Friday, June 11, 2010

Coca Cola, Shakira, and Sun Screen

Seeing as though I leave for South Africa in about 30 hours, I bring you all this very special World Cup-themed posting. I’m not sure how many of you saw the official World Cup kickoff concert from Johannesburg yesterday (I think it was on ESPN2 in the US), but as it was simultaneously broadcasted on almost every TV station in Ghana, it proved quite unavoidable for me. The whole production was very entertaining for some obvious reasons, and even more entertaining for some less obvious ones. Allow me to explain.

“'This is not our World Cup,' explained Greg Fredericks, a senior manager for South Africa’s World Cup organizing committee. He noted the dominant role of FIFA, soccer’s Zurich-based world governing body. 'It is FIFA’s World Cup. We are just the organizers. We are the stage.'”

That is an excerpt taken from a two week-old NY Times article discussing some of the issues that have arisen in the run up to the first World Cup to be played on African soil. The main struggles stem from South Africa’s desire to make this tournament as “African” as possible, and the difficulties that FIFA and its billionaire corporate sponsors face in acquiescing to those wishes, like some gigantic yet tacit game of tug-of-war. This was first seen in public fora when FIFA discussed the possible banning of the vuvuzela horn – a much complained about and annoying-sounding plastic instrument that is a staple in all South African football crowds – from all matches. Eventually, Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s outspoken President, made the uncharacteristically correct decision* to allow them to stay. But in no place was this give-and-take more evident that on the stage last night.

When I first flipped on the TV, I was greeted by Alicia Keyes singing a song about New York: very appropriate. Then, after a set change about halfway through the show, the announcer came on the PA to declare: “It’s time for Africa! It’s time for Shakira!” If this blatant hypocrisy doesn’t make you laugh, then I can do nothing further for you, and you should probably just stop reading. These two sentences together perfectly underscore the backlash FIFA received after selecting both the Shakira cover “Waka Waka” (This Time for Africa) as the official 2010 World Cup anthem and the original line-up for the kickoff concert.

The NY Times article goes on to quote Oupa Lebogo, general secretary of the Creative Workers Union of South Africa, as saying “It’s like waking up in your house and finding people in your backyard saying ‘This is what we’re doing,’ without talking to the owner of the house.” The comparisons to international development are easier than breaking a sweat in Ghana. Luckily for everyone, the double helix of a typical South African looks something like this: cytosine—outspoken dissent—thymine—questioning authority—guanine, and all it took was the Union’s threat of hosting a rival concert in protest for FIFA to reconsider. When the final concert lineup was announced, more African acts had been added to complement the original Western-dominated one of Shakira, Black-Eyed Peas and John Legend, to name a few: crisis averted. But music has not been FIFA’s only misstep in South Africa.

Just a few weeks ago, ticket sales in South Africa (and the rest of Africa in general) were well under predicted estimates, and estimates for the rest of the continent had fallen by 77%. Many “experts” blamed the recession, the high cost of flights between African countries, and various other factors, but the true reason remained an enigma. In reality, the problem was with how FIFA had structured the system to obtain the tickets: online. Like many Western entities operating on the continent, FIFA remains completely oblivious to the on the ground realities of everyday Africans and failed to realize that prerequisites like computers, internet access, credit cards and bank accounts were barriers that made purchasing tickets out of reach for the majority of people. These same “experts” would probably use Swiss estimates to launch a brand new sun screen product in Africa, and then bewilderedly look at each other when only the rich white minority showed up to buy it. Once again, it wasn’t until irate fans called in to radio programs to complain that FIFA caught their drift. Originally, to buy tickets with cash one had to apply for them by submitting a written application at a bank: a procedure deemed too costly and complex. But all is not lost, as FIFA finally realized their error and began selling tickets over the counter on April 15th. According to the NY Times article, “Lines were so long that some likened them to those for South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994.”

Things are also looking better on the Shakira front, as well. As it turns out, her official World Cup song will end up being completely eclipsed by the one chosen by Coca Cola as their official World Cup song: “Wavin’ Flag” by Somalian-born K’naan. This was evidenced by the riveting performance he gave last night and the crowd’s reaction, which utterly upstaged the Columbian superstar. Sorry, Shakira. No one will argue that your hips don’t lie, but they’re just not African hips. Plus, it’s just a flat out better song with a can’t-get-out-of-your-head catch. And it’s that catch for which Coca Cola shelled out the big bucks. But that’s not the end of the story. Coke also paid K’naan to change many of the lyrics to take it from a dark song about his native Somalia and make it into a feel-good football celebration.

Example of original lyrics:

“So many wars, settling scores
Bringing us promises, leaving us poor
I heard them say, ‘love is the way’
‘Love is the answer,’ that’s what they say

But look how they treat us, make us believers
We fight their battles, then they deceive us
Try to control us, they couldn’t hold us
‘Cause we just move forward like Buffalo Soldiers

But we struggling, fighting to eat
And we wondering when we’ll be free
So we patiently wait for that fateful day
It’s not far away but for now we say”

Example of Coca Cola-friendly lyrics:

“Give me freedom, give me fire
Give me reason, take me higher
See the champions take the field now
Unify us, make us feel proud

In the streets our hands are lifting
As we lose our inhibitions
Celebration it surrounds us
Every nation all around us

Staying forever young
Singing songs underneath the sun
Let’s rejoice in the beautiful game
Then together celebrate the day
We all say”

These are the behind the scenes issues that made last night so entertaining, especially considering that K’naan sang the original lyrics on stage. I’m not sure Coke ok’d that. As I write these last lines, South Africa has just scored the opening goal of the 2010 World Cup on a fantastic upper 90 shot (that’s football speak for top corner of the net), and my coworkers, watching the game on the TV in the other room, just went crazy. There’s been so much talk about how important this milestone is for the continent of Africa, but I don’t think FIFA realizes just how big it truly is. Every African is rooting for every single African team. Yes, even Algeria, which is saying something. I can hear the non-stop vuvuzela horns eminating from the TV in the next room as all of Africa celebrates. Let the tug-of-war continue.

*A fun game to play is to google “Sepp Blatter, stupid comments” and see what comes up. It’s a wonder he still has a job. Enjoy.


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  3. ughhhhh do you KNOW how hard it is to apparently turn on your phone from Ghana in the US...impossible. Especially when it is dead and doesn't fit into the outlet. ANYWAYS I have therefore lost your email and failed at finding you anywhere else. So email me! Oh and I will only give you oneeeeee guess as to who this is!

  4. Scott, do you know any person or company in Ghana that does the IRS (INDOOR RESIDUAL SPRAYING). I just moved here and will like to get this done. Thanks in advance.

  5. I love your sentence, "Sorry, Shakira. No one will argue that your hips don’t lie, but they’re just not African hips."

  6. Hey Scott, sounds like you've had a lot of cool experiences in Accra! I just moved here yesterday and stumbled upon your blog on the expat blog site. Are you still around? If you have a chance, shoot me an email at, and maybe we can meet up for coffee or something.

  7. Simone, the IRS is being done by mining company Anglo-Gold Ashanti, but it is being done with done funds only in a few districts in Ghana. It is quite expensive, and I do not think that they are doing it on a personal basis, but I would try to contact them to see.