R. Kelly in Uganda, January 2010
One of the biggest American artists to ever have performed in Uganda was R. Kelly, who did so in January 2010.
It was a heavily sponsored, hugely attended show, and it lasted just forty minutes. After months of publicity and sales of high-priced tickets, his fans had expected a much longer performance, something to justify his rumored million-dollar fee. Personally, I wasn’t disappointed. I was relieved and happy from the moment I saw him on stage. The concert, ironically dubbed the “I Believe” concert, had been dogged with doubts about him turning up at all — we didn’t "believe".
On the day, I was happy we didn’t let ourselves down, happy that the sound system didn’t die on us, happy the power didn’t go off, happy the security was on point — because we all know one little glitch and Kels would have been whisked off stage, straight to the airport.
Well, that was two years ago and we haven’t had another “big” artist come through since. It seems most American artists start and stop their African concerts in South Africa. I used to be bitter about that but that’s the fan in me; from a practical point of view it makes sense. Mostly.
I came across this video where Nas and Pharrell discuss why US artists don’t perform in Africa.
Going through the comments it seems they managed to upset a few people. When Pharrell said the US media’s image of Africa is “babies with big stomachs, swollen heads and flies” I knew he'd put himself in the line of fire. He did make some valid points, namely when he touched on how their performances can’t come cheap. A popular ‘local’ artist in Uganda will get paid around two thousand dollars a concert – that is what this market is used to. So for concert promoters, advertisers and concert goers here, a million-Dollar fee creates sky-high expectations. That’s why fans were so disappointed with the R. Kelly performance. We’ve seen footage, we know the kind of concerts he does around the world, and it just wasn’t the one we got. But at about ten Dollars a ticket you could argue that we got what we paid for. Personally, I believe I got more than my moneys worth: a forty-minute medley of R. Kelly’s greatest hits and the best part of all is that it was on Ugandan soil.
When Alicia Keys came to Uganda in 2009 for her charity project, big name industry people tried to get her to do performances. I even saw a poster or two promising such, but she didn’t do anything outside of her project. And there lies another problem. We can't have our cake and eat it too. Cry charity to get them here and then get annoyed at them for refusing to sing at a nightclub when they want to talk AIDS and malaria. We have to decide and be clear about what we want these celebrities to do when they come to Africa. If charity is what they come for, we have to accept that. I respected her for it because it showed she was passionate and serious about the reason that brought her here. In the same light, I respect Pharrell for saying what a lot of other American artists know but don’t talk about which is that the money isn’t right. If we want them to do it big, we have to be able to pay them big. These artists don’t perform for free; I don’t think we need that charity.
Back to the video above: It was when Pharrell went into the African/China relations bit that I started getting uncomfortable. It’s a valid subject for discussion, but wading in without the facts and concluding that Africa is being bought for a song insults the intelligence of Africans, and I don’t like that. I don’t think any African artist would be too well received if they challenged US foreign policy in an interview in America, particularly if they weren’t in possession of the facts.
Nas talked about the relationship between Africans and African-Americans needing work, there being a lack of communication between the two groups, and I agree with that, assuming of course that he is talking about Africans living in America. The ones over here don’t have any beef with African-Americans and aren’t fighting over the strongest minority bill; we just want the “big star/big event” experience. Like music fans everywhere, we want to see celebrities up close and personal; we want to sing along and be entertained. Yes, we all heard about someone snatching 50 Cent’s chain in Angola, but was that really about Africa? The media seems to have spun it that way, but I know the same could easily have happened in New York. Big deal.
Nas and Damian Marley
Safety, politics and leadership didn’t stop Pharrell from filming the video for Beautiful in Rio de Jeniro. Nas didn’t seem to mind culture relations between Americans and US-based Jamaicans when he was enjoying Jamaica with Damian Marley. Clearly the main and probably most important issue is money. The promoters in most African countries are not ready to pay these artists their usual asking fee, and even if they could would they really all be worth it? Would they all fill arenas? It’s all relative.
And then there are the artist demands, which seem to excessively diva-like when it involves performing in Africa. I heard that one artist demanded the removal of mosquitoes, and the organizers guaranteed it. You see, that’s our problem: too quick and eager to seal the deal, leaving far too much room for error, failure, disappointment and griping.
In the video above, Nas/Pharrell keep talking about “Africa”, but infrastructure varies from country to country, just like it’s leadership, and speaking of it as one, analyzing it incorrectly and then using the incorrect analysis out of context doesn’t help anybody. Besides, I bet when N.E.R.D goes to China they aren’t thinking about all of that — after all it’s work. As long as ones safety and principles aren’t compromised all any artist should worry about is the infrastructure connected with their job — that quality standards are met, that they get paid and that they give a good show.
My current concert wish list is Fally Ipupa, D’Banj and Liquideep. All African. You want to see Drake? Well the way things stand right now, with the recession and all, he’ll get on stage, burp and leave. Worth it?