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POETIC JUSTICE: DRAKE & EAST AFRICAN GIRLS

By Safy-Hallan Farah
I am an East African Girl. A couple years ago, one of my friends told me that being an East African meant I’m not really black. A visibly mixed-race girl with a “high yellow” complexion and sandy brown hair telling me I’m not black didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to tell the girl, in the words of CB4, I’m black y’all. I’m black like the back of Forrest Whitaker’s neck. I’m black like Snoop Dogg’s lungs. I’m black like some Helvetica font against a white backdrop trying to sell you stuff.
I’m a black woman. But my nose, my loosely coiled curls and my fivehead make me black in a way that extends the colorism debate, creating this hierarchy of aesthetic value where I’m not just black, I’m also acceptably black.
Back in the day, white people went to East Africa to find Iman, their acceptable black girl. When white people did this, former Essence Editor-in-Chief Marcia Gillespie called East African model Iman Abdulmajid “a white woman dipped in chocolate,” highlighting Iman’s acceptable blackness while also lamenting the fact that black women’s beauty is often measured in their proximity to whiteness.
Two decades later, Bill Cosby in his “Ask the Ethiopian” speech said African Americans should aim higher than menial jobs because menial jobs are for “Ethiopians,” i.e. immigrants, i.e. The Other. Marcia and Bill emphasized the otherness of East Africans like we’re not black, too, which is why I’d like to tell Bill: please let us, East Africans, have all the menial jobs. But in accordance with Marcia Gillepsie’s criticism, make sure those shitty jobs aren’t jobs where the way we look will inspire racists to pat us on the back and deem us more respectable or better than other black people. This is what the fashion industry notably did with Iman.
East African Girls, Iman included, take part in a system that marginalizes and limits other forms of aesthetic blackness. Every image of Iman or Yasmine Warsame or Liya Kebede reinscribes white beauty through black beauty. Reinscribing white beauty through black beauty has always been with us, but in recent years it has inspired rappers to reference East African Girls like we’re the 49th Law of Power, predictably denigrating black women who lack acceptable blackness in the same tired ways.
The first rapper I remember rhyming about East African Girls was Nas. In “The Set Up,” a song from Nas’ “It Was Written” album, Nas raps, “They thought the hoes were Somalian.” The “hoes” in question are “two fly bitches, Venus and Vicious.” On his latest album, “Life Is Good,” Nas references East African Girls again, in a party song called “Summer” ft. Miguel and Swizz Beats.
East African Girls have been referenced in several other songs: Wale’s “No One Be Like You” (“Somalian women, Ethiopian queens/Never could tell the difference, I just know that you mean”) and “Hold Yuh Remix” (“I’m lookin’ for an Ethi-Somali here beside me”); Tinie Tempeh’s remix of Drake’s “The Motto” (“My bitch booty bigger than a fucking Eritrean”); Common’s “Celebrate” (“Exotic broads lobbyin’/Spanish, Somalian”); Drake’s “Where To Now” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” ft. Drake.
In “Where To Now,” a track off Homecoming Season, Drake’s second mixtape, Drake spits sweet nothings about an East African Girl, over a J. Dilla beat. Drake desires the East African Girl (perhaps as much as he desires getting ghost head from Aaliyah): “Ethiopian girl, Ethiopian girl, with yo long curly hair and yo big ass bootay.”
In “Poetic Justice” by Kendrick Lamar ft. Drake (music video above), Drake does it again: “I was trying to put you on game, put you on a plane/Take you and your mama to the motherland/I could do it, maybe one day/When you figure out you’re gonna need someone/When you figure out it’s all right here in the city/And you don’t run from where we come from.” But couched between another lazy description of a faceless, nameless East African Girl, and Drake’s assertion that that East African Girl is busy ignoring him for another man, is a story of afrodiasporic identity, which is what sets Drake apart, narratively, from other rappers.
While Drake’s definition of black beauty may seem limited, his definition of black identity is what Touré would call “post-black,” and Michelle Wright would call “postwar diasporic black.” Drake’s flow in “Poetic Justice” facilitates a broader discussion of black identity and black authenticity, a discussion that implicitly critiques Marcia Gillespie’s “white woman dipped in chocolate” statement, positing that East African Girls “come from” the same city Drake does, Toronto. The underlying message is that Drake considers us black like him. Drake, as a black Jewish man whose Degrassi character Jimmy Brooks dated a fake East African Girl, occupies a similarly hybrid space like East African Girls. For many East African Girls, that feels like poetic justice because the definition of ‘authentically black’— descendants of Africans brought here as slaves— is a limited definition that doesn’t even include Barack Obama, much less East African Girls.
When one does a cursory Twitter search of Drake’s “East African Girl” lyrics, fetishistic things are tweeted by Drake fans, most notably East African Girls themselves. “Poetic Justice” functions, on some level, as a false empowerment anthem,a song For East African Girls. There is a pleasure many East African Girls I know derive from hearing men, particularly Drake, talk about us to a larger supposedly authentically black population. A pleasure teenage me would no doubt indulge in, too. It’s a reiteration of our own myth that when God created humanity, he started with the Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans first— borne out of us is whiteness and blackness. It’s unscientific but when you’re a teenage girl, especially a young East African Girl, there’s no science needed to justify supremacy or fetish, and where those two things interplay.
