According to some, the best art is the result of a random impulse. When one tries to pry an explanation from the grip of an artist’s mind they will be unsuccessful; following this logic, it can be assumed that the best artists don’t know why they make the choices they do. If one were to gain any answer at all, it would be a simple: “I don’t know…it just felt right.”
It was in a packed lecture hall on a dreary Tuesday afternoon where Professor Alexander Nemerov first presented this idea to me, and I immediately found myself decidedly disagreeing with it. Art with a message that has been thought out in advance is not inherently bad. If I were to use Professor Nemerov’s criterion as the standard, wouldn’t I have to exclude artists like Keith Haring, Pablo Picasso and Jacob Riis from the “artists who make good art club”? By using this standard for quality, wouldn’t I be forced to conclude that making art that deliberately tries to highlight issues of disease, war, or poverty is not worth making?
Using Nemerov’s standard of random impulse, I would be forced to exclude the deliberately crafted image of a woman alone and center stage with only her inanga—an instrument native to her home country, Rwanda—and the warm glow of a spotlight. Dressed in deep blue with an open smile on her face, she exudes delight that eventually gives way to singing and dancing. In Kinyarwanda, a Bantu language spoken in Rwanda, she sings a song of welcome, inviting the audience to enjoy her performance. Her song was one of the many thoughtful, self-aware pieces that make up The Nile Project, a series of performances by a group of artists who hail from the Nile River region of North Africa and beyond.
The Nile River is an ambassador, a caregiver and a force in ways much more subtle than its obvious role as a water source. It has the power to bring together a group of fragmented nations in the Nile Basin. Despite the Nile’s historical potential to unify, the river has lately been a source of derision and conflict as pollution renders the water undrinkable and untouchable. This is simply another layer of conflict added to an already tumultuous environment, as political unrest continues to cause division in Egypt, a civil war in South Sudan steadily collects casualties, and violence against albinos grows in Tanzania. A water shortage only serves to exacerbate these problems.
The situation in the Nile Basin is grave, yet the members of The Nile Project emerge not in all black, but in a swirl of vibrant colors. Their joy is infectious, making it nearly impossible to refrain from clapping along as they sing in their respective native languages. ”Omwiga”, the second to last song in their set, stood out as particularly joyful. By the middle of the song the entire audience was standing up and dancing, led by Nile Project member Steven Sogo.
The Nile Project, however, is more than just grace and spirit wrapped in bright hues. There are complexities that mark the show. For example, the wordless drum solo toward the end of the performance seemed to insinuate something dark and foreboding like a thunderstorm. It is this juxtaposition between a murky, polluted reality and hope that allowed the show to ascend to greater intellectual heights.
There’s no blindness in this hope. It’s the kind of hope that is infused with so much joy it might be tempting to make the assumption that it’s a result of naivety, but that assumption would result in a failure to understand the nature of their music. Mina Girgis, the executive director of the program, explained that not all of their music is about the Nile River or environmental awareness. The Nile Project is not meant as a condemnation; it’s an invitation that extends beyond reflecting on sustainability. Some songs are about the joy of being in the presence of a loved one, while others are simply about everyday life. When Sofie Nzayisenga sings “kanditurabakuda cyane,” meaning “we love you so much,” it’s an invitation to the audience to come together and to understand one another.
The Nile Project is as much about humanity and the beauty of coexistence as it is about sustainability, emphasizing active listening as a crucial aspect of meaningful human interaction. Sogo prefaced one of his songs by simply saying, “Don’t talk too much, please just walk,” suggesting that when we become too wrapped up in ourselves we fail to empathize. When I asked Girgis how such a diverse array of instruments from different musical traditions could be combined, he emphasized that time was key. It takes time to fully understand something that does not exist in one’s own frame of reference. For this reason, time is an essential component of successfully empathizing and coexisting with others. The successful communication of this concept is what makes the Nile Project remarkable. It challenges the audience to question how they fit into their own social and environmental ecosystem.
Art is not meant to solely stimulate our visual or auditory cortex. We are meant to connect with art on a human level, a level that engages all portions of our brain. If an artist does not bother to engage with his or her work on the same level, how can we categorize it as good art? There is no doubt that all the members of the Nile Project are talented musicians. The music was good, but what made the show beautiful was not simply technical skill—it was the human, intellectual connection that was created between both the artists themselves and the audience. Random impulse might be able to fabricate such a connection, but as proven by The Nile Project, it will never genuinely achieve it.