Sauti Sol’s Mwanzo (2009) (Beginning) is aptly named, not just because it was their first album, but also because it has songs that describe hope’s starting point: the absence for what is hoped for. Take Mafunzo ya Dunia, for instance. This song is a lament directed against the struggles that poverty causes, the sufferings of the indigent, an intense privation of comfort and consolation, and what seems to be a degrading dependence on the kindness of others. Wera takes this theme towards a final conclusion: the incapacity to earn is the incapacity to escape suffering. Unemployment is unfreedom and unhappiness; the capacity to engage in gainful work is a pathway out of one’s misery.
Songs in their later albums make claims about what we should hope for.
In Sol Filosofia (2011), Mbinguni voices the primal yearning for an inarticulate happiness, for the antithesis of the sufferings and struggles that plague our lives, a state about which we know little other than that we do not yet possess it, that we can only describe vaguely as “shwari”, or “peaceful”.
Four years later, in Live and Die in Afrika (2015), the song that bears the album’s name speaks of definite aspirations: money, fame, to be free without forsaking one’s traditions, and to leave a mark in one’s home. Dollar Dollar seems partially to contradict this, describing money and fame as objects in which we drown the loneliness of being unaccepted and unloved. The song’s persona chases after money and comforts to numb the pain of being orphaned and unwanted, “persona non grata”.
However, other songs provide a path to reconciling this conflict. Rewind in Afrikan Sauce (2019)is one example. Here, Sauti Sol and Nyashinski say that this conflict does not exist, and quite graphically: “I can even walk naked, mi’ sijali, kwani? / What’s there to prove ka’ unajua mfuko iko hali gani?” (I can even walk naked and I don’t care / What’s there to prove if you know how much money is in my pocket?) Success, measured in terms of wealth, is sufficient proof of one’s worth. The successful person is worthy of praise, admiration, and approval because of his success; the opinion of anyone who thinks otherwise is inconsequential.
Considering this, one wonders whether Kuliko Jana anticipated this theme in Rewind four years earlier. In this song, Sauti Sol asks God to grant their enemies long lives so that they may see the blessings he bestows on them. Are these “blessings” money and fame? Is success a proof of one’s worth because it comes from an incontrovertible God, an almighty God capable of removing all barriers to perfection, including the barriers that others erect?
When taken together with Midnight Train, Brighter Days in Sauti Sol’s latest album Midnight Train (2020) leads to one answer to this question: Yes. In Midnight Train, the band contemplates their progress and successes over the past years and likens future success to “Zion”, “the promised land”. This future is what they pray for in Brighter Days, and the certainty that God loves them moves them to believe wholeheartedly that that future will arrive. They will succeed because God loves them; in other words, success is a proof of God’s love, of one’s worth, so to speak, in God’s eyes.
Success: the basis of our worth?
If Sauti Sol’s music does indeed reflect the hearts of Kenyan youths, then it is little wonder that so many of them are experiencing deep and painful interior crises. If success is truly the measure of our worth, if we deserve to be loved only to the extent that we have achieved grand accomplishments, made piles of money, and become media and Internet sensations, then without these things, we have no worth and do not deserve to be loved. The more we internalize this view of success, the deeper this conviction about our worth sinks in and becomes habitual. Someone in this situation finds it natural to associate his failures with a certainty that he is worthless and can have no worth in the eyes of others. For this reason, this perspective on success goes hand in hand with the anxiety, pleasure-seeking, conflict, and individualistic self-sufficiency that characterizes the condition of many young people.
People want few things more than they want to be loved. If they believe that they merit love only on the basis of their success, then we can only expect that they would be highly intolerant to setbacks. But since life is full of risks and setbacks lurk behind every corner, then this belief brings with it a constant fear and anxiety. Prolonged periods of sustained anxiety can create enormous psychological tension which, sooner or later, culminates in the depressions that a rising number of Kenyan youths are experiencing.
Anxiety is not enjoyable. Moreover, it’s yet another obstacle between us and success, to which, as to all the other obstacles, many are intolerant. Periods of stress and anxiety can make us yearn for escape routes from the emotion of anxiety and the thoughts and situations that provoke it, ranging from healthy activities like exercise, sports, and spending time with others, to spending excess time listening to music, watching movies, series, or YouTube videos, and scrolling through Twitter and Instagram feeds – assuming that we don’t turn to the self-absorption of alcohol, bhang, hook-ups, pornography, or masturbation. Viewing success as a prime aim can lead young men and women to have recourse to some of these forms of avoiding the responsibility that the world imposes on us through the setbacks it forces us to face. The more selfish the escape routes we choose, the more we flee from responsibility, the less capable we are of confronting the setbacks and sacrifices that all committed relationships – romantic ones as well as platonic friendships and familial bonds – demand, and the weaker the connections we can and do form with other people.
