Reflection on the Voice4Thought festival (Leiden, 24-30 August 2015)
‘We need to bring these stories out’, said Chadian activist and political refugee Maina Ibangolo during the debate on the 28th of August: stories of the arrests in Congo five months ago, of innocent citizens who simply demand their rights and are still in prison, of the student leader in Chad who was arrested and imprisoned for weeks without any solid accusation against him. It is frustration and hope that brings our invited panel together in Leiden. The official debate led by journalist Sophie van Leeuwen was preceded by informal discussions between the panel members. They were rather harsh and explicit about the atrocities done to their people, but also about the frustration that ‘nothing happens’.
The panel members agreed that there are differences between their countries: the diaspora seems to have more influence on the local political agendas; the youth in Burkina Faso, Chad, Congo, Cameroon, seem to share agitation and readiness to fight for freedom, but all in different ways. In Cameroon, as human rights activist Pangmashi Yenkong said: ‘the citizenry is docile, and probably not yet ready to fight’. Is change for them an illusion? For the Chadians Croquemort, slam artist, and Maina Ibangolo there is some hope as the recent marches in Chad indicate a growing activism among the youth. However, Croquemort pointed out that ‘there is still a long way to go’, adding: ‘we have to inform the people of their rights!’. The Chadian regime has cracked down on the youth, a harshness reinforced by laws permitting all conceivable measures against terrorism. These measures allow regimes to arrest whoever they want. But what then is the way forward? Who have to play the leading role and how?
Saskia Harmsen from IICD, a development ICT organization, suggests: ‘What should precede ‘Voicing’ is that people should know. We should allow people to know and that goes with freedom of speech, and with information’. Burkino Faso rapper and leader of Balai Citoyen, Smockey, retorts with a shocking remark: ‘these intellectuals are useless’. His provocation is sustained by Mi Yangu Kiakwama Kia Kiziki from Congo protest movement Filimbi: ‘The intellectuals are important but they do too little. They do not really tell the truth to the ‘powers’’. Maina adds: ‘There is a need for alternative views’. The panel members agree that the export of democracy, of human rights, cannot be successful without a real reworking of these values for the various African societies. And Isa Yusibov, candidate for the European parliament of the liberal party D66, makes clear this is not only the case for Africa: countries in Eastern Europe face the same challenges.
Debates are needed, especially in the countries where it matters. Unfortunately, debates there are often blocked and will be more difficult to organize in the atmosphere of terrorism and threats that colors the societies that were represented during Voice4Thought.
#letslisten and letsdance
Artists Bryony Burns, Smockey, Croquemort continued the discussions with intimate performances in the Hortus Botanicus on the 28th and the rock concert in Gebr. De Nobel on the 29th of August. Smockey is a rapper-activist, singing about the revolution and inviting people to join. The song he made with the Band4Thought made the public cry out for a different world; the song he composed with slammer Croquemort and the crew of Antilounge, an underground label specialized in electronic music, speaks out about sharing, in the words by Croquemort:
‘je crois au poids d’échange, de partage, qui baisse des canons au passage; je crois au forces de muscle poétiques et au coups de punch tonique (…) ; Je crois que je vois, Je crois que j’ai foi, je crois que c’est moi, je crois que c’est toi, je crois qu’on a un poids, je crois aux lois, je crois au partage de vois’.
On stage Smockey and Barbara Gwanmesia also impressed with the song: ‘Il faut qu’on partage’.
Croquemort’s urban critical poetry addressed the need to overcome divisions, as can be heard in Je suis du nord, je suis du sud; hopes for a better future, voiced in je voudrais devenir star; and, as we are all observing in our world, the skies are set on fire, voiced in les cieux ont déjà brûlé. This song talks about our present predicament of being caught in a circle of violence and having no answers. The sky, the world, is set on fire: IS, Boko Haram, MUJAO fighting, migrants from all over the world. Without knowing we increasingly share a discourse of division and non-sharing (in the case of Jihadism) but also (in the case of migrants) of sharing. This is why intellectuals should join these texts and indeed start to make a difference in a world that needs reflection!
Behind all these expressions in words and music are deep structural factors that are not so easy to understand. Why are we in a world that sets the skies on fire? The differences between the countries are big, but there are similarities too. The films that were screened during the festival week were country specific but their themes apply to various countries. The Ambassador, by journalist Mads Brügger, beautifully reveals the international networks and criminality behind diplomacy; Un Homme Qui Crie evokes the emotional consequences of economic inequalities and war for ordinary citizens; and the comic story of Le Président is based on the situation in Cameroon with its president for eternity. These stories remind Isa and others of their own countries and the situation of the refugees that Europe reluctantly receives.
Recognition of differences but also the realization that we need a different solution for each situation is crucial. Back to the debate and song: ‘partage!’. Yes we can learn from each other, but we need to find our own specific way!
#letsexperience and #thinkcritically
The presentation of the VJ from Simple Productions, who combined the visual research material of the research project Connecting in Times of Duress with the songs and music, made the reflection on academic work and art into a real experience. This photo gallery shows the portraits of the V4Ts. They represent the research that is done in the program CTD and explicitly invite other voices to join the project. To present these people with their stories will further the debates about social change and future pathways. ‘Everybody has a voice’!
Going down the stairs from this photo gallery to the basement, a surprise was prepared for the visitors of the festival. Charlotte van Winden, an artist graduated from the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, presents ‘Boring Idiots’, showing everyday talk, everyday silliness; but beneath this ordinariness there are hidden voices. An implicit comment on the Voice4Thought project: beware there are no nobodies, and to end with Smockey: ‘Everybody has the right to be President’.
It is unusual to end a blog with thanks, but I make this exception: the festival could not have happened without Antilounge Record Label, Generator, Raw Bros, Kasper Kazil, Charlie & Gallus, Band4Thought, Simple Productions; Croquemort, Isa Yusibov, Kiakwama, Maina, Pangamshi, Saskia Harmsen, Smockey and debate moderator Sophie van Leeuwen; Elvire Eijkman, Fenneken Veldkamp and Marieke van Winden from the African Studies Centre (ASC); the Leiden University crew and the CTD team; and last but not least, the organizing committee Cindy van der Aa, Eefje Gilbert and Amrit Dev Kaur Khalsa who have been on the top of their toes for at least two months!
And of course a big thanks for the financial support of ASC, Gemeente Leiden, the Faculty of Humanities, the Institute of History and the CTD research programme at Leiden University.