East African girls are generally not mixed race, yet this idea that we are is deeply embedded in the minds of white racialists, leading some to believe we’re an entirely different, special, exotic breed of people. This goes back to the pseudoscience of Carleton S. Coon’s “The Races of Europe.” Anthropologists and white racialists, which are often one in the same, have been claiming we are of majority Arab or white or “Afro-Asiatic” descent for years. And while that isn’t the sentiment of Drake or Nas’s lyrics, our alleged mixedness underpins their lyrics by virtue of the sheer selectiveness of the East African Girls shouted out in hip-hop lyrics. When Drake or Nas reference East African Girls, it can be easily inferred that they mean Cushites representing the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia). “Cushite,” a term derived from “Cush” of the Hebrew Bible and Quran, is in reference to our shared “Afro-Asiatic” language classification, which is often mistakenly typified as a shared racial identity. This little mistake triggers a big mistake: the conflation of biology and genetics with race and ethnicity as a social fact, which reifies the racial categories.
One of the most popular threads on Niketalk.com, a sneakerhead forum, is called, “African Women Appreciation Thread: ‘Young East African Girl/Thoroughbreds.” A commenter in the forum who goes by Macc E-Money claims he was deprived of “beautiful African women,” and wasn’t able to procure a Somali “thoroughbred” until he left his home state of Michigan. Macc E-Money references Drake’s “Young East African Girl” lyric, presenting black beauty in a limited way and privileging East Africans over other Africans while passing it off as an appreciation of African beauty.
The lines between acceptance, fetishism and exoticism are blurry. It would seem that the primary distinction between black (North American) men, East African men and white men exoticizing East African Girls is that for many white men and even some East African men, the exoticism is firmly rooted in a belief in the racial categories—a belief that race is biological when it is in fact social, and a fetishization and romanticism of our Arab World ties and colonial past. For a lot of black men like Drake, it’s way less insidious. At best, it’s a misguided reinscription of the white standard of beauty through acceptably black women. At worst it’s intra-racial discrimination. Usually, it’s a combination of all these things but if representing, hyping and esteeming women with acceptable blackness is good for all girls—Trickle Down Acceptability, if you will— then we’d probably live in a post-racial world where fairies and dragons and Tupac populated the earth.
Sadly, we live in a racist, sexist world where black men and white people can hurt black women in the same ways. Black women hurt black women, too, but differently: we don’t have each other’s back. Those that see themselves represented in the lyrics and the videos, accept it without questioning it. And those who lament the overrepresentation of East African Girls, frequently fail to realize that the “Young East African Girl(s)” of Drake’s lyrics are like all women of color; they are objectified and male-gazed upon in hip-hop. These women are mythic, “exotic” generalized by rappers as theambASSadors of their ethnicity or nationality. We are an idea rooted in a scant and skewed example— a token— from Drake’s own lived experience, mixed in with a little bit of mainstream imagery and a history that isn’t even our own.
Perhaps my own cousin, Leyla who Drake once bought lunch for, is Drake’s East African Girl. Maybe his East African Girl is my friend Ayan, who Drake met while clubbing. Maybe his East African Girl is like Helen Gedlu or Lola Monroe. Drake’s East African girl, whoever she is, does not account for of all of us. Our varied hip-to-waist ratios and hair textures and booties (or lack thereof) and cultures make us more nuanced than whatever Drake or anyone else needs to believe.
The over-representation of East African Girls cannot be separated from broader media representations of acceptable blackness. Broader representations that, in the 90s, brought us acceptable black women like Tatyana Ali, Stacey Dash, Chilly of TLC, etc.; the biggest face today being Scandal’s Kerry Washington. It’s no wonder Kendrick Lamar believes there is a balance issue. Kendrick cast Brittany Sky, a black woman, as his love interest in the video for “Poetic Justice.” Brittany Sky is a black woman who is neither East African or light-skinned, however she is every bit as acceptably black as Iman. It’s Drake’s love interest—or rather, sex interest— who is actually balancing representation. But she is who Drake is having sexually for that night, not who, as the video and the lyrics suggest, Drake wants; Drake wants the East African Girl he’s talking to on the phone. Drake is talking on the phone with the East African Girl while his sex interest is splayed across the bed, naked. Thus, even within the video there is a hierarchy. There’s a specific depersonalization and objecthood of the non-acceptable black woman’s body. The non-acceptable black woman is granted zero agency, and rendered the least desirable in a video that is supposedly progressive.
There is nothing progressive about acceptable blackness. There is, however, something progressive about Drake and the internal conversation he seems to be having in his music. When Drake raps about this East African Girl as he is talking to this East African Girl on the phone, he is also talking with other black people. He is having a conversation with Marcia Gillepsie and Bill Cosby and me and that girl I used to be friends with who said I wasn’t black. This conversation requires context that can’t be reproduced for an American audience with limited knowledge of the nuances of blackness. This conversation cannot translate externally, hence the phone. The video begs for the consistency of our transmuted presence but the direct presence of an East African Girl wouldn’t make sense to an audience that doesn’t understand Drake’s specific location in the diaspora, what diaspora is, or who East Africans are.

