In this letter, I’m going to talk about how capitalist business is the prime beneficiary of the terrible state of the arts in Kenya.
On the other hand, capitalism does pay artists huge amounts of money, like we see in Hollywood where people like Oprah and Jay Z became billionaires through entertainment.
In the end, artists are treated like battered spouses. One minute, a spouse is being abused and beaten, and the next minute, when the battered person has had enough, the abuser apologizes, swears how much they love the battered person and promises not to beat the spouse again. And the cycle starts again.
Art and wealth
The first thing to understand about the arts business is that it is a very flawed, archaic and extremely exploitative model. I will talk mainly about music, but book publishing and other types of art business work using the same principle.
Basically, the art business uses the rentier model, like a landlord. A landlord builds a house once but earns money on that house as long as he owns the right to that house. The “work” of living there, or the business carried out there, is done by other people, but the landlord earns a cut of that work despite doing no work. Simply because he OWNS the property in which the work was done.
And that is the same thing record labels and studios do. They provide initial capital and make the artist sign a 360-degree contract that allows the label to earn for the rest of the artist’s life from everything the artist is involved in: performance, recording, brand merchandise and even artistic license. An artist who is signed to a record label is an enslaved person. In the US, artists who are lucky earn 10 to 15% of the revenues they generate for the music industry. The rest are unlucky and earn much less, if at all.
Imagine that. For every artist billionaire we know, their record label earns nine times more.
As an artist, you’re probably thinking: “well, it may be exploitative but at least it works. Why can’t those exploiters come and work in Kenya?”
Actually they are working here, and we know it. They have names like MCSK and Liberty Afrika. And the way these companies exploit artists is the same way other companies exploit everybody else in employment. The wages we earn are nothing compared to the profits that entitled, lazy and ignorant fat cats make from our work, and yet – as we see with the doctors – companies are constantly coming up with new schemes to avoid paying us for the work we do.
And we should not compare ourselves to the Queen Beys and Justin Beibers of the West; rather, we should be aware that even in the West, many artists are exploited as well.
I tell my arts students that they should spend time in the university studying and imagining a different model for earning income from the arts. For instance, 360-degree contracts should be considered slavery and outlawed. Saying that every future income of an artist is tied to the initial capital invested in their recording is just as ridiculous as a food supplier to a restaurant saying that they should earn 90% of every plate or meal served by the restaurant. Once the food is delivered and paid for, the contract should end there. Artists should pay studios, publishers and marketers separately as bills, not on promise of royalties.
But because my students have been told that education is only for jobs, none have ever taken up my challenge to think about this.
There is another form of abuse and exploitation of artists that is less talked about because it is less easy to quantify. That is idea theft.
Through platforms like hubs, and through demanding proposals for shows and other performances, institutions exploit the artists’ energy and innovation, then pull the rug from under the artist and run off with the idea. That is why artists will start small concert gigs and before long, corporates, instead of sponsoring those gigs, create their own versions because they can pour in the money to make it big.
And these initially sustainable and indigenous ideas soon turn into monsters. These corporates invade natural parks like Hells gate to sell even bigger than they should. Not only do they subvert eco-systems; they also crush their conservation opponents with media blitz and economic blackmail. What started as a Kenyan artistic initiative is not only hijacked but also turned into short term, exploitative and destructive tsunamis that die almost soon after they are born.
Other artists report having given studios or media houses an idea for a show, leaving with a promise that they will hear from the producers. Within a few weeks, they see a bad version of the show they proposed. Is it a wonder that television entertainment is so unimaginative and poorly executed?
But this is the nature of capitalism: like a pedophile, it lets nothing mature and thrive. It instead derives a perverted sense of pleasure from exploiting the vulnerable and destroying budding ideas before the ideas develop into maturity.
Impunity and abuse
This pedophilia is replicated across all institutions. As someone recently said on Twitter, we are often employed on the promise of our ideas, upon which we are promptly frustrated and prevented from developing them.
No institution has escaped change and democratic supervision like the workplace. Workers around the world are succumbing to the abuse of the workplace, whether they are employed or not. Stress levels are high, and sexual bullying, mental illness, addiction and suicide are on the rise. The workplace has become a crime scene, where people get away with abuse and psychological torture.
But what is slightly unique about the arts is that when artists suffer from the same vices, the business world convinces us that this inhumanity is part of the artists' creativity. That is why the high rate of depression and suicide among artists is not treated as a pandemic. When artists suffer violence such as being shot in clubs and being drugged and raped, we the abused and terrorized Kenyan public thinks that their abuse comes with the artistic territory.
In fact, we even accept that the business community does not treat artists as workers like other employees. Artists are not paid a salary, pension and benefits. They don't go on leave. They are on the road all the time, or constantly searching for new gigs and new contracts, and never taking a break. The constant toil on their minds and bodies makes them disoriented, and they start to use substances to stabilize their lives instead of getting some rest. Then there is the parasite industry of paparazzis who make sales from intruding on artists' lives and selling the details to the world.
But instead of us criminalizing these vices done to artists, we let the business world convince us that this inhumanity is part of the artists' creativity. That is utter nonsense.
Worse, the impunity also makes every new generation join the arts thinking that creativity requires criminality, substance abuse and insanity.
And there is an evil, devilish interest of the business sector in making literal murder and depravity acceptable for artists. Because of the power of the arts to free people, capitalism cannot let the arts thrive on its own, for the arts will inspire the people to challenge the tyranny of business by looking for alternative business models.
But at the same time, capitalism needs the power of the arts to manipulate people to behave in the interests of business. It puts the arts on a leash, so that the arts go only where capital wants the arts to go - to sedating the masses into accepting exploitation or into buying things.
And the artists, unfortunately, are tied to corporations at the hip and naively celebrate their reliance on corporate sponsorship, without questioning the shrinking spaces and opportunities for the arts to thrive.
And we artists need to understand that this abusive relationship is made possible by the hostility of the church. Instead of the church being our refuge in times of trouble, the clergy side with the state when the state crushes us through bans and censorship which are implemented in the name of morality. The clergy’s betrayal of Kenyan artists for 30 pieces of silver from the state is the subject of my next letter.
I hope you are not yet worn out. My last letter will be about how we can resist, but before I get there, I will still write more on the 360-degree exploitation of artists, because we can’t resist what we don’t know. So please hang in there.
Yours in the struggle
The village madwoman