/ 26 November 2011

Singing for his SUVs — and Kabila

On a recent Wednesday afternoon in Kinshasa we sat on a marbled garden terrace waiting for Werrason, one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s most famous musicians. There were palm trees and red roses and cactuses and, next to a grand entrance with Greek pillars, an oversized vase filled with light pink and beige nylon flowers topped with red and yellow Christmas decorations.

A golden eagle with a two-metre wingspan was perched on a pedestal, ready to pounce on its prey: more than a dozen workers who were busy with refurbishments. They were preparing the new blue-and-white-tiled pool, redoing the brick driveway and finishing the extension in the back where Werrason’s new studio is being built.

In the parking area part of his 10-vehicle collection was on display: a Chevy Suburban, a VW Scirocco, an Audi Q7, a brand-new Can Am motorcycle and a quad-bike. In his employ are five bulky bodyguards and three uniformed police officers; in his band, Wenge Musica Maison Mere, there are 25 musicians and 30 dancers.

Body politics: Scantily clad dancers are an integral part of Werrason's stage act
Scantily clad dancers are an integral part of Werrason’s stage act. (Paul Botes, M&G)

Which all befits a rock star. And that is what the man known as “the phenomenon” is.

His face sells everything from beer to sausages and, in election season, his songs sell politicians. Well, those who can afford him, anyway.

After an hour and half, Werrason emerged, first in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and later, after asking us what we would like to drink and if we would like to photograph him, in a red-checked, long-sleeved collared shirt, a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap with blue trim, jeans and bright red designer high-tops.

We told him we were there to talk about the elections and about his inclination to sing for le pouvoir, the power, specifically President Joseph Kabila and those aligned to him.

Body politics: Scantily clad dancers are an integral part of Werrason's stage act
The phenomenon: Music star Werrason is not averse to using his songs to sell politicians to his fans. (Paul Botes, M&G)

‘I do my art’
He led us inside his living room, which was lit with a pale glow from the lime-green mesh curtains, and told us, simply, that he was asked by Kabila’s people to sing for the president. And so he did. He sang of the building of roads, bridges, schools and hospitals, and of Kabila’s election promises of a brighter tomorrow.

It is not the first time he has sung for a Congolese president, Werrason said. He sang for Mobutu Sese Seko and for Kabila’s father, Laurent.

“We are artists,” he said. “We are not politicians. I do my art and politicians come to us; they solicit us.” Besides, he said, “I love him. He is our president. We believe if he has more time he will help the Congolese people.”

And the money is good, I mention, gesturing to the refurbishments going on outside and towards his white-and-gold lacquer bar, which is stocked with Mot and decorated with a small plastic representation of Hollywood.

He assures me that the political stuff is “small money”, but he won’t say how much that small money is. He doesn’t want other musicians to see how much more — or less — he gets for his songs.

You see, Werrason is far from alone.

On his blog, Congo Siasa, analyst Jason Stearnsnoted that, “even previously sceptical singers like Koffi Olomide and Papa Wemba are throwing their talents behind Joseph Kabila’s campaign”.

But Olomide’s dedication to his praise-singing might not be so heartfelt. A friend who recently saw him perform in Kinshasa noted that Olomide brought a Kabila-backed politician running for the National Assembly on to the stage — one of the more than 18000 who are trying to win one of the 500 parliamentary seats — and asked him: “Why should the people vote for you?”

Silence. “You don’t know?”, the musician chided. “It’s because you are handsome.” Laughter. The politician finally muttered a response: “I am very generous. What I have I share with people.”

For those sins, the Diaspora — many of whom have been vocal in their opposition to le pouvoir — have protested against musicians who back Kabila when they attempt to perform overseas.

Werrason, who has played in several European cities and in Canada, was physically attacked in Paris in June, reportedly while dining at a Congolese restaurant in the city.

“It is only a group of some guys without documents who are bitter,” he said. “It is not normal to prevent someone from performing. This is a democratic regime. Everyone can struggle to get to power.”

Stearns wrote that in video footage from demonstrations early in the year, the gatherings of less than a few hundred protesters appeared “to be more outraged by the cost of the tickets”, which were going for about €100, than motivated to stop musicians from performing.

Besides, Werrason said, while he sings for Kabila, he’s not so picky about who he’ll back in song. He said none of the other 11 presidential candidates had contacted him.

“It’s not that they can’t afford me,” he said. “They just didn’t imagine that I could bring them support. It’s only Kabila who considered us important as artists.”

Just a few hours after our interview Werrason headed over to take the stage at La Zamba Playa, an old outdoor Kinshasa bar that has been transformed into a rehearsal and concert venue for his band.

That night, Henriette Wamu Ataminia, a member of Parliament who is trying to regain her seat, met the star outside, a mobile billboard with her smiling face and a small army of supporters in election T-shirts in tow.

A crowd had gathered, along with half a dozen journalists with cameras and microphones, ready to broadcast Werrason’s message of support to the country. But people seemed interested only in him. They chanted: “We will vote for you if you pay for our ticket.”

An aggressive crowd heaved forward, towards Ataminia and Werrason, as the T-shirted supporters held them back. Werrason told the cameras that this was the “right woman to vote for”, that she had “done a lot for people in need”.

“I cannot only sing for her because she gives me money. Clap for her,” he commanded the group. And they obliged. One of Werrason’s choreographers, Sankara Dekunta, wearing white plastic glasses, dreadlocks and a baseball cap, bounced on to camera to better explain her traits. “She’s very beautiful and charming!” he told the cameras, to more applause.

Inside, the music pulsed through the excited crowd. On the cement stage with its corrugated steel roof, young women in various states of undress, almost all with fake eyelashes and hair in every colour, shook their backsides and rolled their hips in a way that would make Shakira blush.

As the performance continued to an ecstatic crowd, Ataminia’s pamphlets were handed out by her troops. Eventually, she took the stage with Werrason and handed him an envelope. Inside was $400, to buy everyone a beer, she said.

I turned to Dekunta, who was seated next to me in the front row, and said, by way of polite conversation: “The politics here very interesting, no?” He laughed. “People here don’t care,” he told me. “People here, they just want peace.”

This is the second in a two-part series on the Democratic Republic of Congo in the run-up to the elections. Travel-related expenses were supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA)

Articles in the series: “High hopes and low blows in DRC election battle“, “And now for the bad news“, and “Singing for his SUVs — and Kabila