‘Super Modo’ is the real ‘Black Panther’

Several weeks ago, ‘Black Panther’ opened in cinemas across Nairobi and people flooded auditoriums. We called it “the first epic black superhero film”. One that “finally represented our Africa positively…”. Days later, some of us even went back to the cinemas a second time. We dressed in our traditional African fashion, painted our faces as if Marvel had finally given us a license to feel pride in ourselves.

It’s sad.

It’s sad that this past month, Kenya’s own super-hero film titled ‘Super Modo’ opened in cinemas and only about 20 people watched it with me this past weekend.

I’m not going to debate which movie is better, that’s up to perspective and taste. But the one thing we cannot deny is that ‘Super Modo’ is blatantly and wholeheartedly KENYAN… it has the one thing that Black Panther does not. And that is CONTEXT. Whilst the miracle land of Wakanda is far, far, far away from our current reality here in Nairobi, the village of Super Modo is where most of us grew up. Whilst the people of Wakanda are poorly adapting accents of African tribes, the actors in Super Modo are purely Kenyan; they speak our language, they look like us, they are not acting, nor pretending, they are depicting a story which we can all relate to.

That begs the question why? Why are we packing cinemas to watch a film that is not ‘ours’ — and does not truly represent us — whilst forsaking the beautiful films which are made in our image? What has happened to us that we would lack so much pride ourselves and what we produce? Why do we put our faith so strongly in that which comes from outside ourselves and not that which is within?

But maybe this is only one facet of a more serious problem. What pillaged us so heavily of our self-love and patriotism that we find solace and comfort in the ideas and stories of the western world and forsake our own?

Why do we hate ourselves?!

But I suppose one could use this premise to question many things that happen in this country, like;
Why are the Chinese building our roads for us… don’t we have engineers here in Kenya?
Why are our youth listening to American Trap Music?
Why are the best schools in the country the ‘white schools’?

Colonialism was bad. But to think it is over and that we are an independent country is just as delusional as believing that Wakanda actually exists. We need to empower ourselves. We need to see pride in who we are. We can’t wait on some fictional Black Panther to show us that we are actually special, powerful, strong and that we have always been superheroes…

Just consider, Black Panther is not the first time ‘We’ — as Africans — have been represented well, it’s just the first time most of us have noticed. We have Kenyan actors giving their lives to tell our stories here at home… it’s time we put our faith and pride in them. Go and watch Super Modo. Trust me.

–Yours Truly (Kimathi Kaumbutho) is a Spoken Word/Poetry writer/performer, and a Hip-Hop artist from Nairobi, Kenya.

The Real Truth about ‘Wakanda’

What is ‘Black Panther’ Really?

 My family and I went to watch ‘Black Panther’ this past weekend; the ‘marvelous superhero drama’ that the world’s been raving about. The one that “depicts Africans and African culture in a positive light, for once,” or so they say. I think I had mixed feelings about it.

The truth is I couldn’t help but feel pride when I watched ‘my people’ (or at least people that looked like me) appear so powerful and breathtakingly admirable. It was so refreshing to see our Africa depicted as rich and beautiful for once — such a stark contrast to the impoverished and poverty-stricken image of our continent we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Hollywood films. As my family and I sat in our cinema chairs spewing over the credits at the end of the film, we had this tangible aura of positivity radiating off us. The fantasy world of Wakanda had inspired us.

But that feeling didn’t last though. As we exited the cinema, walked out into the foyer and looked through the tall glass windows of Prestige Plaza, I came to the realization; we are not in ‘Wakanda’. We are in Nairobi. And on that day, my city looked much like it did the day before. Tall buildings, walking ‘wananchi’ amongst the rich people’s cars that float above the pockets of poverty we’ve learned to live with.

I want to feel inspired by Black Panther, I truly do. I hope that children watch that film and carry that sense of pride with them wherever they go — God knows we need it. But at the same time, I have removed my rosy sunglasses and seen that movie for what it actually is.

