Personal Reflections Under Quarantine
Music Journalist and civil rights activist
I am writing this from Nairobi, Kenya where I still have friends who are staring down the barrel of months without pay, friends who have already lost jobs and friends whose contract will be running out soon.
I consider myself among the lucky ones because I still have my job. However, this is not to say that my daily operations have not been affected. For the most part, being a music journalist is remarkably unchanged; much of what I do simply requires sufficient internet access. I mainly work with artists and cultural operators within East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Sudan).
Currently, my content is derived from online music events and new releases, which have seen a surge since the lockdown was introduced. I am still able to generate content by working from home as artists are sending in their works. Perhaps this is one good thing that this crisis has brought to the industry – there is a lot of music being created during this quarantine. The music is necessarily not COVID -19 related.
However, the ban on public gatherings and closure of music venues has created the biggest adjustment to my job. Empty live music venues serve as haunting reminders of COVID-19’s wide-reaching effects as recording artists face an uncertain future.
I am a live music junky – I enjoy going out wearing my Fulani straw hat armed with a notebook and a pen to watch live bands. It is the best way I can interpret the music into words. This is no longer possible now or in the near future – a disease that looked like a vague disruption just two and a half months ago now could be an extinction-level event for the live gigs business for at least a year or two to come.
Attending live concerts was a chance for me to get closer to the source of the energy that coursed so viciously and vividly and it was a lot of fun. All that is left are memories of concerts I enjoyed in recent years such as Femi Kuti and the positive band (Nigeria), the late Oliver Mtukudzi (Zimbabwe), Manu Dibango and Richard Bona (Cameroon) and Papa Wemba and Koffi Olomide (DRC), The Soil and BCUC (South Africa) and Alpha Blondy (Ivory Coast), among others.
However, please, do not feel sorry for me. I feel fortunate compared to African musicians. The angle of my piece may seem misplaced to some, but the truth is many African musicians are more vulnerable than people in other professions are – most of them had one source of income; performances. Additionally, the majority of East African musicians are indie artist, which makes the quarantine experience tougher, since without a deal or record label they can only rely on themselves to stay afloat financially.
I sometimes lie awake at night wondering what the future holds for my friends in music. I wonder what will happen to them in the coming months if the situation does not change. There are several possible futures, all dependent on how governments and society respond to coronavirus and its economic aftermath.
A trip down memory lane and you will find out that the music industry has always brought people together. That has not changed even in this time of crisis and isolation but rather; the role of music is even more central to the public.
Musicians are taking more action than ever before to combat the pandemic, through donations, awareness-raising music videos and appeals to fans for donations to the less fortunate.
Here are some of the releases about COVID-19:
The music activists are also using music to challenge the public health service infrastructure, lack of transparency from the government on funding and COVID-19 statistics and police brutality in the implementation of the lockdown and social distancing rule.
Despite these self-driven efforts, support for them is still timid. It is ironic because music is presently keeping the people sane at the comfort of their homes. But there’s little comfort for the musicians. A chat with colleagues from other continents such as Europe and Arab countries, reveals that the government is doing everything in its power to rescue the music sector given the cancellations of events, tours and ban on public gatherings.
The same cannot be said for most African musicians.
In many African countries, the creative sector is among the highest contributors to the annual GDP level. Yet, the government cannot afford to set up relief packages for the music industry. This is not a surprise. A surprise would be for the government to try and salvage musicians during this pandemic period.
You see, for decades governments have let the entire sector be deprioritized and left to flounder alone; despite the sector being vibrant – brimming with talent and possibility, especially when looked at through the opportunities it affords to the youth of the country.
Creatives have been forgotten. But they have access to international COVID-19 relief grants. The downside of these is that these grant opportunities are a global call, which means the chances of African artists let alone East African artists to win the grants are slim.
Therefore, a relief grant specifically for the East African artists would go a long way in salvaging some artists. Considering that musicians are creating new works from home, setting up a platform with a training program on especially cultural policies and copyright would help musicians acquire the necessary skills to develop marketing strategies.
With no relief funds coming from the government, artists have been forced to consider their immediate economic situation such as paying their rent and feeding their families and their longer-term future. We still do not know much about what the future will bring, but we do know that the situation is critical. Moreover, for the music to continue, musicians need support.
In the meantime, artists are exploring alternative ways of generating income using the internet – the new creative way for artists to interact with their fans and reinforce governments’ safety messaging. Such ways include the concept of online concerts or live-stream concerts that have gained popularity in East Africa.
However, live streams ability to hold audience attention is varied – data costs remain a contentious issue. While the fans wish to stream the concerts live, the high cost of mobile data makes it impossible to stream an entire one-hour show.
A partnership between musicians and telecom service providers, which could include free access or subsidized rates for those who buy online tickets, would go a long way in increasing the number of those who tune in and avoid a dreadful silence that would make this crisis even harder to bear.
The lack of good production is another reason why the concert’s reception is low. A partnership between artists and music event organisers to produce a good show worth paying for would help both parties get money from ticket sales.
The reception to concerts that are produced with professional equipment or high-tech gear is high. Musicians are using their phones to record themselves performing and the result is not very enticing. So far, the best live streams that I have seen involve high-quality cameras and multiple angles. The Goethe Institute in Namibia is an example of institutions that have collaborated with local artists and invested in good online concert productions.
Nonetheless, recent researches have shown that online users are becoming more receptive to live performances, and that’s great because it means that a few years from now, technology is going to be even better and online shows could be an alternative way to hold concerts.
Musicians are also giving music lessons, selling music scores for film and documentaries online and collaborating to release content. But some say that online songwriting sessions cannot encapsulate the physical connection they need for inspiration. For others, quarantine has also increased their involvement with all aspects of their artistic process such as video and audio editing.
Back to me. This pandemic has motivated me to advocate determinedly for artists to receive support from the government. I am soon launching a podcast series to provide a platform for artists making alternative music and those that fall under the LGBTQ community to not only highlight their plea but also allow the public to know them on a personal level. The existing media censorship prevents media houses from freely engaging creatives on certain topics deemed ,not fit for public consumption‘.
Although the data on the coronavirus change daily, thus far, East Africa has done quite well given the near impossibility of asking people to stay at home and not meet others, it is even more impressive. Nevertheless, to know whether live music venues will be open for business, we have to wait and see. The coming weeks will be a bellwether for the direction this virus will take in East Africa and potentially the African continent.