If Emmerson were a journalist

7 November 2009 at 02:03 | 1282 views

By Fayia Sellu, California, USA.

The recent furor over Sierra Leone’s top musician Emmerson’s release of “Yesterday Betteh Pass Tiday”, says tons about where we are as a country as regards free expression and the attendant artistic freedoms.

We have come a long-short way since democracy was returned in 1996 under the 1991 multi-party constitution ushered by the Momoh-led APC government at the time against strong dissent from the APC inner circle.

I wish this article to be about art and expression, but it seems both are inextricable with politics. So, the hell! Let us first imagine that Emmerson were a poet. His song writing evokes the makings of poetry even if it be pedestrian as some critics will spurt at positing. It resonates. Many people have the same thoughts and sayings woven into his lyricism; only that he masters the art of presentation of a melodious and palatable product. The people who share his opinion at a given time find gripping resonance, while those of opposing views are critical. Both sides of the divide have a right to their views just as the artists should be free to express themselves. It makes for nourishing democracy when we have a free market of ideas. People have a right to sell, buy or not buy.

Trust me, if Emmerson were a poet who would care? His reach will be so limited. Few higher-ups proletariat in society—and that is a very few—would read his poems. Even fewer will find meaning or resonance in his lines.

In his body of work, maybe it is too early to call it such (the guy has a long career in front of him), there are songs like “Tutu Party” that are played by the African DJ here in Davis, California who caters to a mostly Caucasian crowd. They go wild not knowing what the heck he is saying or who he is for that matter. Those people know or have encountered Emmerson the Artist.

I intend to borrow words from the famous American poet Robert Frost in his treatise “The Figure of Poems” to illustrate the point that Emmerson is and has always spoken in abstraction; “Abstraction is an old story to philosophers, but it has been like a new toy in the hands of artists of our day.” When he sang “Borbor Belleh” or “Two Fut Arata”, he employed the same abstraction in the “who the cap fit” kind of way he now does in his new song.

Our culture, whatever is left of it, has been passed on in mostly folklore, strewn with riddles, proverbs and legends. Music? Yeah. Pretty much for ceremonies, partying, secret societies and praise-singing “great men”. Those especially who could afford their own praise-singers or Jelibas. That is evident in the history of music in Sierra Leone including our greats, Salia Koroma to Big Fayia et al. Then there is the post-Jimmy B era that has seen the emergence of activist musicians, who have chosen to spew messages of hardship of the common man in an anti-establishmentarian fashion. They have stepped into the stead of journalists who were hitherto known across the continent as holding that fort. Not quite abdicating their function to report the news, but also present opinions that challenge the powers-that-be and demand answers. Fela Kuti of Nigeria had found that music voice decades ago. He reached out to and spoke on behalf of the common man in trying times in Nigeria. I can go on ad infinitum in that vein.

Rather, I really wish to empathize with Emmerson using the prism(s) that I know. Which is why I have chosen poetry and journalism (I am also a singer/song writer too by the way) to engage both issues of free expression and artistic freedoms. The 1996 constitution commits the travesty of providing for free expression as entrenched, while at the same time annexing nebulous instruments like the Public Order Act of 1965. Governments have kept it primarily as a tool to muzzle the press and free expression. As a country we have signed and ratified all sorts of international treaties including the International Declaration of Human Rights, but have never fashioned local legal instruments which embrace and protect those rights. I was involved with the NGO advocacy that ushered the Special Court. Whether the country benefited from the court is a matter for historians. One thing though: when we sat there at a beach front restaurant with then UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson at the signing of the Human Rights Manifesto in 2000, it was evident we lacked local laws to deal with war crimes.

The story does not end there; we use the treaties we sign and elections to substitute democracy and gain credentials to beg for foreign money. Democracy has become like an event that happens every five years. So, it is common for people to say ‘Dem nor wan gee we (whoever is in power) chance”. Absurd! Then there come the Emmersons of this world who will interject and say "NO", our assessment, advocacy and/or activism should be an on-going thing. Such can be found in the last line of the song threatening that; “If ee nor change; 2012, 12 o clock sharp, We go wap!” Elections or plebiscite is the ONLY remaining tool in the hands of the people or plebeians. Emmmerson, more than anyone, knows that.

Ok, still on abstraction, let us imagine now that this guy was a journalist. The Public Order Act 1965 would have come in handy to handle him. Kabbah can jail Paul Kamara as Koroma can ruffle Sylvia Blyden’s feathers with the same law the latter campaigned on expunging from our constitution. As I sit here writing this article, the Attorney General is still Minister of Justice and the Public Order Act of 1965 is alive and stumping. These are changes that don’t need international investment or donor money. All it takes is political will—maybe you want to make that a symbol of goodwill.