Saturday, November 18, 2006

Barack Obama: Dreams of an African Ancestor

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Barack Obama being interviewed at the 2004 Democractic Convention.
This is a little surreal, of course, given that America has actually gone through a profound seismic tranformation in electing Barack Obama as our first African American president. It's been fascinating to watch Obama initiating dramatic, far-sighted policy changes - and in the process draw a whole generation of young voters into a new level of interest and participation in American politics.

I wrote this post in the Fall of 2006, when there was a lot of buzz about whether Barack Obama would throw his hat in the 2008 presidential race. Everybody was asking the question about his potential candidacy, but I wanted to turn the question on its head somewhat by looking at Obama's rise to prominence from the perspective of his father, the perspective of an African ancestor...

Barack Obama and the Dreams of an African Ancestor

Now that the election results are in and we have witnessed a historic transfer of power in Congress (or “peaceful overthrow of the government,” as a lawyer-activist friend of mine says) pundits and commentators are naturally speculating about the mood of the country and the 2008 Presidential election. For the Democrats, the undisputed star of the 2006 elections was Barack Obama, who seemed to take the political world by storm. The charismatic Illinois senator broke fundraising records and made his presence felt as he stumped for just about every Democratic candidate who was locked in a critical or not-so-critical race. Jockeying for prime position in the national spotlight, Obama shrewdly timed a 13-city promotional tour for his book, The Audacity of Hope, to coincide with the most crucial part of the campaign season. Obama also used the Congressional August recess to travel to Africa, generating international publicity while making important stops in South Africa, Djibouti, Ethiopia and his father’s ancestral home of Kenya.

If Americans didn’t know Barack Obama’s face before his Africa trip, by October just about everyone caught a glimpse of him through various media outlets, from the covers of Time magazine, Vogue and Vanity Fair to heavyweight television shows like Oprah Winfrey, Larry King Live and Nightline. Obama symbolized new hope and possibilities for the Democratic Party, and suddenly tongues started wagging about the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review making a very realistic bid to become the first Black president of the United States. Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks urged Obama to run, paying him a compliment by saying that any Republican nominee should at least have to earn the distinction of beating Barack Obama. But his liberal colleague Maureen Dowd chided Obama for being caught up in the glamour of his own celebrity without settling down to the hard work of “being a man of history” and declaring his candidacy.

Interestingly enough, reaction among African Americans to Barack Obama and his presidential aspirations has been more mixed than one might expect. Before the elections, columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson proclaimed that Obama is “not the right tonic for Democrats” to win the presidency in 2008. Hutchinson pointed to Obama’s youthful inexperience, and a fear that the Republican South would not respond kindly to the idea of a Black president. Looking more deeply into African American perceptions about Obama’s candidacy, I was surprised to find considerable ambivalence or even outright resistance to the senator’s meteoric rise to media prominence. One writer described what he called the “Wayne Brady factor” with Black folks, who automatically become suspicious when they see a Black man being adored by White people. On one message board I made a comment about Obama being an intellectual, and another brother corrected me. “W.E.B. Du Bois was an intellectual. Franz Fanon was an intellectual. This n----a just got some hype.”

It later dawned on me that traditional African-American civil rights activists and community leaders might be uncomfortable with Obama because he breaks the oppositional mold and represents a new kind of Black political leader who has a broader focus and wide appeal. Obama has so many dimensions to his background and personality – a White mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya, community organizer in Chicago’s inner-city, exemplary Harvard Law scholar – that people become befuddled when they try to fit him into their preconceived notions about politicians. A friend of mine who is Black and White and pointedly insists on describing Tiger Woods and himself as “interracial,” cynically wonders why the media should get excited about a potential presidential candidate just because he happens to be “interracial.” But Obama seems to distance himself from Tiger Woods’ philosophy of racial identification; among White crowds Obama refers to himself as a “Black guy” and among Black crowds he describes himself as a “brother.” Obama’s chameleon-like persona seems natural and without pretense; many journalists are fascinated by his ability to engage large crowds with an authentic, affable, “conversational” style. Both of his books, The Audacity of Hope and his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, read as intimate yet sophisticated and lucid conversations on complex topics viewed from his own personal experiences. Time columnist Joe Klein describes Dreams from My Father as possibly “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.” Obama’s books illuminate the motivations and insights of a remarkably intelligent man who is very comfortable navigating the high-speed post-modern cultural and technological forces that are reshaping American society.

Barack Obama is often criticized as being inexperienced, long on speeches and media publicity and short on actual legislative accomplishments. Some critics note that his political views are not particularly innovative or visionary, but rather reflect the standard ideas and positions that liberal Democrats have been espousing for years. Others tend look at the hard possibilities of winning Southern states, and are skeptical that Obama is up to the task, at least for the upcoming 2008 election. But whatever Obama may be lacking in legislative experience, he compensates for with sheer intelligence and motivational idealism. A Barack Obama presidential candidacy would be good for the nation, pushing the envelop of what Americans believe is possible, as Americans – especially African Americans – have always found a peculiar excitement in breaking barriers. Ironically, Barack Obama may be the only Democrat with the charisma and magnetism to challenge the near mythical hero status of Republican candidates like former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani and Senator John McCain. Obama’s greatest strength may lie in his seemingly unique ability to identify with different sectors of America’s society, perhaps even including evangelicals. As a community organizer in Chicago, Obama found his home in the Black church, and is comfortable talking about religion during his political speeches. Obama even devoted an entire chapter in The Audacity of Hope to the subject of “Faith.”

As I watch Obama’s carefully crafted chessboard moves within the media spectacle surrounding his life, I can’t help wondering about the one dimension of his life that may be the least well-known or understood. I can’t help thinking about his African ancestry, and what his father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., might feel about his son’s political fortunes were he alive today. I find myself captivated by the looming figure of Barack Obama’s father and his African origins.

Barack Obama the elder was born into the Luo tribe in Nyangoma-Kogelo in 1936, a small village in rural western Kenya. Inasmuch as a son’s destiny is connected with his father, the American Obama’s story really begins in this remote part of Africa, when missionary schoolteachers noticed a certain young African’s precocious intelligence, and sent him to a boarding school in Nairobi. The bright young man distinguished himself again in Nairobi, and was selected among the most promising Kenyan students of his generation to attend American universities. Barack Hussein Obama Sr. went on to receive scholarships from the University of Hawaii – where he earned his bachelor’s degree graduated at the top of his class – and Harvard, where he received a master’s degree in economics.

Barack Obama Sr. returned to Kenya in 1963, during the early years after independence, when many of Africa’s great leaders, such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya – had bright visions about their nations’ futures. Armed with his ambition and his Harvard credentials, Barack Obama Sr., a Luo, was assigned to a top government position, only to see president Jomo Kenyatta appoint a less-qualified fellow Kikuyu tribesman to become Obama’s charge. The move infuriated Obama Sr., who complained loudly that tribalism was going to be the downfall of the new Kenyan nation. But Jomo Kenyatta – the proud founding father of Kenya – reportedly told Obama Sr. that he would never find a job in Kenya again, and closed ranks against the brilliant Harvard economist. Kenyatta’s vengefulness made earning a livelihood and providing for his family extraordinarily difficult for Obama Sr., and is one of the heartbreaking stories in Dreams from My Father. One can easily see why Barack Obama Jr. has spoken out forcefully against corruption in Africa, even to the point of addressing the Kenyan Parliament during his recent African trip about the intertwined problems of corruption and tribalism.

Although Obama’s speech stirred some controversy, his visit to Africa was overwhelmingly successful. He engaged in dialogues with South African leaders, and in Kenya where he drew huge, adulating crowds wherever he went. Many Kenyans, one would assume, cannot help being proud of the fact that their “favorite son” could possibly win election to the most powerful office in the world. Surely the most educated and sophisticated Africans, as well as the most humble, know that Obama’s potential success portends well for Africa, the developing world and the international community. One can perhaps imagine the spirit of Barack Obama Sr., silently urging his son to live up to his talent and potential, and to fear nothing in a society that is supposed to be built upon individual freedom and merit. Like his father before him, Barack Obama is pushing the envelop, striving to fulfill his ambition. Judging from the results of the 2006 elections and Obama’s role in the Democrats’ success, there are many Americans who are ready to see this highly gifted and compassionate African American become the next president of the United States.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Surviving Tragedy to Make a Joyful Noise

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It’s hard to imagine a war where hands, arms and legs are amputated with machetes and family members are tortured and murdered in front of each other for the maximum terror effect. And all in a war fought over and fueled by the accessibility and profits of diamonds. While Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor ruthlessly spurred some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century, people like Reuben Koroma, Franco Langba and Arahim Kamara were left to bear the brunt of their excesses and pick up the pieces. Their music – the music of the Refugee All-Stars – is magic in and of itself, let alone considering the extraordinary circumstances in which the group formed. To hear or see the Refugee All-Stars is to experience the real healing power of music, to know inner strength and to be part of a fantastic vibe.
Be sure to check out Zach Niles and Banker White's award-winning film "The Refugee All-Stars" and buy the All-Stars new CD "Living Like a Refugee." It's great music and it's bound to make you feel good... My favorite title is "Garbage to the Showglass," an ironic, supremely joyful chant about their improbable rise to fame. "They found us in the garbage, and put us in a showglass in the biggy biggy time..." "Black Nature" delivers a wickedly beautiful rap about God with interwoven English, Krio, French and African inflections, and other band members jump in verse-by-verse to sing their own story.

Surviving Tragedy to Make a Joyful Noise
Reuben Koroma has known the terrible depth of suffering and grief in Africa, yet his music has carried him from hopelessness to heights of abounding joy and ecstasy.

As a refugee from the diamond killing fields of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, Koroma was one of some 2 million displaced people who witnessed one of the world’s most gruesome conflicts, a war full of horrid atrocities. Throughout the 1990s tens of thousands Sierra Leoneans were killed or maimed as the ruthless Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel forces made a brutal bid for political power and control of the country’s lucrative diamond trade.

Yet in the midst of the horror, seeds were being sown for an astounding breakthrough for Koroma and his music. In 1999 at Sembakounya Refugee Camp, deep in rural Guinea, Koroma found Franco Langba and Arahim Kamara, fellow musicians he knew and had jammed with in Freetown. With an old, beat-up guitar and makeshift drums, the artists began playing music to entertain and uplift the spirits of their fellow refugees. They were eventually joined by six others – including a rapper – and created their own spirited blend of reggae, R&B, hip hop and West African genres, dubbing themselves “The Refugee All-Stars.”

American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White happened upon the Refugee All-Stars in 2002 while they were traveling through Guinea, seeking to make a documentary on the devastation of the civil war. With financial help from some high profile celebrities including Keith Richards, Bob Geldof, Graham Nash and Steve Tyler and Joe Perry from Aerosmith, Niles and White followed the Refugee All-Stars for three years as the band performed in various refugee camps and grappled with the prospect of returning home to Freetown. With the assistance of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the band members visited Freetown and then returned to the refugee camps to spread the word that the war was “done-done” and Freetown was safe once again. By mid-2004 Koroma and the All-Stars were back in Freetown recording their first album, “Living Like a Refugee,” at Island Studios, a sparse one-man operation run by Sam Jones, an easy-going British expatriate.

“The Refugee All-Stars,” Niles and White’s sensitive and poignant film was released in 2005 and won numerous national and international film festival awards while introducing the Refugee All-Stars and their music to enthusiastic audiences. Beginning with their performance in March at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Koroma and his band have captivated crowds with the irrepressible joy and energy of their unique sound. The groundbreaking Austin gig was punctuated with dynamic summer concerts throughout the US, Canada and Japan. The Refugee All-Stars current 26-city tour hits the Boulder Theater on November 7, and includes December concert appearances in London and Paris.

All of the band members have faced horrific tragedies, and some of them even had limbs cut off by the rebels. (Amnesty International estimates that the RUF mutilated about some 20,000 people in Sierra Leone, hacking off hands, arms and legs with machetes and axes, to terrorize people into working the diamond fields.) The soft-spoken Koroma – who witnessed his mother and father being killed during the war – is utterly amazed at the All-Stars’ journey from jamming in isolated rural refugee camps to polished stage performances at large international music festivals.

