Vodacom Superstars – Akon goes to the Congo

Joseph Sannicandro / July 28, 2011

Vodacom Superstars – Akon goes to the Congo

In the Spring of 2010, Akon‘s AKONic Entertainment and CEO Nickie Shapira launched Vodacom Superstar in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a show with the stated aim of discovering “the hottest talents in Africa.” Of course, there are many innovative and talented artists producing music in all of Africa’s many diverse countries. South Africa’s BLK JKS comes to mind for their innovative genre-defying rock, though there are a ton of artists making dance music, rap, traditional-inspired musicand so on. Shapira and Akon had decided to focus initially on amateur talent in the DR Congo, a country that is in much need of the healing power of music.

Last year’s winner, a young boy named Innocent Balume, debuted his first single with Akon in the Congo on June 11, 2011, on the finale of the second season. Styled after American Idol/X-Factor and aired on five of the top networks in the DR Congo, young hopefuls compete in a similar fashion, singing cover songs karaoke style and dancing and jiving all over the stage. Innocent’s performance of a Michael Jackson standard sealed the deal for him in last year’s competition, demonstrating, as put by Shapira, “a charisma that captivates people.” She stressed the ability of art and music to bring communities together, to transcend the differences that have kept Congo torn apart by war and armed conflicts in the last fifteen years—a point undoubtedly proven by the huge success of the first season amongst Congolese viewers of all sorts.

And yet, the irony of a mobile phone company sponsoring an entertainment show in a region of the world destroyed by wars largely fought over control of a mineral necessary for all mobile phones to function shouldn’t go unnoticed. (Not to mention the profits surely generated from all the texting to vote.) The show is sponsored by the South African mobile telecommunications company Vodacom, whose parent company is Vodafone, the largest mobile telecom company in the world. Mobile phones have had an important impact on many countries such as Congo where landlines never reached critical mass, and yet now mobile phone use has become widespread. Like the telegraph in early American history, mobile phone use has helped equalize market prices, increase communication, spread important news, and had profound social effects.

Congo is also tied to mobile telephony, and the entertainment industry, in more material ways. Namely, the mineral Coltan is heavily mined there. “Congo had so much bad press in terms of the war,” says Shapira, “and had come out of a very difficult period, and we felt it was in a type of upswing, we wanted to be part of that and present to the world some of the talent and hope that’s there and present a different image.” The DR Congo did not just experience bad press, but was the location of the highest body count of any war since World War II, estimated currently at 5.4 million. Half of these victims were the result of the disruption of the war creating massive numbers of refugees and starvation, and many of those victims were children. The conflicts in the region and their causes are difficult to understand without its historical context, but if anything, these issues, along with their causes, have not been in the press enough. The conflict still continues to this day in the eastern regions of the country, where there is the highest prevalence of rape in the world. Women are systematically raped as an intimidation tactic by the militias that control the mines, and yet western interests continue to buy minerals from them, funding the remnants of the group that carried out the Rwandan genocide, among many other groups with other atrocities under their belts.

Innocent with T.I

The area around the Congo River was the last region of Africa to be explored and colonized by Europeans. In the late 19th century, it became the personal property of Belgian King Leopold, until public outrage at the conditions of labor there became known, primarily around rubber, which the industrialized world depended upon. It then became a Belgian colony until gaining independence in 1960. This began a complicated series of shifts in power dynamics, with the US supporting a military coup by dictator Mobutu Sese Seku because of his ardent anti-communism- and his lax policies granting them access to Congo’s natural resources. Mobutu renamed the country Zaire, and decades of extreme corruption followed. In 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the US had less reason to support Mobutu. The Rwandan genocide and the Great Lakes Refugee crisis further destabilized the Congo, leading to two complicated wars involving many foreign armies, often called the African World War.

