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Namibian scholar evaluates commodification of Oviritje

Moses Magadza

Namibian scholar, Professor William Heuva, has published an eye-opening book chapter on Namibia’s Oviritje popular music, probably marking the first time that the genre has had serious critical attention at a very high academic level.

Entitled  “Commodification of Music in the Digital Age: Locating Namibia’s Oviritje Popular Music Genre in the Capitalist Music Economy,” the chapter appears in the Palgrave Macmillan journal called Indigenous African Popular Music, Volume 2 of 2022, pages 431– 446. It documents and examines the influence of neoliberal and digital capitalism on Oviritje music genre of the Ovaherero people of Namibia.

In this work which constitutes Chapter 25 of this book, Heuva concludes that although the Oviritje music genre has been incorporated in the dominant mode of production of Namibian neoliberal setting, and while all looks rosy in terms of new modes of production, distribution and consumption of music, the phenomenon has actually been profiting the Social Network Sites (SNSs).

These include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tik Tok, Spotify and WhatsApp. He argues that the distribution has not necessarily benefited the artists who run the whole venture mostly on shoe-string budgets. Thus, while gaining from the new digital technologies of music production and a ‘conducive environment’ enabled by neoliberalism, the artists, according to this well-nuanced article, take home by far very little.

Heuva refers to Oviritje artists as ‘music entrepreneurs’. He borrows the concept from Andrea Moore (2016) who uses it to refer to American unemployed youth who during the 2008 financial crisis were taught music entrepreneurship skills by the International Contemporary Ensemble to survive the crisis.  For Heuva, while Oviritje artists were not taught entrepreneurship skills, they went through the ‘broader classroom of life’ to acquire the necessary music skills in the midst of economic difficulties and disadvantaged family backgrounds.

Heuva notes that although Oviritje initially emerged as a non-profit venture operated for public interest, it has been progressively commercialised and objectified on various digital platforms in the digital capitalist era.

Arguably the most critical observation which colours most of this is that the development of the Oviritje music genre of Namibia and its subsequent commoditisation beginning in the 1990’s, is part of the neoliberal phase of capitalism across the world which includes digital capitalism.

Clearly conceived and written from the point of view of critical theories, if one considers the character of the majority of the scholars referred, this chapter opens up many key critical terms and relations in music and many cultural practices in the world. The chapter takes the reader to the basics by first unbundling the concept of “popular culture” itself since the Oviritje music genre is now clearly part of popular culture in Namibia.

Heuva explains that while “culture” is the way of life of any group of people living in a geographical location, “popular” culture refers broadly to mass mediated, frequently youth-driven trends, politics and leisure. So it follows that “popular culture” is the commercial side of culture (such as music) which appeals to the masses, particularly the young people. All this is aided by the modern digital technology.

Heuva provides a useful background: At Namibia’s independence in 1990, the new government was keen to revive the cultural heritage of the people. This coincides with the development of globalisation, whose spirit, ironically, clashes with the prerequisite of the genuine revival of any specific culture in the world.

Globalisation, the author emphasises, is the creation of countless markets in order to promote conspicuous consumption which in turn promotes a high exploitation of the basic artist and not necessarily genuine cultural revival. This means that the adoption of neoliberal policies in Namibia in the 1990’s had a massive impact not only on the economic sector, but also in terms of the transformation of the cultural industry.

This neoliberal development, within whose wings the Oviritje music genre is caught up, makes sure that there is the development of new technologies, including digital technologies, to recruit new and widespread audiences and consumers.

As Heuva argues, this has positive and negative effects on society in that in the process of turning Oviritje into a widely consumed musical commodity, the Internet Social Network Sites (SNSs) led to the artists and their fans being turned into providers of free digital labour online for the benefit of GAFAM corporations. GAFAM refers to Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft who provide space for the consumption of popular culture.

The writer also delves into the development of Oviritje itself, pointing out that Oviritje is actually Herero slang for songs and that it began around the late 1960’s among school learners at sports and school events.

The roots of Oviritje in traditional Herero music are distinct and clear.  In its infancy, the genre invited a meagre income to the performers. It was a non-profit micro activity. Through the influence of neoliberalism, the genre now uses predominantly electronic instruments and has become a mass-produced item, driven by urban youths so much so that it has outstripped other music genres of Herero origin like Outjina (practised by women) and Omuhiva (practised by men.)

The youth orientation of Oviritje naturally attracted mass production and commercialisation which provides the wheels of capitalism. Omuhiva and Outjina art forms declined as they remained with the old Hereros who were conservative and less inclined to embrace the capitalist mode of production. This situation demonstrates the link between capitalism and certain genres of music. Oviritje became popular through being hyped up until it became sellable.

The author introduces another interesting observation which is: despite the fact that popular music reflects issues of importance to their target audience, it is not always the case that popular music does critique some of these issues and Oviritje is not an exception. In fact, popular music songs outside the west are not as critical of capitalism as are popular music in the West.

The book in which Heuva’s chapter appears was edited by Abiodun Salawu and Israel Fadipe. It examines how African indigenous popular music is deployed in democracy, politics and for social crusades by African artistes. Exploring the role of indigenous African popular music in environmental health communication and gender empowerment, the book subsequently focuses on how the music portrays the African future, its use by African youths and how it is affected by advanced broadcast technologies and the digital media.

The book also contains some very informative articles like “The Communicativeness of Select Nigerian Afro-hip-hop Lyrics and Sociological Perception of Women” by Umwana Samuel Akpan, “Promotion of Food Sovereignty in Africa Through Yoruba’s Indigenous Music” by Lere Amusan and Ernest Jakaza’s “Singing Democracy and Politics in Post-Independence Zimbabwe: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Self-censorship in Zimbabwean Indigenous Theological-Sungura Music,” amongst many others across Africa.

Heuva is Professor in Communication and Media Studies at North West University, South Africa. His expertise is in Critical political economy of communication; Communication (telecoms, media and ICTs) policies and regulations (laws); Sociology of the media (including the ‘new media’); Media and information literacy and media history. He holds a BA, BA (Hons) and an MA in Journalism and Media Studies from Rhodes University and a PhD in Critical Political Economy of Communication from the University of KwaZulu-Natal).

He is the author of Media and Resistance Politics: The Alternative Press in Namibia, 1960-1990. Basel: P. Schlettwein Publishing (2001).

*Moses Magadza is a doctoral student with research interests in framing, agenda setting, (re)presentation, social justice theory and critical discourse analysis.