The Last Words of the Dying

By Paul Ntambara

There is something mystical about the last words or actions of a dying person. Well, I guess they never realise that they are saying their last words on the humanly earth or performing their last acts but after they have passed on, it suddenly strikes that there was an element of premonition in what they did or said.

The late Professor Francis Imbuga used the premonition device in his writings so much that when his time came he used it to foretell his own death! During one of his last interviews within his native Kenya, a reporter insisted on holding the interview at the professor’s home ‘[to] get an opportunity to sample his rich library’ to which Imbuga replied: “When people begin insisting we have to go to my home, then death is coming.”

Death came and Imbuga died:

With the advent of social media, people have foretold their own deaths on social networking sites like Facebook. A notable example is of 24 year old Sarah Grooves, a British blogger who, while on vacation in Kashmir, India, was stabbed to death this week. Before her gruesome death she had posted on her Facebook page: ‘Quit your job, buy a ticket, fall in love… never return!’

She never returned:

Death

Death (Photo credit: tanakawho)

While all these may be categorised as untimely deaths, last words from loved ones while they lie on their deathbeds come with an added meaning. In such a situation you expect anything to happen. The only similarity being that one never knows that they are hearing last words until death strikes. That’s the absurdity of human existence. My father’s last words for me while he lay on his hospital bed were ‘Go well’. Little did I know that he was bidding me farewell. He passed on.

The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi introduced a whole new dimension to these final moments. Here there was no premonition; the victim knew that they were going to be killed because they were Tutsi. Death was hovering over the victim. The last words or actions were deliberate. A friend whose father was killed during the Genocide narrated to me the last moments with him.

“He bought me a bottle of Primus beer and told me that now I had become a man. He said he was not sure if he would be with me for long. He told me that if I survived, I should keep the family name. He was killed in the courtyard and I survived. These words still echo in my mind.”

