#EndSARS and the limits of celebrity activism

Burna Boy AND cUPPY

In the film One Night in Miami which had its North American premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), four friends and soon-to-be iconic Americans are gathered in a Miami hotel room in 1964, on the night a twenty-two boxer named Casius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

Directed by Oscar-winning actress, Regina King, and based off a 2013 play by Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami which won the runner up prize at TIFF is an effective piece of cinematic wishful thinking. The film takes a tantalizing premise from the pages of history and fills it with ideas on what might or could have been.

Four American icons, civil rights leader, Malcolm X, boxing legend, Casius Clay (soon to be known as Muhammad Ali), soul singer Sam Cooke and football superstar Jim Brown, all young and in pivotal stages of their personal and professional lives, gather in a hotel room. Outside the relative safety of the hotel room though, the world marches on, oblivious to the efforts of these young men struggling to give voice and dignity not just to black people but to a country that has continued to fail them.

If it seemed like America was at the cusp of change in the sixties, it was because the civil rights movement had kicked into full gear. The events of the outside world- social and political- dominated the concerns of the four men in the room and for almost two hours, King skillfully highlights the concerns of the time. Her film also draws a line, tracing it to the present day (inter)national and cultural reckoning on race relations and the rights of black persons.

Considering that all four men enjoyed some measure of fame, their wide-ranging discussion naturally drifted to the curse- and blessings- of celebrity. The immense cultural cachet that celebrities have at their disposal makes it near impossible to dismiss them in advocacy efforts, major and minor. But how can this privilege be put to use effectively and appropriately?

It is trickier than it seems.

The real-life Malcolm X was notably hostile to celebrities and entertainers getting involved in political activism and purporting to represent the people as leaders. He once dismissed celebrities who chose to side with Martin Luther King’s vision of civil rights advocacy as “puppets and clowns” in a public interview now widely distributed on the internet.

The fictional Malcolm X in One Night in Miami, while still holding strong views about the rules of engagement, is more conciliatory. Perhaps selfishly so, as he is a man on the verge of breaking out of the shadow of his mentor, prophet Elijah Muhammad and going solo. In Malcolm X’s shrewd and practical calculation, having a figure as prominent as Clay would lend considerable legitimacy to his soon-to-be-hatched cause.

Young Nigerians who have come out en masse to protest police brutality and an anti-robbery unit gone rogue have, like Malcolm X, grappled head-on with the role and uses of celebrities in the protests. For many, the questions have been ‘What do we do with the celebrities?’ ‘Are they helping or hurting?’ Perhaps they are doing a mix of both.

On the one hand, the ability of celebrities and famous people to tap into public emotions and affections make them a readily available template to project all kinds of ideas on. On the other, celebrity activism is often based on the very naïve but valid premise that if only people had some knowledge about an issue, then they can do something to make a change.

Granted, awareness is often the first step towards change. But awareness, like the celebrity it sprouts from, is mostly fickle, sporadic, and usually does not translate particularly into meaningful changes. The world is filled with credible causes that failed to survive past the awareness stages drummed up by even the most beloved and influential celebrities. To highlight a cause, that is the easy part. Try following up on actionable items that can actually lead to measurable impact.

#EndingSARS

The #EndSARS protests, now the largest mass protests the country has recorded in at least a decade has witnessed this reality. As the protests snowballed into a movement that was increasingly hard to ignore, people began to call out to their favourite celebrities to lend their voices and star power to help legitimize the movement. Initially, the prompts were soft and polite, but as more and more celebrities aligned with the protests, some of it began to come off as threatening. The message was clear. The streets were taking notes and only those who supported the fight against police brutality would be patronized in the future.

Celebrities took notes. As the famous people began to rally and join the protests- physically as well as online- the well-worn limitations and frustrations of celebrity activism began to rise to the surface. Thing is celebrities, at their best behaviour are mostly good for drawing national or global attention to a cause that they believe in. Under ordinary circumstances that may be all they are required to do- tweet out to their millions of follows, make Facebook posts that can be seen around the world, drum up international support and amplify the work of on the ground protesters. Oh! and whipping out the cheque books certainly cannot hurt. But the #EndSARS protests have been anything but ordinary. Hence the hubris.

Runtown, Davido and Falz were some of the early voices to speak out publicly against scrapping the controversial anti-robbery unit. Runtown even made a show of presenting himself physically to lead a protest in Lekki Lagos.

After tweeting continuously and getting into a spat with a now-discredited government official, Wizkid joined the London protests where he made his feelings heard. Small Doctor showed up at Alausa bringing with him, a multitude of fans and supporters as well as a much-needed boost in morale. No doubt all of these contributed to the ground swelling that led to the government announcing yet another dissolution of the notorious anti-robbery squad.

