wooden coffins represent “mourning and commemoration designed to reflect where the country has been and the brighter future that we are working towards,” says Bonheur. We all hold hands as Bien leads us in prayer.

Rwandan Genocide history | Role of Colonialists

We then head inside the building into the memorial’s archive where Bonheur takes us through Rwanda’s history before the wahala. It is eye-opening to peak into pre-colonial Rwanda when Rwandese people had no tribe and spoke only one language: sharing peace, love, unity, collaboration and one culture. Trouble began when the white man came to divide to rule. German and Belgian colonialists wearing anthropology masks in disguise were on a mission to split Rwandans. “Colonialists used social and economic stratification as their strong points of dividing Rwandans.” By 1932, the first Rwandese ID cards were introduced. Identification was based on physical features including height, length of nose, colours of the eyes, and wealth. “If you had more than 10 cows, then you were a Tutsi and it meant that you were rich. Hutus had less cows. Long noses indicated that you were a Tutsi and the short ones made one a Hutu.”

What this means is that you could be in a family with siblings who were half Tutsi or Hutu.

Over the next couple of decades, Rwandans go through a series of fascist governments and propaganda filled media to an extent that social revolution becomes a basic need. By the time the French colonisers take over Rwanda from the Belgians, there was already distinct animosity between the two tribes. From the 50s, Tutsis were singled out from the country’s system – it was total segregation. By the early 90s many Tutsis had fled the country and were ready to start a civil war against the country. Anything and everything that went wrong in the country would be blamed on Tutsis. “You are a Tutsi, you are a cockroach and you are a snake ” –Tutsis had to be reminded. “If you were Rwandan and you didn’t attack the Tutsi, then you were going against nationalism. This is the process that led to the institutionalism of the Genocide of Rwanda,” says Bonheur, adding, “This was taught in schools and every level of the country.”

The Genocide

“The country smelled of death, dogs were [mauling human remains]. Everything was dead, physical or otherwise.” – Bonheur sets the scene. “Families were completely wiped out without anything to document them. The country smelled like death, it was total turmoil and chaos. For 100 days, that’s what we woke up to – killing people. People looked for hiding places.” We are taken through the tools and weapons that were used to kill people. They included machetes, clubs, chains, bricks, stones and classic guns. Rwanda’s ministry of agriculture then imported clubs from China to facilitate the war. In schools, children were given assignments to make tools to facilitate the genocide, unbeknownst to them.

Mass raping of women was prevalent during the genocide. The chosen men to rape had been prior identified as HIV+ This was to ensure that women were left permanently scared had they survived the genocide, and the ordeal. “The genocidaires had been more successful in their evil aims than anyone would have dared to believe. Rwanda was dead”– writes the memorial.

Pictures in this part of the memorial are very graphic.

BONUS: My condolences and love to all the lost souls and survivors. A huge thanks to my Kigali connect: Bruce, Bonheur and Nelson. For more, read the Genocide Memorial’s site

Read last part of my tales on Visiting Kigali Memorial Centre here.

If its true that cleanliness is next to godliness, Kigali is heaven! Oh la la! This city is as clean as European streets. I don’t spot a single paper or heaps of garbage anywhere like is the case in certain parts of Nairobi. I am super bummed that I only have 24 hours in Rwanda, but super psyched that I am finally going to Kigali Up Festival, where Sauti Sol are headlining in the fest’s 2015 edition. My initial 72 hours in Kigali turn into 24 thanks to an impromptu call from State House, for Sauti Sol to perform on Saturday night in honour of President Obama (blog post for another day). Nevertheless, on arrival in Kigali, I am ready to not sleep and discover and experience as much as I can.

 

 

8:20 a.m. – Arrival Kigali International Airport

I am once again accompanying Sauti Sol, as their publicist and tour manager, to a festival I always wanted to attend and a country I always wanted to visit. Rwandese men are handsome and the women are beautiful. Kigali’s scenery is picturesque. The roads, built on steep mini hills, are winding and sliding – just like in Kampala.

You might enjoy my Ugandan tales about butts, matoke & music

The Wi-Fi is on point right from the airport – very impressive! The weather is nice and warm, unlike Nairobi’s current gloomy situation. Our hotel Gold Crest Hotel is pretty decent and very close to where we are performing – the Amahoro Stadium.

 

 

11:00 a.m – Brunch/Soundcheck

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With my colleague at SS Entertainment – Kelvin. Off to check out Kigali City. No makeup.

After making sure Sauti Sol and their full band are all checked into the hotel, I have a quick brunch and then head to Amahoro Stadium to check out the venue and oversee soundcheck. The drive down to the stadium makes me have a closer look at Kigali. I am astounded by the cleanliness of this city. There are no flying banana peals off moving vehicles on Kigali roads like is the case in Kenya. There is not one person littering Kigali like there are several foolish Kenyans throwing things around our cities. Our host Bruce Twagira tells me that every last Saturday of the month is a cleanliness day – where everyone, including President Kagame, comes out to clean. Standing on the massive Kigali Up stage, I can’t believe I am in Rwanda, I remember Mos Def asking me a few months ago about Kigali Up and why I hadn’t been there – but now I am right here. It’s such a gratifying feeling for me to be right at the place I always wanted to be and at the right time. Rwanda has been on my mind.

