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Do We Need Celebrities & Creatives to be the Voices of Social Causes?

Do We Need Celebrities & Creatives to be the Voices of Social Causes?
I hate parody accounts with every part of my mind, body and soul. Especially the politically-polarised ones.

I hate parody accounts with every part of my mind, body and soul. Especially the politically-polarised ones. Damn, I loathe those! They are sickening!

What baffles me though, is that other folks seem to like them, particularly celebrity parody accounts.

Last week, musician Jah Prayzah was forced to change his Twitter account settings to distinguish himself from a parody account that denounced President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regime. Thousands of Twimbos were taken in by the impostor account and many said they forgave the singer’s past association with Mnangagwa’s oppressive regime.

“Today I have decided to break my silence. As a public figure and leading artist, I cannot ignore the current mess our beautiful nation is in. I urge our government leaders to respect human rights and deal with corruption decisively. No to violence #FreeHopewell,” the parody account @jah_prayzah tweeted.

The tweet received over 4,800 likes and 1,700 retweets by Tuesday afternoon. It came after the police have apprehended an opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume and whistle-blowing journalist Hopewell Chin’ono ahead of anti-government protests planned for July 31st. The two were accused of posting messages on Twitter that incite public violence. Their lawyers say the charges are trumped up.

“At last Jah Prayzah, those are the words the nation has been waiting for from its celebrities as is the case the world over,” William Muchayi wrote under the tweet.

“Much appreciated, we must keep mobilising, speaking out is a good start,” said another Twitter user.

Another Twitter user fooled by the parody wrote: Thank you Jah. I am now going online to pay for music. Zero to piracy.”

But, thank goodness, not everyone was fooled.

“The real Jah Prayzah is coming to disassociate himself with this tweet,” wrote My Mufaro.

Jah Prayzah, perhaps in an attempt to distance himself from the controversial tweet, changed his profile picture on his account @jahprayzah. Many folks were hella pissed upon realising that the Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe-born pop star was not actually behind the handle. Presumably, they wanted him (and every other celebrity) to speak out at a time when inflation and corruption cases are soaring above the sky and while Zimbabwe’s ultra-toxic politics were begging for a saviour.

Well, in fact, a good number of creatively-inclined have spoken out against corruption and misgovernance. Tsitsi Dangarembga. Leonard Mapfumo. Sani Makalima. Lee McHoney. Takura. ExQ. Madame Boss. Judgement Yard. And some yesteryear muso named Tambaoga.

The list goes on.

What’s getting clearer from all this is that with our timelines shockingly streaming with searing digital activism, perceptible discrepancies are being drawn between celebrities who are woke and “involved”, and celebrities who are deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.

“There is pressure for artists to speak out & be the voice of the people as some usual claim. Fine & fair. However, speaking out is not for everyone. It should come from the heart. It should not be forced. Just like in other sectors there will be those that will come out & speak out,” said Raisedon Baya, Bulawayo-based playwright and creative. 

The same sentiment was also reiterated by Tambaoga (but I heard the account is not handled by Tambaoga the artist) who wrote:

“My Advice to Musicians such as Winky D, Jah Prayzah, Ammara and many more is don’t be pressured by anyone to Tweet anything political. Continue to use your voice to sing about social, political and economic ills… These same people will also laugh when things go the other way!”

Comedienne Madam Boss, however, felt a type of way about it. 

“If you are silent in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor, in the end, we will remember not the words of the enemy but the silence of our friends. Your silence will never protect you. #FreeHopewell ✊🏿#FreeJacobNgarivhume ✊🏿,” she posted.

The back and forth discourse on celebrities activism has been going on across all hemispheres. Factually, society has allowed celebrities to influence not only our storytelling but also our political and social views. Folks seem to have mindlessly prioritised the message of celebrities over that of professors, experts, victims or activists.

At first sight, celebrity activism would seem a win-win trade as worthy causes attract attention. I mean it is possible that celebrity activists are the perfect vehicle to effect the change that we need.

For one, they have a wide and captive audience and as one person put it, causes are to celebrities what corporate social responsibility is to business. Conversations are being instigated by celebrities every day, even indirectly. There are tons of celebrities on social media with thousands of followers. Simply being famous provides a wider platform for celebrities to get a message across. When such famous people raise awareness on something, the world pays attention. When they give their endorsement to a product, they generate brand recognition and provide a sense of familiarity and trust, which equals sales. So, if celebrity endorsement can boost product sales, why not use the same model to boost social responsibility?

Celebrities are people too. In terms of mental illness, abuse, economic decays and poverty, no one is immune, not even celebrities. But unlike the 1 in 10 Zimbabweans suffering from hunger and other forms of repressions, celebrities have platforms to shed light. Everyone has a story, yet some of us are given a larger stage than others on which to express it.

Celebrity Activists Should Be Lauded for Embracing Such A Stage

For another though, we discount experts who have given genuine dedication to the cause by giving our time and educating ourselves through knee jerk celebrity activism. Being a celebrity is not enough to sell an idea and in many cases, it is the celebrity name that will stick while the cause won’t, leaving actual experts desperate for an audience. Too often, the media and public focus on the individual and the cause becomes an afterthought. Writing on the matter, Virgil Hawkins urges that;

“We should not confuse the grand presence of celebrities (the seemingly endless camera flashes and publicized interactions with presidents and prime ministers) for real impact in drawing substantial attention to conflict situations.”

As well, supporting celebrity activists contributes to the culture of failure and promotes slacktivism. Slacktivism describes people who consider themselves online activists but are actually more concerned with appearing to join the right cause but, in actuality, doing as little as possible to make a difference. Celebrity causes tend to de-politicise activism and too often obscure the complex dynamics of power and socioeconomic relations in favour of a simple, catch-all, solution.

But When Activism Is A Trend, Misinformation/Disinformation Runs Rampant

The culture of failure puts so much pressure on triumphing that we forget how to educate ourselves, and to take the time to decide what we believe in and, more importantly, how to act on these beliefs. Tweeting is just not enough.

Again, the magnitude of the repercussions that may befall on celebrities for speaking out is very scary, as Tambaoga stressed out. Gonyeti‘s abduction and torturing incident and Winky D‘s little furore around the launch of his Njema album last year are a telltale for such case. Celebrity activism is part of an unfolding morality tale that lauds a few glamorous, superior individuals for identifying world crises and criticizes the bumbling, insensitive governments incapable of solving big problems. They are not safe.

Also, celebrities are entertainers and people’s faves.

When there is a burning issue, you have people criticising them saying they don’t speak up. In fact, you’re made to believe that there is a bigger danger in you being seen as someone who is either scared or unable to articulate an opinion and that there are advantages to being seen and heard.

On the other, when they do speak up, they are hounded for expressing an opinion that some may not like and deem polarising.

For any celebrity, these are troubling trends. I guess it’s just being hard being a celebrity or a high-profile creative. More is expected of you, and more is taken away from you.

Choose wisely…

ImChris Charamba

Head Storyteller/Critic at Large in Culture at Enthuse Afrika

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