Monday, January 23, 2012

From Pop to Politics

The tall lean figure robed in flowing garb crisscrosses the stage reciting poetic lines to the wild excitement of the London crowd. Although the words are in a tongue they can’t tell, the artiste is doing his thing in Serer and French, the multitudes’ euphoric ecstasy is triggered by the musicality of his powerful vocals embellished with the acoustic beats of West African drums.

Welcome to the world of Youssou N’Duor, the man’s whose high standing in the global music scene is underlined by the numerous awards he has bagged in a career stretching across three decades, including a Grammy for his 2005 religious album Egypt besides being a subject of two movies. As an astute performer and entrepreneur, the currency of power in Youssou’s kingdom stretches beyond music to media and humanitarian interests.

And now the ambitious Senegalese maestro has trained his guns a league higher by declaring his candidature for the country’s presidency. Many critics have been quick to say that the 52 year-old super star is biting more than his musical teeth can chew, but Youssou has vowed to take the political bull by its balls.

“For a very long time, many Senegalese of different backgrounds have called for my candidacy for the presidency next February,” N’duor said during his official declaration in his private radio and television stations. “I’ve listened, I have heard and I am responding favourably to their request. I am a candidate. It’s a supreme patriotic duty, the best I can give of myself. I am the current alternative to the current leadership in place in the country”.

However the popular musician, percussionist and occasional actor has his work clearly cut for he is joining a crowded field of more than 20 candidates, all seeking to unseat incumbent President and former N’Duor confidant Abdoulaye Wade whose quest for a controversial third term have triggered a huge political storm.

With the African political landscape is littered with numerous celebrities who thought they could convert their stardom into votes but, despite their larger than life image, were humbled at the ballot box, will the Unicef Goodwill Ambassador be able to translate his glamour and glitz into a blocking vote big enough to floor a sitting head of state entrenched in power for a decade?

“It’s good enough that he makes good music,” 26 year-old Abdou Nguom told a local newspaper. “Politics is made of treason and low blows. I am sure that real politicians will not help him”.

The same sentiments are echoed by Ivorian reggae legend Alpha Blonde who cautions N’Duor not expect the passionate reception he receives while performing upstage but to gear up for hard reality of backstabbing and blatant betrayal that characterizes competitive politics.

“Everyone has his own personal experience, but to jump onto the political landscape from music is dangerous,” Blondy was quoted in the Ivorian media warning his colleague. “I personally don’t believe that being an excellent musician can make one an excellent politician…I really do not know who encouraged him or maybe he was inspired by Michel Martelly in Haiti, but I don’t know”.

Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly is a popular singer who won the Haitian presidency last year to join a handful of individuals across the globe who have made a successful leap from “pop to politics”. Wycleff Jean, a famous star who partnered with N’Dour to churn hit like How Come and Canibus, was banned from participating in those elections because of citizenship illegalities.

“If he (Youssou) has decided to become a citizen of the village of politicians, he should learn the laws of the game whereby all blows are allowed and especially undercuts, bloody coup d’états…he has to remember that especially,” Blondy, whose political escapades has landed him in trouble with authorities numerous times, advised. “He (Youssou) could be an inspired musician, but could he become an inspired politician?”

Others have pointed out that Ndour risks losing the credibility of his high circulating anti-government newspaper, radio and television stations all of which will be perceived as part of his campaign’s mouthpieces.

However, there are those who think that this pop star, once described by the Rolling Stone as “a singer with a voice so extraordinary that the history of Africa seems locked inside it”, is the right man to rock and row the Senegalese political bought in the right direction since the masses are yearning for a break from the traditional political class.

“Although I do not really know how the next elections will go since ones votes is his own secret, I believe Youssou N’Dour has what it takes to steer Senegal in the right direction,” explains Bakary Coulibaly, a journalist who works in Dakar. “He has merit in any case, he has good track record but we will see”.