 

1:00 p.m. – Return to hotel

 

I had you just for a moment 😂😤😥😭 This calls for a return even before departure.

A video posted by black roses (@anyikowoko) on

I only have a few hours in this hotel room, made for a queen. It reminds me of the fact that I need a king. Nway I clean up nicely, do a couple of emails and press releases before mobilising my team to head to the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

Read my blog post on Visiting Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre

 

8:00 p.m. – Dinner/Discussing African Music

 

11840174_10153392459782559_1069900193_oI have been starving the whole day, mainly because for the past few months I’ve been on a strict diet due to health complications. However, I can’t wait to eat up some local treats. But our host takes us to a restaurant serving none. I am so bummed. My starter – an avocado salad at Select Hotel & Restaurant is to die for! How brilliant that I gobbled it faster than I could take a pic. We all sit on a table of about 12. They get us the best spot right at the patio. The restaurant is located somewhere above a hill. We are overlooking city lights atop hills and mountains – it looks like the sky’s shiny stars are inverted.

We have great conversation about music in Africa. Our hosts Bruce and Nelson tell us about how much more Rwandese musicians need to pull their socks but Bien tells them, “Your artists are at the best place. Sauti Sol – we are well-known in Kenya but so are other artists. An artist based in Rwanda has a bigger space to fill and fans to satisfy, we’d like to come here more often and even volunteer our songwriting services at Kigali Up’s workshops.” I agree. I am also willing to volunteer my PR services in Rwanda. Bruce and Nelson tell me that a lot of Rwandese artistes don’t see the value of PR and networking, or so it seems. They tell us that about a decade ago Kenyan music used to rock Kigali. Somewhere along the way everything changed and now they only rock to Tanzanian and Ugandan music from East Africa. “We now like a few Kenyan artistes like Jaguar. But we only listen to Sauti Sol – you are breaking boundaries,” says Nelson. A few steps from where we are sitting, a merry table breaks into a bday song. One of the ladies sitting on the table is celebrating their birthday – she’s lucky she’s got Sauti Sol singing her Happy Birthday :-)

 

10:00 p.m. – Showtime

 

Sauti Sol are the headliners, literally shutting down the 2-day festival. I really love the outfits the guys have on – all white everything. For the first time, I didn’t know what they were going to wear. The vibe is awesome, the crowd is singing to Sauti Sol songs word for word. Apparently all public shows must shut down by 11:00 p.m. in Kigali – we didn’t know. When they are just half way through their full set, the boss of the fest tells me that this show must end in 15 minutes, as the police are already at the concert to shut down. It’s a little past 11. “Tell them to only sing Nerea and Sura Yako.”

This messes with the guys concentration and dejects them a little.

When they get to the part where the lyrics go, “ … huenda akawa Kagame … Atawale …” – I see the cops talking to the fest’s boss. He comes up to me and says, “Tell Sauti Sol we’ve added them enough time, they can continue however they want.” Wow! Power of uttering the name of Kagame in Kigali!

Sauti_Sol-Kigali-23The best part of the show however is meeting Ishimwe Daddy at the backstage. The organisers bring me this young artist who made a portrait of Sauti Sol and wants to present it to them. This is really touching. He is young and so shy, I literally force and push him onto the stage just when the concert is ending, to hand it over to them himself.

By the time we leave the concert venue, I have had the toughest time at any backstage in our touring career. There were so many girls in the backstage screaming, shouting, begging and crying to take pictures with Sauti Sol. At some point the organisers bar them from Sauti Sol but it breaks my heart. I insist that Sauti Sol must do all interviews and take pictures with all the fans. I somehow manage to handle the madness!

 

1:30 a.m – Hotel/Packing

 

You must wonder what’s there to pack when you’re in a city for 24 hours with no sleep – I am chief diva. As the rest of Sauti Sol clean up and head out to the club, I spend a couple of hours with Bruce and Chimano at the hotel, bonding and eating while reminiscing on stuff. We have had a great show so everything we talk about evokes laughter.

 

3:45 a.m. – Kigali International Airport/Boarding

 

I am so sad to leave Kigali but I have to. Work has to be done on the other side. I am so fatigued, when I get to the airport I don’t want to talk to anyone or any hostess in the plane. I just want to sleep. I will cover my head with my shawl until I hear the captain saying that we are descending into Nairobi.

5:30 a.m. – Arrival Kenya

 

Jomo Kenyatta Airport is damn cold, and my taxi driver overslept. 30 calls couldn’t wake him up. I am forced to grab a random taxi, to go through atrocious post – Obama Nairobi traffic, and finally to a crazy work-filled day ahead of me.

While departing Rwanda, I finished drinking a bottle of water just as I was passing Kigali airport customs. A policeman walked up to me and said, “Hey – I will throw the bottle away for you.” If I don’t get married to a King, I don’t think this will ever happen to me in any other place in the world. Kigali – je t’aime.

