“It is easier to stand on the side of the agent of change, than on the side of the person whose situation is changed.”
—Henri van Praag (1916-1988)
In Kinshasa, the majority of the population, which is close to 10 million, subsists on less than 2 USD a day—and this is in a place where life, at best, is expensive. Many people live in excruciating poverty. They exist in survival mode. Disease, hunger, and death are omnipresent. There is little prospect of improvement; on the contrary, the standard of living appears to be worsening for millions of people in Kinshasa. On top of the struggle to survive, they must also reckon with politicians, police, and soldiers, who may harass or rob them, or worse.
I have often thought that the people of Kinshasa must be absolutely desperate. To a middle-class European, their situation appears dire. How on earth can people begin to live meaningful lives there?
I spent a long time in Kinshasa for my doctoral research on the influence of structured musical practice and teaching on the lives of young people in difficult living conditions. In my book Music Saved Them, They Say, I share with musicians and social workers active in social music projects what I learned from the music projects I studied between 2012 and 2016 in Kinshasa, DR Congo. I followed and studied two groups of young musicians from complicated social environments who were participating in social music projects: (1) young adult men who were members of violent gangs, and (2) young adult men and women surviving the streets of Kinshasa as so-called “witch” children, suspected of sorcery and consequently ostracized by their own families.
How have these young adults succeeded through the years in continuing to study and make music, while much in their lives remained predetermined by poverty and insecurity? They earn little or no money with music-making, and so they barely improve their financial situations. Where, then, do they continue to find the energy and motivation to make and learn music? In an environment like Kinshasa, music-making must signify something very special. How can music offer light in the darkness?
My young Congolese friends in Kinshasa have a different view of the reality I see as hopeless. During my four years of field work, I discovered how people in the Congolese capital apply a different significance to the concept of “normality.” The poverty and the difficult living conditions arising from it are considered by many Congolese to be normal. This is their “normal” condition. (In Gaza, too, through my involvement in the projects of Music Fund and Glazza, I had already seen how, for many people, conceiving the limits imposed on them as “normal” had come to mean simply carrying on and trying to make the best of things, each day afresh.)
Many Congolese are fatalistic and resigned to the situation in which they live. In similar survival contexts, many of us might perhaps resign ourselves to our fate just as firmly. It may be a universal defense mechanism to accept, as well as we can, the situations in which we live, in order to attempt to improve our circumstances with the creativity and energy we possess, or at least to make things somewhat more acceptable.
To reclaim life is precisely what the young musicians in Kinshasa shared with me as a motivation to continue making music, as it represents their attempt to gain control over their existence.
Could an activity like making music be a stepping-stone for young people, an alternative way of taking control over a chaotic, dismal, and extremely poor situation? What I wanted to try to comprehend as a researcher was precisely the relationship between the ostensibly hopeless situation in Kinshasa and the pleasure and hope engendered there by making music. It is a phenomenon I have experienced, studied, and disentangled many times over the years of my field work there, alongside the young participants in my research.
The musicians I was tracking who were former members of gangs in Kinshasa played traditional Congolese percussion music. During the study, they constantly complained that they earned very little from it, because traditional music was often looked down upon. I asked them why, in that case, they persevered. It turned out to have much to do with flow, a state of being in which one feels good within oneself, where the perception of time evaporates. Artists know this feeling well. If people can continue creating art even in survival situations, this is certainly also an adjunct of the flow. In making music, you create a different, finer world, one where you are in charge and where you are achieving a creative objective together. In the words of a former member of a violent gang:
“Even if I haven’t eaten or drunk anything, I’ll forget that entirely when playing music. When I’m working with my instrument and with other musicians, nothing else matters. Including money. I have no problem playing for no money at all; it really doesn’t matter. The pleasure of making music comes before everything else. If I hadn’t had that, perhaps I would have given up the daily struggle of this life a long time ago. Even when things have been really difficult and I’m flat broke, I give myself to it. I see it as submersion into music, I feel one with it.”
This is not escape behavior. The chaos, misery, and extreme poverty of Kinshasa will certainly not disappear through the activity of making music. But these young men and women tell us that playing music brings something valuable into their lives—not extra financial resources (at the very most, an extremely tiny profit), but moments of freedom. They declare themselves to be steadfast in their attempts not to be “dispossessed” by the barriers that poverty imposes on them. Even within physical “bondage,” they want to guard and preserve their precious psychological freedom. They have decided to live their lives at a deeper level than simply surviving. And it is precisely the strength and energy they need for this that they gain from opting for a philosophy of life that accepts, to an extent, their lot and the limitations on their opportunities. Let’s call this a type of “positive fatalism.”
Editor’s Note: Our editorial in this issue is by one of Superar’s cofounders, Gerald Wirth.
For more in-depth information about Lukas Pairon’s research and new book, click here.