AFRICANS RISE IN THE ARTS FOR THE PEOPLE

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The Grammy Awards is best known as the largest international music event of the year, recognizing and celebrating various categories of recording and performing artists in a range of genres. Known also for their racial and gender bias in the selection process, Ethiopian- Canadian superstar, Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd, chose to boycott the award ceremony for “snubbing” him stating, “I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys.” He added, that until the Recording Academy, responsible for the awards, eliminates the “secret committees” tasked with the decision making of the winners. The Ethiopian advocate for justice and transparency in an industry fraught with nepotism, racism, and many other isms, was compelled to respond to the mega stars stance telling the New York Times, “We’re all disappointed when anyone is upset. But I will say that we are constantly evolving. And this year, as in past years, we are going to take a hard look at how to improve our awards process, including the nomination review committees.” Good to see The Weeknd use his international success to make such a statement. He joins many Black artists have voiced concern over the years from Billy Ocean to Drake, more recently.
Burna Boy, born Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu walked away a winner, for Best Global Music Album carrying his social justice message to the masses. “Twice As Tall,” the title of the album which won, is about “real life and the struggle for freedom” according to the artist known in Nigeria for being part of the young generation standing up for change in the #EndSARS campaign. The initiative against police brutality eventually went viral. Yes, even Beyoncé, Rihanna and Big Sean joined the clarion call to terminate the inhumane policy of violence perpetrated against civilians by the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Burna Boy, who loves Ethiopia, by the way, telling yours truly during his visit to Addis for a New Year concert some years ago, “… It is so peaceful here…I could come her and relax, write and just chill…the people are so beautiful.” Known for his Pan African styled performances channeling Afro-Beat phenomenon, Fela Kuti, Burna Boy brings the sounds and social issues of Nigeria and Africa in general to the world stage, winning his first Grammy, representing African music. Ethiopia Habtemariam, newly appointed Chair of Universal Music Group, may also prove to be a change agent in the industry with the power of her new post. Previously at the helm of Black music label Motown, known for the Jackson 5 and Dianna Ross and the Supremes amongst many major Black artists over the past 50 years she states, “It’s an incredible honor to represent and define what Motown is today. I’ve always understood the power of music and the responsibility I have, not only to continue to be an advocate for artists and creators, but to forge new paths for entrepreneurs and to lift up our next generation of executives around the world.”
The disparity and bias in the music and arts industry is nothing new and as Africa’s presence in fine art, fashion and music grow exponentially, rising African stars will not sit silent. Artists have soft power, in other words the ability to influence international affairs with even one Instagram post. With millions of followers hanging on their every word, they can shape opinions and promote awareness on a vast array of topics from AIDS to conflict zones. I reflect on the Africa Unite concert we coordinated here in 2005 with thousands of peaceful people from all walks of life. Ethiopians joined in harmony a call for unity and peace with four generations of Marleys from Bob Marley’s mom, Mother Booker, to then 8 year old Skip Marley, now a fast rising reggae artist in his own right. They were chanting, “One Love, One Heart, let’s get together and feel alright…” we need this vibe again. In addition to advocacy, we should turn to music and the arts to help the healing we all crave, literally from COVID and subsequent illnesses and from the greatest grievance of all, the lack of love, care and compassion. Bob put it best.

“Africa unite
Unite for the benefit of your people!
Unite for it’s later than you think!
Unite for the benefit of my children!
Unite for it’s later than you think!
Africa awaits its creators!
Africa awaiting its creator!
Africa, you’re my forefather cornerstone!
Unite for the Africans abroad!
Unite for the Africans a yard!”

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.