Some political commentators are also banking on the musicians appeal and humanitarian work in his country to get him the numbers he need to ascend to power.
“Youssou N’Dour is more than a famous musician, he’s an institution in Senegal, one of the most revered celebrities in the country,” Carlos Oya of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London told the BBC News Magazine. “Apart from his music, he’s been actively promoting art and music for the grassroots, engaging lots of different people especially youth, to take a more active role in society”.

Whether the Grammy-winning music icon fails in his presidential bid or not he will not be the first, and probably not the last, celebrity to vie for high political office.

Although he was not a musician, Liberian soccer legend George Tawlon Oppong Weah commanded a fanatical following in his homeland. The 46 year-old earned his place in the hall of fame during his playing days when he traversed through Europe like a colossus, playing for major clubs like AC Milan, Monaco and Chelsea besides attaining a feat that no other African footballer has marched by winning the FIFA World Player of the Year Award in 1995.

Apart from football, Weah has also initiated numerous projects in Liberia meant to uplift the welfare of impoverished youths. He released Lively Up Africa, a music video featuring several African soccer stars whose proceeds went to the welfare of children both in Liberia and other countries. He is also the founder and president of Junior Professionals whose numerous players, recruited from all over Liberia, has gone on to play for the national team Lone Star.

Therefore, when he declared his interest in the presidency many assumed it was a foregone conclusion given that no other Liberian could match his popularity at the time. But this turned out different as Weah found himself on the receiving end during the 2005 presidential campaigns.

Opponents dismissed him as a “babe-in-the-woods” with no political experience or relevant academic credentials compared to the highly learned Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who had previously held powerful positions at the, Citi Bank, World Bank and the United Nations.

Despite Weah’s display of an athletic mien and a flashy celebrity image, Liberians still opted for the frail-looking but Harvard-educated grandmother Sirleaf.
The former goal-scoring machine garnered 40.6 percent of the vote against Sirleaf’s 59.4 percent in the run-off. Weah’s supporters poured in the streets of Monrovia alleging that the elections were rigged but a verdict of “peaceful, transparent and fair” by the African Union (AU) handed the Executive Mansion in Monrovia to Ma Ellen.

Six years later footballer changed tact and handed the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) presidential ticket to Harvard-educated lawyer Winston Tubman and attained a degree in business administration at DeVry University in Miami. But all these efforts and the huge crowds of euphoric supporters that CDC attracted in political rallies failed to deliver the prize as Weah and his team lost to President Johnson-Sirleaf, again.

Another hugely popular West African musical great whose dismal performance in the political arena might demoralize Yossou N’Duor and his supporters is Nigerian Fela Akunilapo Kuti. Raised in a highly politicized home-his mother was an anti-colonial activist while his father was a trade unionist-and hitting the peak of his career at a time when Nigeria was under the tight grip of brutal military regimes, Kuti was famous as much for his music as he was for his eccentric political views and stunts.

“Imagine Che Guevara and Bob Marley rolled into one person and you get a sense of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti,” the Herald Sun, an Australian newspaper, once described the maverick artiste.

Long before declaring his presidential candidature in the 1979 general elections, the musician had earlier on formed the Kalakuta Republic, a comound comprising a recording studio and a home to many members of his The Africa 70s band. The firebrand artiste, whose middle name Anikulapo means “he who carries death in his pouch”, declared the autonomy of Kalakuta Republic from Nigeria which provoked the military regime into sending a thousand soldiers against the renegade homestead.

Fela was severely beaten, the Kalakuta was razed down, his studio equipment destroyed or confiscated and his elderly mother tossed from a high window to her doom. Kuti and his gang dramatically carried then old lady’s casket to the then head of state Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence while chanting the lines of his composition Coffin for Head of State.

But even after spending his entire career singing and fighting against the injustices of the state against the people and commanding a fanatical musical following at home and across the continent, Nigerians were apparently never convinced that Fela Kuti was a presidential material. The poor fellow succumbed to unknown ailment in 1997, after which his well known brother and former minister of health Olikoye Ransome-Kuti stunned the nation by claiming that Kuti died of AIDS.

