DancingCities: Negotiating the Public Space in Lagos.
"We either make ourselves miserable, or make ourselves strong. The amount or work is the same."
Any African artist who wants to be an artist, that is to say an innovator, who seek to invent and advance the society, must be aggressive in his approach to matters of development, must learn to negotiate and take over the public space, because the lack of infrastructure is death for the artist, but to survive we must be highly imaginative in our will to create spaces of freedom. The task we've placed upon ourself with DancingCities project is very basic, out of the four preoccupations of The QDanceCenter, this one project simultaneously swerves between a community development and talent development program. The dancers we are showcasing in this public spaces are in a competition, a process which will go through December in different communities, but for the communities, we are simply bringing art closer to them, they are not supposed to bother about the completion.
When the conditions are favorable, we mortals tend to seek reproduction, but when the conditions are not favorable, survival is what we seek. DancingCities is one such project that finds itself right in the middle of this hypothesis. My favorable condition as a working and traveling dance artist, urges me to reproduce, to transmit and create opportunities, and in the process, give back to the communities around me. However, the conditions with which we live in Nigeria, is equally such that is very unfavorable, and leads us to seek survival.
Not that I was unaware of these obvious issues before embarking on this journey, but being there at Iwaya - Yaba for the first edition of DancingCities was indeed an experience. My first visit to Iwaya, made it clear that if this project will make any sense, I must first understand the issues these communities are facing, and the dynamism which makes advancement utterly impossible. Within such conditions, what language does one speak to a bunch of touts whose most preferred slogan are "We do not seek any future," the other on proclaims "We are no peace makers," and another affirms "check my body, all these scars are not birth marks" and their list goes on. For all they care you are just a moneybag, and you've come to share of your wealth. Many thanks to the politicians, their usual clients.
I had to play along, it will be useless to talk sense, unless you come across the few amongst them who could easily read between the lines. Chief Jo Yusuf was one of such. From the day my friend Aderemi Adegbite, took me to Iwaya, his hood. This man appeared as an impossible blend of contradictions, his passion for community development is utterly inspiring. He is a traditional chief in Iwaya, the only Igbo chief I know in a Yoruba land. He's also a Muslim cleric, equally the only cleric who sits with the boys smoking marihuana without making a biggie over it, his English accent attests to his British education, and you wonder what the hell he's doing in this slum, but no wonder he was quick to understand my antecedents and accepts to be our host in Iwaya.
Despite chief Yusuf's credibility within the community, we still had to deal with the area boys, these boys were simply unstoppable, the moment they spotted our partner's buses who were coming to deliver the sound equipments, and the mobile stage, spontaneously these boys arrived like a hound of hyenas. Somehow they sensed I was the man in charge, they tried to call me out of the middle of a conversation, quickly I understood what was about to go down, I pretended, and turned down their summon. And as anticipated they began to rage, almost immediately, they began their melodic rap lyrics, it usually sounds like an angry spoken word, quite physical and very dramatic at the same time, these guys knows nothing about literature, but got language working for them, for its their first weapon to get their prey subdued. But thou shall not shake, I shake not over their shakara. I was born in Lagos. Forget matter.
Their claims for territorial taxation is genuine and very meaningful in their own rationality, I absolutely have no dispute over that, but you don't start by negotiating money with them, first you make it clear that you've got some verbs as well, that you are equally coming from somewhere, and it might be your turn to eat their eyes in your own hood, you most importantly don't try to talk anything sensible, instead swing along, respond to their meaningless logic, because you'll only be increasing the risk if you sound intelligent, but play along, buy time, insist there is zero budget, and you are not going to give anything, and that you have all the go aheads from higher authorities. However, the only problem was that, while all these tango was on going, and because it was happening with a lot of energy and violence in their furious eyes, my partners are terribly scared of their presence there, and most especially for their equipments. We've already counted 2 hours over this verbal ping pong.
Eventually, we reached an agreement. And check the silly conclusion, they've delayed us this long for just 5000 naira, seriously? $25? yes 23€, £16. 300 Rands. What a bunch low-life-cheap-idiots, they only needed to smoke and drink, yes, the alpha and omega of their problematic, two cartons of cheap alcohol, "dogoyaro" "monkey tail" "cow head" those are names of the concussions they so crave for. This wasn't the pay off for me, my worry was all those kids, whose elder brothers are amongst these bunch of antisocial victim of circumstances. When we eventually began the show, and you see the faces of all those kids, all of them below 18, all gathered watching the performances, you just need to see the expressions on their faces, a life changing experience, it was as if they've all of a sudden discovered that there is more sense to life than the meaningless living they've inherited.
To be sincere, it is a very crazy idea to think that Lagos will simply allow us dance in its public spaces, a space where power negotiations create violent debates, even the notion of public space is itself absent. How do then do we seek reproduction and giving back, to those who mostly survives on survival? How do we create relevance without consequences? How do we claim what should belong to all, in a sane situation. I thought public relations used to be more about theatricality than representation of the self, the former which is obviously more friendly to public life and had more impact in public life, this is what dancing cities proposes. However, it is clear that our societal structure has lost a key dimension of the notion of ‘public space’; which is supposed to be a space that removes the borders that protects us from each other in daily life, our public meeting places are gradually being transformed into an appropriated field, a compulsive quest for self-identification, an arch enemy of creativity. But we mustn't allow the terror of these mind dropouts to terrify us to a point where the children becomes disillusioned and purposeless, we must activate more spaces of freedom, spaces that dances, not for the adults whom we've already lost, but for younger ones who are still questioning.
Access to the art leads to a quality and satisfying life... DancingCities is going into another community in June. We never say die. Just watch this space.