A ray of sunlight beamed from Los Angeles this week with the announcement that two more Kenyan women had been invited to join the prestigious Hollywood Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The global creative industry has been under pressure to address systemic inequalities for decades. Last month, the acute challenges faced by Kenyan artists also ignited and went viral.
Racism has been institutionalised in the American cinema for close to a century. Millions of Hollywood movies have cast black caricatures in subservient roles or not cast them at all. Over the decades, filmmakers and artists like Oscar Micheaux, Sydney Portier, Spike Lee, Steve McQueen, Ava DuVernay and others, have courageously challenged the stereotypes and offered alternatives.
Hollywood and the rest of the American entertainment industry remain white owned. Over 83 per cent of the top five American broadcast networks, talent agencies and Hollywood studios are controlled by white people, mostly men. The Academy, responsible for the annual Oscar awards, has been historically dominated by white men in the film industry. Not surprising, preciously few black actors or films have received those prestigious golden statuettes.
Rallying under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, a combination of black artists, white allies and public opinion forced the Academy to announce transforming diversity strategies in 2016. This week, the Academy announced that it had surpassed its’ target of doubling the number of women and underrepresented ethnic and racial communities. Among them are Kenyan directors Toni Kamau and Wanjiru Njendu. With Lupita Nyong’o, Judy Kibinge and Wanuri Kahiu, Kenya has five representatives – all women - in the 819 strong Academy now.
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Similar tensions ignited locally last month under the hashtag #KECreativesDeserveBetter. Tens of Kenyan artists broke their silence to protest against discriminatory labour and payment practices, mistreatment, contract and fee withholding, lack of budget transparency and intellectual property and copyright infringement by employers. The inescapable truth is that the management of our entertainment industry is in dire need of overhaul.
While many of the issues are historical and systemic, the Covid-19 pandemic has added more urgency for their resolution. According to a recent Heva Fund survey, 68 per cent of creatives work as individuals, not companies. Less than 15 per cent of the companies have between one and 10 people on the payroll. The majority of employees are seasonal casual workers working on specific projects. One in three creatives have experienced event, contract and service order cancellations during this period. Some have had to reduce their overall expenses by 50 per cent. In this context, the Sh100 million stimulus package announced by the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage was a drop in the ocean. The Covid-19 crisis requires a massive SME-focused intervention to help support cash flows, keep jobs and cushion businesses for Kenyan creatives.
However, this will only happen when our musicians, artists, designers, advertisers, writers, publishers and other creative workers form stronger unions to protect their self-interest and industry codes of conduct. The #WatchdogKE platform formed last month is a significant step.
Over the last decade, police violence, the Black Lives Matter movement and more recently, the murder of George Floyd, has energised black entertainment leadership in America. Actor Idris Elba argued recently that the exclusion and dehumanisation of black people on America’s screens has fuelled the brutality against black people on the streets. Further, their silence as artists in the face of systemic racism, is complicity. This week, 300 of America’s most famous black artists called for Hollywood to divest from the police, drop anti-black content and elevate black talent, storylines and pay.
Here too, there could be similar parallels with black America. A diverse range of Kenyan creatives like King Kaka, Juliani, Michelle Ntalami, DJ Mfalme and Muthoni Drummer Queen have begun to actively call for justice in the cases of DJ Evolve, Yasin Moyo and Samuel Maina among others.
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If there ever was a time for leadership to emerge and rally the creative industry, it is now. Artists must not only organise to protect their collective interest but also to protect the rights of all Kenyans. As we congratulate them, let the five Kenyan women on the Academy also use their new status to accelerate leadership at home.
- Irungu Houghton is Amnesty International Executive Director. He writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]