These conflicts also have another name. The Coltan War. Coltan is a mineral that is necessary for electronic devices such as cellphones and gaming consoles (such as the PlayStation), as it is capable of reaching high temperatures while remaining effective. An estimated 80% of the worlds coltan is found in central Africa. By the ’90s, the demand for this mineral had peaked, causing profits to skyrocket. Therefore control of the coltan mines was lucrative, and sales of coltan directly funded the wars that raged throughout the Congo.

Many of the foreign nations that came to Congo’s aid were involved because of their own stakes in the Congolese mining, and many other conflicts, such as the Angolan Civil War, were funded by mining. In fact, despite the peace treaty that allegedly ended the fighting in 2003, militias continued to exist, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda who control an estimated 20% of the mines. In addition to this are unofficial “taxes” or bribes paid by official mining operations. By purchasing minerals from them, and arguably the products made from them, we are in effect aiding a terrorist organization, and helping one of the groups that carried out the Rwandan genocide attain wealth to relocate. They’ve also continued to systematically rape women for the purpose of intimidation and public humiliation, so that the Eastern Congo continues to bear the highest occurrence of rape in the world.

That is, all of us who have purchased a cell phone or many other electronic devices have contributed to financing this war and to the group that carried out the terrible atrocities in Rwanda. More recently mobile telephony has aided many in sub-Saharan Africa in many ways, yet the origin and conflicts over this mineral should not be forgotten, nor the ravages it continues to exert on the nation of DR Congo.

“Congo’s war is often linked, in vague terms, to the mineral trade, but here in Luntukulu, it is easy to see exactly how it works: the industry is essentially unregulated, smuggling is simple to do and rife, and no one has any incentive to try to drive the armed militias out of the business. “The armed groups are all involved in mining – even our Congolese armed forces,” sighed Juvenal Nyamugusha, who heads the provincial mining ministry.” (Globe & Mail)

Further, the links to foreign mining companies and the products they make are also not so ambiguous.

The coltan makes its way out of the mines to “trading posts” which are taxed or controlled by the rebels. Foreign traders then buy the mineral and ship it abroad, mostly through Rwanda. “All of it winds up bought by just three companies – Cabot Inc. of the United States, Germany’s HC Starc and China’s Nigncxia – the only firms with processing plants to turn coltan into the coveted tantalum powder. The “magic powder” is then sold to Nokia, Motorola, Compaq, Alcatel, Ericsson and Sony for use in a wide assortment of everyday products.” (Seeing Is Believing)

This video produced by the Pulitzer Center helps explain the present conditions.

It’s a long and complicated history, and I encourage you to read more yourself. Here is a more detailed version of the above history, and see links go recent news coverage at the end of this article. It is a narrative of foreign exploitation for material gain at the expense of the local population. This is to say nothing of the environmental degradation or loss of animal life (you may have seen the National Geographic article on its effect on mountain gorillas, who are killed to clear space for mines and then sold as bush-meat, or this article in Time).

What is the Role of Music?

People do not just forget colonial repression and exploitation, nor do the scars of war and genocide fade away. Yet in as anywhere else, daily life continues, and rich and diverse cultures have continued to carry on traditional music and so on despite these tragedies. To the credit of Vodacom Superstar, they’ve created a diverse program. Nickie Shapira tells me “sometimes it’s American or Western pop type of music, sometimes it’s French… and sometimes it’s traditional Congolese.” The week after we spoke, they aired an episode in which all the competitors performed traditional music wearing traditional garb, a concept that she admits was one of the most popular episodes when done last year. Despite its fragmented past and the arbitrary borders of colonialism, the people of the Congo have been united, despite the conflicts, for over one hundred years now, and as such a national culture is emerging. A show like this is important in helping to reflect this culture to the people.

