Saturday, July 30, 2016

Is WhatsApp Killing African Talent?

Africa, probably more than any area of the world, has been swept up in the Whatsapp revolution.

WhatsApp is a social media app that permits the user to easily transfer high quality video, audio and pictures files instantaneously between smartphones around the world. It doesn't matter which corner of the world users reside in, as long as they have respectable access to the Internet, WhatsApp allows them to share huge files.

With the proliferation of mobile web access in many African countries, the use of WhatsApp and other mobile social media platforms have taken off like a category 5 hurricane. For many Africans who can not afford the exorbitant phone fees required to talk to their relatives in Asia, Europe,  the Americas or even Australia, WhatsApp has been a real God send, as it now allows them to be in constant touch with their relatives in these far flung areas of the world.

For those of us living in America and other Western countries who come from struggling families in Africa, it means that we are now constantly and instantaneously bombarded with a barrage of family problems, from the important to the ridiculous, thanks to WhatsApp and other social media platforms, Facebook and WhatsApp being the two most popular.

Unfortunately, for struggling African musicians, comedians, or other providers of content that can be easily shared via whatsapp, the app is turning out to be a major curse rather than a blessing.
Talented Sierra Leone musicians like Emmerson, Arkman, Innocent, Steady Bongo, Amie Kallon and others now have a growing fan base for their music overseas, thanks to the sizeable number of Sierra Leoneans living in the diaspora, many of whom rely on Sierra Leone music to combat the occasional feeling of nostalgia every immigrant experiences when the make their homes far away from their country of birth. But instead of buying this music all they now do is call relatives and get them to send it free over WhatsApp. A whole Album of songs can be easily sent via WhatsApp without any reduction in the quality of the music.

In Sierra Leone, a country with lax copyright laws and a growing affinity for sharing content on social media, the latest popular work by the country's struggling artists are usually spread all over social media even before they have hit the retail market.

Take for example two extremely talented Sierra Leone based musicians Emmerson and Arkman. Just before the summer, Emmerson released a single titled "Munku Boss Pan Matches," in which he lamented the rampant government corruption in Sierra Leone, comparing the country's insanely greedy politicians to kids in a candy store. He mocked their exuberance, as they raided government coffers to satisfy their expensive lifestyle patterns, while the majority of the people in the country lived in poverty and squalor.

Emmerson's music quickly became popular in the country spreading like wildfire in the harmattan. With chronic hardship now reducing many residents of the capital to foraging in dustbins for food, while the political class live like old kings of Europe, the music resonated with the country's downtrodden.

Unfortunately for Emmerson, his music was already in the hands of almost every Sierra Leonean with a smartphone even before it even hit the stores, thanks to Whatsapp. Though he probably made some money from concerts and some limited sales, free social media distribution of his extremely popular song potentially resulted in a loss of revenue in the region of thousands of dollars.

Another Sierra Leone musician who potentially lost a lot of money due to unsanctioned distribution of his music via WhatsApp is the talented musician Arkman with his hit "Vanity."  The song which preaches against materialism and superficiality, was a popular hit back in Sierra Leone and a major play in the Sierra Leone diaspora party circuit. Arkman could have made a lot of money from this beautiful song.
Where WhatsApp has greatly facilitated communication in Africa, the fact that it currently has very little to no safeguards in place to restrict the distribution of licensed content, could have negative consequences on the development of musical talent on the African continent, unless the App's owners could enable content owners to use it as much for sales as for distribution.
The proliferation of mobile technology has the potential to seriously accelerate the pace of development in Africa, but we should be cautious that our young talented musicians do not become losers in this revolution, even as free riders benefit by no longer having to pay for music.

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