I remember the future; it was gutter crawling through the streets of Windhoek at 4 am, cigarettes loosely balanced between shaky fingers and the blur of yellow streetlights flashing by. There was always something playing in the background though; sharpening the moments. The future was 2013 when Black Vulcanite, the Namibian rap group consisting mainly of AliThatDude, Okin and Mark Mushiva dropped their debut album. What seemed like a thoughtless sonic accompaniment to the wasteful shenanigans of young adulthood was actually an upheaval; a futurist baptism that peppered our conversations with utterings of what could be. Songs like Let It Be, Drinking Life, Fallen Sun, Time Goes Byand Beware of Cars punctuated our excitement about the city’s emerging music scene; things were changing for the better.
In 2016, Black Vulcanite gave us Black Colonialists, a collection of post-colonial rap and poetry that featured powerful vocal collaborations with musicians like (the now disbanded) Namibian duo Star Dust. The album was a cognitive exploration of contemporary Namibian Black existence and the complicated histories and futures that accompanied them. Reparations, Black Future Super Computer, How To Rap About Africa and Playing With Dolls helped construct some of the social commentary that laced our lips around the time and once again, Black Vulcanite’s music was the backdrop to the collective youth’s pro-Black ideology.
Now, the year is 2020 and the last thing Black Vulcanite gifted us was the 2019 single Heavens featuring poet and singer Ama, but we will take what we can get. While we wait for their next project, I had a conversation with Mark Mushiva; the creative technologist who makes up a third of the band. We spoke about his recently completed PhD research in Computer Science, the realities of developing ways to decolonize technology in Africa and how Namibian artists affected by the COVID-19 pandemic can adjust their art to the current situation.
First off, congratulations on completing your PhD; that’s back breaking work. How do you feel being on the other side of all the research? What has the journey been like for you?
Well it was crazy to say the least. I was living between Germany and Italy for my research so there was a lot of traveling and odd work hours. Sometimes I’d catch a Flixbus at 9PM from Berlin and travel 10 hours to Italy to run a study or give a presentation. Looking back at it now, it was a really enriching experience. I met lots of interesting people and learned how to run my own research. I also appreciate the qualification and the opportunities that come with it. I often tell people that it was hard work but the fact that I was doing what I love made it a lot easier to handle being so far away from home.
The nature of your research is quite intriguing. Can you expand on it a little bit?
My PhD topic was basically studying how we can build social bridges between non-familial intergenerational groups in big cities using gaming technologies. Part of it involved using sociotechnical frameworks to understand this particular type of interaction and then developing design strategies and technologies that implemented my learnings. It was really interesting because I had to interact with a lot of older adults who are from a foreign culture, so I guess it was a great topic for someone from Namibia. In the end I got intergenerational groups in Namibia, Italy, and Germany to play my game, so that was a great experience.
I’ve been reading up on the intersection between politics, activism and video games. What are your ideas around how video games can be used as a form of Afro-cyber Resistance on the continent?
Video games carry a similar persuasive power as movies. Movies have the potential to change your attitude towards a certain topic. Games leverage this in a more powerful way because you can make choices in the game, allowing you to have an even deeper reflection that can promote attitude change, a crucial intervention for activism. I would say that as African creatives we have not fully realized the power of this form of intervention yet. We think of games as tools for enjoyment and fun, but they can have other purposes.
In order for us to use games as tools for “afro-cyber resistance” we need to construct and become familiar with the models that allow for this kind of attitudinal change design. This would allow us to be more intentional with our creations. The video game medium certainly holds a lot of promise for activism. In the EU they are being used to sensitize people to the struggles of marginalized groups such as refugees (A Breathtaking Journey VR), homeless groups (Homeless: It’s no game), and non-combatant people in war zones (This War of Mine). Of course, games can also be very educational.
Can they also be used as way to decolonize technology?
My personal view is that we can only decolonize technology once we become familiar with the models that dictate how technology is created, and overhauling them with our own intentions and values. Despite what many people think, technology is not value neutral. It often comes imbued with the values and intentions of its designers. Creating conceptual models can help African designers and developers to build games that carry an activist goal. A lot of this stuff can be extrapolated from socio-psychological frameworks that very adequately describe how behaviors and attitudes form.
Besides being a musician and a poet, you’re also an inventor. Your showcase at the Ned Bank Design Indaba Simulcast was a game-changer. You’ve mentioned that your invention, the Hip Hop Power-Glove, was a product of your struggles as a rapper. What are these struggles and how does the glove help you overcome them?
When you’re a creative and an artist you often find that you need a wide variety of skills to accomplish something. For me I was always frustrated with the very little visual and sonic control I had over my performance as a Hip-Hop artist and having to rely on a DJ or VJ to compliment a show. I also used to travel a lot so I’d find myself going to a new city where I didn’t know anybody. People don’t really consider rappers as musicians. This and all the other frustrations inspired me to make an instrument that rappers can play. Rappers use their voices but they also use their hands a lot so it seemed natural that a glove would be the best wearable for an interactive modality where the movement of the hand and fingers can be used to create and manipulate sounds. It gives the rapper a greater range in orchestrating a performance and allows them to not only be creative with their words, but they also apply their creativity to generatively making music and controlling visuals. Of course, this can also apply to DJs.
What actually goes into invention, from the idea to the final product, and what are some of the things that influence what you’d want to create next?
