By Nick Ward
Photos by Fangliang Xu
Crickets are chirpin’ the water is high
There’s a soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry
Window wide open African trees
Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze
Not a word of goodbye not even a note
She gone with the man in the long black coat
—Bob Dylan,“Man in the Long Black Coat”
Yes, Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature Award was controversial.
In fact, it was likely the most publicly contested Nobel Prize in Literature ever received, having provoked the ire of traditionalists who believe “literature” is a rigidly defined, sacred genre.
In the days following the announcement, there were also many “what about …” op-eds and tweets from celebrated journalists and writers that included Hari Kunzru, Norman Mailer, and Jason Pinter. Undeniably, there is a long list of authors who deserved the same honour as Dylan — a list which includes the likes of such towering literary revolutionaries as Chinua Achebe, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and James Baldwin. Nevertheless, these glaring omissions have no bearing on Dylan’s merit as a very deserving prize winner, argues Professor in the Institute of African Studies, Nduka Otiono, in the just-released and already critically acclaimed book, Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature, which he co-edited.
“Dating back to over a half century ago, an imaginary jury had begun to deliberate on Bob Dylan’s transgressive creative imagination to determine whether indeed his works qualified as poetry and the author/singer qualified to be addressed as a poet,” explains Otiono. “The question of why Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize can be found by unpacking the art of Bob Dylan, to understand his complex persona and 50-year long career of prolific artistic production that spans various musical genres including folk, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, country, gospel, R&B, and others.”
Produced in collaboration with English Professor at MacEwan University, Josh Toth, Polyvocal Bob Dylan brings together an interdisciplinary series of scholarly essays that explore the powerful cultural impact of Dylan’s music, writing, aesthetic, and persona. In re-examining Dylan’s transformative presence, the book challenges those who shouted ‘Sacrosanct!’ at Dylan’s prize to interrogate their own entrenched notions of “literature” as a category. Together, Toth and Otiono write in the introduction of Polyvocal Bob Dylan:
Dylan is not a “poet”— not, anyway, in any traditional sense; nor is his writing (in isolation) comparable to the work of “great poets” like Yeats or Eliot. It’s simply not the same thing — even if, at the same time (and however paradoxically), it works to confuse the very possibility of making such a distinction. We are not, in other words, interested in suggesting that Dylan’s work simply marks a unique space for itself anterior to a clearly delimited field of “literature.” Nor are we interested in “recovering” Dylan’s work as traditionally literary and, for that reason, of value. Our position is that it is unique insofar as it functions, rather (or finally), to straddle and confuse any number of modalities, any number of genres, any number of forms: it is literary only insofar as it is also musical; readable only insofar as it must also be heard; new only insofar as it is haunted by tradition. It is, we are saying, polyvocal.
Simply put, Otiono and Toth hold the position that Dylan’s unique writing and art, which often feels so gallingly unrefined and so unlike literature, actually and dexterously perform the same evocative function for audiences as the work of the world’s most celebrated traditional authors.
Unsurprisingly, Prof. Otiono has been a dedicated member of the Dylan congregation for decades. During this time, with Dylan’s music as his soundtrack, Otiono has navigated multiple norm-challenging careers, enjoyed a rich personal and family life, and lived in cities across the globe.
The Magical Power of Storytelling
Otiono was born in Kano, Northern Nigeria’s largest city, and the country’s second-largest city overall. Kano is known as a bustling commercial epicentre and is home to Kannywood, a section of Nigeria’s burgeoning film industry called Nollywood. His father was of Niger Delta origin, but fell in love with northern Nigeria, moving around to various cities in the northern region before the Biafran war broke out in 1967.
“Dad was an accountant who loved English literature. My mum was a teacher and a disciplinarian. Together, they inculcated the love of books in me and my siblings,” says Otiono. “Dad would share classics such as Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Macbeth, The Arabian Nights Entertainment, Round the World in Eighty Days, and so on, but there wasn’t much of African literature besides Shaka the Zulu and Things Fall Apart. Mum spellbound us with a lot of African folktales, complete with their moving choruses, some of which I still remember.”
