WHY, STEADY BONGO, WHY?
By Suhood Komeh,
March 2, 2023.
The singer, Steady Bongo, alongside rightful opprobrium, deserves a bit of sympathy, after exposing himself as a merchant of genocidal tribalism, in 2023. That’s after Sierra Leone’s bloodied history of the 1990s.
His is a sad failure to grow, politically, culturally and socially. Perhaps a reflection of the country in general.
Please excuse that this is written not as a neutral but someone who reasonably knows Steady Bongo. Far from a bigot, he’s not a bad man, if that suffices. Always courteous and cordial.
There’s the simple tendency not to be charitable in matters of national cohesion and tribalism. But Steady Bongo’s unraveling reveals a painful lack of awareness that deserves some sympathy.
Is Steady Bongo now saying he has no friends or acquaintances outside the Mende? Does he socialise only in Mende circles? Is his art created and produced for Mende consumption only? How reductive would that be to art, himself, and above all, the Mende people.
In some ways, like most people, he’s a victim of Sierra Leone’s debased politics where the not-so-clever brag their way to the top; where talentless sycophants are rewarded at the exclusion of the brightest; where lethargic politicians use tribalism as fundamental in their appeal. The president himself, Maada Bio, spoke in Mende, in a direct address to Mendes from his State House office. So there’s a cue and poor precedence from the highest office in the land, that it’s ok to be tribal. Leadership matters, always.
The truth is, a good majority’s political expressions are devoid of sincerity but tribal partisanship - some for the rewards, and others for pride. Steady Bongo’s been lured by what he saw as easy prosperity in being overtly tribalistic, forgetting his cultural standing - something most of the people he envied in political tribalism do not have. Now he’s problematised his importance as a commentator on national discourse. In exchange, shrinking himself to a most petite sectarian figurine. Sincerest sympathies.
All of that hard work, performing in venues without toilets or changing rooms, for over thirty years, down the sink. When everything and everyone stopped in the 1990s, he was touring the country. He refused to be stilled by war and destruction. Choosing to deliver hope to our people - Termnes, Mendes , Konos, and so on - that things would be better.
Steady Bongo really is a case in point of why the phrase exists, ‘ought to know better’.
He traversed every culture and landscape without ever been treated as Mende, but a celebrated singer/ songwriter of catchy tunes to ease people’s pain. Now, out of stupid jealousy to remain current in the winter of his career, he chooses to be the caricature ‘Mende-man’, preaching Mende unification against a Mende enemy he dared not name. Talking of how not to destroy your legacy, this is it. Why, Steady Bongo, why?
At the last election in 2018, Steady Bongo supported the NGC bandwagon where people talked progressive but voted tribalism. No one knows how he or others ended up voting but the public declaration for NGC is proof, he has it in him to pursue options in a rational fashion.
Back then, for using his considerable profile in support of the NGC, he undeservedly provoked disgust and belligerence from tribalistic Mende operatives. Some almost called for his defenestration from the tribe. As if Mende is a secret society one joins, where everyone believed in the same backward rituals without challenge.
It’s viscerally disappointing to see thuggery succeeded in lulling him to the tribal pivot of the last five years. It seems, the enduring efficacy of Sierra Leonean ‘hard-up’ as a tool of coercion, got the tribal shysters their man. They had him by the balls, as someone nimbly said of a populace with limited powers.
February 2023, Steady Bongo has washed himself of any traces of courage. The sort that led him to declare for the NGC. A repackaged persona is introduced without a sinew of belief in progress. It appears, appeal of dangerous tribal dominance is complete in him. And without a modicum of consideration that these things never bore the tribal utopia of your preference or interest.
The fact is, no human society, however violent, is ever a cultural monolith forever. Mendes will never cease lusting Temne, Fula, Kono, etc, because they have their own territory. The same applies to tribalists in other groups too. For that same reason, there are Temnes in Bo, as there are Mendes in Freetown. There are Mende in Makeni, as there are Fulas in Kenema. That Steady Bongo succumbed to thoughtless tribalism is less of his shortcomings than exposes a bigger problem - political failure to unite the country.
There is a dangerous minority of shortsighted people now, given a referendum they will vote for two countries: one Temne and one Mende, giving themselves the freedom of erasing everybody else.
Even more devastatingly sorrowful, Steady Bongo misread his own culture, thinking every Mende is for Mende; every Mende is irrationally fearful of others to the point of destroying their country; every Mende is uncritically a worshipper of Bio and his wife and Leema. But then how sure is Steady Bongo, that he is in fact Mende to want to destroy the country over it?
Bio himself, is an integrated convert to the dominant Mende culture of his region, after his tribe was consumed. And that is not just according to his account, but scientifically consistent with cultural identity. Most small tribes always become extinct over a period of time, adjacent to a bigger culture.
Steady Bongo knows he’s wrong. He’s experienced enough to not believe any of the crap he said in that video. Exactly why he wore a pair cheap sunglasses, to mask his embarrassment at spewing tribalism. His calculus is simple but and old one: personal benefit. If the tribal leader wins, he wants to be considered for the next Discorama in Dubai, badly-cladded in green, white & blue costumes.
Foolishly, he spoke in Mende because he thought he’s speaking for Mendes. Unfortunately, for that lack of imagination, uniquely absent in most artists bar a few, serious Mende people translated for others what he thought cryptic tribalism. What a simple fool.
The rapper, LAJ, is being martyred by political injustice while Steady Bongo wants to be a Mende. He is way more than that. Way more important to be tied to bigotry. How could he not know?
Now he’s been called out, rightly, for being an artist without cerebral depth.
While he’s depressed in the Mende bunker he built for himself, maybe, just maybe, isolation might give him a chance at recalibration of what an artist’s role really is in society.
Culture is imagination for the better. Culture is far more serious than a string of raffia around the hips or chalk make-up. Artists produce progressive culture, and critique bad culture. They represent society’s as yet realised possibilities.
The brother needs help - truly - to avoid the temptations of the personal. He must be encouraged to relearn and stick with the concept of country above the tribe. Speaking for all of the people is where artistic immortality is bestowed. Steady Bongo has mistaken. He should be held accountable, yes. But we mustn’t forget, he’s human. At his best, he represented the best of us.