Innocent, last year’s winner, has just released his debut record, produced by Akon and recorded at Dreamland in Atlanta. Akon and Innocent performed their new single together at the June 11 finale for the first time. The album is “geared towards a western audience and yet their definitely is… an influence from Congo,” integrating Swahili in a chorus, and using popular African styles. Both Shapira and Akon feel very strongly that is important to cater to the base that launched Innocent’s success. Perhaps this should go without saying. Even so it is good to see them continue to give to the Congo. The album will be pushed in the North American markets, where there is already an infrastructure for promotion and distribution, but first the record will be released in Congo. The show has been an enormous success, airing each week on every major network, and re-airing every day in between new episodes. “We’re really pleased and surprised at how big the show has become,” says Shapira, admitting it is clearly “much more than just their form of entertainment.”

The show is also building a national consciousness, and aiding in the construction of a new national identity. Early on, Shapira realized that their were many challenges to producing a show in the Congo, logistical problems having to do with equipment, security, and so on. With a background in the US producing TV shows, she hadn’t fully anticipated the difficulties the Congo would present, but both she and Akon were less concerned with turning an immediate profit, “as long as we find a way to do something that’s good.” They were “interested in finding talent and showing it [to] their own country,” a fine example of the ways in which broadcast media constructs identity as much as reflects it. Perhaps the best example of this is the reception to Innocent himself. At 14, he was the youngest competitor. (For the second season, competitors must now be at least 18, to avoid the logistical problems related to education, international travel, and so on.) Innocent comes from the eastern Congo, where the residual effects of the genocide in Rwanda and the refugees and militias still affect daily life, and the ethnic tensions of the great war and the conflict stirred up by the various parties are still felt. The shows producers were initially worried, because physically Innocent’s appearance is a bit Rwandan, considering additional security and other measures. In the beginning, there was public discussion about his appearance, but by the end, he had support from all over. “[W]e were surprised that the whole country actually really united behind Innocent,” Shapira says, demonstrating the growth the country has experienced as the fighting has waned. The show is “for the people of Congo to enjoy,” and it’s done this on a scale that other artists and productions can’t match.

If one is going to produce a television show in such an environment, and furthermore promote it in the global north, it seems to me that there is a responsibility to publicize the ongoing strife and problems. Though it is true that Africa in general suffers from negative reporting, it doesn’t change the fact that the Congo suffered great strife and continues to, as fighting over the mines continues in the east and the rape of women as an intimidation tactic is widespread and well documented, if not widely known among the average person in the US. It is irresponsible to gloss over this, especially as the Rwandan army responsible for much of the genocide in Rwanda continues to operate out of the East Congo and to benefit financially from their control of the mines. There is a direct connection between these mines, which generate 70-80% of the world’s coltan, much of which comes from these mines in the east. The other mines are not necessarily any less corrupted, as much of the civil war of the ’90s was fought to control these resources, and whose profits provided weapons for neighbouring wars.

It isn’t reasonable to expect western buyers to boycott mobile phones and PlayStations and so on, however there are actions which can be taken. Western companies can play a very important role in changing these conditions, but only if they are pressured to by the public. Coverage of these conditions has been sadly limited and obscured by the complicated history. The companies themselves are unwilling to disrupt their profits without pressure from public opinion. For example, the Globe & Mail, a Canadian national paper, has covered events in the Congo closely. Mining is a major part of Canada’s foreign operations, and funds much of their national pension plans. Therefore public pressure in Canada is greater, and a Canadian mining company operating in the eastern Congo has begun to take actions after negative press, such as the UN reporting on Canada’s complicity, and an association of Congolese citizens filed suit against them.

These sorts of actions depend on publicity, exactly the sport of publicity that AKONic can provide. The people of Congo deserve to move past the turmoil of recent years, but the truth is that their entire modern history is defined by outside intervention regarding their natural resources and political leadership. They will benefit from the exposure such a show can generate among fans in the US.

The further irony of a young boy, whose winning performance was of a Michael Jackson song, winning the season is also noteworthy, for half the deaths of the civil war were children. Innocent is clearly jubilant, and I won’t in any way discount the joy this one young teen is experiencing as winner. Still, the country needs more than a boy singing western pop songs in English. Art can be a powerful force for uniting people, for transcending the ego, or just for helping us get through the daily grind, but we should never let it become a distraction that keeps from seeing injustice.