BONUS: Thank you Bruce and your awesome Kigali UP Team, we must return soon!

 

 

 

I always wanted to visit Uganda so as to see the famed big butts, eat nice Matoke and experience the party zone. In recent months, however, I was craving Uganda to witness my No. 1 band Sauti Sol’s premiere show there, and dine at The Sound Cup – one of the most loved restaurants in Kampala owned by one of the artistes I also rep in PR – Ugandan soul musician Maurice Kirya.

 

 

If the beauty of Kampala and Nairobi cities were to go head to head, Uganda wins hands down. While Nairobi is a concrete jungle, Kampala has that Kitisuru green all over town, and a perfect view with winding hills and valleys smack in the centre of everything.

I finally find myself heading to Uganda this July with Sauti Sol as their tour manager and publicist. We are excited to be in Uganda for our first Ugandan media tour and debut concert. Sitting in the plane trying to read my new Hermann Hesse book is a waste of time because I can’t stop thinking about what I will discover in Kampala. I am appalled at my ignorance. I didn’t even know that Kampala is only 50 minutes away from Nairobi. Before I know it, the captain is beckoning us to check out the hills of Uganda and Lake Victoria.

 

 

Uganda’s first tease starts at landing. The idyllic Entebbe landing strip is located smack in the middle of Kampala’s competing beauties: the seven hills and Lake Victoria. Landing is like a dip in the ocean that never was – such beauty! I have been told that the trip to Kampala from Entebbe can be atrocious. The Mith tells me to be careful not to miss our flight back while returning. We are however lucky the drive to Kampala tonight only takes about 25 minutes. I wonder why Uganda’s international airport is that far from the city. Entebbe was once the seat of government for the protectorate of Uganda and historically remembered for the dramatic rescue of the 100 hostages kidnapped by the resistance group of the PFLP-EO and Revolutionary Cells (RZ).

It’s interesting that our hotel: Arcadia Suites is a former university space, and very impressive that the space has been transformed into a super homely and chic spot.

11774834_10153369119092559_2058944245_nOn Friday night, I dine with Maurice Kirya at The Sound Cup. It’s an experience I want to re-do over and over. While sitting across this gentleman, I can’t help but appreciate life’s little pleasures. For many years, I have admired Kirya, loved his music and thought him to be the classiest of all from Uganda. Earlier on this year, a surprise call from Uganda was Kirya asking for my services as a Publicist. It didn’t work out at first, and during our second meeting but like they say third time’s a charm, it is our meeting at Coke Studio Africa (where I work as Music/Entertainment Publicist) that officiates everything. Meeting and working with Kirya is such a pleasure because we are both workaholics :-) Our evening is everything to write home about. And Sound Cup’s ambience is to die for!

Saturday afternoon after sound check, our chaperone takes us to Shaka Zulu restaurant to have some authentic Ugandan dishes. Fish in peanut sauce is served in banana leaves. I am absolutely blown away by the detail. The Peanut Fish and Matoke is what call meal of Life. Just writing about it makes me so hungry. My cousin Kevin meets me here, and later at the concert with his Ugandan wife to be. See – there are many reasons why I have to be back in Uganda.

 

As all the men I am with are dying for Ugandan women – I am dying for the food. Just look 😋😋😋

A video posted by black roses (@anyikowoko) on

 

Our Ugandan media tour starts on Friday till Saturday. We visit Urban TV, X FM, Hot 100, Radiocity 97, Capital FM and NTV Uganda. It’s been such a great and rewarding experience. Discovering that I have been in contact with 98% of all the media contacts I meet in Uganda makes me so happy. “Ooooh you’re Anyiko! We get your emails,” they all say. They finally put a face to the emails and Anyiko PR. Radio and TV play some really dope local raggae songs, most of which haven’t crossed over into Kenya. I love Radio & Weasel’s new “Juicy” song.

Since our arrival, I’ve been talking to Ugandan musician Eddy Kenzo – the 2015 BET winner for Best New International Act Viewers’ Choice Awards. On Saturday just before our show, Washington – one of Uganda’s top producers, and Kenzo come to pay us a visit at the hotel. Kenzo has got an entourage of almost a dozen people with him. On reaching the hotel lobby, I wonder where today’s crowd came from. Kenzo says, “Greet everyone, they are my people.” Don’t even ask how all those men fit in Sauti Sol producer Savara’s suite – I leave them setting up a studio.

11749815_10153369157892559_1541836352_nThe Sauti Sol Live in Uganda show at Kampala Serena Ballroom is totally sold out and absolutely beautiful. 99% of all the ladies (even super publicist) at the concert are wearing dresses. Straight from the airport, in town and now at the concert – all female booties I see are well curved. All the TV presenters I meet are as adorable as dolls.

