The last time I witnessed something close to the current dance craze of last year’s South African hit song Jerusalema by Master KG and Nomcebo Zikode I was a schoolboy.
The breakdance was the in-thing at the time. But the dance never got the global appeal of Jerusalema, which is sung in a South African local language, Khelobedu, but loved by all.
Even mzungus are dancing to Jerusalema. I doubt how many of us have bothered to know what the song says.
How a song sang in one of Africa’s many dialects can take the world by storm is an enigma.
Perhaps with Covid-19, we have been waiting for the next big thing and anything can be big, for lack of alternatives.
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Even corporations are riding on Jerusalema to advertise. They are coming out with Jerusalema challenge where employees dance to the tune of the song. Are they paying Kgaogelo Moagi (Master KG) and Zikode their royalties? Did I hear our MPs and senators are rehearsing for the Jerusalema challenge? Seriously?
The success of Jerusalema owes much to South Africa’s pride in their languages and dances.
Jerusalema could not have been this successful without the support of its originators.
South Africa has 11 official languages and Khelobedu may soon be the 12th; it’s now part of northern Sotho.
South Africa’s 11 official languages are Sepedi (also known as Sesotho sa Leboa), Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu.
The Khelobedu speakers occupy the Balobedu Kingdom, within the Limpopo Province of South Africa with a female ruler Queen Masalanabo II Modjadji VII. Why can’t we widen the list of Kenya’s official languages?
Jerusalema reminds us that we dislike our local languages. They are not considered “cool.”
Swahili, one of our official languages is under threat from our firm belief that it’s not a language for the elite.
The performance in Swahili exams in our elite schools is usually below English by far.
Some parents literary force their children to learn only English.
They crown it all by giving them foreign names like Liam, Jayden and Ethan. Girls names are not that patterned.
Today, the same parents, to show off their “sophistication”, are giving their children two foreign names, each chosen by one of the parents for equality, maybe.
Success in most industries depends on who controls them. Entertainment and media are such industries.
The language is the means of control. No one can sing in Kalenjin, Pokomo or Luo better than the native speakers for a simple reason - singing is not just about words but the emotions that go with them.
Such emotions lack if a language is forced on you. That is why you switch to your mother tongue or Swahili when cracking a joke or abusing someone.
No one can cook our traditional foods better than us. No one can dance our dances better than us. This makes it hard for anyone to copy, giving us an edge in the market.
Remember Emmy Koskey’s song “Taunet Nelel” during the promulgation of the current constitution?
The emotional part of the song or dance explains why some musicians thrive using their mother tongues but fade when they try Swahili or English, ostensibly to reach a wide audience.
Jerusalema has taught us that we need not be sophisticated to be successful, parsimony works too.
Yet we never see the economic potential of simple and easily available resources like our dances and mother tongues. We can repackage them and sell them to the world and make lots of money.
Truth be told, we are ashamed of our languages, our names and even foods. Our leaders rarely promote them.
They fear being labelled tribal. It is that vacuum the rest of the world has exploited with their goods and services, from cars to hospitals and even schools.
We then complain there are no jobs. Why do a majority of us prefer Chinese, Ethiopian or Japanese restaurants and not Kisii, Kamba or Agikuyu restaurants? What is tribal about cultures that came before us and will outlive us?
Yet, we have neglected our diverse cultural practices espoused by dances, food and languages for too long.
They would give us a competitive advantage if we packaged and sold them to the world.
Where did we get the illusion that the rest of the world is not interested in our cultures?
Who thought the world could be swept by Jerusalema? What makes you think that muthokoi would not fascinate Britons? Who told you the Chinese will not try mwomoboko or isikuti?
How many would be willing to try the Maasai's cocktail of milk and blood? Soon these cultures will die as we watch. I have asked loudly why I can’t study a BA in Luo or Rendille but can study German or French.
Remember South African president calling everyone to come out and do the Jerusalema Challenge?
Why can’t our presidents call us to try isikuti, mwomboko or any other traditional dance and then export it to the rest of the world?
Think of the branding impact of our cultures just like athletics. After all, one only needs a body to dance to the tune of Jerusalema.
Can our musicians give us our version of Jerusalema to cheer us up from Covid-19?
- The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi