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Dear K'naan, Africa Is Not The Only Place Where 'Politics Happens'

Dissecting the notion of a "true voice" in K'naan's recent New York Times op-ed


The sentiments in K'naan's recent op-ed for the New York Times will come as little surprise to fans that saw him perform at the Highline Ballroom last month. Somewhere between his rendition of Neil Young’s "Heart of Gold" and official World Cup song "Wave Your Flag," K’naan described the music industry as a "tapeworm" and cited disillusionment as his reason for cancelling "99% of the US tour."

On Sunday, the dusty foot philosopher told the Times readership that he was washing his hands of Country, God, or the Girl, an album which was the product of pressure to write for his US audience. He has taken the wrong path, but vows to return to his "old walk," in other words, the less commercially-viable route. Fans have taken to his facebook page in thousands to celebrate his prodigal return to true artistry.

The whole thing is a bit weird: if K'naan's accusing himself of 'selling out' then he might have done so back in 2010. But it’s not often that artists are candid about the commercialisation of their music, and some important questions are smuggled between the cloying fable that bookends the piece. Can we do away with the idea you have to be able to "relate to" other people's stories? Is there space for artists whose stories are rooted in non-Western places and experiences? How long will African artists enter the mainstream as novelties whose difference is hungrily consumed and then discarded?

But the stark choice between the unsullied integrity of his first two albums and the commercial hollowness of his third is troubling. Why should K’naan’s voice only ring true in songs about Somalia? O' Canada has it's fair share of oppressions (Stephen Harper, anyone?). If an artist's politics travel with him then shouldn’t K'naan be willing and able to engage with North American issues beyond mundane treatises against drug use? Africa is not the only place where politics happens.

Diaspora identities are messy and difficult, but with this romantic notion of a "true voice" K'naan threatens to box himself into the role of "refugee rapper", a role which is its own sort of commodity (mainstream media - including the NYT - love it). If he finds a way to engage with North America (beyond telling us that Somalia and Nigeria are worse), then maybe he’ll get closer to the creative integrity he's looking for.

 

Interview
Photo by Trevor Stuurman.

Interview: Thando Hopa Never Anticipated Acceptance in the Industry—She Anticipated a Fight

We speak to the South African lawyer, model, actress and activist about her historic Vogue cover, stereotypes imposed on people living with albinism and her work with human interest stories about vulnerable groups as a WEF fellow.

Vogue Portugal's April edition was a moment that caused everyone to hold their breath collectively. For the first time ever, a woman living with albinism was featured on the cover of the magazine in a sublime and timeless manner. Thando Hopa, a South African lawyer, model, actress and activist was the woman behind this historic first. It was not just a personal win for Hopa, but a victory for a community that continues to be underrepresented, stigmatised and even harmed for a condition outside of their control, particularly in Africa.

At just 31, the multi-hyphenate Hopa is a force to be reckoned with across different spaces. Through her considerable advocacy work as an activist, Hopa has and continues to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions about people living with albinism as well as changing what complex representation looks like within mainstream media. In 2018, Hopa was named the one of the world's 100 most influential women by the BBC. After hanging up her gown as a legal prosecutor after four years of working with victims of sexual assault, Hopa is on a mission to change skewed perceptions and prejudices when it comes to standards of beauty.

As a current fellow at the World Economic Forum, she is also working towards changing editorial oversights that occur when depicting historically underrepresented and vulnerable groups. The fellowship programme prepares individuals for leadership in both public and private sectors, and to work across all spheres of global society.

OkayAfrica recently spoke to Hopa to find out about how it felt to be the first woman with albinism to be featured on Vogue, the current projects she's working on and what's in the pipeline for her.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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