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18/05/2018 06:21 SAST | Updated 18/05/2018 06:21 SAST

Dear Africa: Never Mind Kanye West; Are Black People Truly Free?

Has Africa freed herself from the chains of mental slavery that Bob Marley sings about in 'Redemption Song'?

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I remember how satisfying being young, black and African felt in post-independent Zimbabwe in 1983. Once the sensitive black needle touched the 45-inch vinyl record spinning on our golden brown stereo player on any given sunny afternoon and Lou Rawls' rich and mesmerising baritone voice boomed through the massive speakers fixed on the dark brown carpet in our small living room, a sweet and subtle rush of youthful happiness would proceed to serenade my mind and feed my imagination.

I would always wade through our collection of soul, pop and funk LPs with the fascination of a Motown Records connoisseur and fall deeply in love with the music. As I played "You Will Never Find Somebody", by Lou Rawls, I studied album covers from The Commodores, ABBA, the Jackson 5, Kool and the Gang, Diana Ross, The Manhattans, Jimmy Cliff and plenty of classic albums and singles from the 70s and early 80s.

The colourful artwork on the covers, outlandish poses, huge Afros and brash clothes fascinated me and, along with black shows such as "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons", formed part of the African-American culture that we loved and had subconsciously adopted.

Without having studied the history of the slave trade, I knew for certain (through informal conversations) that blacks who lived in the U.S. had somehow come from Africa, and "Roots", the gripping TV series about a slave from West Africa called Kunta Kinte, offered painful confirmation.

That deeply disturbing struggle, the history of Africans forcibly settled abroad, evolved into our culture: so talented Africans such as Lou Rawls, Michael Jackson, Prince, Bob Marley and John Amos were members of our extended African family. They represented the Africans who had been transplanted to faraway lands through the slave trade, and the violent and historical reality of their difficulty being in America resonated with our colonial struggles.

However, from where I stood, their lives had somehow appeared better than ours, much better than the wars, poverty and repression Africans faced all over the continent. Until I discovered an affinity for rap music and listened to "Fight The Power" from Public Enemy and "By All Means Necessary" from Boogie Down Productions, watched "Boyz n the Hood" and saw a broken and abused black man called Rodney King pleading for racial unity on TV.

Africa was engulfed with debilitating poverty and wasted lives.

From LA to New York, all the way to Bujumbura, Kinshasa and Johannesburg, Africans had serious problems to deal with, and listening to the news on the radio and following the revolutionary imperatives of the times, I had gathered the Africans in South Africa and Namibia remained under the rule of oppressive white men. But elsewhere on the African continent, the blacks that were supposed to be wholly free and fairly happy, lived under the yoke of black-on-black subjugation, violence and despotism.

I followed the 1978-1992 civil war in Mozambique with disgust and fear, and tried to make sense of the strongmen ruling Malawi and the DRC. I couldn't work out everything and keep up with all of the electoral drama and vicious murders, but life in Africa looked incredibly tough at times — and the revered African gods, our ancestors, our protectors, our givers of life, whom we gave sacrifices to, through traditional healers, didn't (or couldn't) help us much. And God, our Heavenly Father, to whom we prayed in our local Anglican church every Sunday, didn't help us much either (or couldn't): Africa was engulfed with debilitating poverty and wasted lives.

We experienced severe drought in 1983 and relied on yellow maize imports from abroad, which we named "Kenya", after the East African country from which the food relief supplies came. So when Michael Jackson, along with Dionne Warwick, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper and a host of stars participated in the recording of "We Are The World", all in aid of helping a food-stricken Ethiopia, it felt good to see the world helping our brothers and sisters; helping us: helping Africa.

But, ominously, 36 years after that devastating drought hit the Horn of Africa and led to more than 400,000 painful and probably preventable deaths, Ethiopia still needs help, especially with an internal crisis that has displaced 1-million people and highlighted the chilling consequences of tribal-based conflict throughout Africa.

Women and children who have suffered horrific violence at the hands of armed black men in South Sudan need help; girls at the risk of forced marriages, and people with albinism living under the threat of illegal, violent deaths in Malawi need help. Once again, Africans need help. Africa needs help. But regrettably, Africa always needs help.

Where our ancestors crossed the Atlantic Ocean bound in chains and wallowing in dreadful, inhumane conditions, today men, youths, women and young children from across the length and breadth of Africa elect to embark on similar journeys across the Mediterranean — and, as they did 400 years ago, many will perish at sea, all at the hands of "slave masters" of all hues.

How far have we come since Marley made this desperate plea for widespread self-assessment and self-empowerment within the universal black African family?

We have travelled relatively far in our quest for self-determination and socioeconomic wealth, but has Africa freed herself from the chains of mental slavery that Bob Marley sings about in "Redemption Song"?

Life has changed and the music is extremely violent, downright sexist and much darker than the soulful sounds I discovered through Lou Rawls, and the culture has been soiled by the unfortunate glorification of drugs, including alcohol, and abuse of women, and the obstinate adherence to outdated cultural practices has further served to crush African dreams.

Yet whom do we blame for our current troubles, when we have become both victims of historical injustices and willing slaves to our own devious, corrupt and violent machinations?

In spite of all the menacing odds constructed through slavery, colonisation, apartheid and social injustices, when will Africans get over the fiery slogans, fist pumps and startling inaction, and start making things happen for ourselves?

The time is now, and as Bob Marley said way back in October 1980: "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds."

But how far have we come since Marley made this desperate plea for widespread self-assessment and self-empowerment within the universal black African family?