Ugandans paid a shitload to see Sauti Sol, without complaints unlike how it would be if it were in Kenya. Every time I’ve been to Tanzania and now Uganda, I ask myself why I had to be born in a country where a majority of concert goers don’t see the point of buying premium tickets to see our own musicians. This problem pierces my heart deeply. However, many Ugandans tell me that the kind of show Sauti Sol put up isn’t ordinary and Ugandans expected nothing short. “We are a particularly choosy audience. We either like you or criticise you,” my main Ugandan contact – Just Jose, tells me after the concert. We later head to Sky Lounge for the after party.

If my first Ugandan virgin experience is anything to go by – I want to relocate to Uganda. We leave behind glowing reviews but carry with us fun times, warm hospitality and a reminder of why we do what we do. Uganda – Weebale!

BONUS: To Aly of Talent Africa and your team, Kirya, the awesome Sound Cup team, Uganda’s Definition Africa Store, my cousin Kevin and every single person I met – Thank you for making my time in Uganda awesome!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From left: Digital Diva – Waithera, me, Cobby and Queen Ipaye

Before meeting Nigerian musician, producer and songwriter Cobhams Asuquo – I hear a lot of awesome things about him and his work. I am particularly curious to understand how he works around his equipment and production – being blind – yet – hands down one of the best producers hailing from Africa.

When we finally meet in Nairobi during his time as producer at Coke Studio Africa season III, I start to understand that things actually aren’t as complicated for him as I feared they’d be. Like most professionals, he’s got a manager and an engineer – Sola (who also doubles up as his right hand man) – I discover that things work for him, pretty much the same way they work for most of us with the gift of sight, if not more seamless.

Cobhams is a jolly good fellow. There’s almost always an air of laughter around him while on and off duty. For the first two days, I am keen to introduce myself to Cobhams every time I meet him. But on the third day, he says, “I know its you.” Of course he does. It’s rather silly how the human ability to see deceives us to think that everything must be – because we see in a certain way.

By the second week working around the same production – we’ve become buddies and constantly enjoy exchanging opinions on cultural topics. Cobhams’ mind is beautiful. If you are shallow, he’s the type of person you could never have a conversation with. No offense. I am taken aback by his sentiment that he hasn’t experienced Nairobi’s pulse properly as he had “expected more and heard amazing things about this city.” I know Nairobi is all that and more, and I am also curious to know what ticks Cobhams. “I like great food, fine restaurants, events where things are happening just like acoustic sets and great company,” he says.

I immediately set up an upcoming evening for dinner for his crew to meet mine. I have invited a few of my close friends, most of whom are musicians, writers and colleagues at Coke Studio Africa. We dine at Karen’s Que Pasa. It’s the best thing to dine with Cobhams – trust me. Small conversation turns into important life lessons. Some of the topics we discuss change the ways I have been thinking and end up inspiring me big time.

Cobhams has got so many genuine qualities that I wish every human being possessed. For instance, he’s open speaking about his blindness and greatness (unbeknownst to him), all in modesty. “I don’t wish I could see or feel that things would have turned out differently if I did because things might have actually been different for me. I think that seeing can also sometimes be a distraction. At this point in my life I am passionate about empowering people to realize that they can be,” he tells me and my assistant Tracy.

Cobhams is the writer and producer of the phenomenal song “Jailer” by Nigerian French singer, songwriter and recording artists Aṣa. “Jailer” finding a life of its own in this big saturated world of music, has left Cobhams more than content. “Wow!” He marvels when we explain to him how big that song was/and still is, to us and in Kenya. He explains how he wrote the song out of frustration. He supposed it was an irony that those who deny us opportunities and chances are just as much denying themselves as much, just like a prisoner and jailer are both inmates – “depending on how you look and them and where you are looking at them from.”

Somehow we end up talking about the debate on who needs to be empowered more. The boy child or the girl child? Cobhams says, “Men need to be taught to be leaders and take responsibility. A man needs to be taught to take bullets for his family,” directly telling me, “It is important for your cause as a supporter of the girl child to support the boy child. For in order to give the girl child the attention and the positioning that she deserves, their needs to be real men … It’s in the place of empowering the boy child and to make him understand the power of a woman’s intuition.”

This guy is deep. I’ve sared.

We also talk about books and I discover that we share some things in common. We both love to read and we both recently made a conscious decision to read an African author after every book by a random author. I tell him about my love for George Orwell, Hermann Hesse and Zukiswa Wanner.

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The Epic Union, Honourable Raila meets top producer Cobhams and his engineer Sola.

In the last hour of dinner, former Prime Minister of Kenya Raila Odinga happens to sit on a table close to ours. These things only happen when you are dining with Cobhams. Cobby insists that  he has to meet Raila so I work my Publicist magic. We end up being the only peeps at the restaurant who take pictures with Raila. They end up discussing music and African politics. It was really cool.

