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Mesmerising Ndlovu Youth Choir was never going to win America’s Got Talent. Here’s why

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Vusi Ndaba is an IT professional who has an interest in social issues. Among his areas of interest are the digital divide and the inequality of access to technology.

The success of the Ndlovu Youth Choir and revelations about Justin Trudeau’s predilection for blackface give us cause to reflect on a dark history of entertainment and how far we still have to go.

It’s been a difficult few weeks for South Africa on many fronts, the lowlights being continuing violence against women and children and the shame of renewed attacks on fellow Africans. In this environment of negativity, the success of the Ndlovu Youth Choir was a shining light in media coverage.

And, indeed, the choir members deserve all the praise and congratulations heaped on them for reaching the finals of the highly competitive America’s Got Talent TV show. On the face of it, and according to much, if not all, of the coverage, the choir represented Africa well and we should be proud of them.

I had never heard of the Ndlovu Youth Choir until their recent success. I’m also not a fan of talent search programmes like America’s Got Talent, Idols and The Voice.

Among the reasons for my lack of interest is that these shows often sacrifice the search for true talent in favour of cheap theatrics and attention-grabbing. Add to that the caricaturing of judges’ personalities and the contestants’ backstories, and the result is a very manufactured, Hollywood-style reality show that ultimately is more about clashes between stereotypes than the search for talent. It is exactly this promotion of caricatures and stereotypes that brought on my unease when I first heard of the choir’s success at the initial stages of this year’s competition.

By the time the choir had reached the final, the momentum of the story, the reporting and the social media hype around it meant I could no longer take only a passing interest. I had to see for myself what the sensation was about and, of course, I had to confirm whether my misgivings were justified.

What I found was a very talented and highly organised group of youngsters fearlessly giving it their all on an international stage. Mesmerising, professional, uncowering, these youths deserved every gesture of praise directed at them. But I also discovered that my fears were, indeed, valid.

Ndlovu Youth Choir Bring African Dreams to America” is the title of the audition video. “Is this your first time in America? What does this mean to you?” the judge prompts the youngster. “For me, this is a dream come true!” he responds to rapturous applause.

Our dream is to let people around the world know that just because you’re born into poverty it doesn’t mean that you are poverty,” pontificates the conductor, who whether through design or historic accident embodies the white messiah trope.

My African Dream”, “Waka Waka (It’s time for Africa)” and Toto’s “Africa” all served to lean heavily on the stereotype of the poor African children, a stereotype that has its genesis in the aid campaigns of the 1980s but whose legacy remains today in many Western countries where images of Africans are almost always in the context of poverty and the need for charity. Even when they sang Coldplay’s “A Beautiful Day” the improvised lyric “see Africa in front of you” was smuggled in.

And so, through no fault of their own, the children came to be not a ground-breaking movement, but a typical pandering to the appetites of American audiences for exotic acts and tired tropes and generalisations of Africa and Africans, reminding us of a sordid and painful history of black entertainment.

The choir joins an illustrious cast of performers whose love for their craft is poisoned by the imbalances, inequalities and racial prejudices of the paying audience. Josephine Baker, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and many, many more had to sing and dance for their dinners, as most entertainers do, but unlike many entertainers they were also forced to caricature their “race”, often in the most demeaning ways such as a having to wear or eat bananas on stage or wear blackface in case their faces weren’t black enough.

Enter stage: Justin Trudeau, Canadian Prime Minister, in blackface to remind us that this is not the ancient history of a bygone era but a current phenomenon – and that it is not limited to a few dyed-in-the-wool racists in obscure physical and virtual locations but can reach the head of a relatively progressive country whose privileges have not served to instil a sense of abomination with regard to extreme racialisation. At least on three occasions in his past, the G7 leader has been the composer, director and principal performer in his own minstrel shows.

We’re only beginning to deal with the dark history of Africans being forced to entertain European and North American audiences in ways that strip them of their dignity, not only as entertainers but as people. Our common psyche is still processing the horrific treatment of Africans as circus animals, as embodied in history by Saartjie Baartman, who suffered a life of sexual abuse on an industrial scale, all in the name of entertainment.

The choir made it all the way to the final but did not win. It could not win. There is no manufactured story compelling enough to square the circle of a show called America’s Got Talent being won by an African choir. All the Ndlovu Youth Choir did was make the American audience feel good about itself, as they would while donating to some obscure African charity, without the need to reflect on the role they as individuals and communities play in sustaining those inequalities.

In her poem “I know why the caged bird sings”, published in 1983, Maya Angelou compares the sweet song of the free bird with the “fearful shrill” of the caged bird, reminding us that the burdens of captivity cannot be escaped by the well-intentioned entertainer.

Perhaps even more forcefully, Aimé Césaire writes: “Beware, my body and my soul, beware above all of crossing your arms and assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of griefs is not a proscenium, and a man who wails is not a dancing bear.”

For the choir, they are caged by the stereotypes they must conform to and by an indifferent audience. True freedom will be attained when they can perform any song about any subject, as a white youngster from any American city would be able to, with the comfort of knowing that they will be judged solely on their immense talent.

Postscript: Members of the British royal family are in town and already youngsters are being forced to put on their widest grins to accompany their traditional costumes as they sing and dance to entertain the visitors to the colony. DM

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