These words have shaped his life. Though his entire family was decimated, his only mission in life is to keep the family name in fulfillment of his father’s wish.

To some young Genocide survivors, last words from their parents were assignments; for example to take care of their siblings just in case they survived. Others wish they had the opportunity to hear these last words from their loved ones.

While some survivors have derived inspiration from these tragic last moments, many have been weighed down by this tragic past. Unfortunately some of these traumatic experiences are irreversible, they last a life time. We are powerless, we cannot undo death.

It is 19 years now since the tragic events of 1994. While this may seem a fairly long period of time, the reality is that the scars are still fresh. The graves are still open to take in the remains of genocide victims excavated from pit latrines, on the hills and trenches. Some will never be recovered.

There is no doubt that the resolve by Rwandans to rebuild their country and lives is taking shape. As we commemorate the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi it is imperative that we consolidate the progress made in the over 19 years. The dark past should be an inspiration to build a more united Rwanda for all. Helping vulnerable survivors; the elderly, the sick, widows and orphans should be a duty of every Rwandan as we strive for self reliance.

Fela Kuti – “Sorrow Tears & Blood”

Fela [660x300]

by Ilka Schlockermann

To celebrate the 75th birthday of Nigerian icon and Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti, as well as the recent release of new deluxe compilation The Best Of The Black President 2 and newly repackaged versions of Fela’s entire back catalogue, Knitting Factory Records are releasing this special limited edition 12″ single exclusively for Record Store Day on 20 April 2013.

This release includes the title track, the seminal Sorrow Tears & Blood, restored to its original, complete running time, following the recent rediscovery of the six-minute instrumental section preceding the entrance of Fela’s vocals. The B-Side is the super rare Perambulator, which has been unavailable for decades.

Afrobeat historian Chris May, who provides in-depth track-by-track commentaries for all tracks on the Fela reissues released by Knitting Factory, writes:

Sorrow Tears & Blood (1977) – an impassioned attack on police and army violence against political dissenters in Africa – was among the first albums Fela released following the Nigerian army’s destruction of his Kalakuta Republic commune on 18 February 1977. Characteristically, Fela came back fighting. One of the LP’s early front sleeve designs (there were two, about which more below) was a photograph showing Fela onstage in the aftermath of the outrage, his left leg in plaster from foot to knee. The police and army invariably leave behind them “sorrow, tears and blood,” Fela sings, and the backing vocalists respond, “dem regular trademark.”  The album was dedicated, Fela said, “to the memory of those who were beaten, raped, tortured or injured” during the Kalakuta attack.

Fela’s record company, Decca, refused to release Sorrow Tears & Blood, fearing government reprisals. Fela responded by setting up Kalakuta Records and making the album the label’s debut release.

All this has led to the common belief that the album’s title track was written after, and concerns itself with, the events of February 1977. It certainly resonates with them. However, according to Fela’s friend and sleeve designer, Ghariokwu Lemi, Fela actually wrote the lyrics in the weeks following the South African apartheid regime’s crushing of the Soweto uprising on 16 June 1976. Sorrow Tears & Blood was added to Afrika 70’s set list the following month, and was probably recorded around August/September.

Ghariokwu Lemi was with Fela the night news came in of the Soweto massacre. Writing to me in 2011, Lemi said: “Early on the evening of Wednesday, 16 June 1976, we drove to Ikate, Surulere, in Lagos, to visit Fela’s immediate family: his first wife, Remi, and three children, Yeni, Femi and Sola. They lived away from all the drama at Kalakuta. I had shared a little goro (a weed-infused paste) with Fela earlier, and as we sat in the family living room exchanging banter, I was in a mental struggle to stay focused and keep my concentration. Then, at 9pm on television, came news from South Africa that shocked the world. Defenseless primary school students, protesting against the enforced use of the Afrikaans language, had been shot dead by police in Soweto. We all jumped up from our seats in shock at such beast-like brutality. We discussed this all night long and all week thereafter. A few weeks later, Fela rehearsed a new composition, inspired by a brutality-catalog consisting of his own experiences, clashes between the police and universitystudents, and other confrontations between the army and communities around Nigeria. He wove into this the growing repression by the racist police in apartheid South Africa. All this acted as material for a magnificent new song titled ‘Sorrow Tears & Blood’, STB, on the Afrobeat menu.”