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Two of my Fave People in the world. True story

In the last 40 minutes of dinner, another one of my great friends – Blinky Bill makes it! He just came in after a studio session. They talk studio time and musical notes with Cobby. “Do you love Franco?” Asks Blinky. “Like who in Nigeria doesn’t listen to Congolese music?” They start to sing out Lingala tunes as we head out of Que Pasa, way past 11:00 p.m… “Kekekekeke Gala Mingeli …”

“I have to stop or people will think I am crazy,” Cobby says as we get to the parking lot. But in the real sense I am the one looking crazy dancing to no music :-)

BONUS: Coke Studio Africa TV Show represents a great wealth of music from Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Mozambique and Uganda. For the first time 29 artistes from these countries will in the new season collaborate in a unique format of mash-ups. The show will feature performances and collaborations from popular artists who have made a mark on their local music scene.

Notice I haven’t really talked about his music production? Look out for the continuation of this post: Talking Music with Cobhams Asuquo

DSC00132DSC00138When in Stockholm, make sure you visit Old Town (Gamla Stan) – Stockholm’s original city centre nestled in the islands of Stadsholmen and islets of Riddarholmen, Helgeandsholmen and Strömsborg. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve been to since I can remember. On our way to the Old Town, we meet a super cute Just Married couple taking a stroll. I think I want to do it this way when I get married.

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From the cobbled streets, tiny alleyways, old big doors like Zanzibar’s – I loved Old Town! Most of the walls are partitioned in two colours – mustard and coal. Most of the stairs to the tiny apartments and houses here are made of wood. The town’s picturesque setting overlooking the waterfront reminds me of a scene from Dirty Dancing. Wasn’t Patrick Swayze’s house by the beach? There is a piece of graffiti in Old Town – a paradox of sorts – rebellion smack in the middle of reserved history.

 

 

DSC00135 DSC00134Visiting Europe’s smallest theatre Dur & Moll located in Old Town is too cool. I understand that its space only accommodates about an audience of 17 and only one or two actors. Their website says, “Dur & Moll recently celebrated a very proud 15th anniversary. The theatre has been chosen to weave fantasy and fact in the historical environment to move the visitor in time through stage design, mask and attributes, and using ingenious solutions for sound, lighting and scene changes.”

 

DSC_1144The best part of Old Town is checking out Stockholm’s narrowest street: Mårten Trotzigs Gränd. The street was named after the famous German merchant who immigrated to Stockholm in 1581 and bought properties in the alley in 1500s. The 36-stepped alley is Stockholm’s most famous tourist attraction. I am with my host in Sweden – my dear friend Sylvia. She’s been going on and on about how I will love Old Town. Just as we are about to leave Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, a towering man approaches us, “Excuse me –do you know that this is the narrowest street in Stockholm?” We know.

BONUS: The Old Town dates from the 13th century but most of the buildings standing there today are from the 1700s an 1800s. The best part about it all is the fact that the government of Sweden restricts citizens from pimping the old town houses and buildings here.

 

yasiin bey 2-2Note to June – May was so uplifting, inspiring and awesome. I never thought that I’d one day meet the hip hop artist Yasiin Bey, let alone work with him and closely relate to him. Working as new PR Manager at Nairobi Rapsody (which in May hosted Yasiin Bey’s first showcase in East Africa) put me in direct contact with Yassiin as his Publicist while in Kenya.

First how wonderful would it be to see him in my country? I can’t wait. In official communication like press releases and emails, the rapper formerly known as Mos Def wants to be referred as Yasiin Bey – and I keep to that. About 36 hours before Yasiin’s first East African showcase, I have organised a press briefing for him and all the Kenyan hip hop acts set to showcase to engage with the media. However, he hasn’t made it in Kenya in time. Thankfully for his right hand woman and DJ – Samira Bin Sharifu (renowned writer, filmmaker, festival curator and DJ between Amsterdam and London) is present to represent his management.

Sharifa, whose got roots in Zanzibar, is enthusiastic to be back in East Africa. She is looking forward to her stay in Nairobi and tells Kenyan media that what is to expect of Yasiin “will all depend with how he feels when he gets here.” However, she explains to us that Yasiin gets a little crazy on stage and most times, “it’s not what you expect. He loves to dance, something not typical of most rappers.” This makes me even more curious to see him on stage now.

“Yasiin is an artist of feelings,” co – founder of Nairobi Rapsody says at the briefing. He’s told me this a couple of times as I prepare Yasiin’s media schedule in advance. I already know that I will roll with his flow when he arrives as I have planned a couple of interviews and appearances for him.

He’s happy to receive the Maasai shukas and Kenyan flag my friend Wanjeri and I have brought him. As soon as we get him to his hotel – Tribe, I request to take photos of him to post on Nairobi Rapsody Facebook Page to update anticipating fans. Yasiin is graceful enough to pose, after which he candidly tells me, “I don’t like taking pictures. Tell everyone that I am willing to do anything but not take pictures.” I immediately reckon that like anyone would have their unique preferences, Yasiin likes his space, and image protected. But there’s no way I am not in his first Kenyan selfie with him. “So can we at least take a selfie?” I have already held my phone up high. He doesn’t know much about me, still, but he kind of gets my twisted humour and gently holds my phone. “Aiiight … I’ma do it myself. What’s up with all these photos though?” he hands my phone back and wanders off into his executive suite, marvelling at the beautiful ambience.