The only African story of a successful leap from the entertainment world to the peak of political power is that of Madagascan disc jokey-turned-president Andry Nirina Rajoelina. Although the 36 year-old socialite shot to international fame after being declared the head of state by the country’s military in 2009, he was by then a well established politician in his homeland.

Like Yossou N’Duor, Rajoelina owns a popular station in the capital called Viva Radio whose broadcasts, alongside his stint as a popular city DJ, were instrumental in endearing the young rubble-rouser to the masses. Unlike many of his peers in the entertainment industry across the continent, Rajoelina managed to convert his popularity and fame to votes by winning the Antananarivo mayoral race by an overwhelming 63 percent in 2007.

Using his vantage position as mayor Rajoelina spent the next twelve months establishing networks with the military and inciting the disillusioned masses against the government of President Marc Ravalomanana, which culminated in street unrests and the eventual crowning of the stylish media mogul by the country’s top generals. Elections are expected to be held sometimes this year and speculations are that Rajoelina will be a candidate.

Tabu Ley Rochereau, whose popular hits like Muzina, Maze and Sorozo rocked millions of fans across the world, is another African artiste whose high flying credentials on stage was not enough to carry him across the turbulence of politics. After being appointed a cabinet minister by President Laurent Kabila in 1997 and later nominated to parliament, the king of Rhumba could not win elected office during the 2006 Congo elections despite being backed by the ruling party.

Like Tabu Ley, Tshala Muana was also nominated to parliament by Kabila but never went past Movement for Congolese Women and campaigning for Joseph Kabila in the just concluded general elections. Like many of her pears, her political incursions are yet to emerge from the shadow of her musical achievements.

“The reason why many of these musicians and other famous individuals fail to win political office is because people realize that most of them are not out to help the masses but to consolidate their celebrity status,” explains Bacary Coulibaly. “But some have good intentions and I hope that Youssou is one of them”.

With the country's general elections a short two months away, Africa is watching keenly to see whether Youssou N’Duor will have the necessary wit and grit to outfox veteran politicians and triumph where many of his musical peers have failed.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Redeemer's Masterpiece

Despite the fact Christmas is a religious season where faithfuls are supposed to feed their souls with the word as they commemorate the birth of the messiah, hedonistic indulgence takes precedence as people dine and wine their way to bankruptcy. From food, to clothing and gifts the Christmas season, branded “x-mas” by those from other religions wishing to have a piece of the merrymaking, seems to have the magic of turning the stingiest of spenders into givers of gifts and thrifts.

But apparently, besides being the founder of one of the world’s major festivities, and faiths, Jesus Christ has inspired a huge branch of religious art. The obsession with the concept of Christ among artists and those in the creative industry stretches from the present all the way back to the dawn of Christianity 2000 years ago. The outcome of this has been the accumulation of a huge volume of paintings, sculptures and recently films.

From masterpieces depicting his birth in a manger in the now famous city of Nazareth to his death by crucifixion in the outskirts of Jerusalem, major museums across the world are littered with millions of artistic objects whose theme is Christ.

Besides the image of Jesus himself occasions in his life associated with popular church functions, seasons and culture like Easter and Christmas have attracted the largest volume of paintings, sculptures and other forms of creative expression. Fascinated by the vivid descriptions of the life and works of Christ in the gospels artists not only dramatized, through the brush and chisel, his miraculous birth but also his crucifixion, death and resurrection.

One of the most popular Jesus masterpieces from medieval Europe is The Last Supper by the renowned Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci. Commissioned by Duke Ludovico Sforza and his wife Beatrice d’Este for their family mausoleum in Milan, the controversial mural represents the last supper as told in John 13:21. The images of the apostles, identified by name from one of the artist’s notebook discovered in the nineteenth century, are seen consulting in groups of three after Christ revealed that one of them will betray him. Many reviewers say that by clustering the apostles in triads the artist wanted to depict the concept of the Holy Trinity.

