15 February 2018
INTERVIEW: Taye Balogun, filmmaker behind Music is Our Weapon
In 2016, the first feature-length documentary ever made about any East African musician was released. Music is Our Weapon by Nigerian filmmaker Taye Balogun brought to life the inspiring musical journey of Sarabi, one of Kenya’s most iconic bands, who are known for their conscious music.
But to understand why Taye chose to tell a story miles away from his homeland, first you need to see Africa from his point of view.
It’s a human story, that makes it a global story.
“I never wanted to be in Nigeria, I wanted to be in Africa. In fact, I’ve never even told a Nigerian story, I’m always telling an African story. That also translates to how I introduce myself: I am Nigerian-born, married a Tanzanian and my son is Kenyan,” says Taye. “My son was born here (Kenya) and I’ve lived in different parts of Africa as well, that allows me to understand the Pan-African dream or the perspective. You cannot say you are a Pan-African unless you travel and see other parts of Africa other than your own.”
Make no mistake, Music is Our Weapon is not a Kenyan story, it’s a Pan-African story that highlights the struggles of the common man – in this case members of Sarabi – and their conviction to make the world around them a better place for those who come after them. Or as Taye puts it simply, “It’s a human story, that makes it a global story.”
A documentary is a cause in itself; when you watch a documentary you feel like you have been empowered.
Taye shares his journey on how he merged activism and filmmaking, and tells us about the directors who have inspired him thus far.
1. You started out as a Chemistry major. Why did you decide to venture into film?
When you have a talent, you have to explore it. Even when I was studying Chemistry, I was involved in a lot of creative projects. And my twin sister was in Theatre Arts and I would go and watch whatever they were doing. So I started doing stage performance while still studying Chemistry. That inspired me and I knew at some point that I never wanted to be on camera; I wanted to be behind it because there are a lot of things that I could observe. Chemistry was not what I wanted, it was something that I was supposedly gifted in, that’s why I opted for it, but after a while I knew that it was not my calling.
I wanted to tell more conscious stories that provoke us and make us think as opposed to just commercial stories.
2. You worked on other films before making Music is Our Weapon, which is your first documentary. What inspired this shift?
I’ve shot five feature films, and some films for M-Net, and I’ve done commercials as well. But I’m an activist, and over the years my consciousness developed and I started to research exactly what was going on around me. That consciousness started growing based on a couple of books that I read, which then propelled me to taking a stand. My observation then became an obligation. That shift to documentaries came when my activism became more pronounced; I wanted to tell more conscious stories that provoke us and make us think as opposed to just commercial stories.
3. Let’s talk about Music is Our Weapon and what this story means to you.
Someone asked my once: where do you get your stories? And my quick response was, I don’t seek my stories, my stories seek me. Which means that I don’t know which story I am going to tell the next day but as long I find a human story that touches me, I am obliged to look into it. Is it inspiring, informative and entertaining? A good film must have all these elements in it. That is why I advocate for documentaries a lot because a documentary is a cause in itself; when you watch a documentary you feel like you have been empowered by so much information. And for me, Music is Our Weapon was that journey. While I was making the film I was also learning, as much as I was the author.
I’ve been involved in issues for the youth such as advocating for youth policies and championing for young people in political spaces. That automatically drives me towards youth stories especially the ones that are victorious because we need stories to uplift our young people.
Sarabi’s story is one of those that really got to me. And I’m sure it touched a lot of people as well. Regardless of which identity or passport I own, it’s very important to me to tell a Pan-African story, it’s a global story, a human story.
4. Nigerian musician Fela Kuti was known for his activism through music, coining phrases such as “music is the weapon.” To what extent did he influence your work on this project?
Fela was not only a musician, he was a revolutionary. He invented Afrobeat and advocated for ordinary people, which is very touching considering the amount of money he made. He didn’t have to but Fela was a man who simply advocated for poor people, and each time he got arrested, he used his music to talk about certain issues. I was watching one of his documentaries where he said: “Music can never be for entertainment, music is a weapon for change.”
And when I met Sarabi, that was their story. This is a Kenyan band that never wanted to be famous; their music doesn’t speak about trends (like other artists on the continent) but about issues in their own community.
5. What are some of the challenges you faced while making this documentary?
Most of the time, filmmakers are not well-to-do, and a lot of them seek grants online. Sometimes, even with all the effort that you put in your application, you never get lucky. This happens to many African storytellers with very passionate stories. Furthermore, one of the requirements for getting your application approved is that you have to work with someone from the grant’s country. You might have a completely different vision from this person so you are confined in your storytelling already because you have to start tweaking your story to fit into this other person’s perspective.