Just that gesture of not wanting to take a selfie and wanting to be in control of the one he takes – tells me that Yasiin likes to control his portrayed. I am not surprised because we are living in a world of news made from Instagram posts; a world of people obsessing over numbers. It has always been wondrous to me what the world would be like if the internet suddenly disappeared. “Please tell everyone that I don’t like to take any pictures, it makes me very uncomfortable. I’ll do any other thing you’ve organized for me,” he tells me.

You might like my story for DStv Mos Def comes to Nairobi

Cyber Space Obsession: when is time to hit delete?

In the continuation of the Yasiin series, look out for The Other Side of Yasiin Bey

DSC_0824It’s been a few weeks since my trip to Sweden. I think it was so cold that my mind has since, still been thawing. But thankfully I now am good to recollect all my thoughts :-)

Last November while in Netherlands, despite having someone to hug me during my entire trip ;-) I found Amsterdam so chilly – winter was kicking just kicking in.

Unbeknownst to me, that was preparation for my arrival in Sweden in a few months (March 2015). These were the last days of winter but they teach me what it really means to be cold. I had never experienced such cold that requires life to only exist with on and a load of clothes on, literally making you feel like you are forever carrying a load on your body. The streets are empty and I am told it’s because of the cold weather.

DSC_0755Interestingly, I receive such a warm welcome for such a cold country. The first people I meet as soon as I arrive at Bromma airport are the usual hungry taxi men. I ask one of them if I can use their phone to call Sylvia (my friend and host). Her phone is on voicemail so I promise the kind taxi man that we will take his taxi if at all I find her and we need one. I end up purchasing a week – long bus ticket that I start to use asap. As we walk out of the airport, I don’t want to glance at the taxi men as I am headed to the bus station. Sylvia tells me that their kindness is unique and unlike most taxi operators. When I finally steal a glance at them as we leave to the bus stop, they are all standing tall, smiling at me and waving goodbye.

I am lucky the sun comes out on my first day, as soon as I arrive. It’s so beautiful to see snow for the first time. Sylvia couldn’t be happier to share my first-snow-moment with me.

DSC_0786As we get into the city centre, I am amazed at Stockholm’s beauty. First, the buildings in Stockholm are located between Lake Malaren and the Baltic Sea. I find something I totally love about Europe’s architecture here – history that dates back to the 13th century, if not earlier. Sweden’s list of islands fantasizes me and sometimes while driving around town, I can’t imagine what a beautiful view those who live on these islands have every morning, especially during summer time. One building even has its top shaped like a ship.

I find the design of some Stockholm buildings quite similar to Dutch architecture. Sylvia tells me that a lot of Swedish architecture has foreign influences. Indeed, during the 1600s and 1700s, foreign architects were recruited to build the city and in recent periods Swedish architects often drew inspiration from their tours to Europe.

DSC_1129On a different day we pass by the eighteenth-built Swedish Royal Palace, one of the largest palaces in Europe. This is were His Majesty the King of Sweden resides. It’s so grand with 600 rooms and the whole shebang. I am wowed by the fact that it’s open to the public. As we walk in and out its lovely court area, Sylvia tells me that national events or announcements are actually made by the King, many times, here. Its Italian Baroque style, coronation carriages and magnificent coaches from the Royal Stable make me feel like I just walked into Disney World. I miss to see the parade of soldiers but indeed there’s that one soldier by the entrance who is so still, she looks like a statue.

Look out for:

Taking stock of Stockholm: Part II (Visiting Old Town)

Taking stock of Stockholm: Part III (Dogs, Music and Cuisine)

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While in Stockholm, I visited the Fotografiska, a Swedish photography museum and centre for contemporary photography opened in 2010. Its location is perfect – just by the Baltic Sea and habour – both providing beautiful scenery.

 

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I was glad to discover the space showcasing an exhibition on Herb Ritts – one of the world’s most sought-after fashion photographers. “In Full Light” (21st Nov 2014 – 15th Mar 2015) was a retrospective exhibition of Herb’s famous, iconic images and pictures that have never before been shown.

 

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At the moment, I didn’t know much of Herb Ritts – the person, mainly because his career’s high point was during 70s and 80s just when I hadn’t entered the world or was too tiny – but when I started viewing his work, especially the portraits, I realized that I had already seen some of them before.

 

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The exhibition’s images were so powerful, it amazed me how in just one image, Herb managed to capture the aura of superstars and personalities created over decades. For instance, there was a Prince image where he is gripping at his black leather cap tied to chains that cover is face – truly representative of Prince’s style and the facade he’s built around him to date. These are iconic images that evoke memories of an era like when King of Pop was alive and when Madonna was Queen of Pop.

 

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There are several nude fashion images but my best is of two male models sensually holding themselves like it’s the last time before the world robs them of their sacred moment. They look like sex gods, something I would only expect to see in sculpture at The Louvre. The museum writes of Herb’s inspirations, “There was an emerging fixation with the body and a fashion world inspired by gay culture.”

