Lupita Goes To Hollywood

Michael Onsando
21 January ,2014

Like Lupita was good in Shuga but up until the United States approves her that’s when we accept that hey she is good


A few years ago, Lupita Nyong’o was the star of a show called Shuga. Twitter then was not what it is now. There were fewer people on it, fewer trending topics and not as much vitriol. Yet, even then, Lupita received scorn for being too dark to act as a leading star (recently Vanity Fair may have had the same thoughts).  In slightly related news, Just A Band was recently featured in the New York times. Telling the world, and Kenya, that they are a musical force to be reckoned with.

I’m worried about this circle of validation of art. It’s something I worry about as I think of what would have happened if 12 Years A Slave had tanked in Hollywood. Would Lupita Nyong’o still be as praised, locally, if she had been cast in some underground film that never made it past a circulation of 5,000? Would the updates saying “my girl Lupita” still pop up in every news-feed in the country?

Lupita is not my girl.

I have never met her. She doesn’t know of me, and I only know of her. I’m in no position to criticize her performance in Shuga, because I never watched the show (though I’m more likely to go look for reruns now). I’ve not even seen 12 Years A Slave, but it doesn’t matter – because this essay is not about that.

In “The Politics Of Beauty” Nkatha writes:

I’m deathly scared that my daughter will resent the nappy hair she may inherit from me; the dark skin; the genes capable of fleshing out. I am worried that my daughter will, at one point, be tempted to think that it’s even vaguely okay to bleach her skin; or that she is somehow sub-human because she is dark-skinned or has extra flab under her arms. I am worried for my daughter’s esteem in a world that will show her at every turn that she is not “beautiful” and because of it, she is worthless; subaltern. I wonder how many times I will have to affirm her and let her know that she need not destroy who she is to be more of a human being.

I’d like to extrapolate this fear to the fear of being deemed Kenyan. To live in the Kenyan dream for many is to dream of being elsewhere, elsewhom. As if somehow being within is not enough. It is to give mass accolades to avenues that have earned their accolades from the places we, ourselves receive our validation. A rapper can’t just be a rapper, (s)he must be the next Jay-Z. We can, no, we must aspire to the more that exists in the West.

It’s easy to ask why we can’t appreciate our own art, but I’d like to take it further. I think we do not appreciate our own art because, on some level, we cannot accept ourselves. Art produced by our own holds up a mirror that we can’t stand to look into. We long to be the other. To be born as the other. And, in our imaginations we are the other. As being Kenyan is not enough it is hard to appreciate another who is Kenyan – regardless of their level of talent.

In Bend it, happy multiculturalism? Ahmed writes:

Pinkie asks Jess why does not want ‘this’. Jess does not say that she wants something different; she says it is because she wants something ‘more’. That word ‘more’ lingers, and frames the ending of the film, which gives us ‘flashes’ of an imagined future (pregnancy for Pinkie, photos of Jess on her sport’s team, her love for her football coach Joe, her friendship with Jules). During the sequence of shots as Jess gets ready to join the football final, the camera pans up to show an airplane. Airplanes are everywhere in this film, as they often are in diasporic films. In “Bend it Like Beckham”, they matter as technologies of flight, signifying what goes up and away.  Happiness in the film is promised by what goes ‘up and away’.

Similarly, happiness, here is defined in leaving. In being elsewhere. Especially in art, the field where emotion and expression plays a large roll. We accept art because it finds something within us. And, in the same breath I wonder if we accept people only when they have been accepted elsewhere because that’s where our validation lies.

How many singers, writers, musicians, designers, thinkers et cetera have been rejected here only to be accepted in the West then embraced here with open arms. Wangeci Mutu’s work was once called ugly – that is, until Jay Z had her in his music video.

This is not to say that Lupita, Mutu, Edi, Just A Band et al are not talented. Au contraire, this is to ask why it took us this long, and these many struggles, to realise that they are talented, and deeply so. Within our borders lie the resources to create a thriving industry in any field of the arts. Yet, every year we have artists moving out for their “big chance” (there are only small chances in Kenya – only small people, small opportunities).

I’ve heard many people say, with pride, “I don’t watch local TV.” Why? I understand the rights to like, and not like. In fact, I exercise my right to dislike as often as possible. The question I ask is why close out a film, song, book, TV show et cetera due to geography?

This sort of thing is even embodied within the structure of our language. We talk about “kuenda majuu” which literally translates to “going to the ups.” By virtue of the description of the elsewhere as up we immediately place it in an above position. In a place where we are below. And, (s)he that is below must always aspire to make their way above – yes?

It’s easy to dismiss things as ‘just’ statement. However, next time you find yourself saying you don’t listen/watch/learn local you might want to ask yourself: “What am I really rejecting?”

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