For me, I don’t care where the money is coming from but I need to tell my story the way I want it. I had to empty my accounts completely, even borrow money from some crew members to make this film. I knew the consequences but I still did it anyway because I wanted to inspire young people and I fulfilled it.
It would pain me so much if someone from the West told Sarabi’s story. These are the challenges that you face but if you see the challenge as opposed to the cause, if the challenge is what you see first, then you would never get anywhere in your life.
6. What about after the film came out?
Getting the theatres in Kenya to screen the film was quite a challenge. I had a verbal agreement with them stating that Music is Our Weapon was going to be screened for seven days. When the first sold only seven tickets, they called me to tell me that people were not going to watch the film and they even wanted to pull it out.
But on the day of the screening, two cinemas were full because Sarabi had followers who wanted to see their journey, and this is the first documentary made about any East African musician. The American Ambassador was there, the Norwegian, the Swedish and the Turkish, over 15 ambassadors were present. A lot of people came out.
7. Social justice, which is covered in detail in Music is Our Weapon, is still a struggle in Kenya, and in Africa at large. From an activists’ perspective, what more can we do as a society?
Social justice is a constant negotiation in Africa, but how do we use the tools at our disposal to bring change? My tool is media and film, someone else might have another tool. The narrative in social justice is not just talking. You have to talk the walk and walk the talk. My film provokes people to talk about certain issues but I also talk about them as Taye.
Social justice has to be social first before it becomes justice – it doesn’t even have to be materialistic, just creating networks and opportunities for people.
8. Some say that documentaries highlight the problem without actually giving the solution. What are your sentiments on that?
Yes, it’s a challenge but I think people who criticise are not helping. Understanding that there is a problem already empowers you to look for a solution, but not understanding that there is a problem is a problem in itself and a danger to the community. Documentary filmmakers create awareness of the problem to provoke something in us. If they are not creating the solution, they are making you want to create the solution. Each one of us has a role to play.
9. Which filmmakers inspire your work?
I’d say Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese, and I’ll tell you why. Tarantino is very raw, he’s a realistic director and he pays attention to his dialogue as well, that’s why in most Tarantino films, there’s always a popular phrase that comes out of it. His style may be gritty but underneath most of his work, he’s also addressing a social issue which is a very smart way of addressing the community. I have a feature film in the making as well and it addresses societal issues and those are the things that I really admire in Tarantino. (Tarantino’s Jackie Brown is now available for streaming on Showmax.)
Cameron is a meticulous; he pays attention to details in the way his stories play out. He’s the type of director that gives you the entire experience such that when you watch his movies, you will cry, laugh and get angry all in one movie. He takes you through an emotional journey and those are the things that I try to do with my films as well. I hope Music is Our Weapon will be able to do that for everyone who watches it. I like to give my audience light moments, inspire them and also get them angry from certain issues that they have probably ignored.
Scorsese is a bit of both of them but he has a cinematic vision for telling his stories, he pays respect to his Italian roots by introducing a cultural perspective in almost all his films. And that is what I tend to do as well; I am an African so I have to tell the African story. (Boardwalk Empire S1 -5, with the pilot directed by Scorsese, is available for streaming on Showmax.)
10. What are you working on next?
I’m working on a documentary in Uganda called The Mothers of Mulago. At Mulago Hospital in Kampala, an average of 76 babies are delivered every day, without the resources to cater to the mothers or their babies. I visited the facility last year and I could see women sitting on the floor in the corridors because there weren’t enough beds, with babies who were born a matter of minutes ago. When I visited the incubator section, just a few incubators were working. I’ve been told there was a time that babies died in the incubators because of power blackouts. So it’s an investigative film on the mothers of Mulago, and how they and their babies survive these conditions.
11. Many Kenyans were not able to watch Music is Our Weapon when it first came out but now it’s available for streaming on Showmax. What are your thoughts on internet streaming platforms like Showmax and the opportunities they offer to film fans across Africa?
The danger of not evolving as humans is that you become the living dead. A long time ago, the culture was to go to the cinema and watch films but now technology has changed the way we watch films. With platforms like Showmax, people can now watch whatever they choose in the leisure of their own homes, offices, airports and anywhere else. That’s the luxury you get, and how cool is that they are bringing the film to where you are? The challenge now is internet access. If we can stream these films, are we getting the best quality with our internet speeds?
Ed’s note: The good news is, with bandwidth capping, you can adapt Showmax to your internet speeds and still enjoy unlimited streaming of your favourite TV series and movies. Find out how to control your data usage with Showmax here.
Don’t have Showmax yet?