Otiono describes his childhood in Kano as dramatic, the experience of the war scars his memories. He remembers a train and truck journey back to his hometown of Ogwashi Uku in midwestern Nigeria, just before the war broke out, “Although I was too young to recall details of the war, memories of air raids, taking cover under beds, and sojourning in the farm and bushes to evade rampaging Nigerian soldiers still haunt me. I particularly remember a narrow escape from a bullet that flew into my grandpa’s living room, ricocheted on the mud walls and settled mercifully on the floor without hurting anyone,” he says. It was this very experience which inspired “Grandma’s Pipe”, one of Otiono’s poems in his second collection of poems titled, love in a Time of Nightmares (2008). Otiono has always relied on writing and creating art to deconstruct his experiences. “The war defined and lacerated my childhood, so storytelling became one of my healing therapies. The love of books and the magical power of storytellers escorted me through primary and secondary schools, and finally corralled me into studying English at the University of Ibadan.”
For his honors and master’s theses, Otiono remained at Ibadan to focus on two spectacular oral performance groups under the supervision of Prof. Isidore Okpewho, one of the most exceptional scholars of African oral literature. Upon graduation, the unrelenting lure of storytelling drew him into work as a journalist, and while he had a noteworthy career working in this field, the pursuit of knowledge finally jostled him into a second profession in the professoriate via a doctorate at the University of Alberta, and a postdoctorate at Brown University, in America. It was a Banting Fellowship that brought Otiono and his family to Canada in 2012 to Carleton University, where he was hired as the first 100 per cent faculty on a tenure track in African Studies. “My family and I were delighted to return to Canada,” he says.
Otiono and Dylan – Love at First Sight
It was during Prof. Otiono’s most creatively formative years as a journalist in the streets of Lagos (Nigeria’s most densely populated commercial and cultural capital city) when he first encountered Bob Dylan. Having just graduated from Ibadan and, impressively, holding a job as a staff writer for The Guardian newspaper, he was an active member of a group of progressive young writers (mostly poets) in the early 1990s, a time when Lagos was a hotbed of brilliant creatives from various parts of the country.
Among this group of writers and poets was Idzia Ahmad, who introduced Dylan to Otiono by handing him an audio cassette of taped music mostly comprised of Dylan’s mid-career album Oh Mercy (1989). Otiono recollects the experience of listening to the tape as tantamount to love at first sight. “The sheer poetic force of the songs delivered in that inimitable languorous, whining voice instantly suited my immersion then in the tortured sensibility that underpinned the poetry of our ‘Ibadan school’ of poets—if I may use that term loosely,” he says. “I cherished the gift from Idzia so much that I kept it for over a decade and took it along with me to Edmonton when I relocated for my doctoral program. Losing it—even with the faded sounds—is one of the most painful losses of an item with strong sentimental value that I possessed.”
By the time he had arrived in Alberta for his Ph.D., Otiono was firmly in Dylan’s clutch. He had familiarized himself with the full Dylan discography and had read many of the countless books and think pieces penned on his favourite artist. Otiono had cultivated a love for the whole of Dylan, however Oh Mercy remained his favourite, particularly the song “Man in a Long Black Coat”. He adored this track so much that he taught the song as a poem in a first-year writing course at the University of Alberta titled English Literature in Global Perspectives. “Besides how well my students received the Dylan ‘poem,’ my friendship with a course mate, Marco Katz, an experienced musician, became catalytical to cementing my romance with Dylan.”
Shortly after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Alberta with a string of awards, and against the backdrop of the controversy surrounding Dylan’s Nobel Prize, Otiono and Katz began considering putting together a book about their icon. “Everything fell in place as the moment was ripe for the project,” says Otiono.
“The discussion culminated in the publication of Polyvocal Bob Dylan, a collection of eight essays by outstanding Dylan scholars which I co-edited with Josh Toth, a dazzling Dylanist and professor at McEwan University, Edmonton, where Marco also taught,” adds Otiono.