A marketing power play.

“Why would the same people of the west — the ‘wazungus’ who continue to pillage and impoverish our countries — want to tell our story all of a sudden?”

“Why should they care about us at all when they haven’t in the past?”

This isn’t the western world trying to empower Africans, this is them profiting from the appropriation of our culture. Making Millions of dollars that don’t go into the betterment of African people, but rather into the pockets of the same countries that steal from our nations.

Its quite clever on their part — I’ll credit them for that. They’ve managed to take a people who have been bitterly misrepresented in the past and generate a story that those same people want to believe in (despite how far-fetched it seems from our current reality). And now the world has turned out in droves to see something ‘new’. A new narrative about a ‘new Africa’. And whilst the Africans see a picture of inspiration and empowerment, the west gets the profit and all the credit.

Oh, how it reminds me of a time when we closed our eyes to pray to Jesus, whilst the white man stole all our land from us. It begs the question, who’s really benefiting from this story of Wakanda?

I must admit though; most Africans are loving all this new attention. Even us who live in the cities of this continent are smiling at this “new narrative”. But let’s take off our blinder for a bit. Is this really a new narrative?

We make films in Nairobi. There are films in Uganda, in Tanzania, there is Nollywood in Nigeria — we tell our own stories all the time. So the question we should be asking is why — why is it that only when Marvel brands a story that is not our own, that the world turns out in droves to watch ‘us’Why does it seem that our culture is now in fashion but only cool when someone else ‘wears it’? Why is the African story only selling when someone else tells it? Why did we need the West to tell us a fake story about a magical land named Wakanda, for us to feel empowered and inspired when we have filmmakers of our own telling us real stories?What’s really going on here?

I noticed a few weeks ago that Kendrick Lamar made on of the soundtracks for Black Panther and it plays through the credits. The video is on YouTube and its got over 60 MIllion Views. Watch it and maybe you’ll have the same reaction I did. Like… “wait… Isn’t this guy from Compton, California? How has he suddenly become African? Why’d the pick him to do the soundtrack, we have artists here in Africa too?”

But I suppose when you really think critically about this film, it all makes sense. If I could make 100 million Dollars from pretending to be African, I would do it too (and I wouldn’t be pretending). But we don’t get the same publicity, nor profit that these artists get from being African.

I feel like I need to affirm that I’m not mad. I just want my people to see this film for what it actually is. Go ahead, feel inspired, feel empowered, feel that African is cool now, but at the same time, realize that we always had the ability to empower ourselvesWe don’t need the west to represent us. We can tell our own stories. Being an African isn’t suddenly cool, it’s always been cool, it’s just a shame we needed the west to prove that to us.

Escaping the ‘Fences’ of Africa

“Some people build fences to keep people out, other’s build them to keep people in.”

‘Fences’ is a Hollywood film I recently watched for the second time. Partly because I was forced to, but also because I love Denzel Washington.

For me, any movie with Will Smith or Denzel Washington in a lead-role is a “must-watch”… and that’s not just because they’re both Black — though that is a major factor. But also because of how relatable their roles tend to be to me as an African man. The truth is, the Hollywood movies aren’t particularly good at telling the African narrative. So I, like many other Africans have had to ‘see myself’ in Black American stories. And though they are not always relatable, they are often close enough to spark my interest. I suppose that’s where my love for Will Smith and Denzel Washington stems from.

Anyway, Denzel’s Character in Fences portrays a black family man in 1950’s America. At face value, the movie could be considered completely foreign to me. Honestly, what does 1950’s America have to do with me as a Kenyan living in Nairobi?

My answer is; “Everything”.

There is a very strong metaphor in the film which I didn’t catch the first time. A metaphor that brings the movie closer to home. Denzel, though he is a black man in the 1950’s, reminds me of the many African fathers (or even mothers) I have come to know in my lifetime. The one trait that I have seen in many African parents, which is so reflective in Denzel Washington’s character in the movie, is this innate belief that they are being victimized.

