Chimurenga: Cape Town Now!
Politics, Music, Culture

An interview with Ntone Edjabe

The first issue of Chimurenga was launched in Cape Town, South Africa last month. The magazine's refusal to compartmentalize the political and the cultural is rare and refreshing. It is a multilingual project that avoids stereotypes. It brings non-European perspectives speaking to an Africa from an Africa. But Chimurenga already attracts a European and North American readership. On behalf of CTHEORY, I interviewed Ntone Edjabe who is editor-in-chief of Chimurenga.

Ntone Edjabe: The mix of culture and politics that our magazine stands for is reflected in its name. In the Zimbabwean language Shona the name Chimurenga stands for struggle for liberation. The term Chimurenga is also used to describe the music that fuelled the struggle against British colonialism and the white supremacist regime that replaced it during the 1970s in Zimbabwe. Chimurenga was created as a platform to end the "noise control" by media monopolies in South Africa. In this country the media is owned by a grand total of three companies: literally everything we hear, read, and watch is provided by them. These companies own a few satellites and just flood all of Africa with their material. The kid in Cameroon initially had a choice between TV channels and had the option to filter out what works for her environment. Now she cannot but absorb the nonsense from Channel O, the local version of MTV. This is me, she sees, because the person on the screen is indeed her: a South African, Nigerian, Kenyan. So, Chimurenga was initially founded to provide an "alternative" to the stuff we get fed. Now, I do not particularly like the term "alternative" as it implies that we are dealing with a sub-version of what the "real" shit is. No. We choose to discuss pop culture. And here pop means popular as in Brenda Fassie, South Africa's leading pop artist whose albums typically sell a half-million copies during the first week of their release. Now, these are serious numbers in a country as segregated as today's South Africa. These record sales are achieved with little or no mainstream marketing at all, mostly just word of mouth. Marketing is almost handled as a private matter.

And that is exactly what Chimurenga does--we turn the private into a public matter. We published an article by Njabulo Ndebele in which he argues that only when the private is made public will a new public domain become possible. Therefore it is really important not to locate Chimurenga in the "high art" totem.

This rejection does not mean that we do not exhibit in galleries. But we refuse to link the idea of high art with that of "exotic" cultural production for the colonial gaze. We attempt to visit all galleries that exhibit our work, including those in the townships (segregated impoverished areas for occupation by "Africans only" --as it says in the old apartheid definition). The urban context of the South African struggle against apartheid has provided us with expertise in the war that takes place in between columns. The cover of our first issue features a photograph of Tosh during a concert in Swaziland in 1981 metaphorically pointing his "weapon" towards South Africa shouting "Babylon will fall." Long after the concert, copies of that image were still circulating in the townships. We used this kind of iconography for many years.

Our name, Chimurenga, may sound a bit like postcolonial romanticism. The term "postcolonial" itself sounds pretty unrealistic when dealing with Africa. In most of the so- called third world the traditional colonial "mother" countries have simply been replaced by multinational corporations. The only fundamental change in our reality has been our reluctance to criticize the authorities since now our own brothers and sisters are the ones in charge. This is particularly important in South Africa where the people automatically align themselves with political power, the only power they have gained. We are clearly experiencing "the pitfalls of national consciousness" about which Frantz Fanon warned us in his book The Wretched of the Earth. The local middle class has stepped into colonial shoes while the "wretched" remain barefoot. We need to begin to look at our own societies critically and articulate that critique. So, in our first edition, Music as Weapon, we chose to discuss artists that have demonstrated militancy in response to neo-colonial powers, fighting their "own" governments-- rather than fictitious oppressors. I use the word "fictitious" because politicians learned very quickly to point to the IMF when conditions worsen, such as in Zimbabwe. Music as Weapon centers around MC Solaar, the Paris based, Senegal-born rapper; the legendary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Nigeria-born creator of his own unique style of music: AFRO-BEAT. It also pays homage to Tosh, a.k.a. "stepping razor" who provided a key line that echoed in the mouths of Los Angeles rioters: "I don't want no peace, I want equal rights and justice!" With Chimurenga we try to achieve what people like Fela Kuti and Tosh attempted with their music.

We have talked about content but the way we write is equally important to us. We want our texts to be like "guava juice," the brew of petrol and other explosive ingredients that the South African peoples, mostly students, used to blow up hippos (police tanks) in the townships. "Guava juice" is also the title of a collection of poems by Sandile Dikeni, a well-known South African poet and one of the founders of Chimurenga.

This linguistic approach is used by Cameroonian poet Henri Kala-Lobe in his commentary on manipulations of Africa's musical output by France. The article "La Franc-Maconnerie," published in Chimurenga in "Franglais" a mix of French and English, is not what Le Pen and his supporters understand to be French but many French-speaking Africans will relate to it.

