THE BLACK COFFEE DEBATE
Black Coffee is the biggest DJ on the continent of Africa. DJ Fresh and Euphonic may disagree but without question his level of star status has become global. With friends and collaborations with the likes of Diddy and Drake there is no doubt as to the level of his greatness.
We are proud of Black Coffee and as South Africans we lay full claim on him, we share in his success as a nation, we all feel a part of the incredible journey of overcoming adversity to pursue one’s dreams. We identify deeply with Black Coffee. As a result, we feel like we are entitled to hold him to account for his actions. After all, where would he be without us, his day one fans.
This close connection we feel with our celebrities has led some to feel entitled to challenge Black Coffee on his choice of cities in which to perform. Black Coffee recently performed to a sold-out audience in Tel Aviv the economic capital of Israel. This decision put him in cross hairs with the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement and those who support it. The ANC and leaders of the EFF were also vocal in criticising Black Coffee for the decision.
There have been calls for us to boycott Black Coffee.
The debate has dominated Twitter and continues to grab the attention of various radio and television platforms with 702 receiving lots of calls on the topic. ANN7 had a debate on the topic with representatives from pro Israel and Pro Palestine groups. The SABC newsroom twitter account ran a poll asking the following question “Is DJ Black Coffee’s criticism justified?” 1412 people have voted thus far with 55% voting no.
Several articles have also appeared in mainstream media publications on the topic. With some in defence of Black Coffee and some critical of him. None however have done a robust analysis of the debate surrounding this trip. I will attempt to do so here.
I would like to frame the questions at the heart of this debate so that we can get to the bottom line!
- Are artists obliged to be moral, political or social actors.
- Are companies or businesses obliged to trade only in spaces which are morally compliant with the values of their home country?
- Is a call for disengagement legitimate?
I think it's important to note that while Black Coffee may be the subject of this debate today, but this debate this applies to many of your favourite artists as well, for instance Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Paul McCartney, Ziggy Marley, Die Antwoord, Loyiso Bala, Rolling Stones, Alicia Keys, Jason Derulo, Jon Bon Jovi, Craig David, Steve Aoki, Nick Cave, Backstreet Boys, Justin Timberlake, OneRepublic. Jay Z has travelled to Israel.
Are we going to boycott Jay Z and Rihanna?
It also applies to some of your favourite movies, for instance should you watch Wonder Woman? Gal Gadot-Varsano is the lead actress but she is an Israeli actress and model. She was born and raised in Israel. At age 18 she was crowned Miss Israel 2004. She then served two years in the Israel Defence Forces as a combat instructor. Gal is proud of her country and has spoken up in its defence. Should you watch the next wonder woman movie.
However, before we dive deep into the debate it is important to note some questions of fact. There has been reference made by the BDS to Black Coffee violating a cultural boycott. There is no actual boycott, not officially at a national level. The BDS movement has called for a cultural boycott but no one is obliged by law to follow such a boycott. It is part of their campaign against Israel. This campaign is supported by many political organisations in South Africa however there is no formal boycott. In fact, while the ANC supports the BDS call, the government of South Africa recognises Israel as a legitimate state and is bilateral trade relationships with Israel.
Should artists be moral/ political or social actors?
This is the first premise which needs to be addressed in the analysis of this case. While Bob Marley and Tracey Chapman are examples of artists who layered their music with deep political commentary and who were activists outside of their music, this is not the case for all artists. Some artists like Drake and even Cassper Nyovest are not political in any shape or form. Perhaps this is to cater to all of their fans, perhaps this is to provide a light mood to their music. Big Nuz for instance will hardly ever reach a point where they drop a give us the land album.
I believe that while this is not always desirable given the size of their influence this is not a decision that we can impose on an artist, artistic freedom gives them the space to direct where their art is directed. Further than that individual freedom allows people to opt out of the political and social realms. For some people politics is a toxic space, discussions of politics are heavy, and they don't want to partake. I do not believe we are justified in requesting these individuals to enter a space they are unwilling to. While i would love for everyone to have a political voice, I am also reminded of how an artist’s influence can be abused to push a political narrative. We are still trying to unravel the effects of the ANC social media war room and the Malaba noise influencer strategy. Artists like AKA were given R5 000 000 to support the ANC on their social media platforms. In cases like that I would have preferred if they had actually not said anything at all.
