Writing about the reburial of the remains of El Negro from a Spanish museum to Tsholofelo Park in Gaborone, 20 years ago, The New York Times (NYT) - arguably the gold standard of journalism - reported that ‘in Botswana, the names of those who have recently died are read regularly on national radio.'
Then the motto of the NYT was ‘Expect The World’, and in so writing about Botswana, it gave us a glimpse of that world, however incomplete that might have been. In any case, it might be that for a reader of that newspaper, these radio announcements, unimaginable in a cosmopolitan, dense and cacophonous island of New York City, not only served as a reliable conveyance of necessary information in a far-flung country but also as morbidly cute – symbolically, the modern age version of the African drum echo!
As a matter of fact, there was a time in this country, perhaps in the 1970s, when radio used to be inherently useful and indispensable as a source of news, information, public notices, learning, and even Sunday evening classical music. Its hissing, static noise on SW and MW, mediated by a slew of foreign radio stations found only on those wavelengths, coupled with a patchy service on FM, to us gloriously weaved technological modernity with our simple way of life, our social interaction, and our basic education. Indeed, notwithstanding the prevalence of its limitations, we maintained during our childhood, an un-grumbling acceptance of radio’s utility and imperfections, so complete that it became a kind of perfection.
A 1688 word, nostalgia – a feeling by which we idealise our past as much as we acknowledge its irrevocability – ensures that we look back fondly and linger longingly over what radio used to be to us. Yes, if you came of age in the 1980s like some of us, radio used to have more of the gravitas of a Martin Scorsese movie – typifying a lot of a developing nation - and less of the levity of a Martin Lawrence movie – typifying the attitude of a nation that thinks it has found its stride. Now, the reverse is probably the case.
By common acknowledgement, the decade of the 1980s was one of the best, perhaps the greatest era, for popular music. In fact, for the 1980s music, the deliberate un-blurring of musical genres, say between rock and roll, pop, Rhythm and Blues (R&B); and its composition, lyrics and the vocal abilities of most bandleaders, were unparalleled by the music of the previous decade.
To attest to this point, let us for a moment consider only some of the most successful women musicians of that decade: the queen of pop, Madonna, the queen of R&B, Whitney Houston, and the queen of Bubblegum, Brenda Fassie. With more men as the best musicians of the 1980s – such as Michael Jackson, U2, Simple Minds, Foreigner, Dire Straits, Wham, Pink Floyd, etc. – against few the women then, it seems unimpressive by comparison, until you realise that these women were pitted against some of the best male musicians, by all accounts.
The astonishment is not just that these relatively unknown female musicians could garner such attention in a short span of time, cultural bias, chauvinism and sexism be damned; it is that these women could maintain musical respect long enough to continue to do so in the next two decades, after the 1980s.
The music of the 1980s adds up to more than the sum of its parts, showing us an unprecedented depth, breadth and range of artistic ability, so much that it is difficult not to be in praise of it, while also lamenting the losses it left in its wake, across some of the popular cultures. For example, when, as adolescents, we listened to and ultimately became lasting fans of Pink Floyd, we depended on the incidental pleasures of their musical genius – heard on radio and audio cassettes – unaware that in our (and their) old age, they would, variously be voted the biggest band of all time, and their 1980s album, ‘The Wall’, the bestselling album of 1980. Small wonder that our generational association with their music, as nearly prescient as it was, takes us somewhere: to nostalgia!
Take fashion to refer to the part of our life that time, appearance and identity is distinctively about. Then you could be inclined to accept the notion that everyone reflects their time in a style of fashion appropriate to or approximating them.
In our case, as we became young adults in the 1990s, we chose to wear what we perceived to be the standard of our time amidst an era of fashion minimalism. Ours was generally casual wear – of baseball caps, T-shirts, jeans, sneakers and hoodies and dungarees, while for young women, it was, amongst others, crop tops and platform shoes – both the product of ‘fast fashion’: indeed, the sartorial equivalent of fast food!
This contrasted sharply with the realisation that the supermodels of the time, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and others, were more famous than the high fashion they wore in catwalk events.
It was possible to feel both awe at this realisation and some peevishness that high fashion had allowed itself to be mesmerised by beautiful women – until a few years later, the same would happen regarding good looking men – with among others, David Beckham, a famous soccer player, advertising fashion wares. Incredulously, it was clear that high fashion was now beholden to celebrity and not the other way round.
From time to time, we would be decked out in a Ralph Lauren suit, fascinated by its apparent exclusivity even at its off-season price, while acknowledging that we could amount to something if we just tried; and we would lounge around in a pair of Levi’s jeans, flattering ourselves that, although because of our age, we could not take ourselves too seriously, we were nonetheless serious about who we were at that time.
In the end, the heart of our fashion sense then, and happily it’s most vital part, now lies ensconced in the museum of our minds; actually, the only place we buried it in the 1990s. Aha, our nostalgia abounds, someplace!
*Radipati is a regular contributor to Mmegi