The Three: March 2022 Edition
This month, I reviewed Asa and Adekunle Gold’s newest albums, and share some thoughts on the “information war” we’re seeing in the Ukrainian conflict.
It’s a new Three! As always, thanks for hanging with me, reading and sharing :) Let’s keep it going, shall we?
Programming note: I’m still very much in the throes of Masters’ thesis madness, so this is a rare post. Don’t expect regular posting until at least June or July :)
With V, Asa Switches It Up
I admit that I was pretty apprehensive about this one, so it’s a huge relief to have enjoyed it. It was obvious in the run-up to it that this record would be different, especially when I heard that she had songs with Wizkid and Amaarae on it. I know I wasn’t the only person who was worried about precisely how different of an Asa record we were in for.
You see, Asa has the dubious fortune of having had an excellent, classic debut record, with amazing songs that many Nigerians of a certain generation can sing word-for-word. Even the songs that were not singles were popular; I don’t know anyone who is familiar with that album, even if they weren’t Yoruba, that cannot sing along to ‘Bibanke’ or ‘Eye Adaba.’ Everything she’s ever done after that album – bless her – has been compared to it. Beautiful Imperfections (which I didn’t like) and Bed of Stone (which I loved) were departures from her eponymous debut, but very much in the same trajectory with regards their themes and musicality. Lucid was… Lucid (I didn’t like it all). But V is such a departure that even attempting a comparison is more meaningless than it has ever been. Gone seems to be the soulful Yoruba songs, the ‘be good boys and girls’ songs, the politically-conscious ‘Fire on the mountain’ songs. Asa is a grown ass woman now, with grown ass woman issues, but fully at ease in her skin and enjoying herself. Her sound has changed. Not entirely, of course, and not beyond recognition. But it has. In a lot of ways, the heft of her previous work makes the relaxed nature of this current one seem earned and, as a result, satisfying.
V is definitely an afrobeats record, moreso than anything else Asa has ever put out. But it’s Asa’s afrobeats, so it doesn’t completely let itself go in terms of musicality and thoughtfulness. ‘Love Me or Give Me Red Wine’ — a phrase I also need on a t-shirt – gives into the house-inflected afrobeats Nigerian artists have burrowed into over the past couple years. ‘Show Me Off’ and ‘Believer’ sound like afternoons at the beach with your friends, with an easy two-step in your feet and a cold glass of palm wine in your hand. Even when she sings “you say you love me, still you break my heart” in ‘Nike’, it feels less a heartbroken weep than a wistful recollection over a glass of wine. We even get a gorgeous ode to friendships in ‘Good Times’, and I found myself wishing that more people wrote about friends, and didn’t reserve love songs for romantic relationships alone. This is the third record I've been listening to recently – after BNXN/Buju and Kizz Daniel – where a collaboration with The Cavemen is a standout track. It’s making me want to revisit their debut album, which I didn’t like at the time.
V is not all perfect, though. Amaarae can do no wrong in my eyes, but I can’t get with ‘All I Ever Wanted’. It kinda sounded like what I’d imagine a Meg the Stallion x Anita Baker song would sound like, in the sense that it made Asa sound older than any other track on the record. Mercifully, an album doesn’t need to be perfect to be enjoyable. And this one is. Immensely. And what a relief it is to be able to say that.
With Catch Me If You Can, Adekunle Gold Digs In
I love AG’s new image, but nothing has been quite as enjoyable as seeing his music make the journey with him. I had said in my review of his previous album Afropop Vol. 1 that the album “as a collective covers both old ground and new territory for AG, but perhaps the main change is the assertiveness and boldness with which he approaches the songs”. That remains true here with Catch Me If You Can. Although the themes he sings about have not changed markedly since his first few records before he became AG Baby, the way he wears his music has. Pre-Afropop, we might have gotten “One Woman”, “Mase Mi” or “More Than Enough”, but we will not have gotten the celebratory “High”, the horny as hell “FYE” or even songs like “Sleep.” I loved that his wife Simi was the love interest in the video for “Sinner”, a song about the biblical story of King David and his forbidden attraction to and love affair with Bathsheba. Given the need many male artists have to project desirability to women (mostly with their money), the decision to have his wife in that video in particular hints at about how centered and at ease he seems to be with where he is. I love to see an artist in full flight and his music is soaring with him.
Besides Asa and AG, I’ve been wearing out Asake x Olamide’s “Omo Ope”, Rema’s “Calm Down” (can’t wait for his album!), Black Sherif’s “Second Sermon” remix Burna Boy, and King Promise x WSTRN’s “Bad n Rude”. All of these songs make me very happy. Black Sherif’s collabo with Darkoo is also worth a listen. If you’re into hiphop, Black Sherif and Yaw Tog are my picks out of Ghana right now.
I’m currently having an Msaki moment. Msaki x Sun-El Musician x Diplo’s “Tomorrow’s Silver” is currently on heavy rotation in my gym playlists, as is Msaki x Focalistic’s “Mnatakababa”. They’re both on Msaki’s really good album Platinumb Heart Beating, which is well worth listening to in its entirety.
If you’re looking for something more mellow, check out Tom Misch’s Quarantine Sessions, which is full of beautifully reimagined instrumental versions of songs you probably already know and like. It's the perfect background for a lazy weekend evening. I’ve also just downloaded Robert Glasper’s Black Radio III and am really looking forward to checking out Cruel Santino’s latest record.
