Introduction by Emeka Okereke
When I was invited to put together a selection of music and sound recordings to accompany the publication of Invisible Borders in Esopus, I was immediately taken with the prospect. It was an exciting concept, and it felt like a break from the sometimes redundant routine that comes even when one is doing what one loves. My head spun in different directions and my thoughts wandered through an array of music and sounds I have become familiar with over the course of four editions of the Invisible Borders road-trip project.
As I eventually set myself to the task, a natural starting point that came to me was to blend music from a range of artists—mostly African ones—with recorded sounds and conversations from the road. Not only have we amassed an impressive archive of images, writings, and videos from the project; we have kept equal stock of the audio, capturing conversations between participants, interviews with those encountered along the way, or sometimes just the ambient sounds of hard winds as experienced from inside the van as we traversed long distances.
In putting together this mix, I was hoping to offer the audience—as we have tried to do with the images, writings, and films we’ve shared—a glimpse of the mood of the road trips. I also took the liberty of envisioning a mix that would resonate with the ideals of Invisible Borders, rooted as it is in creativity, spontaneity, improvisation, and the exploration of precolonial histories of the African continent.
Artists like the Kenyan group Just A Band reflect the sensibilities of Africans of the 21st century. Most of their songs have this quality of exploration—of not being afraid to delve deep—and also exhibit a DIY attitude (they are known for producing their own songs and making their music videos themselves). This is the African temperament: namely, creativity intricately intertwined with spontaneity. It is said that we are masters of improvisation. The only downside to this is that, up until now, the world has thought this was represented only by the Miles Davises, Jimi Hendrixes, and Femi Kutis of our time and hence has limited its acclaim only to the achievements of geniuses of that type. But no, it is a way of life in most African settings and experiences. We therefore aim to valorize this way of being, especially given that it is representative of how most Africans strive to circumvent the limitations of their reality. Within this approach lies a real activism that does not depend on what I call “the consummation of misfortune,” but instead emphasizes possibilities that the future holds. There can be no better way to fight against social injustice than this.
In the work of another group I’ve included, Mafikizolo, from South Africa, one experiences the beauty of rhythm and a fusion of many influences—and the band achieves that without needing to compromise that African feel. I have intentionally said “African feel” to emphasize how the term African has evolved—from the solidity of denoting a location to the gaseousness of indicating a temperament, an idea, a feeling, or even something outright indefinable.
J. Martins and Flavour, Igbo-speaking Nigerian singers, have managed to work around language barriers, collaborating with other musicians such as Capo Snoop from Angola and DJ Arafat from the Republic of Congo. That’s something that would have proved impossible 50 years ago—showing that the urge for unity through exchange is far stronger than the pull of divisiveness.
Most of the songs have, in one way or another, become trans-African anthems in the sense that they have been able to transcend the many barriers that exist in a continent with the sheer diversity of this one. Moreover, they have been appropriated to the everyday realities of the people, snatched from the isolating embrace of the mainstream and repurposed as a tool or raw material for social interactions.
These songs play an important role in the growing unification of the continent, but also in the debate about its remaining disunity. Whatever the case may be, they have become part of the locomotive power propelling the continent into a future that resembles what was intended by Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois, and C.L.R. James, among others, when they talked about Pan-Africanism.
The recorded sounds are extracts of moments from these annual road trips, most of them sourced from its fourth edition. My decision to include this aspect of the project stems from that part of me that always gives in to nostalgia at the end of every trip. At the conclusion of each year’s project, I usually spend time watching videos from it and listening to the audio recorded during the trip. Every time I do, the urge arises within me to share the resulting emotions with everyone around me. This mix supplied the occasion to curate some of those conversations and intertwine them with songs that easily could have fueled an ever-forward perpetual journey.
But enough words. I urge you to go ahead and listen to these songs and sounds—and do not forget your dancing shoes!—Emeka Okereke (DJ Kupeski)