I would put motivation at the forefront of any good invention because it is what will allow you to persevere through the concept to product stages. Inventing certainly isn’t simple work. My personal workflow always starts with something I care about. I start creating prototypes to understand the idea more because often we make assumptions about ideas that don’t really hold up in reality. I then put these ideas through iterations of the design cycle where it’s design, make, and learn. Every cycle feeds the next as an incremental process until I have a prototype that demonstrates the core idea and I start doing the whole process for the business model if the idea needs one. A good invention doesn’t guarantee that you have a good product to sell, so creativity is also required in thinking about who needs the product and how you will get it to them. I am currently working on a few things, one of them is an urban game funded by the European School of Urban Game Design and Creative Europe.
As an artist and an inventor, how do you think Namibian artists can adjust to the current situation created by the pandemic?
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed us to weaknesses in infrastructure and in a way, our own personal vulnerabilities as people who work without the usual social protections that come with a regular job. To adjust we must use these vulnerabilities to become self-sufficient and build networks to ensure that we have control over various parts of our value chain. Fortify and capacitate yourself to have your own securities. Also, keep an eye out for business opportunities made possible by the current situation. Do exercise if you can. It’s a thing I learned in therapy, that we underestimate how connected the body and mind are.
What do you think the future may hold, musically and technologically, beyond the COVID-19 crisis in Namibia?
I think Namibians might have a new appreciation for online performances, depending on how the tail-end of this crisis goes. We might find that people will see online performances as a good alternative to public performances. We can also hope for a new enthusiasm from investors, companies and institutions to support online businesses. I would like to think this will spawn a new digital consciousness in Namibia, but it remains to be seen.
Speaking of the future, you and your band Black Vulcanite were some of the pioneers of Afrofuturism in Namibia. In recent years however, we are seeing the establishment of sharper, much more specific futurisms such as African Futurism. Have your initial thoughts on the concept or movement evolved?
I am hardly a scholar on the topic, but I was always somehow underwhelmed by the escapist undertones of Afrofuturism, especially because academically it was attributed to African-American and Western diaspora and mostly ignored African mysticism or made cheap incarnations of it. These days you can take an African person in traditional garb, slap a VR headset on them and call it Afrofuturism. The more I tried to think of what Afrofuturism means to black people on the continent, the cheaper and emptier it started to feel. I haven’t kept up with progression of the genre but I’m happy that it is getting some form of pluralism as we see more African artists producing works that use traditional African thought models as a speculative lens for imagining the role and implications of emerging technologies and science. I find cyberpunk to be a more interesting lens for inspiration and speculation because it is rooted in the tangible realities of today, offering a snapshot into the social unraveling of technology on politics, religion, sexuality etc. It was Fanon who said that searching for a “pure African-ness” is a fool’s errand, similarly I think attempting to conjure a pure form of African futurism is trivial. I’m more interested in how the culture, history and sociotechnical realities of people on the continent are shaping how we use technology and the fictional and non-fictional stories that can be told around that.
I never really got the chance to ask you this but how did Black Vulcanite come together? How are you still able to navigate your work as a singular artist, a band member and everything else?
Ali and I lived in the same neighborhood when we were young, so we used to hang in the same circles. Ali later introduced me to Niko and just off the vibe of us hanging out we decided to form a hip-hop poetry group. We have similar interests on an individual and group level so things always just seemed to align.
Thematically, the last two Black Vulcanite projects have sort of dealt with reconciling colonial history with futurism, personal identity with public perceptions. A lot of things are juxtaposed and unpacked on the records. Is the band working with any new themes for the next album?
We haven’t decided on what the next album is going to sound like, I think we are more focused on developing our own narrative threads for the time being. I think the lore Black Vulcanite has cultivated can be hard to get away from sometimes. As a collective I don’t think we would ever stray too far away from the kind of sound Black Vulcanite is known for. I am currently working on an album (Turbo Summation), that marries my passion for computer science and hip-hop. I suppose artistically it will be a shift from sci-fi to a more cyberpunk form of thinking.
We got a little taste of what was to come when Heavens featuring Ama dropped about a year ago… When will we get to hear the next album?
Only Okin knows the answer to that question …
Another striking thing about Black Vulcanite is the collaborations. You’ve worked with Youngsta Cpt, YuppieDaRapper, Jay Prince and Star Dust. These collaborations easily go on to become some of the most memorable moments on the two albums. Who are you looking to work with for the next project?
We would love to work with Kanyi Mavi or Tumi.
On a final note, while working on your research, your inventions and music, what has been some of the art, music and literature you’ve found yourself returning to?
It’s been back to the basics on everything. I’ve been reading lots of art and design and formative readings on visual literacy “A primer of visual literacy, Donis. A. Donis.” I just felt like I was blindly creating stuff for a while and not focusing on the building blocks that make up the cohesive whole. At some point, in order to be intentional, you have to have a firm grasp on basic components of your art. Of course, being really enamored of cyberpunk right now I’ve found myself reading William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and Neil Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” as interpretive lenses for what is happening to technology and society today. That’s all for creative inspiration. bell hooks’ “The Will to Change” and “All About Love” have been guiding spirits to my emotional growth which has interestingly made me much more aware of my agency and intentionality in creating. I love how bell hooks decouples patriarchy from gender. I think it is immensely important for us to heal and even more important, to start to define some version of a healthy masculinity because we are all deeply invested.