In addition, one has to realise that even when an artist becomes a moral and a social actor, they may not choose your side of the debate. The Israeli - Palestinian conflict is not a black and white issue. There are few people in the world who are fully conversant in it, I would venture that one may actually need a joint honours degree in Politics and International relations with a thesis specifically focused on this subject to even begin to have thorough conversations on the topic. All of this is to say that after much careful consideration you may find a person supporting the existence of a state of Israel, being worried about the terrorism of Hamas and the ineptitude of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. While many are critical of the right-wing government in Israel, those same people may not go so far as to agree that Israel should not exist.
Are we then correct to force our viewpoint on them? To make them agree with our side of the argument through the pressure of boycotting their art?
I would venture that we are not.
Are companies or businesses obliged to trade only in spaces which are morally compliant with the values of their home country?
Apple computers Inc. is a company that sells its products in several countries around the world. They sell computing devices in the USA, China, in Russia, in Syria, in Turkey and in Australia.
All the countries listed above in which Apple operates have some moral and ethical red flags pertaining to their conduct on the international arena. Starting with the USA, the war in Iraq was waged under false pretences and destabilised the middle east. Further Under Obama Libya was destabilised and innocent civilians were killed in the middle east from drone strikes. China has a long standing territorial dispute with the people of Tibet who claim their independence has been denied. Russia has killed spies in contravention of international law, it has annexed Crimea, it has meddled in the elections of foreign states. It is probably reading this essay as I type it. Turkey has had long standing disputes with the Kurdish people who view their independence as being withheld. Australia is a space wherein the indigenous people have been marginalised and ostracised from their land by a colonial entity.
All of these countries can be labelled as oppressive actors on the global scene and yet multiple businesses do trade with them. The point I am putting across is that one does not have to agree with the politics of their clients in order to provide them with a service. A queer man may gravely disagree with the politics of a Christian fundamentalist but in the workplace and in the market place those interests are put aside in the pursuit of commerce.
We place no moral judgement on people who do these things, are we therefore justified to place that judgement on Black Coffee?
Black Coffee in a tweet, said he was in the region because he would do anything to feed his family. “Like everyone else I have rights and free will and, no, Black Coffee is not a political party. I work as an entertainer to feed my family. I will take a bullet for my family.”
Is this an unfair view for Black Coffee to have when so many businesses do the same? He has a particular product that he sells in the marketplace, that product is his music. Should he opt out of certain markets for ethical reasons and stay in others for the same, when so many states are morally objectionable on some level. Would it not be hypocritical of him to perform in Miami but not in Tel Aviv considering the objections that many have to the American hegemony. Would it not be hypocritical of us to celebrate when he performs in Sydney but not to celebrate when he performs in Tel Aviv.
The bottom line surely is this - we cannot judge or impede a businessman from trading in spaces where other businesses trade.
Is a call for disengagement legitimate?
In South Africa organisations that are opposed to Israel make several arguments calling for a tough stance on Israel, they go as follows
- Israel is a colonial settler state. The implication here is that the state is founded on a similar basis to how the Afrikaner arrived in Africa, with no claim to the land and using the bible to create divine claim to the land where none existed.
- That Israel is an apartheid state, people who make this argument point to the wall separating the West bank from Israel, they talk about the checkpoints which exist in the West Bank. They also point out the extraordinary governance apparatus with Israel governing Area C, managing the security of Area B with the Palestinian Authority administering Area A. These protocols being the result of the Oslo accords.
- That Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank in violation of international law and frustrating the likelihood and viability of a two-state solution.
- They say that Israel is running an open-air prison in Gaza and that they have killed innocent civilians who were simply fighting for their independence.
- They also say that Israel has an anti African stance and that it will not allow African refugees to reside there.
