The place of an artist in society has always been contentious. Artists have historically found themselves within the crosshairs of governments and even religious institutions.
Years back, thespians would be arrested, after staging performances at the Kenya National Theatre, and accused of staging seditious plays. Chinua Achebe, who is arguably the father of African literature, was also not spared after his novel A Man of the People was selected to be a primary reading for secondary school children.
The argument against this selection was that his novel would encourage what was then termed as “immoral behaviour” among high school children. The basis of this criticism was on the character of Ire who after engaging in moment of passion with one of his university colleagues flashes the tools of his conquest to his friends outside his room.
What emerges then from these illustrations is that the role of an artist is primarily to provoke. What they provoke us to remains to be the subject of controversy. Barely a week ago, Akothee, a popular musician on the Kenyan entertainment scene, caused a stir on social media and the mainstream media when pictures of her performance at a popular entertainment joint emerged online. Two divides emerged from this performance: One that criticised her and one that saw no harm in whatever she did.
The side that criticised her based their arguments on the factor of morality and her being a role model to the young people and by extension, her daughters and even upholding the dignity of other women and her parents.
The opposite side of the divide rightly argued that she—Akothee—warrants no criticism from anyone since her performance was not conducted in front of minors but rather adults. Anyone taking issue with the singer should thus subsequently pick up a fight with the adults who had attended the performance.
While both divides are justified in their defence or criticism of Akothee what remains to be true is that we cannot and should never relegate the role of raising children or even young adults to the artist and also in equal measure, the artist should understand her role in society and perform, if not uphold it, with the dignity it deserves.
As the artist provokes, we should ask ourselves what the artist is provoking us to. The artist, as Okot p’Bitek would tell you, is a ruler and it is they who provide and sustain the critical ideas, and also the foundations of the society. It is true that the artist is licensed to provoke us to question what is wrong with our society but even as they do this, they should not be the catalysts of the wrong in our society.
Akothee, as Susana Owiyo, are rulers in this society. Controversial as it may be to mention both in the same sentence, it is true that both through their personas have brought us to the point of questioning and even appreciating the fabrics that hold our society together.
This assertion, however, does not silence the question of morality in an artistic performance. Morality itself stands on shifting ground since what is moral to one may be unspeakably immoral to another; subscribing to the old adage that one man’s meat is another man’s poison.
This shifting ground however does not erase the fact that after all we have a ground. The principle supposition herein is that in as much as we may stretch the moral bands that hold us together, we should lose sight of the ground on which we stand or in other words, what is permissible and also to what extent.
Bitek in his essay Artist the Ruler asks a profound question “Who creates the world-view that dominates behaviour of a whole people for generations?” The ensuing arguments set up the artist as the creator and sustainer of this world view. What should thus be realised and encouraged is that the artist hasthe fabric of an entire generation at the command of her voice and performance and as such should tread between entertainment and morality. The artist while in their element should never lose sight of the shore, which is who and what they are representing. They represent a generation, a culture, and also a country. Traditionally artists have been looked upon to castigate as well as to celebrate. Artists, within the African society, were held in high regard and seldom was their character called into question.
It is they who sustained the philosophies of their community through their performances. How then does the artist become the ruler when she herself is flawed? How then does she light the way when her torch is no longer burning as brightly as it should? Money or not, endorsements or the lack of them, an artist should remember that they are a representation of their society.
As they seek to provoke, they should provoke their audience towards appreciating the bonds that bind us together and shunning what could easily tear us apart. It would be ironical that the same artist whose role is to castigate finds herself being called into question.
As Akothee herself has argued in her defense and even as those who defend her have reiterated, it is true that she is not anyone’s role model and should not be looked upon as such but once in a while, may it occur to her, and other artists, that there is someone who is inspired and awed by her resilience and tenacity in the face of adversity, there is a young girl somewhere who looks up to her and is awed by her hard work and her spirit of soldiering on. It will be hard to convince young people not look up to “Madam Boss Lady.”
It would be prudent that she carries them in her mind as she takes onto that stage. Let us not question one side of her and celebrate the other. May she bless society with the wholesomeness of an artistic performance which is the aesthetic and the moral.
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