CTHEORY: I am quite interested in the possibilities of new media tools, the ways in which digital resistance such as the blocking of commercial or government websites can begin to factor in bringing about concrete change. From Mexico to the United States and Europe there are countless web-based art activist initiatives that tackle hegemonic power. I assume that people in the townships have no access to the needed tools for acts of resistance. But, are there such initiatives in South Africa at all?

Natone Edjabe: As with many my problem with the Web has always been that of access. Exchanging revolutionary thought in a tiny circle of net junkies is not my idea of communication. So, a lot of online discourse on democratic globalization, for instance, deal with issues that concern those very people who have access to the Web. Needless to say that the family that lives in Gugulethu (a township near Cape Town) has no such access. The Gugulethu family's income is very affected by each G7 or G8 meeting but they are totally excluded from this online debate about "alternative globalization." I do not think that "global" should only refer to a group of anarchists in Bilbao or Turin. There is no revolution without the people. There will be no revolutionary change in Gugulethu unless we can speak to and with the peoples of Gugulethu.

CTHEORY: Exactly, access is sparse and the net in South Africa is a tool for educated, white, thirty-something boys who speak English. I am just not sure that the answer should be to abandon the Web. Rather let us try to make it available--inexpensive and useable to that very family in the townships. There are, of course, people who try precisely that: bringing low cost communication technologies to Africa. What do you think?

Ntone Edjabe: Many have suggested "bringing" the new tech communication --Web and all-- to the people like they "brought civilization" to some of us a few centuries ago. But there is a cultural obstacle to this: as in the case of Chimurenga music in Zimbabwe--we still use the spoken word, not writing, to articulate our struggles. Even today the average black middle class family in South Africa does not own a computer--let alone the rest of Africa. But they own two cars so they can spread gossip between cities, villages and townships. Nevertheless, they do have access to the World Wide Web at work or at school. In South Africa, the internet is still mostly used to communicate with the "Other." The same could be said about the use of European languages in South Africa.

CTHEORY: How do you see Chimurenga functioning for readers in North America or Europe?

Ntone Edjabe: September 11 revealed how Chimurenga could function for a US audience. Fewer Americans would have been shocked by the terrorist attacks if they had known what the world thinks about the "American way of life." It would not have surprised them that some individuals were willing to give up their lives to destroy the lives of many innocent people.

I mean, "we" are the world and not a bunch of skin-bleached Hollywood praise-singers. Remember Michael Jackson's "We Are the World," 1984. Chimurenga wants to articulate the experiences of African peoples wherever they may be located and I wish very much for readers in North America-- and beyond --to get involved, to contribute.

We interviewed the African-American poet and actor Saul Williams about hip-hop, which is, of course, very big in Africa. It has almost become a matrix for young people who wish to demarcate themselves and present a rebellious gesture. Many of these kids get introduced to hip-hop through MTV. So we need to talk with them about MTV in different ways than Vibe magazine. We need to provide a platform for them to talk critically about it in Wolof, a Senegalese language. We do not focus on "artists" --we discuss people and issues that affect our lives. Some of them may use an "art form" as tool for expression but many others might just be ordinary people like me talking. In this way one could think of Chimurenga as an outlet of resistance against the possibility that our country, South Africa, could potentially become a new colony of Wall Street. Nevertheless, this is not a magazine "for" the American audience, one that would present Africa on a blackboard for the US to study and dissect. This is honest talk about our lives, talking first to ourselves: the African peoples. We demonstrate a deeper interest than that of The New York Times. This is an important point because most of our papers rely on the NYT for news. You could call them local versions of the paper.

CTHEORY: How do you finance Chimurenga?

Ntone Edjabe: I am really proud of the fact that none of our funding for writing, editing or distribution comes from well-meaning NGOs or corporate advertising. Many publications started off this way and were hijacked by academia or business. At Chimurenga everyone contributes a bit of skill, time, and the cover charge. We rely entirely on our readers. If they do not support it then it has no reason to exist. That is my philosophy.

CTHEORY: Thank you for the interview

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Ntone Edjabe is Cameroonian-born journalist and DJ. He hosts "soul makossa" a show on African cultural politics on Bush Radio in Cape Town. He is also the co-founder of a pan-African cultural center in Cape Town called the Pan African Market--also known as the Kalakuta Republic. He is the founding editor of Chimurenga.

Trebor Scholz is an East-Berlin-born, Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist. He exhibits, lectures and curates widely in Europe and the Americas. His work was included in this year's Sao Paolo Biennial.