As a result of these arguments they make the call for isolation and disengagement of Israel, as a strategic tool to bring Israel to order.
The ANC issued a press release on Wednesday for all artists to observe a cultural boycott of Israel. The statement was issued by Lindiwe Zulu the Chairperson of the ANC’s International Relations Committee
“We call on all artists to have an appreciation of the role played by the international anti-apartheid solidarity movement in the successful international isolation of apartheid South Africa,”
“The people of Palestine are in a just cause for self-determination and we urge our artists not to form part of the normalisation of Israeli’s suppression of the Palestinian people in their quest for self-determination and statehood that mirrors our very own struggle.
“The South African artistic community, having themselves experienced discrimination and oppression, must therefore continue to pledge solidarity with others who are oppressed”
BDS SA spokesperson Kwara Kekana said:
“Black Coffee is familiar with the issue of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine. In 2014, Palestine solidarity groups reached out to him before his performance in Tel-Aviv at that time, armed with sufficient information on the issue. He chose to cross the picket line just like he did this week.
“Artists and cultural institutions that act in violation of the cultural boycott against Israel find themselves complicit in a system of normalising and whitewashing the violations of Palestinian human rights and international law by Israel.”
So, returning to the question at hand, is a call for disengagement legitimate. Those who support Israel say the following
- The Jewish people are not a colonial settler community in Israel. They have a legitimate claim to the land dating back three thousand years. There is archaeological evidence to prove Jewish existence throughout three millennia. There has always been a Jewish presence in the land and the Jewish people were driven out unwillingly. They returned home.
- Israel is not an apartheid state, apartheid was a system of laws designed to marginalise black citizens from accessing the states wealth. Blacks were denied by the law from the right to vote, they were given an unequal education legislatively, they were restricted in housing ownership and had their sexuality policed. Israel in juxtaposition affords all its citizens 5 million Jews and 2 million Arabs equal rights.
- The settlements are not an obstacle to peace and can be discussed in a peace negotiation. Many international scholars have noted that land swaps would have to be executed in a final status determination and those land swaps have already been determined in prior negotiations. Some would say Israel has offered land several times and this has been rejected by the other side.
- They will say that Hamas is a terrorist organisation which has refused to recognise the rights of Israel to exist, that Hamas has run an elaborate terror campaign on Israeli citizens. As a result, there cannot be a normal border between Israel and Gaza. This is a hostile neighbour. The same border restrictions are imposed by Egypt.
- In response to the migrant response and the attempts to deport Africans, many will concede that the approach taken by Israel has been inappropriate and possibly racist but that this is not unique to Israel, the same can be said of the USA and many other E.U countries. They will even point out the xenophobia that is endemic is South Africa.
Whether you agree with the pro-Israel side or with the Pro Palestinian side, one thing has to be clear, not everyone agrees with the description made by the ANC. It's a complex territorial dispute with a very long timeline.
To those who disagree with the apartheid analogy the call for a boycott seems illegitimate in and of itself.
To those who view Israel as a legitimate state, those who seek to isolate and marginalise it are the ones acting immorally.
Some will point out that Mahmoud Abbas the leader of Palestine in the West Bank recognises the right of Israel to exist and has called for engagement in negotiations to advance the two-state solution. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia has recognised the legitimacy of Israel to exist and called for a negotiated peace settlement between both sides.
Some will also point out that it was a negotiated process that created the South Africa we all know. It took Nelson Mandela and De Klerk seating face to face and craving out the path for a future state. They will point out that it was the CODESA processes which through difficult debate and dialogue paved the way for this country to be formed.
All these arguments being a case for engagement rather than disengagement. So, the bottom line is that it’s not a black and white issue.
As a debater, as a blogger and as a commentator I believe in dialogue and engagement as the pathway to peace and prosperity for both the Palestinian people and the Israelis. I am aware of the problematic conduct arising out of Israel.
I don’t accept that we should place the obligations of non-engagement on artists such as Black Coffee while the government of South Africa continues to have bilateral trade agreements with Israel.