Peace to the world and love to the family! As we enter a new year, I’d like to leave a message of hope and growth for all my people. The world is changing: Rap is now the most popular genre of music, people actually listen to women and minorities, straight white males are (sort of) held accountable for injustices, a Twitter troll is president of the United States…
These are interesting times to be alive. These are culture-defining times and everybody and their Chihuahua claims to “do it for the culture”. As such, I think it’s important for us to understand what culture really is.
Culture, as I understand it, is a set of values and beliefs shared amongst a group of people. Geert Hofstede, the famous Dutch researcher of culture, defined it as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.” From this definition, one word sticks out to me: ‘programming’.
Culture is a multi-layered phenomenon. We can often see what’s on the surface: the architecture, the artwork, the style of dress and other items that make up the symbols and artefacts belonging to a culture. Similarly, we can readily identify the heroes and icons who belong to certain cultures: Nelson Mandela to South Africa; King David to Christians and Jews; Jay Z to Hip Hop. The artefacts and the people who represent the essence of a culture make up the first two and most readily identifiable layers of our cultural paradigm. Beneath the surface, we have the rituals and traditions associated with cultural groupings. The practice of the culture. The greetings that are exchanged, the way we bathe, the way we dine and the meals that are eaten, the prayers that are offered and the songs that are sung are all part of cultural practices. At the centre of our cultural onion are the underlying assumptions and cultural values which influence all the other layers: we paint pictures of landscapes because we value nature; we admire Madiba because we value freedom; we wash our hands before we eat because we value health; we mourn our dead because we value life.
Our cultural norms, beliefs and attitudes may be difficult to pinpoint if we don’t have a deep and thorough understanding of how these layers interact with each other. We must understand that the artefacts we create and treasure are a reflection of our community. We must understand that who we elevate to the status of an icon or leader reflects our cultural values. We must also understand that our leaders have the ability to either reinforce or revolutionise our worldview and way of life. This is the unique dynamic held between leadership and culture: they are two sides of the same coin.
Our espoused values are what we use to validate our actions. These values are programmed into our psyche through consistent practice of a given set of rituals. These rituals are born from the tried and tested solutions to problems that a cultural group has faced. For example, we wash our hands before we eat because the ancestors saw that this prevented the bad spirits from entering our bodies. Today we know that the ‘bad spirits’ come in the form of bacteria. However, the key to preventing ailment remains the same: wash your damn hands before you eat. Similarly, if our response to slight annoyance from another person is to fight, and this response is repeated enough to become habit, and we pass on the habit to others (directly or indirectly) then the response becomes ritual, and it becomes part of the culture. Thus, if we have art or music coming from cultural icons, espousing the value of taking drugs as a ritual, what happens to those who follow them?
Human beings have agency and it may be unfair to suggest that artists have the power to sway their audience or followers into partaking in certain behaviours. After all, art imitates life and it is a reflection of the culture it is created in. But what if the opposite is also true? What if life imitates art? Does an artist then have the moral responsibility to only push those things that are beneficial to society? Today’s music industry tends to push the type of songs that work best in the type of environment where we have youth sipping on lean and strippers twerking on poles. That’s where the money is, and I can’t blame artists for supplying what the buyers demand. But what’s good for the pocket may not be good for the culture.
Again, it’s buyers’ demand which dictates the popular art of today. People tend to ask when music (rap in particular) will become more wholesome. To paraphrase Yasiin Bey, rap will become more wholesome when the people become more wholesome. We live in an individualistic, hedonistic society. Many of us are seeking profit and pleasure for ourselves. We end up having extreme capitalists willing to burn down villages for minerals under the ground, and corrupt government officials stealing funds that were meant to purchase medicines in public hospitals. In my eyes, the human experience is greatest when our whole community is thriving. Is it possible to attain personal delight while also bringing something to the table for the people?
Each goal we strive to achieve affects those around us. That gym membership helps pay for somebody’s seed to go to school. The local tourism you decided to do more of this year will provide a young boost to the economies of the small towns you visit. The gems you drop in your internet article might open up neural pathways in some readers’ brains and elevate their minds to new levels of consciousness. It all adds up: if I do well, I help my brother do well; if my brother does well, he helps others do well. Real talk. Our individual pursuits ultimately contribute to communal welfare. The question is, are your contributions beneficial or detrimental to the community?
As we head into the New Year, I’d like us to remember that we all have people around us who look to us for guidance from time to time. Some of us are leaders in the community. Some of us are leaders in our households. Some of us have the likkle youts looking up to us. We all have the opportunity to programme and reprogramme a set of values into our circle. Be a beacon of light, and do what’s right for the culture. Strive for your dreams, and I hope your dreams light up your society.
I wish you all a prosperous 2018.
It’s All Love.