Voices

The gift and the curse of black exellence

2020-02-12 02:08

Black success often comes against many odds. Why tear each other down in a system designed to fail us?

Sean “Diddy” Combs was probably still trying to figure out where to create space in his trophy cabinet for the latest addition to his collection of gongs – the Grammy Icon Award – when Mason Durell “Ma$e” Betha poured cold water on the celebrations through a scathing Instagram post that woke Twitter thought leaders out of their slumber.

Ma$e, a Harlem homeboy of then Puff Daddy, was signed at age 19 to Diddy’s Bad Boy Records label in the late 1990s.

He enjoyed multiplatinum success under Diddy before retiring abruptly to become a pastor and then returning to music half a decade later.

A few days after Diddy’s night of glory at the recent Grammy Awards ceremony, Ma$e, in an open letter-style Instagram post, took his former boss to task over “past business practices” that border on artist exploitation.

He spoke of Diddy’s refusal to sell him his publishing rights back for $2 million, which were acquired for a mere $24 000 some 24 years ago, and slammed him for opting to rather sell the rights to “some European guy” if Ma$e couldn’t match the offer – a move that Ma$e feels denies him the opportunity to feed his family.

Perhaps the jab that landed the hardest was Ma$e’s shunning of Diddy’s black excellence stance, declaring that Diddy can’t be excellent “when your own race is enslaving us [artists]” and that “it can’t be about owning if we own each other” in the slave-master style.

After reading his post about five times I couldn’t help but spare a thought for Patrice Motsepe, Connie and Shona Ferguson, Sbusiso “DJ Sbu” Leope and many other unsung black success stories that have donned the gift and the curse of black excellence.

Becoming a successful black businessperson is a mean feat in any part of the world.

It’s an affirmation that one has broken down barriers that stand between them and a life that their forefathers never had.

It’s a realisation of dreams in real life. It makes you a figure of admiration in a poverty-stricken society that’s scrambling for that one opportunity to escape poverty like you have.

You are lauded and praised.

You suddenly become that beam of hope that can help others like yourself summit the steep mountain of success.

You become a living example of “the rose that grew from concrete”.

You almost have cult status and command the respect of your elders, peers and youngsters alike.

Everyone wants to be just like you. You’re an icon.

On the other hand, you also get to relate quickly to the saying that “from those to whom much is given much will be required”.

Every decision you make becomes a duel in your conscience between making a profit and uplifting your people.

You will be remembered not for your business ingenuity but for the number of brothers’ and sisters’ lives you changed for the better.

You become a target, and an easy one at that.

A few months ago, actress Vatiswa Ndara criticised the mistreatment of actors by way of below-par salaries, gruelling schedules and severe working conditions, directly implicating Ferguson Films which is owned by the Fergusons.

Connie and her husband Shona Ferguson
Connie and her husband Shona Ferguson. Picture: Gallo Images/Sunday World/Mabuti Kali

The outburst was justified and much needed by the industry to put a spotlight on the plight of thousands of creative workers who toil in these conditions on a daily basis.

I was, however, baffled.

Ndara has been part of many TV productions that were produced by white companies, including Home Affairs, which was created by Roberta Durrant, as well as 90 Plein Street which was produced by Born Free Media, a production company founded by film producer Carolyn Carew.

Why then did she single out a black-owned franchise if the issue is bigger than the Fergusons and is an industry-wide ill?

Her references could have been easily drawn from her experiences at Home Affairs or 90 Plein Street if the exploitation is standard industry practice and not just the unsavoury acts of the Fergusons.

Could it be that it’s easier to bash our own than others?

The expectations that stem from one’s excellence and success as a black person can be overbearing.

DJ Sbu committed the most unthinkable noble act as a music executive when he handed over the late ProKid’s masters to his family – for free.

Instead of a big pat on his back for being that good Samaritan who waivered his investments made on the “number one Soweto boy” at TS Records, his timing was questioned and he was accused of seeking clout from ProKid’s death.

The issue of intellectual property and master copy ownership is a contentious one in the music industry as more and more artists become resistant to signing their creativity away in 360 deals with record labels.

This move should have been lauded and allowed to set a precedent in the fight against artists dying poor with nothing to show for their creative work and the loved ones they leave behind.

I’m also reminded of a fuelled interview on New York radio station Hot 97 several years ago with The Lox, another disgruntled collective that was signed to Bad Boy Records.

The station called Diddy live on air to address the crew regarding their publishing rights and demands for a meeting with him.

It was a bitter exchange of words that ended with Diddy dropping the call during the interview after questioning why the group had to call him via a radio station platform when they knew the company’s physical address.

There was also that teary moment when the ailing Tebogo “Zombo” Ndlovu called out Arthur Mafokate on live TV for not promoting his album.

I often wonder why this rage is never directed to white executives who made millions from the Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabindes of this world and to this day hold on tightly to the artists’ publishing rights.

I’m yet to come across similar interviews where white record company executives from the likes of Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group are routinely called and put on live TV or radio to account for said exploitation of black artists.

It seems easier and doable when the alleged offender is black.

The expectations that stem from one’s excellence and success as a black person can be overbearing.

The fact that the Motsepe-led Tyme Bank has an executive committee that has no representation from black people of African descent alarmed many in one of my opinionated WhatsApp groups.

Most of us in the discussion had expected Motsepe to hire black professionals and felt that he undermined our potential and expertise in leading successful enterprises.

Perhaps as black people we expect so much from each other that we find it natural to bash one another when we feel that we have been let down.

If we are to advance as a people, especially with our history of marginalisation, it is imperative that we embrace the gifts that come with excelling as a unit.

We need to be cautious of how we address our shortcomings with the intention of not demoralising each other.

We need to lose our sense of entitlement on other people’s success.

Let’s stop treating each other as cheap targets when we feel disgruntled.

We should rather focus on avoiding fighting among ourselves as a team and instead focus on outsmarting the inventors of the game.

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  • Mokabane is a marketing professional by day and a layperson in general. This is one of his layperson’s views

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April 5 2020