As I returned to U.S. from South Africa interviewing disabled artists from visual to music to dance, questions as I had ten years ago about disabled musicians mainly from Africa still remain and that question is, is The World music market accessible & supportive to musicians with physical disabilities?
I must talk about Staff Benda Bilili aka Staff and Liyana/Prudence Mabhena – both groups are from Africa, Staff is from the Congo and Lyaina is from Zimbabwe. I can only talk about what I know and make some assumptions that all came out of many of my interviews, my relationship with them and the popular media that surrounded them during their rise. I started interviewing both groups almost the same time through the internet from early 2000’s.
The rise and struggles of some disabled African musicians internationally like Staff Benda Bilili to Prudence Mabhena from the group Lyaina should spark many questions like:
First, the rise and continuous struggles in the world music market as musicians with physical disabilities so what does that mean to people with disabilities and upcoming musicians with disabilities and the international disability community?
Secondly, for the entertainment industry what has been their role in the rise and struggles of the two groups and will they, the music industry, learn from it?
Lastly, but the most important question for Krip-Hop Nation and activists circles is how can we learn from these artists’ stories, rise and continued struggles in the world music market as musicians with disabilities so we can pass it on to the general public and the entertainment industry. By passing these stories and conversations on can we all work together to erase the barriers in the entertainment industry and create some kind of support systems in the community?
I was honored to connect not only on the Internet but also in person with Prudence/Liyana of Zimbabwe and Staff Benda Bilili of the Congo before they both exploded on the international markets through film documentaries and of course, their music. Both groups don’t do Hip-Hop but their stories are interesting to view the international music/entertainment market through a disability and poverty lens. There are some rumors that both groups at this time have broken up after major successes and they were all musicians with physical disabilities many of which are wheelchair users or walk on crutches except one member from Staff who didn’t have any type of physical disability and a member from Liyana who was Deaf. Another different factor in both groups was their age.
Liyana/Prudence was a much younger group at that time, mid/late 2000’s, who all of them attended the same school compared to much older adults in their late forties and fifties who met and sang and lived in the streets around the grounds of the zoo in the country’s capital city, Kinshasa, where the members of Staff Benda Bilili met and did their music. The public knows their history about now but what is so important to Krip-Hop Nation once again is how they rose to popular status in world music and where they are today. It is not surprising that both groups didn’t know each other’s stories when they started their climb to success. Before they were “discovered” by filmmakers from different countries, both groups were doing their music in their countries but like musicians with physical disabilities in the underground in the US, Staff & Liyana/Prudence faced discriminatory attitudes from their communities and musical arenas.
In 2009 after two years of Internet conversations I had the opportunity to meet and interview the members of Liyana in San Francisco when they were on their US tour. They told me their experiences on Africa Idol that is a part of the American Idol franchise . In summary this is what Prudence told me about that experience:
“Right before we were about to go on we had to wait for a very long time. This lady (but I don’t think that lady wasn’t a judge just to cover up) called each artists and they said no to all of the members but when they came to me they said I qualified you are qualify but Prudence you have a voice and you are qualified but its not fair for other people dance and perform while you just sit there in your wheelchair I think in your situation… She told us and me that it would be better if you just make your own album… So we just left.”
In that same year I had another wonderful opportunity to interview the members of Staff Benda Bilili in Copenhagen Denmark with my sister Pamela Juhl who lives there & who is a photographer & a journalist herself and they told me about their experiences on the streets when they were trying to sing with other music groups:
We were rejected from non-disabled music groups from our community back home. Nobody wanted to play with us so because of our disabilities so we all got together to make it as musicians with disabilities.
I did ask Staff Benda Bilili what will happen after the tour and the documentary and they told me:
“To go back living at the new center that will be built”
As we know both groups didn’t let these public attitudes stop them, however, its not individuals but institutions that have/had given both groups roadblocks that were publicized in media which led to rumors of both groups breaking up. We can only speculate what happened and piece together media coverage to come to some solution to feed our soul but only the parties involved have the real true story. Today I’m not in contact with Staff Benda Bilili but Prudence and I have stayed in contact and she told me that she still lives in Africa and is working on her Gospel album with very little support but she found a producer. In an article on April 17th 2013 by Admire Kudita, Prudence said,
“There were promises before the Oscars but you know the love of money, well I was promised some cash which I never got.”
Today Prudence continues to support Krip-Hop Nation and has told me:
Because of Krip-Hop Nation, the ones without disabilities will stop judging us with disabilities and go deeper from the inside. I met Leroy Moore in California in 2009 and I was moved by the work that he did and hope that Krip-Hop Nation keeps on teaching the world that we are here and together we can change the world and make it a better place.
When I interviewed Staff Benda Bilili in 2009 before the documentary was out and even years before on the Internet, I was worried because I was mainly talking to the filmmakers. I think it was probably because of the language barrier and a lack of Internet, they were living on the streets compared to Liyana/Prudence who I sometimes had the opportunity to talk to on the Internet and when I met them in person. I could tell the difference in the relationships I had between both groups and now looking back on it- Liyana/Prudence understood my political themes of the interview questions a lot more than Staff at that time and made a deeper connection.
When I interviewed Staff Benda Bilili I walked away worrying about their future because it seemed to me that their manager was talking for them compared to when I interviewed Liyana and how they were the ones talking and even asking me questions. So I was sad but not surprised when I read online that two members of Staff left the band and the cancellation of shows. I won’t continue to speculate but as we look back on these two groups and the industry that brought them to our television and radio the one thing that Krip-Hop Nation wants to make clear is we need to continue to support them in our own small way knowing that the thinking of a “savior” from the outside can take a person/s so far until he/she/they will be back in our community needing our love and support. For the respect of both groups and the friendship I share with them, it is up to them to share their full stories.
Very few musicians with disabilities and yes, Hip-Hop artists with disabilities around the world get the opportunity like Staff Benda Bilili and Liyana/Prudence but their everyday grind is important and made Krip-Hop Nation success outside the US. There are only a few physically disabled music groups in Africa that have long careers like the famous blind husband and wife doual, Amadou & Mariam. Many reports of both Staff Benda Bilili & Prudence stated the cost of traveling for physically disabled musicians, the inaccessibility of venues etc. And the old excuse was printed in newspaper article when the two group were touring and that was, “Is there a market for these artists?”
On December 29th/2016 I came back from a three week tour in South Africa interviewing all types of artists with disabilities and the main question was what are the barriers to the mainstream. From South African disabled and Deaf dancers, actors, painters to musicians all had many answers but the one that was a common thread was a lack of support and negative attitudes toward their disability from the mainstream artistic industry. We, the international community, got to ask ourseleves, in 2017, is the World Music industry accessible & supportive to musicians with physical disabilities? And if not why, when and how can everybody help the World Music industry become more accessible physically and attitudinally?
Pic: Prudence Mabhena singing at a microphone
Author note: 2017 still looking for a publisher for the Krip-Hop Nation book.