 

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Herb, who was good friends with Richard Gere, loved people and looks like he ended up making friends or creating working relationships with many celebrities. It shows in his choice of his images. Seeing an image of Patrick Swayze in such a beautiful portrayal that only reminds me of his sexy self in Dirty Dancing—one of the best films that I first watched as a child thereby my definition of classic. This and many images of “Full Light” are the “illustration of a rare equilibrium, expressed via a careful combination of natural elements. The result is a visual game that is apparently seductive and simple but which conceals elaborate technical skill.” This image balances between Swayze’s masculinity and femininity – a rare equilibrium to display via lens. I miss him so much.

My other favourites include portraits of Antonio Banderas, Magic Johnson and images of Cher’s butt (puts Nicki Minaj’s fakeness to shame), Naomi Campbell and a psychotic looking Denzel Washington (reminds me of his role in Flight).

“Herb Ritts died in 2002 of pneumonia at the age of 50. He is remembered as one of the major lifestyle photographers of the 80s and 90s. Mixing commercial commissions with portraits, music videos and his own projects, he broke the boundaries of fashion, art and advertising.”

 

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During his illustrious career in photography he worked for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Elle, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. He also worked in music videos for the greats like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Jennifer Lopez. He worked with fashion brands like Calvin Klein, Versace and Giorgio Armani.

 

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After visiting the exhibition, interestingly I was served at the centre’s bookshop by a Swedish gentleman who asked if I was from Kenya. “Your earrings do look like Kenya’s flag,” he said, adding, “I am actually going to be in Kenya soon for a holiday as my Dad used to work there.” I am amazed at this. When I am away from home, I always see signs that remind me of home. Ended up buying an awesome lens cup at Fotografiska.

BONUS: Thanks Sylvia Ziemski​ for the awesome company. Herb Ritts exhibition was a production of Fondazione Forma per la Fotografia, Milan, in association with Herb Ritts’ Foundation. It was curated by Alessandra Mauro and designed by Jessy Heuvelink, Head of Design at J. Lindeberg.

DSC00437Few stories have brought my heart such despair as much as hope as this 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup that I chanced upon in a small hidden bookshop in Amsterdam.

Solomon has “common hopes, and loves, and labors of an obscure coloured man, making his humble progress in the world”. He is born and raised a free man. The lower-middle class industrious man is married with three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. Together with his wife, Solomon tries to make ends meet by running various short-lasting projects, including a career in music. Solomon is among few black males from Saratoga who can make some good money off his violin playing.

Two circus promoters approach Solomon offering him a job in Washington and promise to pay extremely well for his services as a musician. In desperate need for providing for his family, he follows them immediately without alerting his family. By tricking and drugging him, they kidnap him from his native Saratoga into slavery deep in the south of Louisiana – where he would be bound for 12 years.

“My subject is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage,” Solomon writes in the first page of the first chapter. I sobbed occasionally while flipping through his pages and now I balance tears reflecting upon the book as I write this. How a free man or anyone could find himself bound in chains and shackles then subjected to utmost inhumane treatment is heartbreaking.

This is a solitary tale yet a painting of the lives of so many – cast and condemned as slaves, either born into it or captured like Solomon.

Life of a Slave

tyas_cvrIn chronological order, Solomon explains to the reader the process of how he was enslaved, and the day-to-day life of a slave. The life of a slave is worthless. Some slave owners feed their animals more than a slave. And some let dogs maul their slaves. A slave’s history, if any, doesn’t exist. The words freedom and liberty must never be uttered from a slave’s mouth (lest they receive several lashes as punishment). The subject of freedom and liberty however was always spoken or thought of in private as revealed by Solomon, discrediting the old assumption that slaves never understood or even fathomed what it meant to be free. Before his kidnapping, Solomon recalls, “I frequently met slaves … Many times they entered into conversation with me on the subject of slavery. Almost uniformly I found they cherished a secret desire for liberty …”

Slave buyers bargain for human beings like they would for any commodity. Their qualities are rated just as a mule’s would. If need be, they are stripped and signs of scars from lashing indicate tendencies of a difficult animal to be made servant – the price immediately depreciates. Once bought, slaveholders can hire out their slaves just like animals or trucks. A slave can be forced to work tirelessly under the watchful eye of the overseer day and night while being whipped all through. They are also whipped if they don’t produce as expected during the cotton-planting season or if their produce fluctuates. If a slave is found walking to other plantations without a pass written by their master, any white man is permitted to seize and whip them.

At this point of the book, I am appalled at the utter darkness of an era when some life was so worthless to be branded with a price tag.

Throughout a whole year, a slave only gets about three or four days off during Christmas season – when they can eat up and meet with friends from other plantations. This is where and when married couples only unite and parents meet their children. Lovers unite too, “cupid disdains not to hurl his arrows into the simple hearts of slaves”.

