The Messenger: Fighting for democracy

Spotify Studios

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s immortal words are referenced and re-referenced in The Messenger, an eye-opening series that follows in real-time as musician Bobi Wine‘s attempts to unseat the Ugandan premier, Yoweri Museveni. What sounds like a foray into the unfamiliar badlands of African politics also turns out to be a journey into music, injustice, freedom, and democracy.

Rapper Bas is our official and accomplished navigator, but the true star of the piece is Wine himself. He’s bombastic, outspoken and, at times, seemingly suicidal. Both host and subject are lauded musicians (Wine being something of a legend in Africa). Both are motivated by the plight of those who are under or misrepresented by political elites. Bas, however, allows Wine’s ferocious energy to drive the story forward while he follows behind drawing parallels and filling out context.

That’s not to diminish Bas’ role here. The Messenger is a masterpiece in its composition. Each episode is additive, every sentence has purpose. Not easy when you don’t know the end of the story you’re telling.

And what a story it is. Though we’re denied a Hollywood-style ending, we learn of the grit (and precedent) of African artists and their awe-inspiring commitment to freedom. Our privilege may well leave us asking “why?”. Why would a man like Wine, a hugely successful recording artist, put himself in harm’s way to end the 35-year rule of an effective dictator? Why would he continue to fight on despite persecution — and an assassination attempt — by authorities? These obstacles seem to fuel Wine. They represent precisely what he seeks to upend. He tells Bas, “I got into this not just to be president, but to be free.

We’re never really told whether Wine *should* be president. Bas stops short of selling him as anything other than a preferable alternative to Museveni. We learn little — perhaps too little — of his policies. But we do come to know his passion for representing the young and those from the ghetto, where Wine himself grew up. At times it can tough to like him. His approach to homosexuality, for example, he describes as “tolerance” rather than acceptance which jars our modern sensibilities. At one stage we’re even told that he isn’t necessarily the smartest or the best candidate. Yet, what Wine represents is significant: an alternative. The importance of having a choice in a purported democracy.

Bas skillfully illustrates the role of music in resistance, reminding us that Wine follows onto the dangerous terrain where artists like Bob Marley and Nigeria’s Fela Kuti have led. And if we ever fall into thinking that this is a far-fetched story from a faraway land, he’s here to remind us of some of the anti-democratic rhetoric and action by authorities right here in the States — like Trump’s Museveni-like refusal to concede the election.

If there’s a downside to The Messenger, it is its tendency to slip into moralism. Obama’s reluctance to blame colonialism for Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, so-called “clicktivism” vs. activism (please tell us how we can graduate from the former to the latter, beyond getting educated), the errors in Kony 2012, Kim and Kanye’s general idiocy (okay, we can maybe get on board here…). It can make Bas’ unwillingness to condemn Wine’s dubious LGBTQI stance or boycott the planned MTV Africa Awards in Uganda feel a little self-serving.

Overall though, this podcast is both an education and a joy. Bas brings an unfamiliar subject and story to life in musical technicolor, and in the end we’re left with a new appreciation for the preciousness and delicacy of freedom.

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