The Modern Battleground Is Both Online and Off
The Russian invasion has left many of us rightly aghast in its unabashed attempt at imperialism. It’s been awful to watch helplessly as one man’s decision has thrown millions of lives into a tailspin as people either hunker down or flee as refugees seeking safety. There is a lot of things to talk about here: imperialism, what is even meant by the word “western” that is now uncritically being bandied about, the very real horrors of war, the humanitarian crises, to name only a few things. For this entry, I will only focus on media, because it is an area where Ukrainians — both the government and its people — have used their agency as much as they can. I think it’s instructive to pay attention to how the social media tools we use everyday are shaping our world.
The New Yorker journalist Jelani Cobb asked on his Twitter page why the video above has proved to be such effect political communication, and it made me think about how much political theater has changed. Technologies shape our collective imaginations and experiences in ways big and small, and no one knows this more than governments. In the 60s-90s, the first thing military juntas did was to seize control of radio and television stations during coups. Televised debates and rallies are important to political image-making in politics. It is difficult to discuss Obama’s run for presidency in 2008 or, closer to home for me, Buhari’s presidential run in 2015 without discussing the role of WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook.
Zelensky used to be an entertainer before he became president, so he is well versed in the use of media and building of a narrative. He understands that even more important than being brave in the face of an external aggressor, he also needs to build a narrative around his actions to drive global support. As such, he is intentional in his use of media. Instead of a polished, sleek background, we get self-facing phone camera footage where the determination of the Ukrainian leadership to fight the Russian invasion illuminates our screens through the bad lighting. Instead of addressing Ukrainians formally and in a suit, he dresses simply, stays unshaven and speaks informally. It is the same passionate patriotism we expect, but rendered in the everyday visual language we understand to be “real,” by a man young enough and “normal-looking” enough that we can almost say that we recognize him. And it works.
Having come of age in a world where major world leaders are so insulated from personal risk that they’re whisked away by security teams at the first whiff of danger, many members of the American military are stunned that a commander in chief would actually risk his or her own skin—let alone brashly announce, when the United States offered him safety, that he needs “ammunition, not a ride.” The U.S. Marine Corps subreddit contains a post titled “Volodymyr Zelensky is about as motivating of a leader as I’ve seen in our lifetime,” with one sample reply reading: “Yep. I’d follow that guy into hell.” The idea of a political leader willing to die with his people has struck many outside the military, too, as unthinkably brave. And more than a little thrilling. Zelensky has become a hero to much of the world—even inspiring citizens of other nations to ask how to volunteer to fight for Ukraine. To the extent that this has been an information war for hearts and minds in much of the world, Ukraine has undoubtedly won.
With social media, we see over and over again how unpolished videos are more impactful than polished ones due to their seeming authenticity. This essay in the New Yorker highlights the role of social media as “the imperfect chronicler of the war” and specifically goes into how and why the flood of videos we see — I cannot bring myself to call it “content” – work so well.
“A Ukrainian father says a tearful goodbye to his family. A farming tractor appears to tow an abandoned Russian tank. A British man records himself packing a bag, including tea, to go to Ukraine “to rescue my wife and son.” Together these snippets present a montage of life suddenly in wartime. They conjure thoughts of how you yourself might react in such banal, terrible circumstances, equipped with only a phone camera. What else is there to do in a bomb shelter but make selfie videos and broadcast them to the outside world? Zelensky himself has made shrewd use of this sense of relatability, captivating the world with his shaky selfie videos recorded from the street. He used this format to combat rumors that he had fled the country, casting himself as an everyman braving a vast struggle, David versus Goliath.”
Modern warfare does not preclude an “information war,” the fight to shape public perception in such a way that it could get the international community to do what it wants. While Russia’s information war holds that it is liberating Ukraine from neo-Nazis and fascists, Ukraine’s focuses on lionizing its people for their defiance in the face of Russian aggression. Still, in its attempts to paint its people in the best light, it has ensured the sharing of anecdotes such as the one about the Russian soldiers stuck in an elevator, or videos about the Ukrainian’s confidence in a conversation with Russian soldiers. That some of the stories are of dubious origin, too, speaks to a sophistication in the country’s approach to information dissemination online. The (likely fictional) story of the Ghost of Kyiv is not the work of people with an unsophisticated understanding of social media. Nor is this video of a young man in military fatigues smiling as he lets a bird play on him before it flies away.
Western media was already primed to see Ukrainians as fully human even without the social media push that’s helped pile on the pressure for Western support; but Ukrainian government is aware that sympathy means nothing without action. Their skillful use of media has helped build a sustained outcry that has turned global public perception into a weapon to achieve what their weapons cannot.
Aside: There’s nothing to laugh about re: Russia these days, but these Putin long table memes that were circulating before we knew Russia would actually invade are quite droll in hindsight. They really captured the nervous laughter of the collective moment at the time.
Another Aside: I’ve watched with disbelief and more than a little bemusement how western media has drawn racist comparisons the refugee crisis that’s emerged from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Trevor Noah’s comment on this pretty much echoes mine. You can also check out my Twitter thread where I’m keeping track of all the clips of western journalists saying the most insanely racist shit that makes it pretty clear what kind of refugees they think are worthy of support and why.
Until next time.