Sun, Dec 30, 2018 - Page 7 News List

DR Congo’s mix of music and political power

The campaigns leading up to today’s elections saw musicians accepting, and declining, offers to perform at rallies, compose pieces or mention politicians

By Jason Burke  /  The Guardian, KINSHASA

It is a hot, humid afternoon in Kinshasa. Traffic snarls and grinds on rutted streets. Heavy rain threatens. Felix Wazekwa’s band members load their bus with musical instruments in the suburb of Limete before heading to a tough neighborhood far across the city. A local candidate running in the elections rescheduled for today has hired them to play at a rally.

“If you can get people to dance, then you can get a message across very easily. The politicians have a message, and I am very good at getting people to dance. So they come to me,” said Wazekwa, who is one of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DR Congo) biggest stars.

The election is two years late and has been forced on Congolese President Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001, by popular and international pressure. The stakes are high. The victor would command the DR Congo’s security establishment — and the lion’s share of the revenue generated by the country’s vast mineral resources. The losers are likely to face years of repression.

In the DR Congo, music and politics are inseparable. To gain an advantage, many politicians turn to the country’s singers and band leaders, hiring them for rallies, commissioning special compositions, or simply paying for a mention during a song.

“During the campaign I sing what I’m told to sing. I’m not here to judge,” said Wazekwa, who recorded a single praising the government’s presidential candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, based on a text prepared by aides.

With no revenue from royalties, systematic pirating, limited infrastructure and few public performances, many Congolese musicians have always relied on wealthy patrons.

“The artists need money and politicians, especially those who have been in power for some time, want to burnish their image. This is a cheap way of getting publicity. You pay to be mentioned in one song, and it gets replayed many, many times,” Kinshasa-based analyst and columnist Israel Mutala said.

The DR Congo is a creative powerhouse, despite its deep poverty and endemic instability — and its eventful political history has one of Africa’s richest soundtracks.

In 1960, the song Independence Cha Cha, celebrating the end of Belgian colonial rule, was a continent-wide hit. During his disastrous three-decade rule, former Congolese president Mobutu Sese Seko commissioned “praise songs” from top artists.

In the past few years, a more contemporary and gritty style has emerged to challenge the famous rumba lingala, the DR Congo’s 70-year-old, Cuban-influenced, popular musical tradition.

Not all see the tight ties between creative artists and politicians as healthy.

“If there’s a relationship between music and politics, then it’s a very perverted one. When there are so many dead, raped, sick and miserable in this country, then we musicians have a responsibility, too. These are our fans, our brothers and sisters,” said Alex Dende Esakanu, aka Lexxus Legal, one of the most popular Congolese rappers. “Of course, musicians have the right to take the politicians’ money, but I say it’s immoral.”

Esakanu, 39, is an opposition candidate and spokesman for the campaign of Martin Fayulu, a former businessman who was a marginal figure before the campaign, but has been attracting large crowds.

“The authorities are doing everything they can to block us. If the elections are fair, we have every chance of winning,” said Eskanu, speaking to reporters at his home in a poor neighborhood of central Kinshasa which, like most of the city, suffers from a chronic lack of electricity and drinking water.

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