“Franz Kafka lived in obscurity and died of starvation caused by his tuberculosis. William Blake is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Patrick Kavanagh used to boil eggs in the kettle for dinner. By the time Herman Melville passed away in 1891, his works were out of print, and he was penniless,” so wrote Arminta Wallace in the Irish Times.
Famous Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera lived as a destitute — a vagabond, wandering from place to place; sleeping on park benches, being mugged and sleeping on other people’s floors. This is not just limited to famous writers but also other artists — musicians, actors, painters, and others.
This terrifying picture of the starving artist was reinforced in early May 2023 when a video showed rapper Colonel Mustafa, the former superstar, carrying bricks as he worked on a construction site — caught in the carnage of capitalism and the unforgiving forces of demand and supply, money seems to have deserted him.
Life is a fragile proposition that could go up or down, this way or that. For Mustafa, it went down in a shocking twist completely overrun by a tragedy that swirled into a category 5 hurricane, with dire consequences.
In the video, he was away from TikTok and the scented air of shopping malls, away from the clubs he had performed in his heyday when, at night and in the city lights, the horizon probably looked rimmed with fire and the clubs washed in flashing, artificial blue lights.
Mustafa was in faded clothes — his gaze careworn, looking wounded and subdued. His former exuberant, self-assured braggadocio was gone — already feeling like long ago. He is probably still haunted in his sleep, some nights, by the great platforms he had graced with his dancers — vixens with fine, chiselled features — moving through his dreams with light steps, their artificial hair thick and rich and lustrous, sometimes tumbling loose over their shoulders.
Fate had put him on the weighing scale, found him guilty of misconduct and rendered swift judgement: end of his celebrity enterprise — with no appeal. He used to look wild, unbridled, and unstoppable. But the defiant cap, the colourful clothes, and the glorious necklace around his neck from his better days are all gone.
He said in an interview recently that he loves music, but he can no longer sing. He no longer has what it takes, he explained in a voice tinged with sadness and wistfulness. What beats a man so hard that he stops trying? It’s like unrequited love — the way a man is enchanted by a lover, not bearing the thought that she could go on without him. But she does, breaking his heart into a million little pieces.
The Mustafa story has a few lessons for Kenyan artists. Artists enjoy their careers because they get an opportunity to apply their creativity and use their skills and passions to make pieces that inspire, educate, and entice audiences.
However, it’s important that they learn how to make money from their art — be it visual, literary, or other form.
Before artists can make money, attitude change is needed both in the artists and their audiences. William Deresiewicz, writing in the Literary Hub, argues that we need to treat artists as workers, not decorations. He argues that “Art, we’ve been taught to believe, has nothing to do with money… Artists… have bodies that… have to eat”.
Therefore, it’s unfair to call artists to perform and then pay them in form of “exposure” — performing for free so they can be “exposed” to audiences instead of being paid cash and they still have bills to pay like the rest of us.
To make money, artists must be consistent, work hard, build their brand, and approach their artistic endeavours like other people approach careers — with all seriousness, excellence, and hard work. Deresiewicz adds that, “… If art is work, then artists are workers. Most people don’t like to hear this. Non-artists don’t, because it shatters their romantic ideas about the creative life. Artists don’t either, as people who have tried to organise them as workers have told me. They also buy into the myths; they also want to think they’re special. To be a worker is to be like everybody else.”
On the need for consistency, there is a harsh lesson from Mustafa’s story because in 2022, he released the first song after almost a decade without any new song. However, the song flopped probably because in the years he was missing, his audience disappeared. Artists must keep producing art to keep their audiences.
A lesson from BTS, one of the most popular K-pop groups, is for musicians to communicate with their audiences. BTS uses real-time broadcasting to communicate and interact with their fans through pop-up broadcasts. Kenyan artists can also use social media to engage their and keep their audience.
The Mustafa story is as complex as is tragic. We can only wish him well and hope that we all learn from it. To support our artists, we should start by paying for their products and services — poems, books, performances, paintings — instead of copying or pirating them especially circulating their works for free on social media. Whenever we pirate their works, we are stealing from them and taking away food from them.