Yesterday, Kendrick Lamar’s long awaited album ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ was unexpectedly released, much to the joy of his avid followers. In Khartoum, my Twitter timeline was buzzing with Sudani users sharing YouTube links (sorry, K Dot) and quotes, praising the profound lyrics and unique arrangement of the album. This came hot on the tail of a similar but much more local buzz: the release of Ali Kabak’s debut album, ‘Fikeeni Minnik‘ [Let Go of Me].
The album, which is allegedly available on cassette tape, features a total of 10 tracks ranging in ridiculousness from ‘Asharrit Laik Hidoomi‘ [I’ll Rip My Clothes for You] to ‘Marthiyat Aldinasor’ [The Dinosaur’s Elegy]. Lyrics to various songs floated across the Sudanese interwebs, and soon the tracks followed suit, spreading like wildfire via Whatsapp. But the excitement was short lived, for we soon all found out that Ali Kabak was a scam, a joke, a musical troll. Turns out, the face on the album cover is that of William Zamvinu, whose actual claim to fame is being voted ugliest man in Zimbabwe. The jury is still out on the true identity of the white woman who shares the cover with “Kabak”.
While it seems insulting to make a direct comparison between Kendrick and Kabak, being that one is an established artist with an impressive body of work and the other a complete fabrication, one (and by “one” I mean “i”) cannot help but notice the striking similarity between the two. For one, both artists grab listeners’ focus through their words. Kendrick’s lyrics, particularly in this latest album, tell of the realities of being Black in America, and carry a heavy social message in a clever, poetic package. Kabak’s lyrics aren’t devoid of creativity either, although his lean to the side of comedy rather than poetry (and you’re free to argue his poetics if you wish). But underneath the huboot [lit. ‘depression’, term used to classify worthless pop music], one can find hints of social commentary, such as in ‘Asharrit Laik Hidoomi‘, where Kabak laments about his love who left him to marry a lawyer. Here, Kabak is addressing the growing trend of materialism in society, at the expense of love and loyalty. One could almost liken this to Kendrick saying, “When shit hit the fan/is you still a fan?” in the song ‘Mortal Man’.
I heard about Kendrick’s album dropping on Twitter the same day it came out, and I’m sure if I stepped into any store (in the US) that sells music I would be able to purchase TPAB. Twitter and Facebook, in this case, serve Kendrick and his team as a means to further publicize his product, as well as take the pulse of how his work is being received by the masses. Meanwhile, The “Artist” Allegedly Known As Ali Kabak’s material is exclusively online. However, that didn’t stop “him” from gaining a quick following and, one could argue, even generating a fever among consumers for his product – all thanks to social media. Over the past 4 days or so since Ali Kabak surfaced, my Twitter and Facebook feeds have been aflame with all Kabak everything. When news broke that he was fake, I saw at least 9 shares on Facebook of the link proving Kabak’s real identity.
Granted, 9 shares might not be much for any particular article to be circulated on Facebook, but for something related to Sudanese music, I find it phenomenal. This is perhaps, for me, the most fascinating part of the Ali Kabak saga – that a fake artist can garner such popularity in such a short time, when *actual* artists have a much harder time keeping people’s attention in this way. Of course, one can argue several counter-points, such as the fact that Kabak’s popularity was more in terms of comedic value than musical relevance, or that perhaps my Facebook associations are limited and not an accurate representation of Sudanese musical interests. But this does not discount the struggle of Sudanese musical artists who build careers covering the same “Sudanese classics” [7aqeeba] or aghani haabta [worthless pop songs], and use wedding performances as their biggest (if not only) means of marketing. The rise and fall of Ali Kabak should give us cause to take a long, hard look at our music industry.
But I could just be reading too much into it, right?