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The promise of futurism: Part 1

Kagiso Mnisi caught up with Just A Band, from Nairobi, to talk about the promise of the digital age, the merits of Afrofuturism, and other trends coming out of a continent where personal stories are starting to take centre stage.

The age of social media has given credence to a collective imagination that knows no boundaries. The irrelevance of geography via the net extends the human experience and enables the projection of dreams, fantasies and even modern day mysticism through endless interfaces. Conversations in the art world have given mileage to these projections by testing the collusion between creativity and technology.

One of the platforms where this paradigm plays out is Post African Futures, an exhibition that probes the role of digital art and technology in exploring Africa’s cultural relationship to new communications technologies. Post African Futures compares communications practices from Johannesburg, Nairobi and Lagos. In its final phase, PAF recently presented The After Life Of Mr. Gold: Episode 4, which saw musicians from Joburg and Nairobi, namely The Brother Moves On, Okmalumkoolkat and Just A Band, collaborating under the pretext of a talk show staged in the after life. Through the aid of their avatars, the artists immersed themselves in real time ‘status updates’ and hash tag frenzies usually associated with the new age mysticism of social media. Kagiso Mnisi caught up with Just A Band, from Nairobi, to talk about the promise of the digital age, the merits of Afrofuturism, and other trends coming out of a continent where personal stories are starting to take centre stage.

Just a Band, performing at Post African Futures.
Just a Band

Just A Band are Dan Muli aka Nairobidhobi, Blinky Bill aka Lwande Magere, and Mbithi Masya aka Ricky Suede.

Kagiso Mnisi: Nairobi is being dubbed the silicon savannah of Africa. How are young artists from your area reimagining their present and future?

Dan Muli: I’d say music in Kenya started being reimagined in the 2000s, whereby artists started to do away with convention. A whole new genre was pioneered by Ogopa Djs, known as Kapuka, which raised the profile of Kenyan urban music. But in terms of future thinking, there currently is an emergent crop. Camp Mulla comes to mind. They are a new generation which is more openminded and much of their experimentation is lyrical rather than stylistic.

Blinky Bill: Even more interesting is that these kids are shunning the obsession with politics; you’ll find them either making Emo music or party sounds. Their storytelling is more introspective and has less to do with, say, the president.

Thoughts on the wave of digital technology?

Mbithi Masya: It’s all about distribution, in that mainstream radio and television have become insignificant. Taste makers on these old platforms have become irrelevant, for instance we as Just A Band emerged via YouTube because TV and radio wouldn’t play our stuff. So that is currently the trend.

Observations of the South African scene?

Dan Muli: I think the South African music scene has reached a certain enviable level. We can safely say there’s a real industry here and there are also a lot more interesting collaborations happening. You have a situation where art and technology can be in synergy, such as in Post African Futures. There is not much of that happening in Nairobi, whereby artists can collaborate with coders in a project. We draw a lot of inspiration from SA, not knowing to what extent do the artists there get inspired by Kenya.

Blinky Bill: A lot of what happens here inspires the continent. You have interesting house musicians, Djs and producers. We hope to emulate SA’s model at some point back home, where there are solid and world class artists. Don’t get me wrong, Kenya has great artists, we just need to up the tempo a bit.

Blinky Bill from Just a Band
Blinky Bill from Just a Band

Ideas around Post African Futures?

Dan Muli: We’ve been building a reputation as part of our aesthetic. We are are fascinated by sci-fi and have been translating a lot of sci-fi imagery and ideas into our music and videos, so it was not hard to be part of the Post African Futures conversation. We are visual artists and do video art installations (one of our installations was exhibited in New York in 2011). So it made sense when we were approached to be part of Post African Futures, and with that we are starting to understand the gallery scene. Coming from a largely pop background/aesthetic, our video art has been able to get people interested who would not necessarily be interested in going to galleries.

Thoughts on the debate around the use of the term ‘Afrofuturism’?

Dan Muli : I can see where the thinking around Afrofuturism is coming from. I mean, if, say, you are an African kid who grew up in the 80s and saw sci-fi cartoons on TV, you would be sold into the idea since the African stories you consumed did not necessarily have the aesthetics as seen in the cartoons. So it becomes enticing to have a guy playing a traditional Kenyan instrument while hovering above Mars. It completely makes sense, so why not?

Blinky Bill: Of all the classes that African things have been put under, I find the Afrofuturism movement to be the most interesting as a package. I mean if someone was to give me the choice to be either in a ‘world music’ or ‘afrofuturism’ box, I would choose afrofuturism. Look, I don’t necessarily identify or shun afrofuturism, I just find it interesting as a package.

Mbithi Masya: Afrofuturism is a legitimate classification, but we have to agree that it has received a lot of bullshit hype over the years. As much as it may be a classification where people can easily access it, it also separates. It has becomes a away of keeping stuff from the rest. I think it drives a wedge and keeps Afro conversations from the mainstream. The world is connected and futurism is just that… futurism as opposed to afrofuturism. Why should sci-fi be alloted to afrofuturism when Africa is involved?

And on collborations with Okmalumkoolkat and The Brother Moves On?

Okamalumkoolkat
Okamalumkoolkat

Blinky Bill: I love Okmalumkoolkat’sIjusi‘ from the EP Holy Oxygen. It is always interesting to listen to folks who inject sounds that you would not necessarily hear in music coming out of the continent. Okmalumkoolkat is one of those musicians, he pushes the envelope when it comes to sonics.

Dan Muli: ‘Good Times’ by The Brother Moves On was a revelation when I heard it. I will be getting hold of Siya, the band’s vocalist, to ask him how they come up with such cinematic material. And that he creates characters for himself is cool, because we are into that as well.

Follow this link to Future Lab to listen to a conversation between Just a Band and Tegan Bristow.

All images are by Tseliso Monaheng.

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