Africans, just like black Americans, especially the older generations tend to believe that someone or something is always against them. They will blame the government, the environment, the past, anything and everything when things don’t happen the way they should. They will complain solely for the sake of complaining because to not complain is to have nothing to say at all. They will tell you stories of all they’ve have overcome, all the struggles they went through, just to prove to you how hard it has been for them, and how hard it continues to be.

Truth is I don’t blame them.

When Denzel spoke of how the ‘white man’ took everything from him, how he couldn’t play baseball because of the ‘white man’ or how he’s been paying back a loan to the ‘white man’ for 15 years, it reminded me so fervently of my own family. Though we are thousands of miles away on a different continent altogether, our complaints and our grievances echo back and forth so much so that Denzel’s character could easily have been my father.

Let me back-track a little.

My parents and grandparents grew up in a world that wasn’t about options or possibilities. “Go to school, excel, get a job, work hard, get money and provide for your family,” that was it. They grew up in survival mode. I suppose when you’ve lived through the colonization of your people and the pillaging of your “possibilities”, it’s hard to see life through any other lens.

Whereas white families, or Euro-American kids may have grown up believing in mass opportunity, plush possibilities, and parents throwing around phrases like “you can be whoever you want to be”, for us Africans, it has been very different.

I, like many other Kenyan kids, grew up in a ‘survival mentality household’. Study hard, finish school so you can make money — that was ‘life’. Now I give credit to my parents for somehow escaping from that mentality a few years back, but today I see many African people, households, families, kids, still stuck in that same mentality. And I’m not talking about ‘poor’ people: poor people have to survive before they can dream big or see opportunities. It’s a different life when you’re are solely worried about where your next meal will come from. I have no bone to pick with the poor.

Instead, I’m talking about those of us who grew up like I did. The Africans who went to school; who had food on the table when they came home, and a fresh pair of socks to wear in the morning. The Africans who were afforded the possibility to “dream big” and “be whoever they wanted to be” — even though it was never explicitly said. It hurts me to see Africans who are oblivious to the opportunities that not only they have but their sons and daughters too. I want today’s Africans to strive for something greater than ‘survival’ even if we are used to a culture, society, or environment that dictates a different narrative to us.

My fear is that we, as Africans, though being “freed”, still struggle to see the possibilities that our ‘new world’ is giving us — the possibilities granted by the sacrifices of our ancestors.

The movie Fences spoke to me so deeply because Africans — be it parents, kids, culture, or communities — are much like Denzel Washington’s character.

We are building fences around ourselves. Not the types that keep others out, but the types that keep us and our people in. It is about time that we emancipated ourselves and grasped that we do not need to feel victimized. Opportunities and possibilities exist. The colonialists and the white men left a long time ago, we cannot take off the shackles on our ankles and strap them voluntarily on our minds.

There are no fences anymore. Only the ones we have built ourselves.

What is Killing African Art?

tAfter living in the United States for the past 8 years, I recently returned home to Nairobi, Kenya, my birthplace and where I grew up. I love this country and I love Nairobi. In fact, I love it even more so now that I’ve seen the ‘other side’ and lived in the western world for some time. So, coming home has been an exhilarating experience. What’s more, is after being away for so long, it sometimes feels like I’m experiencing my country for the very first time, and it is so exciting.

Though I must admit, it hasn’t been easy. I’m learning slowly. And though I consider myself fully and wholeheartedly Kenyan (whatever that means) — I do sometimes feel like a foreigner in my own country. Sometimes this makes me insecure, but other times, it makes life so much more interesting.

Of late, I’m slowly realizing the various ways that my time away has changed me. It’s as if my experience abroad has given me the ability to see my country differently. And now, for the first time in my life, I am experiencing Kenya without bias or partiality and seeing the Kenyan people for who they actually are. It’s extremely enlightening.

