Musical white privilege in Africa

In his gripping and provocative memoir Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa (1997), the journalist and former Washington Post Africa bureau chief Keith B. Richburg writes, “White people traveling in East Africa are rarely stopped, rarely questioned, rarely instructed to open their bags. They jump to the front of lines, they scream and shout for seats on overbooked flights, they walk around with a kind of built-in immunity, the immunity of their skin color.” He adds, “If you’re black or Indian, you get stopped.”

I am white, and when I traveled to Kenya in 2008, and to Benin in 2010, I waltzed through immigration. On both occasions I was there as a part of music-related projects. More striking than the lack of airport hassle, which I didn’t know to notice, was the way I was consistently invited to play in the songs of African instrumentalists and singers. As a classical musician, my ability to perform alongside them went as unquestioned as my presence as a tourist. I benefited from a musical immunity.

Organizers of cultural exchanges and concert presenters assumed that I would fit in easily playing music that I often had little familiarity with or understanding of. I doubt this openness would apply in the opposite direction—to African musicians performing with a symphony orchestra or in a chamber concert. Or to meetings of musicians from different parts of the continent: is there any music in the world more different than that of the freaky-halloweenish South African hip hop group Die Antwoord and the polished-heartthrob Kenyan singer-songwriter Eric Wainaina?

The term white privilege is used to refer to the seemingly invisible benefits accrued to white people in a racially prejudiced society. Ta-Nehisi Coates, responding to a reader’s letter in The Atlantic in 2012, wrote, “I understand the use of that term [white privilege] for social scientists and perhaps literature critics. But I generally find it most powerful and most illuminating when linked to an actual specific privilege…” The specific privilege at stake here is a musical one. Revisiting some of my most valued musical memories, it’s hard to overlook the role it played.

In 2010, my close friend, the composer Maria Kallionpää, received an invitation to a place called Villa Karo, a “Finnish-African cultural center and artist residence situated in the village of Grand-Popo, in Benin, West Africa,” where I was allowed to join her. The house was built along the Gulf of Guinea. The tides were warm, almost hot; a sign warned against swimming in English, Finnish, French, and Mina, as its currents were strong and often fatal.

On the evening of May 11, a small nearby restaurant, Bar Farafina, planned a “soirée” in honor of the 30th anniversary of Bob Marley’s death. On the program were several local musicians, including a “Groupe Panafricain Mandingo Blues.” I joined in on flute, playing simple, repetitive riffs, up and down a minor scale, over what was, at one point, a complex polyrhythmic improvisation threading between five djembes.

To put it simply, and without false modesty, what I was doing wasn’t any good. How could it have been? I knew almost nothing about the style of music onto which I grafted my little melodies.

In the course of our month in Grand-Popo, I realized that there were rivalries between the musicians of the Groupe Panafricain, most of whom were from outside Benin, and local musicians. Frédéric, a djembe and kora player from Burkina Faso, told me he felt a hostility and resistance to his presence in the village, both musical and otherwise.

I felt none of this resistance; I didn’t even get much constructive criticism to learn from. Despite Frédéric’s far more comprehensive understanding of West African music, my limited musical contributions almost seemed more welcome in Grand-Popo.

The latest from VAN, delivered straight to your inbox

Success! You're on the list.

In February of 2008, about a month past the peak of the post-election violence then gripping Kenya, I attended an event called the Earth Festival, held on the Laikipia Nature Conservancy, a 98,000 acre estate owned by the Italian-born writer and environmentalist Kuki Gallmann. I met a guitarist there, a sweet-tempered, mild kid about my age, who told me that he had recently joined a group of other boys in breaking into an abandoned shop. He hadn’t eaten for several days.

We became friends, and I accompanied him on some of his songs. My contributions were mostly chord tones, very Blues 101—I might have added a suspension here and there. His pieces would have been more perfect in their delicacy without my contributions. We played one concert on a small stage overlooking the Great Rift Valley; another, at a fancy restaurant on the property, where we drank bottles of Tusker beer and danced with a Samburu warrior.

I treasure these memories. However, looking back, it seems absurd that I was there. In a 2008 article for the New York Times, Jeffrey Gettleman described Kenya’s “deep-seated ethnic tensions”; the work of the Earth Festival was to try and diffuse these tensions as much as possible. The guitarist making his way there from the Nairobi slums; a Luo band playing traditional Luo music for a diverse audience, including Kikuyus, two groups still at violent odds elsewhere in the country; a multilingual performance by a group of rappers called the Hip Hop Parliament; they were the ones engaged in this fragile work.

After the festival, some of the Nairobi-based musicians and I took a small airplane back there from Laikipia. I stood around with one of the musicians and his friends behind the Kenya National Theatre, passing around a water bottle, filled with vodka and flavored with an orange.

I expressed a desire to stay longer and get to know the country. The musician told me that I could easily teach at the Kenya Conservatoire of Music, implying that as a white person, I could walk into the building and then basically right into a job. I decided not to stay, but I can vividly recall that ache of alternate possibility. Now I think: if I had remained there, it should have been to learn.

A key component of white privilege is being able to see the world through others’ eyes episodically, as an “experience,” then returning to your normal life. I was in Kenya for one week. After the festival, I flew back to London, where I had begun studying composition. Getting back from Heathrow, I dropped in to my Music Technology class to tell the teacher that I was back, but would take the rest of the day off to recover. “Well, if you don’t think what we do here is important,” he said. The comment stung because it underscored the distinctness of my musical education from what I had just experienced in Kenya.

That I was allowed to perform there, despite my lack of training, flowed, I strongly suspect, from a sense of white privilege among project organizers—and perhaps my own unwillingness to question it. Rather than joining in, I should have listened, watched, observed. My musical memories of Africa are memories I value highly, even if my playing there was hapless. But the truth is, my own participation wasn’t all that essential to these memories.

One morning by the Gulf of Guinea, we went for a walk. On the deserted beach, we saw a priest, dressed all in white, wading in the tide. He bent down to touch the water. We were silent. ¶

Subscribers keep VAN running!

VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 800 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.

… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...