By the time the song was eventually recorded, Lemi had listened to Fela perform it at the Shrine and other venues scores of times. “My mind was set on the approach to take on my cover art. Having been privy to the rationale behind the message, I thought I was home free with my concept, like always. Fela was ghoulish in his description of a typical scenario of a police or military raid and its effect. He was caustic in his admonition of a people who were too afraid to stand up for freedom and justice. Since Fela had composed ‘Sorrow Tears & Blood,’ a lot of water had passed under the bridge. Kalakuta Republic had been sacked by one thousand soldiers in a very horrendous raid in broad daylight. I put a bold, stoical and fearless Fela image on my canvas. My painting showed a crowd running away from an unseen cause; an empty road with a single military boot lost in the melee; a vulture waiting for a meal; soldiers meting out jungle justice; a screaming woman lost to fear.”

Lemi thought he had “nailed this cover for good,” but on presenting it to Fela for approval, “found it was not my lucky day.” Fela hated the sleeve, regarding it as defeatist: he particularly hated the detail showing a group of people running away from the police. The argument led to an estrangement between Fela and Lemi which lasted eight years.

Perambulator is one of the great “missing” Fela tracks. Until this Record Store Day special, it has been unavailable for almost 30 years. It was released on Nigeria’s Coconut Records in 1984, and then, apart from an independent Japanese release, which may have been a pirate, pretty much lost to history. There was no European or American pressing – in late 1984, Fela began an eighteen month spell in prison on trumped up currency smuggling charges, which made negotiating international releases near impossible. When he came out, Fela’s most urgent recording concern was rescuing Army Arrangement from the dog’s dinner Bill Laswell’s remix for Celluloid had created.Perambulator has an outstanding long-form lyric in which Fela ridicules the empty words and promises of politicians, asserts his belief in traditional African medicine, and urges African solutions to African problems. It’s eviscerating and funny with it. A blinder, back in circulation.

“Great City” To Be China’s First Car-Free Metropolis

All renderings © smithgill

Another day, another proposal for a new Chinese city. The 1.3 square-kilometer Great City, designed byAdrian Smith and Gordon Gill will be a massive new development that is completely sustainable, affordable, and, most strikingly, car-less. The masterplan, which has been planned for 80,000 people, will be built around a massive transit hub at its center, with all destinations to be within a few minutes walk, a planning innovation that would make “Great City” China’s (and the world’s?) first pedestrian-only city. Read more.

Before drawing up blueprints, Smith and Gill had to find the perfect setting for this new, 320-acre green city. They discovered a plot outside the city of Chengdu with plenty of buffer landscape including forests, valleys, and bodies of water to integrate into the city. After delineating local farm land for its preservation, the designers meticulously drafted plans that partitioned the site into several zones, reserving 15% of the land for parks and green spaces, dedicating 60% to construction, and saving the remaining 25% for roads and walkways.

As for environmental factors, Great City will certainly live up to its name. The development is expected to use 48% less energy and 58% less water than a comparable town its size. It should also produce 89% less landfill waste and 60% less carbon dioxide. In addition to these features, the city will employ “seasonal energy storage” which can carry over waste summer heat and convert it to power for winter heating and hot water.

The key to Great City’s green success, of course, is not just solar panels and parks, but also its urban planning. The distance between any location in the hyper-dense city to another will be only a 15 minute walk (or less). This eliminates the need for cars, as the town is also built around a mass transit hub that connects to Chengdu and surrounding areas in minutes. The surrounding green buffer is laden with pedestrian and bike paths that weave in and out of the landscape and through the city core.

The project, expected to be finished by 2021, will hopefully become home to about 30,000 families, totaling 80,000 people. “Great City will demonstrate that high-density living doesn’t have to be polluted and alienated from nature,” says AS+GG partner Gordon Gill, “Everything within the built environment of Great City is considered to enhance the quality of life of its residents. Quite simply, it offers a great place to live,work and raise a family.”

 

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