Msaki, don't let the music industry trample your dreams
You have the valour to stay your creative course - and remember that artists don't have to be paupers
I’m writing to you as a fan who was disheartened to learn of your discontentment with your standing as an artist in this country.
Your despair, which you shared in a series of tweets this past weekend, again brought into focus what so many of your peers and those before you have bemoaned. There is insufficient support for the arts in South Africa, while the market is too erratic, and mostly unkind to women.
This doesn’t seem to change, and the upshot of this all, is that stories such as yours prevail. This is what saddens me: the realisation that none of us can offer you more than “never give up”.With most things, one needs to be very lucky to realise one’s wildest dreams.
You can practise diligently in preparation for the big break, which may never come.
But by not practising or training, you’re not putting yourself in a position to capitalise should a rare opportunity present itself.
It wasn’t until I was 18 years of age that I had some sort of idea about where I wanted my career to go. Before then, I had moved between just two “ideal” careers: the first (not that I was six years of age) was to be a bus driver. It fascinated me for some reason.Fast forward a few years, and all that changed – I wanted to be Jacques Kallis. I wanted to be an international cricketer. Perhaps, if I’d had the talent and the luck, I’d be a year away from representing the Proteas in the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup (what else are dreams for?!).
But the difference between you and me is that you know how supremely talented you are. You have a dazzling and critically acclaimed body of work under your belt, which has made the industry sit up and notice. Some days, I tell myself that I may never do what I truly wish to do because of the fear that it may ultimately underwhelm. So I stay, even if restlessly, committed to making Plan B work.
But I’d imagine all you have ever wanted to do since you were a baby was to craft beautiful melodies to go with your equally soothing vocals – to fulfil that ambition.
I’d guess, too, that once your 2016 debut album, Zaneliza: How the Water Moves, was done, your mind raced ceaselessly, thinking up myriad scenarios about how everything would play out afterwards.The beauty of youth is that you are brave enough to allow yourself such lofty dreams.
It is when you come into contact with the inner workings of the industry and its perils that your joy is stolen.
Your tweets suggested you have already fallen out of love with this reality.
You wrote: “Leaving this country shem ... in this place, if I carry on creating as I am … without changing a hair on my head ... when I did, my musician friends will have to do a benefit concert so that my family can bury me. They won’t be able to bury me from the sweat of my brow [sic].
“In this country ... the work that pleases me will see me die a pauper if I continue to present it here. There is no guarantee that if I continue to work hard here that the rest will take care of itself. None whatsoever ... ”
The biggest – and irritatingly idealistic – advice most young creatives are given, is that money should never be the reason we create. Personally, it irks me that artists are expected (and told) to be grateful that they have a platform at all, and not worry about being comfortable.There is nothing wrong with wanting to achieve financial prosperity along with industry acclaim. You have the right to dream of both.
But what many before you have shown is that you will never have the cushion people in other industries enjoy – every single day will present a challenge. Award-winning director Ava DuVernay said it best: “If you’re doing something outside of dominant culture, there’s not an easy place for you. You will have to do it yourself.”
You will have to do it yourself over and over and over again. But you have already put your feet into the icy cold water. As you wade through the rippling waves, I hope you never feel the urge to turn back – not now.
Sometimes we stay in one place because complacency feels warm and familiar. We prefer it because we can’t fail from that vantage point. But I know that is not you. No shrinking violet could ever leave home and come to Johannesburg and into such a harshly unequal industry, and decide to call her own shots.
That is what is so admirable about young women such as yourself and Zoe Modiga and Thandi Ntuli – the fierce determination and belief in your offering, and the insistence to back yourselves and your vision first before turning to Plan B. If you lose everything else, I hope you keep your valour.