Yet another award ceremony, yet another corporate weekend away. So, what shall be my mask this time? The history of power in corporate SA still looms large in the boardrooms of present-day South Africa. The black face needs to be masked by fluency in an institutional culture which, it is assumed, is ahistorical. That is, a culture assumed not to have been crafted by people over the past of the company but the way things are. So, here we are at yet another awards ceremony, yet another corporate weekend away, yet again we are being pummelled with B-grade sokkie musiek. This is cultural imperialism.
Many have come to know Kurt Darren’s A-grade pair, Kaptein and Loslappie, as the bookmarks to many corporate functions. There are other bookmarks such as the international anthems, for example, Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams and Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day. These bookmarks do become part of one’s fiction; after all, Stockholm syndrome does not play games. Ask any evangelical atheist or champagne socialist if you doubt its effects. But in all fairness though, I do truly enjoy Mr Brightside by the Killers.
Back to the point. The problem with these songs is that it cannot be, that only such music is played the whole night. It cannot be, that some of these international anthems are assumed also anthems for everyone else. It cannot be, that there is always an elephant on the dance floor; it cannot be, that the black employees are not recognised.
Not recognising black music tastes is cultural imperialism. Twenty years into our democracy it is disconcerting that we still need to have debates about music selection at corporate functions. It is worrying that we still need debates about the need to accommodate each other within our formerly exclusive worlds.
Firstly, corporate social functions offer employees the opportunity to interact outside of the strictures of day-to-day meetings. They create relaxed atmospheres wherein employees may form new relationships and strengthen existing ones. These functions are relevant to the bottom line of the corporate to the extent that improved relations lead to more productive employees. When there is a situation where black employees feel excluded because of arbitrary issues such as music, it becomes difficult for them to enjoy and thus endure such events. This lack of enjoyment has a very pernicious effect.
In my observations I find that a lot of black employees opt to leave early. This is bad because it robs blacks of an opportunity to interact. This is important because there’s more than drinking and chit-chat going on at these events. What on the surface appears to be drinking and chit-chat, on a deeper level is actually the social side of negotiating power. The results of this negotiation often manifest in day-to-day work meetings where it seems that there are cliques and cabals driving decision-making. This is the result of power already having been negotiated elsewhere (in social settings). What then is visible in these meetings is members of a “clique” being happy to defer to one another (if not actively support each other). If one is not aware what is happening one is often lead to mistakenly suspect conspiracy.
Secondly, this monopoly of music choice is a way of asserting power through cultural imperialism. This imperialism is oftentimes re-inforced when that one token black song is played. This occurs by having the power structure leave the dance floor at this juncture and go for a “smoke break”. As a black by choosing to endure such cultural imperialism it is a concession that you recognise the cultural power wielded by the power structure. Yes, I am aware blacks don’t have uniform or monolithic music tastes.
Once you refuse to be party to this cultural imperialism, you create an existential problem for the power structure. This because of the way power operates. The one side of the coin is that: the way social power is re-inforced is through granting opportunity at official power. That is you get to be in on official decision-making if you assimilate into the social imperial setup. The other side of the coin is that: official power is re-inforced through granting social opportunity. That is you get to be accepted as part of the social group if you defer to (not challenge that is) the official power of the group. Once you choose to eschew either the social opportunity or the official one then you disrupt this power-wielding mechanism. Choosing when to assimilate and when to disrupt this mechanism is an existential contradiction for the black.
This contradiction in described by W.E.B du Bois in his 1903 The Souls of Black Folk. He writes
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face. This, then, is the end of his striving. [I]t is the contradiction of double aims. The double-aimed struggle of the black artisan could only result in making him a poor craftsman, for he had but half a heart in either cause.”
The ultimate challenge described by du Bois is how one reconciles having both Via Orlando featuring Dr Malinga and Kaptein by Kurt Darren in a single head without a nuclear meltdown. Once you realise the need for this two-ness, you are then in a position to trade one for another. It can never be only one because this would stifle your progress.
The degree to which one understands this trade-off will help one make sense of reality. The manner in which one negotiates the trade-off will determine one’s politics. The extent to which one embraces the trade-off will determine one’s success.