As a writer from Africa, I often find myself in private and public conversation about the “responsibility” of the African writer. Why, someone will usually ask or lament at a panel discussion or book talk, should African writers be burdened with writing about specific topics when American/European/etc. writers have the freedom to write what they like? The same question comes up in reference to writers that are members of other marginalized/minority groups; and it’s a query New York Times columnist A.O. Scott gave some thought to last year in a piece about “whether and how artists should address social issues like race and class through their work.”
In the article “Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times“, Scott wrote:
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for “The Grapes of Wrath.” Or maybe “A Raisin in the Sun,” or “Death of a Salesman,” a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad — something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are all still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.
To be clear, there are several contemporary artists addressing many of the major issues we face today, a few of whom Scott interviewed in a companion Q&A. The problem is many of these usually independent artists/the works of art they produce rarely have the benefit of coverage in publications like the New York Times that could help them reach larger audiences.
For example, the songwriter and vocalist Somi has a song on her acclaimed album The Lagos Music Salon called “Two Dollar Day” inspired by the Occupy Nigeria movement and the specific story of a woman she met struggling to survive on $2/day. Other tracks on the album, “Brown Round Things”, “Lady Revisited”, and “Four African Women” examine prostitution, feminism, the lengths people feel forced to go to get a green card, and the problem of skin bleaching among women in Africa. Likewise, the Grammy-winning Christian rapper Lecrae has rhymed about racial segregation and cultural superiority in the church in his song “Dirty Water”, questioned racial injustice in the U.S. in “Welcome to America”, and lamented the dearth of edifying lyrics in many of his competitors’ rap songs in “Nuthin'” on his latest album Anomaly.
Films like Dear White People have examined the issue of racial stereotypes, and books like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and We Need New Names interrogate the immigrant experience in America even as the characters in these titles wrestle with the politics of their home countries and its impact on their identity.
These are works of art that have taken on some of the challenges of our times. But Scott’s plea suggests a deep yearning for more.
Even as people look to art and artists to help them escape the grim/mundane realities of everyday life, they also depend on art(ists) to articulate it; to reflect it so clearly and honestly they can better understand it themselves. It’s important to have both, and if/when possible, art(ists) that can do both. The best escapist art cleverly articulates the state of our world and the human condition, and even the most sober reflections of the times allow the reader/viewer the distance they need to find themselves and examine the universe with an objectivity that is often outside of themselves.
In tough times, do we most need art that helps us escape the times or art that soberly reflects them? Depends on the taste of the consumer really, but for the artist that is creating, the answer is clear: Both.