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The Three: April Quarantine Edition
Some stuff yanking my chain and keeping me sane during this weird period
Welcome to the first monthly newsletter for The Three! How's hunkering down for quarantine treating everyone? I thought it’ll be good to move things away from Medium to somewhere else where it could be more of a newsletter. This is an experiment, so let’s see if it works. Thanks for following along with me.
Cardi B for President
You know one thing I love? How Cardi B uses her megaphone. She’s shown herself to be a pretty effective communicator. In this clip, she talks about access and privilege and how it plays into inequality in access to COVID testing. In this other one, she calls out Trump on the delay in sending relief checks to those requiring financial assistance due to the pandemic, reminding us that she hasn’t always had money and that a lot of the people she knows are still working regular jobs, and speaks from that experience. Whether or not I agree with her, I find her coherent, especially at a time when many celebrities are rambling on about 5G conspiracies they got forwarded on WhatsApp. I’m not mad at it. At all.
I am certainly not one to look to any celebrity for wisdom, but Cardi is refreshing because a lot of the COVID-related conversation on the Nigeria side has been pretty grating. Besides the battle of the pastors on whether 5G and the Anti-Christ are the cause of the pandemic, the age-old issue of entitlement has reared its head. Funke Akindele, who had been doing messaging for NCDC, decided it was a good idea to throw a star-studded party to celebrate her husband’s birthday. Said husband then posted a short video from the party. A large part of the reason they likely thought it was fine to share footage of a lavish party when we are all meant to be hunkering down for quarantine is because rules usually exempt people with money and access. They likely would have gotten away with this party had it not been filmed and shared on social media. The idea that they might very publicly face a court hearing and a fine, and that such reckless behavior might maybe even cost Akindele her endorsements probably did not even cross their minds.
Well, all those things happened, and so did the angry and entitled comments from other celebrities.
It was the incoherent anger from Burna Boy that was especially grating, because it highlighted what these celebrities did not seem to understand. Just because you do honest work and deserve your success does not mean you're somehow entitled to breaking government regulations concerning holding a gathering in the middle of a pandemic. Jeez.
There is looking down on people who basically made you the star that you are, and then there is doing so in the most inane, incoherent way possible. It is very hard to see artists and celebrities whose entire bread and butter is appealing to mass audiences to make them who they are, and not draw parallels with the disdain politicians -- who also ostensibly rely on mass appeal -- offer up to ordinary people as well.
What is frustrating is that I don’t think it necessarily needs to be this way. Rap artists like Cardi B are steeped in a materialistic hip-hop culture our own pop stars often borrow from, and it is instructive that this disdain our celebrities towards everyday people our celebrities exhibit is largely absent in the US at this time. What commentary there has been has focused entirely on commiserating with ordinary people in their country. The use of social media has mostly been to connect with fans and even distract them by offering free concerts and performances. None of what we're seeing in Nigeria.
While the opposite of poverty-shaming is not necessarily political commentary holding the government to task, people who glory in their newfound wealth need not be the ones looking at those who have less than they do with contempt. It is also enough to see that perhaps politicians may not the only people in Nigerian society with attitudes that need fixing.
I’ve just watched Andrea Bocelli perform a 30-minute free live concert at the palatial Duomo di Milano, and even from my living room in Abuja I could hear the haunting cavernous emptiness. In fact, you could say that for all the sound -- it’s a concert, after all — we were provided, that eerie emptiness was the concert’s theme. As he performed Amazing Grace outside the church, he leaned into the theme, showing us haunting images of city landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and Times Square that are usually teeming with people.
The sombreness of Bocelli’s music echoed the hollowness that the pandemic has brought. How does one then make happy music for these times?
Dua Lipa’s album ‘Future Nostalgia’ dropped to much applause this past month, so I was stoked to check it out. Given the pandemic, I wondered how well received it would be in a time where we can’t exactly rush to the dancefloors. She says herself that was a concern she initially had, but the warm reception shows she need not have worried.
On the actual songs themselves, I would not call it a skip-less record, but let’s start with my standouts. ‘Don’t Start Now’ is the coolest breakup song you’ll hear this year. ‘Cool’ reminds me of an 80s dance song that would not be out of place at Studio 54. ‘Love Again’ is flail-your-arms-in-drunken-pleasure-at-2am good. ‘Pretty Please’ is probably my favorite of the record, a really chill but sexy and danceable song that reminds me of the very best Moloko songs.
It could be precisely because of the moment we’re in, but because I miss so much of my life outside I find myself drawn to work that shows the full range of the human experience in vivid color, not just one thing. While the record achieves the aim of glittery danceable music, there wasn’t enough variance in the style and delivery for it to stay interesting. All the songs save one -- the very last one on the album -- were also all along the romance/sex/love line. Back-to-back, with the unrelenting happiness, it gets as cloying as eating too much cotton candy. The mood on ‘Future Nostalgia’ is light and a welcome jolt out of the dourness of the moment, but I find it tough to engage with as a body of work. It’s meant to be a pop confection, but perhaps the trouble is that it achieves that a bit too well, and so it feels too sweet, not enough savory elements to be satisfying.
