Why do writers write? Why do actors act? Why do players play? In short, why do artists display their art? The answers to this simple question are diverse and different depending first, on whom you ask and second on the circumstances under which you ask it. For some people, there is simply no answer because they do not even know why they do what they do. Strange, right? Molly, a performing poet from Uganda, shared with me her journey in Poetry. For her, Poetry was a liberator. She performs because she feels free when she is on stage. She feels in control of herself, away from the oppression and torture she felt in her marriage, now a long memory. When she quit her marriage, she needed money to feed her 2 year-old girl, could not find a viable option unless a friend wrote to her, and asked her whether she could compose some poems for school competitions. She made good money from it and decided to try making it a job. Today, she is a performer in events and different functions in Kampala. She is a poet for hire.
“I don’t really know what I would have done or where I would have gone if the opportunity did not come. I was so close to giving up. I am not sure but I think I was so close to depression too. My life felt static and I even contemplated suicide. One day, when I thought life had lost meaning, I bought poison and made a strong concoction of it. Then I sat down to write a suicide note. I was folding it when I heard my daughter call from my back. ‘Mama, come to bed. I am scared of sleeping alone.’ At that point, I realized that may be she was a reason to live. I still have the suicide note I wrote on that night,” she says.
As she admits, it is not always green. There are some very tough times and some very good moments. There are months when she makes Millions of Uganda Shillings and there are months she makes nothing. “What keeps you going?” I ask.
She looks at me and laughs before continuing. Her daughter is definitely a motivation. But that is an external motivation. She has more to her will than her daughter.
“When I watch myself perform, I am uplifted. When I read my work back to myself, I feel like I have affected a life or two. If my work is intriguing to me, how much more intriguing must it be for the reader or audience?” She says.
Mark, a writer from Nairobi, seems to agree with Molly. Mark wrote his first novel in 2011. In the first year, he only sold 27 copies. Yet for him, he was happy. He was satisfied because he has managed to share his mind with 27 people and 27 people would think differently because he took the initiative. Financially, this was a burnout. However, as he says, reading his novel back to himself made him fall in love with the author.
“I wonder how many of my initial 27 readers felt the same. Whenever I read my book back to myself, I couldn’t help but wonder. ‘What was this author thinking? This guy must be crazy. What a twist! And things like that.’ I won’t lie to you; I thought about giving up. I thought it was a lost course. I thought Kenyans were just good for politics and books were meant for a different audience. Perhaps, this was just a consolation. Perhaps I was reading my book to myself to feel better and massage my ego. Regardless, I learnt a valuable lesson from that. Nothing feels better than reading your book back to yourself,” he remarks.
The signs are there that art is improving in the modern African setting. However, there still linger times and situations that can discourage artists. Many artists look for someone to blame. However, the bulk of the blame falls on the artists. Jessy, a rapper from Kenya, wonders whether Kenyan musicians listen to their own songs. He wonders whether African artists play their own music in their houses.
“What do they think of themselves when they listen to themselves? Do they think they make sense? Sometimes we blame the media and the event organizers for lack of opportunities for local talent but we have an innate problem as artists. We are no creative enough. The world is capitalistic and everyone is looking to make their part of life better or earn more money for himself or herself. No one is looking to give opportunities when they know that such is likely to leave them in a worse place in terms of branding or financially. I know promoters and event organizers can take a small financial hit to put forward an upcoming artist with a great promise. But how many such artists exist? It is not that there are no talented artists. The problem is lack of patience, greed, lack of principles, and moral decay,” he opines.
It is an easy thought to look at the solution as a simple arithmetic. It is easy to think that the constant message will change the way people in the art industry work. What is hard is imagining that you, as an artist, are supposed to sit down and have a meeting with yourself and question yourself on whether you are a brand that you would love. Ken, a dance teacher and instructor in Abuja, agrees with that assertion.
“It is the same case here. I think it could be the same for every country’s upcoming artists. There is so much greed for fast money and people no longer want to contribute on building themselves, learning, shadowing someone, and then breaking out. Young artists should teach themselves how to listen, be mentored, be teachable, build their brands, and have some values. That also puts pressure on those of us who have been around for long to mentor these young ones. The question is whether they are willing to be mentored. No matter how you look at it, the upcoming artists in all fields need to look themselves in the mirror and ask, ‘Would I love the person I can see behind the mirror?’” he says.
For the foreseeable future, we should encourage more young people into art. Encourage them to write, perform, sing, dance, act, draw, paint, or do anything you feel capable of. However, also encourage them to show their art back to themselves. Read your work back to yourself and ask whether you would like what you see.