The Great Escape

During his bondage, Solomon spends every day scheming how to escape and many times attempts it – a dangerous endeavor that always puts him trouble or risk with its worst punishment being death. During his first attempt, he notes, “we resolved to regain our liberty or lose our lives.” At times, he starts to lose sanity. “Were the events realities indeed?” He is constantly baffled.

After a deathly flogging for declaring that he was indeed a free man soon after his kidnapping, Solomon writes, “I resolved to lock the secret closely in my heart … trusting in my own Providence and my own shrewdness for deliverance.” It’s a chance meeting with a good-hearted white man that sees his road to freedom start. Bass risking his life to write for Solomon is show that good can always trump evil. The important letter they both draft finally reaches the right and lawful office in charge of rescuing those illegally sold into slavery.

In the 12 years, Solomon’s spirit defies, among trials, a deadly smallpox outbreak that claims lives and causes him temporary blindness, thorough flogging, whipping, the jaws of hunting hounds, hunger and an escape that forces him to walk miles and camp in a swamp (amongst wild animals like deadly snakes and crocodiles). He also writes that he wouldn’t have made it out alive without music. Many times, his violin granted him solace, favours and visits to other plantations.

This is an extraordinary story on the resilience of the human spirit, especially in the face of the worst of life’s challenges and deepest of sorrows.

America’s Dark History Vs Redemption

This book totally immerses the reader into the darkest period (18th and 19th centuries) of American history when slavery was legal. It brings to full light the brutal horrors and injustice of slavery and how historically it was associated with African descent – contributing to a system and legacy in which race still plays a dominant role.

The book balances a memoir and objectivity – even though a mere slanted moral weighing machine. Not all slave owners or white people were heartless and inclined to slavery. Many times, Solomon expresses his regret in a “unjust, barbarous and cruel” system that empowered slave owners and a mindset that disregarded a people of one race. “It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives.”

Solomon’s mistress cries at losing her most handy servant, as his master is furious at losing their most-priced property. “Ten years I toiled for Epps without reward … I am indebted to him for nothing, save undeserved abuse and stripes,” writes Solomon. But at the book’s ending, his lawyer and associates who come to the rescue, ask him to bid his former master and mistress goodbye, which he does. Though subtle, this is a sign of a forgiving heart on Solomon’s side and it reflects upon one side of how a whole generation and a people would need to deal with the deeply scathing injustice of slavery and racism in pursuit of healing.

Unsung Heroes

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Steve McQueen and the cast and crew of 12 Years a Slave accept the best picture award at the Oscars.

Poor 23-year-old Patsey of Guinean descent was a slave brought over to Cuba on a slave ship. Solomon writes that had she lived another life, she “would have been chief among ten thousand among her people.” Patsey’s life was the epitome of a series of unfortunate events. Among slaves in Bayou Boeuf area, she was known as the queen of the cotton fields and would produce twice as much as any cotton-picker but would be whipped thoroughly at the end of each day if she either picked less or didn’t pick more.

Patsey is also caught in between the lust of her master and overflowing hate from her mistress. “She wept oftener, and suffered more, than any of her companions. Her back bore the scars of a thousand stripes; not because she was backward in her work, nor because she was unmindful and rebellious spirit, but because it had fallen to her lot to be the slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress.” In the film adapted from the book, it is indicated that their master Epps would also rape her yet in Solomon’s tale, he only insinuates such activities. However, the girl would be branded by hot metal or thrown at glasses by her mistress just for kicks. And even though Solomon endured severe lashing as well as others, he writes that no other worse lashing did he witness during his 12 years as a slave that was worse than that subjected on Patsey by Master Epps.

Patsey is the only one who dares to run after Solomon as he finally leaves Master Epp’s farm as a free man. As she weeps at him, he says nothing at all. This is potentially a sign that even though Solomon left the bondage of slavery, he would remain enslaved by the empathy for his former comrades for as long as they remained enslaved. That’s why he is unable to bid the slaves farewell or urge Patsey to stay alive or strong – for a part of his spirit forever remains in those slave pens.

If you read and reflect upon this book, you will realise that Solomon Northup and everyone who helped him regain his freedom, and tell this story (including the director Steve McQueen) – are the silent unsung heroes of both today and a past time when calling a black man a hero would be despised. It is this unforgettable memoir that would inspire the director Steve McQueen to make the Academy Award-winning film 12 Years a Slave.

The movie befits the story, especially because its characters match the spirit of the slaves as described by Solomon, but it doesn’t come close to the actual suffering and horror slaves in Solomon’s account were subjected to. However, for these two dark-skinned actors in the film adaptation: Chiwetel Ejiofor (BAFTA Best Lead Actor) and Lupita Nyon’go (Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) to win for Solomon’s story is triumphant indeed. I wish he were alive to witness people of all colour and race live and be accorded equally and rightfully. He would assert that the producers, cast and directors who brought his story to life did not trump colour or race but the darkness of an era. He would be proud that they upheld liberty, equality and justice for all.

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Alas! The stories of the voiceless slaves have been told, again, hundreds of years later.

BONUS: You might love my review of To Kill a Mocking Bird. Can’t wait for the book’s sequel coming out this July.

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