Dylan, Otiono, and Nigeria
It would be difficult to overstate the effect Bob Dylan has had on Western culture. He rose to prominence during the pervasively discussed American coming of age — the 1960s — a time when the philosophical fabric of the country began to distress. As the country was clouded by its war in Vietnam, young Americans began to reject the conservative ideals of their parents and started to press for a less authoritative and more considerate, free-loving nation. Protests were loud and covered on colour TVs, and as is typical in any movement for hasty change, a clash of ideologies led to bloodshed. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, so were two of the Kennedys, and then mere months into the 1970s, four unarmed student protestors were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. Through all of this, new forms of art and music were deployed as expressions of protest and Minnesota-born Dylan, who evolved from New York City’s Greenwich Village bursting hippie art scene, was embraced as a blue-collar icon. Despite his ambiguous lyrics and muffled voice, he was understood as a musician who stood for something — a brazen American who had nothing to do with the imperialistic America of the time. The times were a-changin’, and the artsy, enigmatic understated Dylan charm was a potent symbol, and so his music quickly became gospel for the movement. Although the success of this long-ago effervescent movement is up for debate, Dylan’s rebellious everyman status is something that has been maintained in America to this day.
This begs the question: how does an artist whose very identity and output were generated entirely by the particular nuances of American life and popular culture reach and speak so profoundly to someone like Otiono in postcolonial Nigeria? To understand this phenomenon, in Polyvocal Bob Dylan, Otiono uses his writer’s circle in Nigeria (who anointed Dylan patron saint) as a case study to decrypt and illustrate the border- and culture-transcending spell of Dylan. “The reflections enabled me to bring into global critical conversations on Bob Dylan that yet uncharted influence of Dylan in Africa …” writes Otiono in Polyvocal. “The love of literature and ideas defined the many literary fêtes and salons we held in dingy bukatarias and beer and peppersoup lounges (e.g., Busy Bees and Shindig) in Surulere, Lagos. There were others who, although they were not domiciled in the Lagos-Ibadan axis, were strongly linked to the group in a shared interest in Dylan.” His group wrote poetry inspired by Dylan and kept literary diaries. In the words of Otiono in Polyvocal, the poets “were imitating Dylan’s bohemian lifestyle and singing Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man like an anthem. As Sanya Osha recalls, “Idzia … in fact wrote an entire collection … modelled on Dylan’s songs beginning with A Simple Twist of Fate.”
Otiono believes that the ardent connection these young artists felt with Dylan had much to do with their lush urban setting. “Lagos is a city of contradictions: of sadness and joy; of inspiration and asphyxiation for the young artist; of opportunities and lynched illusions. So challenging is living in Lagos that in a documentary on Nigeria, the novelist Chinua Achebe described living in Lagos as ‘living in a war front.’ But it is a war front that paradoxically nurtured and tormented the artist, especially the unemployed one scavenging hostile streets for the bare bones of survival and the scaffolds upon which to build a career and a future,” writes Otiono. Lagos, for the writer’s circle, deeply corresponded to the New York evoked by Dylan. “Like Dylan’s New York, Lagos was the metropolitan beast where artists armed only with their talents and dreams struggled to find the muse and direction in life.’”
“Besides Dylan’s artistic ingenuity and counter-cultural disposition, our group was drawn to artists whose rebellious and anti-establishment persona advertised the kind of fierce creative temperament that we aspired to possess. Nigeria in the late 1980s and ’90s writhed in the death pangs of military dictatorship and a torturous process of transition to democratic governance. Writers, journalists, activists were jailed for their work.”
Through his research for the book, Otiono would come to discover that his writers’ group was only one small example of the incredible influence of Dylan beyond the traditional western sphere. In fact, Otiono and Toth were taken aback by the commonality and fervency of Dylan acolytes across the globe. In this sense, the book operated as an epiphany for Otiono’s appreciation of influence studies in literature. The Dylan capturing expressions found throughout Polyvocal Bob Dylan from Otiono, Toth and a long list of dedicated Dylan researchers are sure to further vindicate the choice of Dylan as a Nobel Prize in Literature recipient.
Besides Dylan’s artistic ingenuity and counter-cultural disposition, our group was drawn to artists whose rebellious and anti-establishment persona advertised the kind of fierce creative temperament that we aspired to possess.
In 2018, as Otiono was finishing work on the book, he saw Bob Dylan play live for the first time in Rochester, New York. As he watched a 78-year-old Dylan perform — a person who has had such an influence on his life — it struck him that perhaps Dylan’s greatest asset has been his longevity as a famous singer. “Of the four guerrilla minstrels studied by Wayne Hampton in his book Guerrilla Minstrels (John Lennon, Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan), Dylan is the only one still living.”