Besides being an object of high artistic value The Last Supper has been associated with various conspiracy theories most of which claims that a closer look reveals a woman, probably Mary Magdalene, holding a baby. This theory is propagated by a section of scholars who purports that Jesus and Mary had an intimate relationship. Giovanni Pala, an Italian musician, has indicated that the positions of hands and loaves of bread in the painting can also be interpreted as notes on a keyboard which if read from right to left, as was characteristic of Leonardo’s writings, form a musical composition.

Sabrina Galitzia, a Vatican researcher, added another twist to the complicated tale of The Last Supper by alleging that he has deciphered a “mathematical and astrological” puzzle in the painting. She claims that through this puzzle the Italian artist foresaw the end of the world in a universal flood that would happen in the year 4006.

Although he never created a major Jesus-themed work in paint, Leonardo da Vinci’s archrival and giant of medieval art world Michelangelo also churned out several religious masterpieces the most famous of which being the paintings of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The Last Supper that dons the Sistine alter wall and scenes from Genesis on the chapel’s ceiling marks the sculptor’s biggest achievements in paint. Despite the fact Michelangelo did not do any Jesus frescos, his peers who worked in the Sistine project indulged heavily in the Christ theme by dedicating the entire northern wall of this famous chapel to Stories of Jesus. Some of the most famous frescos here include Baptism of Christ by Pietro Perugino, Temptation of Christ by Sandro Botticelli and Sermon on the Mount by Cosimo Rosselli.

Another artist of the same era who shot to fame by depicting a famous scriptural scene was Caravaggio. His famous painting Supper at Emmaus done in 1601 now lies at the National Gallery in London. The most intriguing aspect of this masterpiece which is based on the writings of Mark 16:12 where the apostle says Christ appeared to the disciples “in another form” after resurrection is the fact that the images are life size and the sense of detail intriguing.

“On the surfaces of the glasses, crockery, bread and fruit, poultry and vine leaves, he unfurls all the sensual magic of textural portrayal in a matter hitherto unprecedented in Italian painting”, one of the painter’s biographers noted. “The realism with which Caravaggio treated even religious subjects-apostles who look like labourers, the plump and slightly feminine figure of Christ-met with the vehement disapproval of the clergy”.

Another subject that seem to interest many artists in the life of Christ according to the gospels is his descendant into the dungeons of hell after crucifixion where he is said to have released the patriarchs and the just from eternal bondage to light. Advocates of this doctrine, commonly known as Harrowing of Hell, claims that St. Paul confirms its truth in Ephesians 4: 9, when he says “what does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly region?”

Although the lack of vivid or explicit description of Christ mission in the underworld have been a subject of controversy throughout the history of Christianity, many artists have used their imagination to depict the scenes of what might have transpired in the dark halls of Hades. Among the most famous pieces on this topic is Christ Descent into Limbo by Andrea Mantegna in 1470 and Christ Leads the Patriarchs from Hell to Paradise by Bartolomeo Bartejo in 1480.

In modern times, the bad boy of religious art has been Salvador Dali who died in 1989. Being a surrealist, a 20th century movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind by irrational juxtaposition of images, the depiction of Christ in Dali’s paintings borders outrageous.

The Spanish master claimed that most of his unconventional paintings, some of which set him at loggerheads with family and friends, were inspired by dreams and visions. In the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, Dali shows a male figure holding a cross over his heart with the inscriptions “sometimes I spit on my mother’s portal for fun”. The provocative statement ended up severing the artist’s relationships with his father.

Christ of Saint John of the Cross, done in 1951, is another of Dali’s controversial creations where he depicts the crucifixion of Jesus without nails, blood and the crown of thorns floating in a darkened sky over a body of water with a boat and a fisherman. The artist claimed that he avoided the vivid details common in other crucifixion paintings since “he was convinced by a dream that these features would mar his depiction of Christ”.

