The coming of Ritaa on the Malawi music scene, especially through her recent collaboration with Dan Lu in the Chapatali hit song, has once again ignited the debate on the dressing of our female artists. On the cover art of the song, she is dressed only in a black bra and underwear, and with an unbuttoned blue robe that has exposed all her legs and thighs. This has not gone well with some people.
Malawi Music which was given exclusive rights to release the song that has now charted as one of the most downloaded also used the said cover art. This attracted all sorts of unpleasant words from people, especially the male followers of Malawi music. Some even went on to the extent of calling her a prostitute and suggested that the picture is not proper in a God fearing nation like Malawi.
In a place like Malawi, such comments cannot be avoided. For the past years, people were used to the ‘Malawian’ kind of dressing from artists. But in the said years, males were dominating the music scene and one would not normally expect a dressing from a male artist, in 1999, for example, to raise eyebrows. The few females that were involved in secular music were shaped by the culture the males were using in their music careers. In addition, the society then was not opened to the now trending kind of artistic dressing.
Music is changing, and so should our approach be to it. Albums are rarely being released in Malawi urban music. Artists are opting for singles which are being treated like an album when one looks at the promotion of the song as well as the song having its own cover art.
Years ago, a cover art for an album was mostly the expression of the title track and, among others, represented the concept of the work. With the releasing of singles, cover arts are being used as expressions of what the song is about. There is creativeness in terms of this and that largely reflects how our music industry is growing.
I do not intend to explain the cover art for Ritaa. The aim of this article is to back her cover art, whatever expression it had. The point is that people must learn to separate the artist from the person. As an artist, one has the freedom to express herself. This can be done through body movement, the words and also picture, as she did.
The picture does not intent to send the message that she is a prostitute, as others are saying. Again, it has turned boring to explain this: Malawi is not a God fearing nation! This should sink in the minds of some people because they use this lie to control the behavior of others.
If someone wants to be God fearing, let it be personal, and not force it upon others. And more, someone choosing to express herself, more over an artist, is an action that transcends the normal world. The challenge is when using this normal world to look at an art. You can never decode the message. If you want to understand art, be ready to move out of whatever perceptions you may have..
That is what the people who misjudged Ritaa lacked: They were lazy to think of the cover art as an artistic expression and a sign that music is being used as the tool to open up our society to different expressions.
We should all thank the coming of urban music. Malawi is being exposed to the progressive world through it. There should be nothing like ‘Malawian culture’, an understanding that has always pulled us backwards as far as catching up with the rest of the world is concerned. Culture does not make people. People make culture.
What Ritaa has experienced puts off most girls who want to give [urban] music a shot. The few that have suffered such abuses and still carried on are the rare breed of girls who always have their heads up. The art industry in Malawi is generally not receptive to females. But still, some are breaking though the barrier and stretching the limits.
But it should not stop there. Female artists must also learn to hit back at critics. The general response from them has been sitting back and let the critics lead the talk on their trade. But change will happen if they start owning whatever they do, and even if one decides to come up with a naked cover art, she must own the decision, explain and defend it. You should never allow yourself to be at the mercy of people who look down upon you because they misunderstand your art. That is not your problem. It is theirs.
Again, pushing something unacceptable into being accepted requires boldness. For an artist who deals with the public through music, she has to be ready to face such words from people and respond whenever necessary to show that you own the covert art, for example, and given the chance, you can do it again.
It helps in putting off some people. Female artists should not expect the space for their maneuvering to be created by any other person. They are the people rightly placed to do that.
Lastly, there is a need for more cover arts like that from Ritaa. The continual use of such kind of expressions will help in letting it sink into people that it is normal for a female artist to use her body as an expression. When people talk against it, let it keep on coming until the limits are stretched to accommodate urban music in all its diversities.
Ritaa, I fully support your cover art. Next time, if you feel like coming up with a similar one, be assured, you have me on your side.
*Wonderful Mkhutche is a speech writer, a political scientist and a manuscript developer and editor.