In doing this, I’ve noticed some things. Things that weren’t obvious to me before; certain behaviors and traits of Kenyan people that I see as crippling to us as a country and a community. Lately, I’ve been questioning where these ugly habits and behaviors come from, and I believe that they are a result of a much deeper and detrimental mindset that is common to Kenyans and Africans alike; The Scarcity Mentality.

Many people are unaware of what the scarcity mentality is. So, I will explain with a recent experience.

When I tell people that I’ve decided to come back to Kenya for good, they are often surprised. They act like I’ve made a mistake, like staying in the United States was obviously a better decision. But what I realize is that, in their minds, the United States is the ‘land of opportunity’, where talent is allowed to thrive and where anyone is more likely to be successful. Kenya, on the other hand, has no real opportunities and it is very hard to ‘make it’ in Nairobi. It’s from this outlook that they pity my decision.

The crazy thing is until I came home, I believed the exact same thing; it was what was always communicated to me. It was so deeply engraved in my subconscious that “There is just no real opportunity in Kenya”.

This is what the scarcity mentality is. It is believing in lack and poverty; believing that there is just not ‘enough’.

For me, this is the one thing that Americans and people of the western world have over Africans in general. That is, they truly and patriotically believe in abundance. In America, they believe you can be, do and have anything you want. They believe that there is ‘enough’ of everything for everyone and opportunity will never run out. Americans have been taught to believe in abundance.

The opposite goes for countries like Kenya. Here, perhaps because of our past, we are so stuck in believing that there is not ‘enough’. There is not ‘enough’ opportunity, there is not ‘enough’ money, or food, or anything. And this is so reflective in our actions.

We drive like there is not ‘enough’ space on the road for other motorists. We interact with strangers like they are trying to take something from us. We even get afraid to share things; I know entrepreneurs who are scared to share their business ideas because they fear they will be stolen, and there are not ‘enough’ ideas to go around. What does that say about our business environment?

We have politicians and civil servants that steal government money that is meant to better their own people. We have policemen who are willing to take bribes (Kitu kidogo) instead of enforcing the law. We have corrupt systems where Kenyans are willing to cheat and steal from each other to get ahead — again because there’s just not ‘enough’ for all of us.

It’s sad.

The other day I stood before some of Kenya’s aspiring artists, poets, actors, singers, writers etc. We spoke about the country’s education system. They felt like Kenya’s schooling system doesn’t sufficiently support its more artistically gifted students. To an extent, that may be true. There are artists in foreign countries who have been nurtured and supported from very early ages to become what they are today. But the same cannot be said for Kenyans. Here, we are supposed to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and businessmen. Not artists. “You’ll never make any money doing that”.

Why? Again, because we believe there is just not ‘enough’ opportunity to be successful as an artist in Kenya.

But what if we could enlighten ourselves to a new possibility.

What if the belief that “there is not enough opportunity in Kenya” is just the story we have chosen to tell ourselves, and not necessarily the reality?

The truth is there are struggling artists in Hollywood California, at the artistic capital of the world, who also believe that there is no opportunity for them. In fact, whilst I was in the United States, I met artists who had chosen to stop performing because they said it was “too hard to make it” there. So, if they can’t make it in America, what chance do we have as Kenyans living in the “land of No Opportunity”?

We should probably just quit now. Right?

But what I’ve come to realize, is that opportunity is in the eye of the beholder. The opportunities we see are a product of the lens we choose to see the world through. If you view the world with a mindset of scarcity, you will never have enough of anything. But if you choose to view the world through a lens of abundance, then you will instantly change your circumstance.

So, as I stood before all these artists of Nairobi, I tried to challenge their thinking. I told them that during my travels, I began to see the world differently. I realized that we, as artists of Kenya, have a unique voice. A voice that the world has never heard before and a voice that they are willing to listen to. Given that, we have two choices; we can either embrace that opportunity, using our voices to pioneer an art culture that the world can fall in love with, or, we can bury our talents, and choose to believe that there are just not ‘enough’ opportunities in Kenya. Either way, we will choose scarcity or abundance. The choice has always been our own.