Based on a sixteenth century drawing by a Spanish friar, the composition of Christ in the painting takes the form of a triangle, formed by the arms, and circle, formed by the head. The triangular formation is said to be inspired by the Trinity while the circle stands for Platonic thought. The Spanish government is said to have offered $127 million to Glasgow Corporation, the official custodians of the Christ of Saint John of the Cross, but the offer was rejected.

Crucifixion is yet another controversial masterpieces by Dali where he depicts the crucified Jesus without nails or blood and hanged across a giant cross like-cube against a dark and gloomy background. Where many earlier artists would have put the image of Mary Magdalene or one of the other holy women mourning at the foot of the cross, Dali puts the robed figure of his wife Gala. Other controversial paintings of Christ by the Spanish artist includes The Second Coming of Christ, where he illustrates Revelation 19:11 using surreal images of a human body connected to a horse head by a long winding chord, Madonna with a Mystical Rose and The Sacrament of the Last Supper.

Paul Chimera of the Salvador Dali foundation summarized the unconventional nature of the artist thus: What your paintings say to me/No poet can convey/What words could ever match the grace/Of your landscapes by bay.

Apart from paintings and drawings, one of the most well known figures of Christ in modern day architecture is Christ the Redeemer in Brazil. It’s considered the largest art deco statue and the fifth largest statue of Jesus in the world and towers a dizzying 130 feet over the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Made of 635 tonnes of reinforced concrete and soapstone and mounted on the peak of Mt Corcovado overlooking the panoramic Brazilian capital at the shores of the Atlantic, Christ the Redeemer was classified as one of The New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. Although the idea of a Jesus statue was hatched way back in the 1800s when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony, it was never realized until the 1920s when the local Catholic church successfully collected signatures and funds for the statues commissioning.

The design of Christ with open arms was chosen to symbolize his message of peace to humanity. Construction took nine years from 1922 to 1931 and is said to have cost an equivalent of $3 million. A chapel where Catholic faithfuls can hold weddings and baptisms was consecrated under the statue by the Archbishop of Rio in 2006.

But despite the holy aura that radiates around Christ the Redeemer the popular monument has had its fare share of misfortunes in the recent past. One stormy Sunday in 2008 the statue was struck by lightning bolt and incurred damage on the outstretched fingers, head and eyebrows. Restoration efforts by the Rio state government and the local catholic archdiocese ensured the symbolic The Redeemer was back to its best.

However, tragedy struck again two years later when spray-wielding vandals smeared obscene graffiti on the statue’s head and right arm. As expected, the city’s faithfuls went berserk with the mayor declaring the act “a crime against the nation” and offered $10,000 for any information that may lead to an arrest. Paulo Souza dos Santos was identified as the main suspect by the Brazilian military police. The Redeemer’s fictional destruction has also been recreated in the doomsday movie 2012 where a scene shows the statue’s arms and knees collapsing before the gigantic monument collide with the side of the mountain.

This vivid cinematography caused an uproar from a section of Brazilian religious conservatives.

Apart from art décor and paintings, the story of Jesus has been a popular subject in the movie industry for many decades. Although several films have been done on this topic Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ remains one of the most popular, and controversial. Although the movie depicted Christ largely according to the gospels of mark, Mathew, Luke and John with flashback of his childhood and other occasions like the Last Supper and the Sermon on the Mount, the 2004 blockbuster drew controversy for adaptation of non-biblical writings in its script.

The dramatic movie is laden with vivid scenes of Christ, played by Jim Cavtezel, being whipped to a bloody pulp before being dragged through the streets of Jerusalem to the dramatic crucifixion at Golgotha. Some critics say that the extreme violence obscured the message of peace that the Messiah stood for. But Gibson defended his creation passionately.

“This is a movie about love, hope, faith and forgiveness. He (Jesus) died for all mankind, suffered for all of us,” he explains. “Its time to get back to that basic message. The world has gone nuts. We could all use a little more love, faith, hope and forgiveness”.