Individualism, isolation, and the absence of meaningful and satisfying relationships: these are yet more consequences of this perspective of success. In a world where success is everything, there is no time to stop and just be with people. Others are either means to escape (as we have seen), means to success, or obstacles on our path. In this last case, everyone is a competitor. Environments animated by this ethos are like battle arenas; the workplace is not an alliance of colleagues, but a gladiators’ duelling ground in which the combatants fight using the weapons of deception, slander, sabotage, and subterfuge. And in all three scenarios, the result is a society that lacks trust, a society in which no one feels safe with anyone else. No one cares about the needs of his neighbour.
Paradoxically, all this coexists with a profound dependence on the approval of others to feel like we have an identity. Success is desired because it makes us lovable in our own eyes and the eyes of others. Anything that threatens to make us lose others’ love and esteem is to be shunned. And if society typically loves and esteems the successful person, the self-made, self-sufficient individual, and the “beautiful” woman, anyone who lacks these attributes to any degree feels compelled to conceal his weaknesses, to conceal himself from the view of others. This hinders any kind of closeness between persons because they do not want to let the other see them as they are, to see their naked, unvarnished selves. No one can let themselves be seen as they are behind the masks of their makeup and confidence and empty laughter and smiles.
The absurdity of suffering, life, and God
The meaning of our lives depends on what we place our hope in.
If, as Sauti Sol’s music implies, we place our hope in the achievement of success – of wealth, fame, and comfort – then failure and suffering are not just intolerable. They are meaningless. In our lives, anything that does not serve as a path towards success has no meaning, no purpose, no reason to exist. For someone who places his hope in success, this can be said of all the sufferings he encounters in his life. Thus, suffering becomes incomprehensible, even as it is an inescapable feature of his existence.
However, if suffering, which is obviously evil, has no purpose, then there are two possibilities: either God desires that we experience evil (in which case, He is not all-loving), or He cannot accomplish the desires of His infinite benevolence (in which case, He is not all-powerful).
If God is all-powerful but not all-loving, if God desires evil for us, then our lives can be plagued by a constant fear of His wrath. Prayer can become a frantic attempt to placate an ever-irate God whom we cannot relate with and dare not approach, save through one whom we believe to be an intermediary, a bridge between Heaven and earth (if any such person or thing exists). By holding himself out as an intermediary, anyone can bewitch the gullible for his own personal gain – financial or otherwise – as happens with many of Kenya’s religious leaders. Religion becomes a selfish sham, an insubstantial solace that, when put to the test of intellectual questioning, breaks apart like a cloud of vapour. It is far easier to simply abandon one’s belief in God than continue living in this state of terror.
If, on the other hand, God is all-loving but not all-powerful, then, apart from the question about the source of our suffering (if it is external to us, then it is a powerful and malevolent entity that we must fear, so we live in the state described above), we can end up losing all hope, for there is no salvation from our situation. Once more, it is far easier to declare that God does not exist.
Furthermore, since the very concept of God requires that He be both all-loving and all-powerful, if suffering has no purpose, then God cannot exist. And if there is no God, if our lives are but the product of blind nature, if our lives have no purpose other than that which we assign to them, then morality is something that each person determines for himself and lacks a universal status. There is no right or wrong; there is only the possible and the impossible. One’s inner sense of right and wrong is nothing but an inner limitation of one’s field of possibility, a thing for the weak, something that the person who desires to achieve real strength must overcome. If we can achieve any and every objective that we deem desirable, then we should, even if that means cut-throat ruthlessness. If we can’t stomach the inner and outer conflict that the achievement of the goals we set for ourselves demands, then we remain frustrated beings. In the face of this frustration, it is likely that we will either go insane; try to numb our consciousness with pleasures and frantic activity and work, which will also blind us to the truly valuable things in life and further deepen our sense of meaninglessness; or commit suicide in an effort to put an end to the anguish of existing.
In what, then, should we place our hope? What hope can give meaning to our lives, our existence, and the entire universe? In the next article, I explore the answer to this question, hinted at in Sauti Sol’s Sober (Midnight Train (2020)) and Relax (Live and Die in Afrika (2015)).
Find part 2 using this link: https://theafrodiscourse.wordpress.com/2021/06/22/sauti-sol-hope-and-the-meaning-of-life-part-2/