Whose story is it anyway?

“Once upon a time” is a familiar phrase hardwired into our anatomies that’s about much more than childhood recreation. In different cultures and languages the structure and introductory phrase changes but telling stories is an evolutionary device, still needed to share knowledge, create meaning, assure the longevity of tradition and sustain identity. It’s the backbone of nation building. It’s how we valorise the extraordinary and perpetuate the rancour towards the less savoury. It’s the stuff that builds collective legends and mythologies. It’s magical and dangerous; pervasive and indoctrinating. Now with the technology of social media, in a young adult democracy, we and other countries with a similar context are grappling with the necessity of decolonizing our minds and fiercely asking, “who has the right to tell whose story?”

For example, presently showing at the Fugard Theatre is the District Six tribute show, Kanala, written and directed by respected musical icon, David Kramer. Following suite from his new musical, Orpheus in Africa, which had a sold out premiere season, this show has also received positive reviews. A Wikipedia search states that David Kramer is “most notable for his musicals about the Cape Coloured communities, and for his early opposition to apartheid”, during which he frequently co-created work with the late Taliep Petersen. To this day, he continues to tell important stories that were in the past not celebrated in a public way on the main stage. And yet, is anyone curious as to why twenty years later flipping through the anthology storybook of democracy, he is still author of those stories in the theatre industry in South Africa?

This question isn’t intended to undermine David Kramer’s talent, there is no doubt of his skill and the incredible contribution he made and continues to make towards the South African musical theatre canon. But of late, the topic of “story rights” in the arts has occupied feeds on esteemed publications and personal blogs. To pose the question is like attempting to knit a “rainbow nation” blanket with a knot of wool that needs more than a lifetime of untangling.

Circulating widely on social media is the feeling that in certain parts of the world, for too long the Western lens has been the storytelling cartel across creative platforms. The narrative has been homogeneous, exclusionary,  contributed and reinforced institutionalized racism. The stories articulated by the previous dominant ideology have become embedded in the psyche to such an extent that those who have benefitted from a system of disenfranchisement are blind to the effects of an homogenous narrative. Some are unable to understand what all the fuss is when the majority, who were systematically oppressed, exclaim that their stories should not be told by those who have benefited from their oppression.  

Imagine the majority of the mainstream pop culture content that you’re in contact with – be it a movie, book, play, painting or piece of music – more often than not, is created and represents someone, whose experience never resonates with your own; from the heterosexual love story, to the stereotyping of family life and racial groups. Conjoined to declaring that some stories should only be told by those who experience them is the unlearning and healing of trauma left by a discriminatory system that shaped the legacy of entire generations, whose effects we’re in the thick of. 

And yet, it’s not just the white Western lens that has come under scrutiny. It’s also about the power that material wealth has in preferencing specific stories tailored to larger agendas. Beyonce’s Formation music video and lyrics is widely celebrated as a turning point in pop-culture as an unapologetic and proud proclamation of blackness. However, there were those who felt she had no right to use the devastating images inspired by Hurricane Katrina as a pop video backdrop or that she, a woman of immense wealth and iconic clout, had any right to sing about the complexities of being Creole. Some felt it an exploitation of trauma and that if she was truly a political artist, like British based singer MIA, she would have embodied political sentiments from the genesis of her career. But does the genius of her team not lie in commercializing the present zeitgeist? It that not the main function of pop music?

Over ten years ago, dealing with similar concerns, an article appeared in the Guardian where author Caryl Phillips was in conversation with Chinua Achebe and took him to task about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Achebe always thought Conrad a racist and Phillips asked if artists could ever tell stories of cultures that weren’t their own? The rebuttal was that when others tell stories it might reveal things we’ve missed about ourselves but it should be done in a respectful way that is entirely representative of the complexity of experience and not reduced to old tropes. Phillips then questioned if it was possible for artists to create work outside the prejudice of their times?

When asked if it’s possible to tell someone else’s narrative in the context of South Africa, award-winning filmmaker Jenna Bass says, “in an ideal world, yes, this can be done. I think it’s important to bare in mind that we’re operating in an environment where local voices cannot be heard in mass media as they should be – not only that, but local narratives have previously been appropriated, exploited and generally twisted far back into the past. It is one thing to take a risk in authenticity in an environment where authenticity and diversity are otherwise a part of everyday life, but to do to the opposite is very violent and irresponsible. I think it’s something to think extremely long and hard about before taking that risk because it is a big one. A person’s personal narrative is a crucial part of who they are, and taking that away from them entirely or in part is something I have massively re-evaluated”.

So, when Meryl Streep non-nonchalantly says that we were all once African, she negates a spectrum of other experiences that are so vital to the complexity of what it means to live in the world. Even if “once upon a time” we all originated from Africa, we’re not all Africans in the same way. At what point, when you are living in a globally connected world, does an artist’s ingrained prejudice become a poor excuse for intolerable ignorance? When asked to comment on the issue of telling stories that are not your own, music activist Dope Saint Jude said that, “other people may not have insight into the complexities of the stories they are telling. Their perspective is inherently limited because they are an ‘other’. This leads to an unfair or biased interpretation or representation of the story or a group of people”. 

And then on the flip-side, when does artistic sensibility and the notion of political correctness become stifling and morph into self-censorship? Who decides what is representative and how much should be considered? And what of interpretation? It’s difficult to view art without taking into account the milieu of structural racism and at the same time wonder if one’s not over-analysing the work. How does one unravel the knot? For example, is the controversial work of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B a smart marketing ploy to gain international exposure by exporting his work to ex-coloniser galleries? Was it a strategic move where bad press is good press? Or, was it a genuine attempt to create work that forced others to confront the heinous acts of colonialism, even though he didn’t experience it firsthand?

The debates on social media around “storytelling rights” are crucial questions that need addressing. We’re no longer accepting one denouement as the dominant narrative of our lives and critically questioning the perspective and context of popular discourse. Let the knot unravel. Let the single narrative thread fray. Let the stories be told. “Once upon a time” is a singular moment, in which a multitude of stories with multitudinous authors begin.

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