The consideration of musical styles raises the question as to what makes a music genuinely “African” in any case? Despite the fact that he spent his early years in Senegal, and that his father was a well-known drummer, Akon himself doesn’t make music that can be described as African. Artists who do are strongly developing their traditional styles while adding a unique imprint on international styles. Sometimes artists who resonate with audiences in North America are often gimmicky or completely depoliticized (eg. “world music” and Putomayo). Many knowledgeable listeners are most interested in African music in order to hear the ways in which regional variations and inflections influence and evolve international styles. For instance, South African kwaito and Angolan kuduro descended from house music, but have identifiable traits that distinguish them. Recognition of these sounds abroad, and at home, becomes a source of pride for their innovators and home countries. In some respect, African music will be judged by its distance from American and European pop music, as what makes it unique.

Before ending, I’d like to share other artists from the Congo, and from other areas of Africa, who are producing really innovative music, the sort that would be out of place perhaps on a show like Vodacom Superstars, but nonetheless that deserves attention. Like Ali Farka Touré’s guitar playing, or Fela Kuti’s pioneering Nigerian Afro-Beat, they are well and truly fascinating in the ways they manage to innovate aspects of their traditional musics while drawing on other international styles, often unintentionally making apparent to western listeners the debt our own popular music owes to the traditions of the African continent.

Konono No.1

Many such artists have emerged from the Congo. There are many talented rap artists, often French language and deeply political in nature, rapping about inequalities and injustices experienced in their society. More traditional musicians have continued as well, but in keeping with the industrialization and urban noise it brings have had to adapt, electrifying their instruments to be heard over the din of the city to play at traditional functions and ceremonies, such as weddings, funerals and the like. The amplification of the traditional musics have changed the dynamics somewhat, and the Congotronics series, released on the Belgian label Crammed is a fine example of this style. Konono N°1 is perhaps the most famous of the participants, having toured extensively in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, as well as others on the series such as Kasai Allstars.

Some ways you can help:

Heal Africa


Women for women international


Further Reading:

Prevalence of Rape in E. Congo Described as Worst in World By Stephanie McCrummen

Where repairing rape damage is an expertise by Stephanie Nolen

Anti-rape funds in Congo wasted: critics by GEOFFREY YORK

Every hour, 48 women raped in Congo, study finds by RUKMINI CALLIMACHI

“Rape again rampant in Congo.” Globe & Mail (Toronto) by STEPHANIE NOLEN

Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN

Congo Study Sets Estimate for Rapes Much Higher By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN

How rebels profit from blood and soil by STEPHANIE NOLEN

Hazardous trucking in DR Congo Risking it All, al Jazeera

About Akonic Entertainment:

AKONIC ENTERTAINMENT (and its Akonic Chug Productions) is a full service entertainment company that focuses on finding exceptional talent and stories from around the world to deliver and produce original content for the world’s audience.

About Nickie Shapira:

Nickie Shapira is the CEO and Managing Director of Akonic Entertainment and Akonic Chug Productions. Prior to that, she served as President of 8th Wonder Entertainment, a film and television production company based in Los Angeles. Nickie’s professional accomplishments are equaled by her achievements in the political and civic realms. In 2009, she served on the Finance Committee for the Presidential Inaugural Committee for U.S. President Barack Obama. From 2007-2008, she served as a Regent of the Republican Party and was the Southern California Chair for the National Women’s Committee (NWC) of the Republican Jewish Coalition. She currently serves as the President of WAIPAC (World Alliance for Israel) – one of the largest and most prominent pro-Israel PACs (political action committees) in the U.S and has the distinction of being the youngest person ever chosen to serve as President of the 20+ year organization. Nickie was named as one of ten “Women to Watch” by Jewish Woman Magazine and was recognized for her philanthropic contributions to society and honored (along with Vice President Al Gore) by the Nobel Laureate’s Circle for the Jewish Cancer Research Fund in 2009.

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