The good and the bad

Celebrities tend to run into trouble when they begin to step outside of these noble limits and seek to interfere directly in matters which they have little expertise on. The bitter pill they have often had to swallow during the #EndSARS movements highlights just how inadequate passion and good intentions can be.

Davido was lauded for joining the protests in Abuja but days later, in total disregard of the movement’s reiteration that there was no central leadership, invited some of his celebrity friends to a meeting with the Inspector General of Police. It isn’t clear what this meeting was supposed to achieve and Davido himself seemed to be unsure of what exactly his motives were from the clips that surfaced online. He was promptly called out for his duplicity and he has since returned to speaking out on his social media handles and amplifying the work of on the ground activists.

This propensity to center self and assuming leadership positions that aren’t theirs to take has been recurrent. Celebrities in Davido’s influence and income bracket are practically used to being the center of attention at all times. A good number of them cannot envision any other picture where they aren’t front and center.

The #EndSARS movement is not that kind of party obviously and many celebrities that have failed to read the room have gotten their fingers burnt. Falz was going to partake in a townhall meet with the Inspector General of Police and then he wasn’t. Fame is a strange beast and this foolish behaviour isn’t limited to stars with real influence. B-lister MC Galaxy went to the Lekki protests and inexplicably felt the urge to spray money at the protesters. He was promptly dragged for filth.

Resist the urge to shalaye…

Nigerian celebrities particularly suffer from poor communication skills worsened by the ubiquity of social media channels that enable them connect directly with their audience. While fans are always willing to embrace authenticity, the importance of maintaining professional communication operations cannot be overestimated.

Celebrities who fail to do this have had their butts handed out to them severally. Davido went on a crisis management attempt after his attempt at speaking for the youth at his now-discredited meeting. Tiwa Savage, trying to lure her fellow collaborator Beyonce- via social media of all places- into lending her voice also found a way to center herself. The validity of Savage’s plea to Beyonce was instantly diluted by her self-serving remarks suggesting the possibility of being blacklisted for calling out pop music’s reigning queen.

Producer Lilian Afegbai, visible on the protest circuit, drew unsolicited scrutiny to the activities of her mother; a police officer alleged to have participated in the killing of at least one young person. This, after a needless social media post of hers, began making the rounds. Good luck explaining this one away.

It is alarming how this lack of media and communication training filters into everyday encounters such that even genuine attempts to help out become poisoned. The ever-bubbly DJ Cuppy, blinded by her privilege in one of her early Twitter posts supporting the protests, failed to draw a line to appreciate how police brutality affects her as well.

One would think it was obvious enough but the famous Otedola daughter fancied herself to be immune from police brutality. Mr P, struggling to articulate his privilege to a Channels Television reporter stopped short of calling the people around him impoverished. These were the same people who had been sustaining weeks of protests that made it cool enough for him to associate his privileged self with.

Fela forever

When it comes to celebrities and activism, the gold standard, of course, remains Fela Kuti. The man may have had his weaknesses, but no one could accuse him of cowardice in the face of tyranny. He didn’t just make everlasting protest music, he walked the talk by speaking about against the military junta of the time every chance he got. For his efforts, Fela paid severely, losing his freedom, properties and even his beloved mother to the struggle.

Making protest songs would seem plucking low hanging fruits but one of Afrobeats biggest acts, Wizkid won’t even touch them today. They are “a waste of session” he recently told the Financial Times. Burna Boy, Afrobeats latest crossover success has literally made a career out of sampling Fela’s work and touting his proximity to the Afrobeat icon. He has accused Nigerians in his records of being docile and unable to fight for their rights but even with this reawakening, Burna Boy has been missing in action. What he has done instead is hide behind his girlfriend’s tweets, promote sponsored billboard messages and identify the major issue as “profiling.” Groundbreaking!

But perhaps it is just as well that people begin to realize that celebrities are best suited for entertaining and activism is a specialized entity requiring its own unique skillsets. Celebrities were never going to save us and expecting them to would be placing too much burden on them. Historically, it is rare that they have committed to dotting the t’s and crossing the I’s. A couple of years back, 2Baba made a big show of leading an anti-government protest only to chicken out last minute, citing security concerns.

The hard work of building a nation and keeping government on their toes, particularly with #EndSARS will be done not by photo-op but by activists, advocates, civil society players, regular folks working on the ground and behind the scenes to deliver results. The onus should be on identifying these people and the work that they do, then moving to support them and amplify their work in every way that is possible.

From raising funds to lending visibility, speaking truth to power, building coalitions and knowing when to stay mum, there is no shortage of ways that celebrities can get involved to ensures that #EndSARS keeps going until the objectives are realized. Best to pick a hoe and start digging.

 

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