I’m not in the music business. I am, however, in the bullshit business. So my ears prick up when I hear some guy’s launched a Kickstarter project to go to Mali and make music and instead wound up helping to end slavery. Damn. That Kickstarter must be strong stuff!
So what’s the deal? 2009, Kickstarter is new; Animal Collective is not. MTV says they were “the toast of the international blogosphere” that year—touring, making an EP, making some money. So one of their guys named Josh Dibb, aka ‘Deakin,’ decides to go to the Festival in the Desert, held outside Timbuktu, and to pay for the trip with a Kickstarter project. Kick him $100, and he’ll kick you a CD somewhere down the line. Kick him a little less, and he’ll kick you a little something anyway. Oh, and he’s going to team up with a Malian anti-slavery association called TEMEDT. More about them later. Long story short, by 2012, no CDs, no little somethings, a bunch of unhappy kickstarterers (kickers? kickees?) who within three weeks had collectively ponied up nearly $26,000 for Deakin’s trip. Deakin has two stories here. One is that the project didn’t come together as he hoped, so no disc. I can’t quarrel with that—he’s not the only guy whose muse is a fickle one. The other story is that, realizing his muse did not take to Timbuktu and being uncomfortable with the idea that his fans had fronted him funds on good faith, Deakin gave the money to TEMEDT. The music press has covered the Kickstarter side of this story pretty well (a lot of what I’m saying is drawn from Spin, but others have written about it, too). But this being Africa is a Country, let’s think about the other angle.
What role does ‘Africa’ play in this story? In 2009, the Festival in the Desert was not exactly Mali’s Burning Man, but if it hadn’t yet jumped the shark, it was definitely approaching liftoff (and in 2009, people were saying ‘jumped the shark’). By 2009, Mali had long been a go-to destination for American and European musicians looking for the roots of the blues (Ry Cooder), looking for pipes as strong as theirs (Alicia Keyes), or just lookin’ for love in all the wrong places (Damon Albarn). And lots of Malian musicians meet them more than halfway (see Amadou & Mariam). Don’t get me wrong, some of this is great stuff (although I myself would be uncomfortable working with a guy who beat his girlfriend to death over a text message). But it didn’t work out for old Deakin. A bit embarrassing, that, since other people had paid for the trip. Still, it seems like a long jump to slavery.
Enter TEMEDT. Hard to criticize these guys, and that’s not my intention here (anyway, other people know more about it). I don’t love the boiled down narrative, the storyline breaking down to ‘white Tuaregs’ enslaving ‘black Tuaregs,’ but that comes from some of TEMEDT’s champions, specifically Ashoka, which named founder Ibrahim ag Idbaltanat a fellow in 2008. As for Ashoka, it’s hard to know if the NGO was acting cleverly or simply too earnestly in taking the white / black narrative of the USA and pinning it to the Sahara. Various kinds of discrimination sure as hell exist there, but they’re a lot murkier than that.
For Deakin’s two stories, though, none of that matters. Because whether or not slavery and social discrimination based on inherited stigma are two distinct—albeit often linked—phenomena, and whether or not financing a musical voyage and financing an anti-slavery NGO are two different things, one thing is clear in the way the Deakin / Kickstarter story gets covered in the music press: Africa is exculpatory. It’s where the story ends and all sins are forgiven. And it’s the perfect alibi. We don’t need to know whether or not something we’d call ‘slavery’ exists in Mali, whether or how TEMEDT might combat it, whether ‘black’ and ‘white’ Tuaregs exist, or anything else. We just need to accept that Africans like to accept charity, and that Mali’s the kind of place you can tell stories about, any kind of stories. Try this one—straight from the original Kickstarter page—“Africa is a continent ravaged by Aids, disease, civil war, genocide, poverty and hunger. This festival is an opportunity to celebrate and enhance the beauty and gifts of Africa, and to bring healing internally and with the world. And thanks to terrific partnering with Paw Tracks and Kickstarter every penny of this money will go directly to this vision (sic).”
The worst part is this: the more those stories sound like stories we already know, the easier they are for us to accept. That way, the less we need to know, the less we need to learn, and the less we need to listen.