The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
ASAPH misses being on stage.
He misses the lung bursting screams of the crowd as he grips the mic, their excitement when he breaks into rhyme.
Once upon a time, before the era of face masks, temperature checks and hand sanitisers, Asaph could get that kind of excitement and attention from the crowd on a weekly basis at the least. A year after the country went into lockdown, such sights and sounds are now alien to the rapper.
“The facts of it come in stages,” the wordsmith told Sunday Life. “I miss being on stage. That live interaction with the crowd allows you to feed off their energy. You know which songs are working, which songs people gravitate towards.
From time to time, I miss the rush that you get from people screaming when you’re on stage.”
For a year, Asaph and other artistes have missed that close, infectious contact with fans. No shows has also meant no money and in an industry in which many were already struggling financially, Covid-19 has further worsened the situation. The inability to find paying work during the lockdown has not only hit the pockets of artistes, it has also taken a toll on their mental health as well.
“I know it’s been tense for a whole lot of people, not being able to perform or be on stage. I can’t speak for every artiste but it has been tough,” he said.
Asaph’s views are shared by poet and performer Philani Nyoni.
“It’s an incredibly difficult and uncertain time. We have to come to terms that there is an arts or sports career that has already been ended by not being able to work for over a year. I am lucky that the stage isn’t all that I do but being cooped up in one place for extended periods of time is not good for anyone, even for those who enjoy solitude.
Routine helps a lot, exercise and being in constant communication with each other which is group therapy in a way: when those of us who share a trauma or misfortune fellowship together, the burden becomes lighter,” he said.
When they were in financially dire straits, artistes always knew that they could find solace on the stage, their one true home. With that taken away from them, many have found it hard to cope.
“A lot of artistes are struggling but we are also mentally not okay,” said actress Lady Tshawe. “We are going through a lot from depression and anxiety. It hasn’t been the best of years for us because we need the outlet and we need the people. If everyone is locked down it makes things even more difficult for us.”
Although things are changing slowly, African societies are not renowned for the prioritisation mental health awareness and at a time when most are concerned with putting food on the table, issues to do wellness can be looked at as unimportant. However, as she saw many artistes suffering silently, Lady Tshawe said she decided to form an organisation, Artistes Psycho Social Support, which could ease the burden on troubled creatives.
“I had this idea after doing the play 6:55, which was a play that touched on mental health. After the play there were those who said that they could now speak on mental health and that they were now in a better position to know about what it is and to seek information about it.
“Last year when Covid struck, I realised that a lot of us went into a big slump of anxiety and depression because of the uncertainty that the virus came with. Not working didn’t help at all. You see bills piling up. Those that are used to be on tour or having certain jobs are not able to do them. You look at home and you wonder what the children will eat and you also wonder how you will pay your bills. A lot of us were going through mental stress and sometimes we were going through it without knowing what they were. It took them sitting down and talking with someone to make them realise that this was the case,” she said.
With the spotlight constantly on them, Lady Tshawe said many artistes did not feel that whoever they talked to could keep things confidential and not trigger a storm of bad publicity.
“I met some artistes that watched the play and they said they struggle with their mental health as artistes and they don’t know where to go because they don’t know if their cases would be dealt with in confidence. People in the public eye are afraid that their issues will be spoken about in the public domain.
“I’ve been thinking about a way of giving back to the arts community because it is a community that has given me so much and while I don’t have money to give people, I want to give back to those artistes that give so much of themselves to the public. I want to make them laugh, smile and entertain them,” she said.
While artistes sitting down and talking about their problems as a collective was helpful, Lady Tshawe said it was clear that some needed one on one sessions as their mental anguish was quite acute.
“With the passing away of family members and everything because of Covid-19 and other ailments within the lockdown, people’s mental health suffered. So, I decided we needed to have some form of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) where we could sit down and talk as artistes. Then I realised that wouldn’t be best way of going about it because some issues are so heavy that if you’re not qualified as a professional to handle them you could even hurt yourself. That’s when I started looking around for people I could work with, people who could give professional help.
“That’s when I called a sister called Nomagugu Ncube who has an organisation called Pickled. She has offered to partner me on the Artistes Psycho Social and she has offered to give free counselling to artistes that sign up through the psycho social artiste’s platform.
We then recommend if someone needs further help from professionals. This is important because I don’t have professional knowledge of these things, I just want people to be helped. I just want people to be able to talk in a space where their information is confidential and safe. I don’t get to know who has gone to the counsellor and I do that on purpose. I don’t get to hear who has what problem. All I’m saying is, here is a platform, use it,” she said.
For Asaph, a life without the stage has meant that he had to find new habits and hobbies to keep himself occupied. Unsurprisingly, he and many others have turned to family to anchor them during the hardest of times.
“This time of lockdown has forced me to take a look and what I really want with my life. It has given me time to be with family. It’s created time for me to look at other things: read more, drink and smoke less,” he said.