“My life was very bad a few years ago in the refugee camp – I was suffering in very bad conditions and I didn’t have something to hope for. But now things are really happening for the Refugee All-Stars,” Koroma said during a phone interview, in his soulful, rhythmic Krio English. “I believe this kind of success is a very good thing for us, and we feel important – we feel successful. I always feel good that I have been able to achieve and have many of the things that I was dreaming.”

From the 19 year-old rapper “Black Nature” to the silver-haired elder rasta Ashade Pearce, the Refugee All-Stars have a unique, eclectic sound that holds together diverse influences. Their album, “Living Like a Refugee” – released in the US in September on Anti Records – blends the familiar flavors of reggae and hip hop with rhythms and tones that are more deeply African and unfamiliar. While Koroma’s lyrics tell the story of the war, life in the refugee camps and themes of oppression, love and compassion, the music itself does not bear a hint of sadness. It’s clear – as Koroma points out – that music is intended to heal.

“It’s because of the love of music that we get together and then despite all of the struggles, all the constraints we are facing, we still really have some happiness within our hearts.” Koroma says, describing their music as a kind of therapy and having the power to heal trauma. “It’s treatment for us, because when we play music it feels like most of our problems are minimized. And then not only for us, but we saw hundreds of thousands of refugees were interested in listening to us. And then I think to myself, this might help them to minimize their problems, because everybody in the refugee camp has psychological problems.”

From the moment the Refugee All-Stars set foot in the United States, their music has taken the Western world by storm, and the band found itself thrown into a whirlwind of music industry machinations. Their very first performance at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival led to an on-the-spot negotiation for a major tour and promotion deal with the Rosebud Agency. With the tremendous buzz being generated by their concerts and the “Living Like a Refugee” CD, it seems that the Refugee All-Stars are on track to emulate the success of the Buena Vista Social Club, the Cuban artists who sold millions of CDs worldwide after being propelled to fame through a film documentary by famed musician and impresario Ry Cooder.

While the Refugee All-Stars have electrified crowds at Central Park in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Koroma describes a peak experience in Niigata, Japan at the Fuji Rock Festival, where the band’s music appeared to break cultural barriers.

“Before we played people were telling us that it’s difficult for Japanese people to dance to music – they like listening but they don’t normally dance to international music. But when we came on stage we saw that more than 4,000 or 5,000 people were dancing,” Koroma said, barely able to contain his enthusiasm as his voice rose in excitement. “Everybody was dancing –it was like magic! I just thought it was wonderful, because I was not expecting that. I was just expecting 10, or three or five people would dance and the others would sit. To my surprise I saw everybody dancing, people coming from all different directions.”

Koroma is optimistic about the future of Sierra Leone and the impact the Refugee All-Stars are making on their local music scene and international music. He says that before the war there was only one radio station in Sierra Leone, and now there are six in Freetown, and each regional district has its own radio station. He also says that the people of Sierra Leone are “very, very proud” of the All-Stars for “making history in the world,” and as a result local musicians are gravitating toward playing instruments and live music as opposed to computerized, digital songs.

Koroma likes to point out that the Refugee All-Stars are revolutionizing music by introducing certain indigenous West African rhythms to the rest of the world.

“We have a traditional beat that is called the goombay beat, and we have another traditional beat in Sierra Leone that is called muktivange,” Koroma explains, adding that goombay is specific to Sierra Leone when muktivange is played all over West Africa. “This kind of beat (goombay) is really a traditional beat that has never been exposed in the Western world, and we are trying to do that. We are playing it one of the sounds on our album, “Ya N’Digba.”

To their credit, the Refugee All-Stars have demonstrated the resilience of Africa and the extraordinary power of music to heal and transform human emotions. Their triumph over adversity and their boundless optimism offers a much-needed ray of light in world of escalating conflict, fear and violence.

For more information on the Refugee All-Stars visit www.refugeeallstars.org.