Dear Nigerian Cultural Journalist,
I have been asked to write you this missive by this platform that’s greatly interested in the growth and health of the cultural and creative sectors. By this, they mean you. And I. I am writing to you but I am also writing to myself. What they are not saying is they know we are not well. But curiously, there is no Afropolitan/White (Hello, James Schneider!) Saviour Industrial Complex at play here. They want us to find the cure for our ailment(s), by ourselves. Isn’t this wonderful? Of course, we must start at the beginning…
First, you must perish the thought that your review of Biyi Bandele’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ or analysis of the proliferation of indigenous languages in Nigerian rap will land you a spot on Forbes Africa’s ‘Richest List’. Yes, everyone should care that you thought Bandele’s adaptation while technically accomplished was for the first half, emotionally hollow and melodramatic. Yes, everyone should care that you are clocking a refreshing trend in Nigerian music; that our rap is vernacular-ing its way towards originality, no longer thugnificent, filled with Dr. Dre and 50 Cent wanna-bes. However, not everyone will care. Or pay. Yours is (sometimes) a thankless and minimum wage job. Your motivations for being a cultural gatekeeper and tastemaker cannot be monetary. Must not be. Else, frustration will be the thing around your neck that wraps itself tightly and threatens to choke you. Of course, when you feel constantly aggrieved, and slighted, and underappreciated, you tend not to care very much to perhaps do some more research on that history of Nigerian High-life music piece, or to cross-check your facts or not use your source’s quotes out of context. You must make your peace with the unfortunate fact that your passion may never be turn into (minted) paper.
Second, hard as it may be sometimes, you must learn to colour outside the lines, to consider that your work does not lie only in reporting from and reviewing film festivals, art exhibitions, music concerts, book tours or interviewing players that make up same. Your work, and indeed, culture is not like the sweep hand of the clock that performs the same circular dance every day. Do you remember that 2009 CNN Multichoice Arts and Culture award-winning piece by your comrade, Tolu Ogunlesi, ‘What the Truck’? He wrote about the now dying art of painting public transport trucks/buses, ‘molues’ with symbols, messages and so on. Before that piece was published, it was an untold story yet it is an everyday reality, at least for those of us who live in Lagos and are constantly bullied by these buses who switch lanes without warning and have coloured the sides and bumpers of our cars with scratches more than once. You see, cultural journalist, some of the best stories are the ones that are lived, not the ones that are performed. For you to be the compass to new conversations, changed narratives, you must pay attention to your doorstep. The famished road is only in your mind. The famished road is planted with stories which you see but ignore. It is planted with stories whose value your underestimate. It is planted with stories with you do not think grand. My dear cultural journalist, as a wise man once told me, ‘normal is good enough’.
Hopefully, you haven’t yet lost the taste for the ‘cure’ just yet. This is the third and final prescription (for now) One does not withhold the medicine because it is bitter…
You must mind your language. You must guard it watchfully against showboating like you guard your American visa application against mistakes. You must remember that your job is at first to communicate, to inform, and alongside these, as appropriate, to entertain. Your job is not to impress. You are not a thesaurus. The dictionary was already hired to do that job. You must remember that there is already a perception that cultural reportage or the arts at large is a members’ only club. But it needn’t be. It must not be. The boardroom baron on her way to her office at United Bank for Africa towers drives by the late Professor Ben Enwonwu’s ‘Drummer Boy’, a sculpture on the side of the NECOM Building in Onikan, Lagos Island. The roadside merchant walks by the same sculpture on his way to his stall in Balogun Market, Lagos Island where he sells milk, sardines, butter, corn flakes and sugar. When you write your article on public art in Lagos Island, you are speaking to this woman and this man. Your language must be a man of the people- it should understand and try to represent everyone. Your language must be a feather to the ears- it should be pleasing to read. Your language must be a ray of sun through a rainy and cloudy day- it should offer illumination.
Now, my dear cultural journalist, there is much still to say- my diagnosis is incomplete. But I reckon the aforementioned are the most urgent matters. In my book, they are festering injuries. I will write to you again soon.
Cheers, to you, to me, in the hope of recovery.