Hunted And Hated, People With Albinism Speak Out — And Sing Out

Jun 16, 2017

It is hard to imagine Africans would record and release an album of music with the name White African Power.

But that is the title of an album released this month by the Tanzanian Albinism Collective, a group of amateur musicians from Africa who have albinism — a rare genetic condition that results in a lack of pigment in skin, hair or eyes. According to the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH), albinism occurs in about one in 18,000 to 20,000 people in the U.S. In other parts of the world, it could be as high as one in 3,000, NOAH says.

The title of the album is meant to be ironic, to create a sense of discomfort. "They live in a society where skin-whitening is used by some people and lighter skin is seen by some as desirable. But being too white can get you killed," explains Ian Brennan, the producer who brought the musicians together.

That's because of a persistent belief in some societies that the body parts of people with albinism can bring good fortune. Attackers will kill people with albinism or hack off limbs. And 2017 has been a devastating year. "I have received cases of attacks every single month this year," says Ikponwosa Ero, the U.N. expert on albinism, although she is encouraged to see a drop in attacks in Tanzania.

Amnesty International reported on Tuesday, International Albinism Awareness Day, that at least two people with albinism were killed and seven others were attacked, with intent to murder or abduct, since January. According to the U.N. Refugee agency, at least 20 people with albinism have been killed in Malawi since 2014 for their body parts. A 12-year-old boy with albinism was murdered while visiting relatives in Mozambique last month.

That's why the song titled "White African Power" is subtitled "We Live in Danger." The danger of their lives, the dread of attack, mutilation or murder, is reflected in the cacophonous, crashing percussion that makes up the backbone of the tune. This song, like others on the album, is more like a mantra, a chanted prayer with one verse, than a traditional "song." These mantras are set to percussive, acoustic accompaniment music that has more in common with punk rock, avant-garde jazz and noise than African music. The songs are meant to be pure vehicles for the writers' self-expression — producer Brennan's ultimate goal for the project.

White African Power is the newest in a string of projects produced by Brennan that seek to give voice to people who are normally voiceless. "The whole intention," says Brennan, "is to hear from individuals, the invisible, and learn from them. So our only directive was 'What do you want the world to know?'"

Christina Wagulu, a singer and songwriter on the album, wanted the world to know that for her, "Life is Hard."

"The world is hard and I'm feeling defeated," she sings on her original song.

The song continues: "Hatred, jealousy, and other emotions damage my heart. Disease weighs me down like defeat." These themes recur across the album's 23 tracks, but some of the songs go down a more personal road.

"My parents abandoned me, because I look the way I do," sings Hamidu Didas in "Maishe Yangu," which means "my life."

"They said I'm not their child — that I belong to the whites."

Hamidu and others in the Tanzanian Albinism Collective use their songs to convey the pain and alienation they face from all sectors of society.

"Whenever I walk past, people in my village call me 'deal,' which means 'money,' " says Thereza Phinias, another singer and instrumentalist in the group. "They are referring to the widespread myths that the body parts of a person with albinism can make one rich. We people with albinism stick out very visibly amongst black people. We look very different. You cannot hide yourself."

Salif Keita is another person with albinism who takes a public stand.

He's probably the most famous person with albinism in the world. Born in Mali, Keita is a global, Afro-pop star who has devoted much of his musical career to raising awareness for albinism. In 2005, he founded the Salif Keita Global Foundation to bring attention to the medical and social conditions and the violence that people with albinism face.

On a Sunday night in April, he was greeted with rock-star levels of adulation by a sold-out crowd at The Fillmore in Silver Spring, Md. Watching the audience of screaming fans, whose bodies twisted in spiritual fervor and physical jubilation throughout the show, there was no stigma, no discrimination against him because of the color of his skin — only joy and love.

But that's clearly not always the case.

"If you look at movies out of Hollywood that depict persons with albinism, the person with albinism is evil, they're mentally unstable," says Peter Ash, a Canadian with albinism who founded the advocacy organization Under the Same Sun that was instrumental in starting International Albinism Awareness Day. "This is a problem of human attitude, this is a problem of belief systems, this is a systemic problem that's been around for thousands of years and it's never gotten any attention, meaningfully until the last decade."

Ash is just one of many people with albinism who, like Keita, are trying to fight for the human rights of all their brothers and sisters. In 2008, he founded Under the Same Sun and began to build programs that would help uplift people with albinism in Tanzania through education and better educate the general populace through advocacy and outreach programs. It's part of the growing movement that encourages people with albinism to to raise their voices, to speak out (and sing out) against their mistreatment.

And while the act of protest is important, the therapy, the personal transformation that comes from performing, may be even more so. "[Music] allowed me to see that life is possible and that everybody is here for a mission," Keita said after his Silver Spring benefit concert.

Christina Wagulu makes the undeniable point that for, people with albinism, "Life is Hard." But White African Power doesn't end with a song of despair; it ends with Thereza Pinias's song "Happiness," Asserting her pride in her identity, she sings: "Here we are on the stage, Tanzania Albinism Collective members."

Jackson Sinnenberg is a freelance music writer based in Washington, D.C. Reach him @sinnenbergmusic

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