Around the time (July 2012) that Botswana hosted its first ever concert by David Sanborn, a Grammy Award-winning artist, Sunday Standard had a wide-ranging interview with Soares Katumbela, the now deceased events promoter extraordinaire.
Katumbela couldn’t stop rhapsodising about the professionalism of a stage construction crew from South Africa. Alongside Urban Motion Communications Group, the First National Bank Botswana (which doubled as sponsor) and Dialogue Saatchi and Saatchi, his company, Streethorn Promotions, promoted the concert, which was dubbed “All That Jazz.” A South African company called Gearhouse was engaged to handle the audio-visuals as well as stage construction.
“They had a team of 22 men to do staging, sound, screens and lighting. They did their work with minimal supervision, were on time and their sound, lighting and screens were of exceptionally high quality,” Katumbela said.
What he impressed him the most was that all the equipment for the show (which was sourced from South Africa) arrived four days before the first concert. The result was that on the opening night of the concert, everything was in place.
Compared to what ordinarily happens with local shows, that was a breath of fresh air. Katumbela and the writer found agreement on the unmitigated disaster that has become par for the course for all sorts of local shows because preparatory work is not done on time. All too often, the finger of blame points unwaveringly at artists. Amidst all this lamentation, Katumbela pointed out that one artist stood out as an exception: Odirile “Vee” Sento.
“That guy is highly professional,” he said, adding that such professionalism was the main reason Vee was Botswana’s most commercially successful artist.
Indeed, a show has a lot of revelatory details about what happens far from the madding crowd during the preparatory stages. In Vee’s case, one such detail is the quality of the performance: it is evident from watching his back-up dancers that bone-grinding hard work goes into the choreography. As a result of this and other performance elements, Vee was (at least until COVID-19) doing very, very well in the market – so well that he could afford to live in Phakalane, a stockbroker belt north of Gaborone. Business came in spades mostly from the government, the corporate sector and the ruling Botswana Democratic Party.
Then COVID-19 struck and for much of 2020, gigs were few and far between on account of health measures that has been implemented. With Vee among those leading the way, artists complained about how tough life had become for them. A married man, he would have been half-joking when he told a protest gathering of fellow artists at the Gaborone Secondary School playgrounds last month that he couldn’t provide for his family. With the festive season fast approaching, the main aim of this campaign was to get the government to open up the entertainment industry by allowing more than 50 people to attend shows.
The reality though is that there is precious little the government can do and the little it did was offer one-off gigs to selected artists to perform in safe spaces and broadcast such performances on Btv. Naturally, Vee was one of the lucky ones but it is likely that the government purposefully selected the ringleaders of the artists’ campaign as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy.
If the latter was indeed the plan, it worked as beautifully as the government would have hoped. Artists who had been left out complained bitterly that Vee was always getting preferential treatment from the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development (MYSC). There may have been the suggested chicanery but there is also having to deal with the fact that market fundamentals favour Vee.
Firstly, not only is he at the top of the food chain, he has staying power. Some other artists who were already plying their trade at the time that Vee burst onto the scene (early 2000s) or started at the same time, have fallen by the wayside. As anywhere else, name recognition has monetary value attached to it. Secondly, Vee has maintained a level of professionalism that one too many Batswana artists persistently fail to show. Some of the artists who were clamouring for the opening up of the entertainment industry are the very same people who show up late for shows or rehearse dance steps with back-up dancers during a live performance. Actions have consequences and it is more than likely that MYSC already has blackballed some artists on the basis of their lack of professionalism.
Thirdly and on the basis of the foregoing, the market doesn’t treat artists the same. For that reason, it is unrealistic to expect MYSC to treat artists equally when the market doesn’t. Online, there is a video of one artist objecting to the “up and coming artist” label in favour of “professional artists.” The label he prefers comes with its own conditions and one is that professional artists subject themselves to market forces. Unlike Ipelegeng, the public works programme that rotates low-skill workers in and out, the market places a high premium on meritocracy. Based on various factors, the market (which includes MYSC) embraces some artists and rejects others. Vee is among those whom the market has embraced and there is every indication that it has not done the same with the artist in question.
Lastly, the platform on which festive-season performances were showcased (television) has its own set of rules. TV ratings are directly linked to market response because they measure the popularity of a programme in terms of viewership and determine how much a channel can charge for advertisments. Channels charge more for high-rated programmes and less for low-rated ones. On the basis of this market fundamental, Vee enables Btv to charge more for advertisments while virtually unknown artists (who will cause viewership to plummet) cannot do that.
Artists have a right to earn a living but the fact of the matter is that their campaign fails to factor in the current public health situation and market fundamentals at play. It often happens in life that there is just no desired solution to a problem: when the Metsimotlhabe River comes down in flood, there is just no way to cross to the other side. Odder still, artists haven’t themselves been able to come up with real solutions and as Vee’s Trump-like rally in Old Naledi showed, can worsen an already unmanageable public health crisis. One suggestion has been that if the number of people attending a church service has been increased, then the same should happen with the entertainment industry. Comparing sober worshippers, who are guided by church rules they mostly follow, to drunk revellers whose faculties are overly impaired for them to observe any rules, doesn’t rise to the level of Logic 101.