Papa Wemba, the great Congolese musical legend, collapsed and passed away on stage while performing at the FEMUA 2016 festival in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast. He was sixty-six years old but still swanky as the sapeur that he was.
When he died, he was dressed in a raspberry round hat, a white shirt crocheted with black musical notes and tinted glasses - and he died literally doing what he loved. With him came the end of a true musical and style pioneer, a man who enjoyed the jaunty title Le Pape le Sape and first spear-headed one dance-and-dress craze after another - three quarter length pants, the time for braces, the time when designer suits by Jean-Paul Gautlier were all the rage in Zaire.
Every time you see a fancy dandy Congolese man striding the streets, know that le elegance obsession of the Congolese began with Papa Wemba way back when Mobutu Sese Seko ruled the roost from Kinshasa, and looted and impoverished the Congolese people whose minerals alone should, in theory, have made them rich. Yet Papa Wemba, beyond music, made clothes to the Congolese a brand, that they were masters of their fate.
As George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, in the England of the 1930s, the middle class were perplexed that the poor spend all their wages on chips and ice-cream instead of wholesome food that would keep them healthy, thus missing the point. “Sometimes being able to treat yourself on Sunday is all that makes one’s miserable existence bearable.”
Papa Wemba, as Mobutu and his cronies, looted the country’s coffers, made a youth in a Comme des Garcons shirt feel like a dignified, decent human being instead of the dirt the State treated them as. The Road to Wigan Pier may also have the sad answer as to why so many Kenyan peers, as well as the down-trodden, drown in beer and become alcohol sodden.
And then there is the sadness we feel when one such as Prince leaves us, prolific genius that he was. In a way, Prince was the black version of David Bowie, who preceded him in death earlier this year. The man who wears multiple masks, with a dangerous, glamorous androgyny to them, with a plethora of visual presentations as well as continuous creative invention and re-invention.
And because many people feel trapped in whatever roles they have to play in life, people like Prince and Bowie, beyond their music, come to viscerally admire and vicariously live through them. After all, pardon the pun, every animal must turn green at the chameleon’s colour shifting abilities.
Then people like them die and we are left feeling devastated, because we know their kind walk the earth only once in every fifty or so years. Then there are those of whom we say: “There will never be another Michael Jackson again.” For a certain generation, MJ represents everything that was best about music. For me, like countless others, Thriller, Bad and Smooth Criminal were the albums/ cassette tapes that I, along with my siblings and cousins, measured my childhood and early teens in. Every Michael Jackson song instantly transfers me to a specific segment of my far-away past. When I learned of Michael’s death, almost seven years ago, it was with a sense of shock that made the remainder of the day surreal. My late younger brother, an MJ fanatic, cried. It was only years later, after he died, that I realized his tears were not only for MJ but for our lost childhood and carefree camaraderie.
Then there are those musicians we weep for like Whitney Houston, because they blew a beautiful gift given from the gods. We look back in retrospect at gems like this: Didn’t we almost have it all, loving you made life worth living. The ride with you was worth the fall, my friend; didn’t we almost have it all? And the answer is nyet. No. When you have it all, like she did, no-one in the world is worth taking a ride with which ends in a fall. Talking of falls, people of a certain generation will recall John Denver of Rocky Mountain High and other great country songs, who died in his own experimental plane at fifty-three - surely way too young for a yodeler who combined musicality with science eccentricity, and in 2007 was post-humously declared Colorado State’s all-time Poet Laureate. Surely, the likes of these do not deserve early funeral wreaths.
Other greats like ex-Beatles’ John Lennon were assassinated at forty by a psychotic fan who said Salinger’s book Catcher In The Rye had a statement that said Lennon must be taken out of life. John Lennon spoke to the rebel in all of us, with his mugging to the camera and taunting contemporaries. He said provocative things like “little girls should be obscene and not heard,” got drunk, caused scuffles in clubs, and brought the edge to the Beatles’ music that is now immortal.
Before Barack Obama in 2008, there was Jimmi Hendrix in the mid-to-late sixties, taking back the roll in the rock-n-roll that the likes of Elvis Presley had stolen from us (blacks) with his riffs that made his guitar “wail like a woman.” He had an afro, he was affable and he crossed race lines effortlessly. Then he dies at 27!
Also to die at about the same time, also at 27 was the lead singer of The Doors, Jim Morrison who was a poet and musician and drank a lot and so was a symbol of the Youth of the Sixties and said things like “listen, real poetry does not say anything; it just opens the doors to perception.”
With his tragic death in Paris at the tail-end of the 1960s, hippies, flower girls and all those cute and edgy things of that era came to an end, to be replaced by the sharper edges of the Swinging Seventies. In more recent times, we have had talented artists like Amy Winehouse (Back to Black) dying young from alcohol and drug frenzies - too much time spent in the wine house instead of the studio, and we feel bad about such talent being laid to waste by “mere” substances.
Then there are those like our very own Chelele from the Rift Valley. She was pretty, passionate about her music, talented yet troubled, and we grief for her from her “attempted suicide” note as she cries out to God about her troubles — being exploited, her children taken away from her, being accused of a murder conspiracy she was not a part of. Then it ends, like a Greek tragedy, with Chelele with her cherished creativity and charisma strangled in a cold-blooded manner, her husband accused of the foul deed.
Her suffering, this musician and mother of twins, is a dagger in our souls. Of course, we have those crazed gifted artists like Kurt Cobain, driven to destruction by the demons that burn in every truly creative soul, who look like they were never meant to be with us long. Cobain, in the April of 1994, shot himself with a shotgun, leaving a tiny daughter and a note in his garage that said: “Better to crash and burn, than to fade away.” I still like to play his song Lithium some Sunday mornings on my laptop — “And today, Sunday morning, is every day for all I care; in a daze, light my candles, coz someday I’ll see you there.” Cobain also wrote himself a requiem with the lines “in the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine, I’ll shiver the whole night through.”
How many artists articulate in life the scenery in the graveyards where they will lie in the “long night” that follows all our lives? Tupac Shakur, who was shot and later died at 25, almost twenty years ago sang about his funeral in Life Goes On. He rapped: “Gimme a pen and a paper so I can write about my life of sin, have a party at my funeral but save me a couple of bottles of gin in case I don’t get in (heaven), we are outlaws, nobody cries when we die.” Except, we did.
Because there is something infinitely sad about seeing great talent cut short in its prime, an artiste who dies before the full flowering of their gift, and when the likes of Tupac die, a little bit of us dies with them; a little colour fades from life, and we are all left feeling a little emptier at what may have been. As was the case with young E-Sir who died in a car crash on his way back from a show in Naivasha.
In ten days, we celebrate the twenty-fifth death anniversary of Bob Marley, one of the greatest artists of all time, whom cancer took from the earth at 36 on May 11, 1981. Myth has it that when he died, in Kingston and in Addis Ababa, both skies blazed bright with noon and late afternoon thunder, and a lightning bolt slashed across the clouds. And people looked up and knew Bob was gone.