Painting by Cheri Samba

Lokuta eyaka na ascenseur, kasi vérité eyei na escalier mpe ekomi. Lies come up in the elevator; the truth takes the stairs but gets here eventually. - Koffi Olomide

Ésthetique eboma vélo. Aesthetics will kill a bicycle. - Felix Wazekwa

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Papa Wemba speaks out

Most Congolese musicians have an ambivalent relationship with politicians. Many have to maintain good relations, as their funds rely to a certain extent on the largesse of politicians and businessmen (who often have links to political parties). On the other hand, they need to maintain street cred - a Congolese musicians' ultimate test is how often he or she is played in the clubs and on the radios, and if he is seen as too close to one politician or the other, it could damage his relationship.

So most musicians make veiled criticisms in their songs of politics, and sing mabanga - shout-outs paid for by people - to anyone who will pay, from the opposition or the government. Many Congolese songs are so peppered by these shout outs that a good portion of the song is just people's names.

A great list of some of the most popular mabanga from a few years back can be read in this fine article by Norbert Mbu. It shows the sad moral state the Congolese music scene has become. My favorite mabanga are:
  • Jaques Ilunga, a Kinshasa businessman, is called, étage ya suka, the highest story or penthouse, because nobody is above him.
  • Didier Kinuani, a diamond dealer, is l'infinitif, because he can't be conjugated when it comes to money. He's also, le sauveur de l'humanite. How understated.
  • Serge Kasanda, another businessman, is FMI, the International Monetary Fund.
  • Patrick Bologna, a Paris-based Congolese society man close to the president, is la couleur d'origine.
And so on.

So it was a bit of a surprise to me to see Papa Wemba, one of the best known Congolese musicians, come out and criticize Kabila's government so strongly. Some of this interview is in Lingala, but basically he's lambasting the government for its corruption. "People who have been in power for ten years and god knows how much money they have in their bank accounts. And they don't care one bit about the population."


Alex Engwete said...

Thanks a lot for this piece of Wemba's outburst..

We still need to take that criticism with a grain of salt.

For one, Papa Wemba didn't mention Kabila by name. There are stiff legal consequences for those who dare to do so. There's an obscure provision in Congolese law dating back from Mobutu's era called "Outrage à chef d’Etat" that gets one a minimum of 3 years in prison if found guilty. Gabriel Mongia, an abrasive outspoken member of what's called "opposition non institutionnelle" (the radical opposition that doesn't participate in the formal institutions like the National Assembly), is, as we speak, pondering in his cell at the Makala Prison the rigor of that law: he'd insulted the Rais on TV. (I need to also add that Wemba might be disgruntled: in 2006, he campaigned for his ex-wife who ran unsuccessfully for the National Assembly as Kabila's PPRD candidate in Matonge, his stronghold.)

Secondly, even under Mobutu, that kind of criticism was allowed. It mainly targets those around the chief while leaving him unscathed. President Kabila himself said not so long ago that if he could only find 6 (I don't recall the exact figure he gave) incorruptible collaborators, then his work would be easier.

Thirdly, Wemba isn't the first outlayer among Congolese musicians to shout out at powerful leaders:

1) Jeff Kalle (Joseph Kabasele), arguably the creator of modern Congolese music, bluntly told Mobutu to his face that he shouldn't expect him to write praise songs for him (Mobutu), for he'd already written such songs for Lumumba; and

2) Tabu Ley (Rochereau) wrote a song for Pierre Mulele, a rebel leader and a fellow tribesman of the Pende ethnic group of Bandundu, shortly after Mobutu had murdered him. And during the recent Transition, Tabu Ley was the Lieutenant-Governor of Kinshasa on the RCD ticket. In his tenure, he was very critical of Kabila and the PPRD.

Alex Engwete said...


I meant "... OUTLIER..."

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