“This means a lot: Dylan is like the last representative of a musical epoch… seeing him is a precious gift.” Otiono also noted that Dylan’s writing remains as poignant as ever, pointing to Shelter from the Storm as an example of a song with powerful lines particularly soothing for immigrants suffering in various parts of the world:
Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country
but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge,
someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock
to when God and her were born
Come in, she said, I’ll give ya
Shelter from the storm.
Dylan Hasn’t Performed in Africa
Although Dylan has been on tour for the better part of three decades, there are some prominent places he has not played, including Alaska, the Middle East, India, the Caribbean, and Africa. On this topic, Otiono observes that it is quite surprising Dylan hasn’t played a single gig in Africa during his 27-year touring. Otiono then cites Ryan Book’s reflections on the subject in an article for The Music Times: “We’re not going to make light of the many reasons why no western performer sets long African runs: poverty makes attending concerts an absurd notion for much of the population and regional conflicts make it plain dangerous. Putting on a show in Nigeria or Kenya is not outside of the realm of possibility for someone of Dylan’s stature however, even if it was a free show. Perhaps he protested playing South Africa during the early ’90s due to apartheid, but those days have passed. Egypt has a reasonable GDP and other of Africa’s 10 richest nations — such as Morocco and Algeria — are literally less than 100 miles from where Dylan has performed in Spain.”
For Otiono, “The omission of Africa from Dylan’s thousands of concerts in over 54 countries is more telling considering the continent’s near omnipresent status in the charity or benefit concert genre curated by western music icons such as Bob Geldof, Paul McCartney, and Bono via Band Aid, Live Aid and other such projects. Yet, Dylan was part of the United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa organization that emerged from the hit single We are the World charity concert of 1985 championed by Harry Belafonte, activist and King of Calypso, to alleviate poverty in Africa and the United States. Dylan also featured in the first-ever benefit concert, The Concert for Bangladeshi in 1971 (organized by the Beatles’ George Harrison and Ravi Shankar). But Dylan has never played in Africa.”
The possibility of playing a show in Nigeria would depend on many variables, including publicity, venue, and the time of year, but Otiono feels a sizable crowd would welcome Dylan to his country of over 170 million people. However, he does remark that Dylan is not necessarily idolized by a Nigerian millennial generation whose musical taste is flavoured by hip hop, or in the case of Nigeria, by “Naija jamz.”
“One of the most successful aspects of contemporary Nigerian life is cultural production, with local Nigerian cinema, Nollywood, and popular music, Naija jamz, becoming the country’s best-known exports after crude oil. So, these days, you could attend Nigerian parties at home or abroad with no foreign music played at all — from dusk till dawn.”
Still, having Dylan play a show in Africa would fill a significant gap for the icon who is revered around the world. Perhaps with the release of Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature, Dylan might consider adding a new stop on his perpetual tour. At the absolute least, it would mean a great deal to Otiono and his former writers’ circle.
Forever on deadline, Otiono has several projects in the works which he plans to complete, one at a time: “I’m like a realtor, a realtor with many properties on the market trying to close the deals. I have learnt, like my mentors Chinua Achebe and Isidore Okpewho, not to talk too much about my works in progress. I am coming out of a season of production drought and enjoying exciting showers of inspiration.”
Publishing Polyvocal Bob Dylan was a dream-fulfilling moment for Otiono, and it spurred him to focus on his own art, producing two poetry CDs, as well as his first monograph, which is on contract with a prestigious academic press.
As an academic, he continues along his path of exploring multiple creative and scholarly formats in an age of popular culture and globalization — including YouTube and social media. “My concern with the marginalization of African studies as a discipline in western academy prompts me into doing work with the capacity of reaching beyond the restrictive traditional spaces that African studies inhabits or circumscribed in circulation. Which is why I am happy working in cultural studies and being able to surprise, for example, a reader of a Dylan book with a chapter that locates Dylan in Africa.”
“I see my work in creative writing, popular culture, and oral performance studies continuing in this trajectory,” says Prof. Otiono, concluding that he is encouraged by the reception of the Dylan book represented by a reviewer’s declaration that: “[T]his is the first attempt to put Dylan’s work into any kind of African context — and the results are extraordinary. The decision to use first-person accounts from Nigerian poets was inspired and this piece, more than any other in the collection, has the potential to show Dylan in a genuinely new light.”
Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature published by Palgrave Macmillan is available for purchase online.
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