Photos by Nina Strochlic
Akon, international pop star and singer of such hits as "Smack That" and "I Wanna Fuck You," is in a giant plastic bubble. He's rolling over a crowd of thousands of people, in a long and narrow airport lot, and he's doing it in Goma, the eastern capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a city that has experienced 20 long years of fighting and instability. The crowd, whose outstretched arms keep Akon's bubble rolling along, are surrounded by the omnipresent blue hats of armed United Nation Peacekeepers.
Few places in the world show their war scars like Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, just over the border from Rwanda. For two decades, fighting from rag-tag militias, well-funded foreign rebels, and fugitives left over from the Rwandan genocide has left the region in tatters of corruption, economic instability, and violence. After the most recent rebel takeover of Goma, which ended late last year, the city has been taking a respite to heal itself.
Last Sunday, the method at hand was a massive concert. Put together by the organization Peace One Day, which is dedicated to advancing the UN's International Day of Peace, the show was the headlining event of Goma's celebration of the global day of ceasefires and nonviolence. By all appearances, Akon is wildly famous in the DRC ("Because they don't know he's not popular in the U.S. anymore," my translator explained, although Akon's status as perhaps the most prominent American musician with direct ties to Africa likely plays a role as well). Sixty thousand free tickets were handed out, and across Goma, billboards advertised Akon's performance. Trucks filled with dancing concert promoters were scattered throughout the pock-marked streets.
Yet in eastern Congo, where critics have pointed to millions of dollars of humanitarian assistance, yet spotty on-the-ground change, a massive blowout headlined by the man who brought us such lyrics as "Tryin' to make it to the top for your ass get popped" was also met with some skepticism. A few days before the concert, I drove over the border from Rwanda to Congo—a place where nicely paved streets and evenly planted trees dissolves into broken roads and gutted buildings. Here, Akon, Peace One Day global ambassador Jude Law, and the rest of the lineup spoke about Peace One Day and the upcoming show from a hotel conference room.
"As Akon, I see myself as a child of Africa," said the artist, who is of Senegalese descent and spent time in Senegal as a child, explaining why he felt drawn to sing for Goma. The Congolese performers sitting alongside him on stage saluted him for this show.
"For too long the only sounds we've heard in Goma [were] sounds of guns and bombshell," one told the gathered reporters. Toward the end of the press conference, Jude Law spoke up with a strange warning that criticism of such a good-hearted effort would be unpeaceful. But in a place already full of foreign humanitarians, such good samaritanism also gets a heavy dose of skepticism.
"Why 'Peace One Day'? Why not 'peace forever'?" one local reporter asked. Another questioned whether or not there was also a plan to actually contribute to peace in the Congo. The question was certainly circling in Goma: Why were they spending an untold amount of money on hosting a musical show rather than provide more tangible aid? Organizers explained that this was the beginning of a three-year initiative in the country but did not elaborate.
At the show, as festivities got underway in Goma's airport lot, a rowdy crowd surged while United Nations riot police from the world's largest peacekeeping mission donned Robocop-style armored body suits and watched menacingly. Nowhere near the 60,000 anticipated spectators had shown up—at a post-concert shindig, some of the Congolese organizers speculated that people had stayed away because getting something for free is an affront to pride or that perhaps transportation costs to and from the airport made the concert untenable for most people in the city. Nonetheless, the crowd stretched deep into the airport lot, and, in the front row, young guys were smashed against the barriers without a millimeter to breathe. While the goal of the concert seemed more about boosting morale than effecting much peace, there was still a sense of purpose in the air.
"Akon should talk to Obama and tell him of the shooting and the women raped," said a 29-year-old Goma resident named Heraldo Amenga as he swayed precariously against the buckling metal dividers. "Akon is good for Congo."
Then he pointed at his arm and my arm: "Black and white is one," he said. It was an encouraging message even though at the Peace One Day show it wasn't entirely true. In the VIP section, a raised platform set aside from the dancing crowds, international aid workers, United Nations officials, and journalists mingled with the region's top politicians, drinking free water and sodas. On the main concourse, the crowd of thousands was made up almost entirely of twenty-something men. Without any place for respite from the beating sun or to rehydrate, concert goers begged water bottles off organizers and security forces.
Hundreds of heavily armed chaperones, both Congolese and international UN, kept a close eye on the concert. The peacekeepers may have been having the best time, with the ones who surrounding the stage snapping selfies and in some cases even recording the entire concert.
In schoolboy French, Jude Law played MC for the day, introducing a variety of local artists before the headliner. Akon played his biggest hits, from "Sweetest Girl" to "Smack That," as people pressed up to the front for a better look. Against a backdrop of the mountains and lush forests ensconcing Goma, Akon roamed the stage with a purple-mohawked member of his posse whose sole job seemed to be to rile the audience. With a best-of playlist (though his first big hit "Mr. Lonely" was absent) it didn't take long to send the crowd into a massive singalong—and that was even before he emerged in his giant, inflated plastic ball.
When asked about the possibilities of suffocation, a member of his crew later agreed there was only enough air pumped in to keep him breathing for 10 to 15 minutes. Despite their adoration, the crowd dropped the ball-encased Akon at least three times, only for him to be rescued by the UN peacekeepers running around frantically to place him back on top of the excited crowd.
Akon is not exactly known for his peaceful lyrics (For example: "Got a pump under my seat, sawed-off / Got a bunch of goons / Hope they never call off / I'm a sniper sittin' on the roof / Already saw y'all"), but he censored himself in the middle of his performance, stopping one song as it started, saying, "Hold on, it's Peace One Day, we can't go there."
It wasn't the only moment where his music felt slightly incongruous in the setting. When he screamed into the mic "All my ladies in Goma make some noise!" there was an apparent lack of response, since the crowd consisted overwhelmingly of men. When he sang "All my ladies shaking it," there were few shakes. Eastern Congo was once dubbed "the rape capital of the world"—a nickname which has stuck, much to the region's chagrin—but sexual violence is very much an issue in the region, where armed groups have operated with impunity and justice for victims is rare. In the DRC, women typically avoid large groups of men, and it was ill advised for women to join the lurching crowd of rowdy males here. Even at a concert for peace, this lasting problem of war loomed large.
Still, in the front row, there were a handful of brave young women, who praised Akon and pondered their favorite performance. "I like all the songs he sang," one said afterward.
The show ended, and Akon left the airport atop a truck full of heavily armed peacekeepers. When the barriers outside the airport finally gave way and swarms of children joined concertgoers to run after his departing convoy, he was quickly pulled down into the car and whisked away to his lakeside hotel.
[Editor's note: Several days after we published this story, these photos went viral on social media, and some news outlets began publishing stories suggesting that Akon performed in the bubble to avoid coming into contact with the Ebola virus. We'd like to reiterate that Noisey's story does not in any way suggest that was the case. When contacted for comment, Liza Bel, spokeswoman for Peace One Day, offered the following statement: "The bubble has generally been a part of Akon's show anywhere in the world." As several other news outlets have pointed out, Akon has performed in a bubble at shows across the world for several years, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo so far has had a relatively limited number of cases of Ebola. According to the Center for Disease Control, as of September 28, 70 cases of Ebola had been diagnosed in the DRC, accounting for 40 deaths. The outbreak has been deemed unrelated to the current outbreak in West Africa and all documented cases were in Jeera County, approximately 1,000 miles from Goma. Check out VICE News for more on the ongoing spread of Ebola.]
Nina's reporting from the Democratic Republic of Congo was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation. Follow Nina Strochlic on Twitter.