And no, this isn’t usually an issue I have with the genre. I grew up loving Jamiroquai, Fatboy Slim, Groove Armada, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Moloko. The really cool thing about these guys is that their inclination towards danceable pop never felt limiting. A Moloko record would move from a song like ‘The Time Is Now’ and to moodiness of ‘King of My Castle’ and show you a whole set of possibilities unfurl about what danceable pop music is and can be. I get that Dua Lipa was going for an 80s vibe. I just wanted more than what she was willing to give.
My issues with it notwithstanding, I can see how a defiant happiness is a good way to fill the emptiness of our spaces right now. Perhaps what a lot of us do need is to take ourselves back to a time when we could dance in a room full of strangers, and prop our elbow up on a bar, and yell for another round. Maybe what we need now really is a soundtrack to a happier future, and to yearn for what we know we will have again.
Bingeables: What Are You Watching?
Of course I’m watching hella TV. Aren’t you?
I’m stuck at home for the foreseeable like most people reading this. As with everyone else, my timelines have shifted and the workplans I created at the beginning of the year are all now laughably inaccurate. Sure, work continues on as it always does, but what to do when your concentration is waning and even Alyssa Cole romances aren’t holding your attention?
So far, two of my recent binge watches are anchored in the past. I’m currently in the middle of ‘Hunters’, which is fast and action-packed show set in the 70s about Jewish Nazi hunters in the US. Amazon Prime has this really cool feature where it shares historical details or background information relevant to a particular scene. The flashbacks in Hunters highlights the horror of the Holocaust in personal stories of death and suffering. And the present day shows that the past is not even past. We talk in the footsteps of Jonah, a young man whose beloved grandmother is shot dead. We learn that his grandmother was part of a group of Nazi hunters tracking down and killing those who had taken active part in the Holocaust and are now living peaceful, comfortable lives in the US. As Jonah gets closer to the hunters, we learn just how close to the highest levels of US governments these white supremacists have wormed their way up, and the nature of the task that the hunters themselves have undertaken to stopping them.
I’m halfway through the first and only season so far, but one thing that I find interesting about the show is how it stresses the importance of people owning their stories. Many times, Jonah is told a gruesome anecdote of someone’s life and the person telling the story stops abruptly and tells him some version of “the rest is not mine to tell.” Millie, the black FBI officer who’s investigating the deaths of these older white people she would come to learn had worked in the Nazi regime, bristles at her female partner letting her open-minded priest into their one-bedroom apartment for fear he would see their living arrangements and know about the nature of their relationship. For a people for whom so much was taken away, their experiences are treated with reverence, even as so much else is crashing around them, not least the illusions of a past that is dead.
For a show that recognizes the importance of owning stories, though, it could have handled the issue of collective memory more respectfully. While watching, I could not shake my discomfort at the fictionalising of the experiences of people in Auschwitz. I understand the need to be unflinching about the horrors of the place and what people endured, and make a case to the viewer for why these Nazi hunters were driven to do the work they were doing. However, I also think they should have relied more on stories of atrocities that actually happened. There’s a particularly gruesome reimagining of Nazi officials forcing people to sing and killing them if they got the words of tone wrong, and then the horrific “chess game” using human beings who were killed if the opposing chess piece was captured. Making up stuff like that made me feel uncomfortable, and I felt like I was watching something more exploitative than was perhaps intended. I was reading the reactions to the show, and it did not surprise me that the Auschwitz Memorial had a lot to say about its depictions of the horrors of the Holocaust, particularly noting that fictionalising stories in that manner could invite denialism.
The handling of the past in ‘Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ isn’t nearly as foreboding as ‘Hunters’, but it does give us a lot to think about in terms of what it means for a young woman to buck societal expectations and come into her own. Here, the pilot shows Midge Maisel’s domestic idyll come crumbling when she finds out her husband Joel’s comic act was full of jokes ripped off from other more established comics. When she learns this, an emasculated Joel tells her he’s leaving her for his secretary. She does not immediately crumble at the news, though. She’s defiant and angry, gets drunk, then takes the train to the same comedy club her husband bombed at to deliver a rambling, drunken set full of humour and despair. Just like that, a star is born.
I like the assuredness of the character, and how well-paced her growth as a comic was over the two seasons. I also like that in some ways she’s not an example of how writers sometimes put modern feminist ideals on women in a time such values and ideas would have been frankly unrealistic. That said, Midge Maisel never seemed to… struggle quite enough. Yes, there was conflict at home with her family not being much pleased with her chosen career and her being separated from her husband, but they never seemed to affect her sense of self. We never see her questioning her right to dream this dream, or vacillate. And no, her privilege as a woman from a wealthy family does not answer this question enough for me. Too often, she was up to the task of facing down the challenges she faced and in ways that are not clear where she learned the tools to deal. Her family is not iconoclastic, and nor are the friends she has. If anything, the only person that bucks societal expectations in any way is her manager Susie, and we don’t really see her as getting the strength to deal with her situation -- outside in help honing her craft — from her. There was not enough grappling with the sexism of the time, or a sense of what drives her decision-making and passion.
In a bid to be enjoyable, the show went a bit too easy on some details that could have lent it more realism.
The lovely folks at The Republic interviewed me on some of my favorite things -- writing, my storytelling project on survivors of violence in northeastern Nigeria, and my favorite books. Also, how’s that for an illustration of yours truly? So cool.
Check it out, and then read all the other interviews in the (Really cool) First Draft series.
Until next time.