The gloom in laughter
In the recent times, the image of the troubled artiste has almost become synonymous with creative expression. Many are battling a myriad of mental health problems, with depression taking a heavy toll on some, Jasmine Atieno explores why.
In February this year, an undated video of Charles Matathia—the brains behind one of Kenya’s best movies, Nairobi Half Life—went viral on social media. It showed the prolific scriptwriter in a really bad shape.
It was a major shocker for many people who related with Matathia’s creative work, seeing that even with his highly-rated credentials, he had been reduced to a mere street urchin; a pauper.
Comedians, specifically, have been suffering silently in the recent years, with some of the best dying unceremoniously.
Nancy Nyambura (Jastorina), Master Sugu, Njenga Mswahili, Emmanuel Makori (Ayeiya) and most recently Joseph Kivindu aka Kasee are all dead.
They are among a bunch of people who would make others laugh, while deep inside them they were hurting. Broken.
Early last week, ex-Churchill Show comedienne Zeddy opened up on social media to vent out on the things and situations she felt were driving comedians into depression.
She mentioned a few names, levelling a myriad of accusations against them that could be blamed for the industry’s status quo.
Among them were Churchill Show’s creative director Victor Ber and video director J Blessing.
Ber, known for his immense experience in theatre, is credited with discovering a lot of comedy talents.
In his response to the allegations he brushed off the accusations as just mere malice that were unfortunately even being streamed down to his family.
“I don’t know what’s really happening, but things are different on the ground. Stand-up comedy has a huge population.
Some people come into the limelight having their own issues from way back. So, when something happens, they start pointing fingers.
Whatever we do now is the same thing we have been doing since we began. So, when the blame games starts, it somehow makes you feel like it is malicious,” he told Spice.
Ber added: “What Churchill (Daniel Ndambuki) has done for most of these people… it is even a shame that they will be pointing fingers.
Since Churchill Show started, we audition 80 fresh people on a weekly basis, when we require not more than 10.
Out of these, only about four make it to the show, so definitely some people will ‘catch feelings’ when left out.
Some people don’t get it that they are not in the show no matter how many times you try to tell them. So you just ignore them.”
Ber claimed Zeddy (who wished not to comment further on the issues she raised) was among the few people who know the (show’s)rules.
“Churchill has helped her so much. She was educated by Churchill and there are others who have even been taken through rehab.
I have really been helping these people. Comedian Njoro (George Maina) is in my care (for undisclosed reasons) as we speak and has even become a family friend now,” said Ber.
On his part, J Blessing called out the comedienne for her “lack of appreciation” on the opportunity she was clearly “given” by the same people she is wrongly accusing.
He said, “Every industry and profession has challenges and everyone is going through something. It is not fair to blame one another.
The reason Zeddy is a public figure is because she was on TV, a clear indication that she got an opportunity. I have been abused by a lot of people for things that are not true.”
“All these comedians need mentorship. If it’s too much on you don’t frustrate yourself with comedy.
All industries have their own challenges; it is through the mistakes that we are able to work on a better tomorrow. Even the comedians at the top still have their own struggles, so no one is a reason for another person’s failure,” Blessing told Spice.
Comedian and radio presenter Felix Odiwour aka Jalang’o took to social media to touch on the issues pertaining the rise of depression and death of Kenyan comedians, saying societal standards have driven many into depression.
Comedian Kazungu Matano aka Captain Otoyo said a lot of young comedians are slowly succumbing to depression because of their unrealistic ambitions to live lifestyles they can’t afford.
“New generation artistes, who only completed school 2016, want to be where other people are in an overnight.
They want to drive big cars and live in big houses. The salaries for these shows are low.
The big names in this industry have taken real time to grow. If you earn Sh60,000 and you want to live in a house worth Sh30,000 a month, it is a bit hard because you should also be able to save. These new artists want to live unreal lifestyles,” he says.
He adds that some young comedians are going into depression due to peer pressure.
“Also paces are different for all the artistes. For instance, MCA Tricky has grown very fast, but now, you find that all his peers who joined with him want to move like him.
People don’t want to live a normal simple life, and this is what affects them. Don’t blame it on the job,” he added.
Blackstar Media founder Kingwa Kamencu says there’s close relationship between mental illness, genius and creative, citing these facts from the book Touched by Fire by Kay Redfield Jameson.
She says artistes are more likely to suffer mental illness, suicide and addiction, because the infrastructure and value chain are underdeveloped.
“Creatives are dreamers, not executors. They can’t get the jobs that everybody else is doing.
They are smart, but not like everybody else. So, they beat themselves too hard, with very little support, and with them being hyper sensitive, it’s a whole cocktail.
There is also a created misconception that artistes are failures. We haven’t embraced well local creations,” said Kingwa.
According to psychologist Tracy Nyaguthii, many comedians have over the years used the art as a defense mechanism to hide their psychological battles, emotions and inadequacies.
She says fame does not take away the inner struggles. If anything, it enhances it.
“Economic challenges are also a huge stress factor, the society expects you to live a certain high life because you are a comedian yet you are struggling to get basic needs.
Many local comedians attribute societal pressures and high expectations from the society as one of the key reasons that causes depression,” says Tracy.
She adds that the Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation worse. “Many comedians perform in large shows; many are emcees and now that people are not gathering in crowds, they are not able to make ends meet.
This is frustrating, especially for comedians who were just catching their break and had begun doing well.
Such stress can lead people into destructive patterns such as substance use, which can drive them further into depression,” she says.
Spiritual healer Sister Tibebwa from Earth Love Ltd says many types of depression exist, including physical, emotional, spiritual and trans-generational.
On the surface, she adds, depression feels like a deep crushing sadness that doesn’t go away. An often debilitating, paralysing feeling that remains all day and night. A cloud that sits on top of you and makes even the smallest things look hard.
“Creatives who often deeply feel their emotions may not have been empowered or brought up to be emotionally intelligent, and especially for men—who in many cultures are generally less able to feel or name their emotions.
Men are not allowed to legitimately feel anything except for anger. Fear and sadness are often ridiculed as being soft, weak and womanly, so everything gets expressed as anger.
On the other hand, women are usually allowed to express sadness, but a woman is not supposed to be angry. So, they constantly squash their rage down, which often leads into depression,” says Tibebwa.
She adds that artistes are empaths who easily pick up the emotions of the people around them.
Such people are affected by the collective thought forms and with the accompanying spread of fear and sadness, they may find it particularly difficult to separate their own emotional state from the overriding emotional state of the world around them.
She says it is important for them to have someone in their lives to help them understand such things and how to protect themselves from their effects.
“Although artistes are already channeling their own creativity from the collective consciousness, rarely do they understand that this open connection when used without filter or protection, especially when the physical body is unbalanced or under the influence of alcohol or substances, other spirits and entities can use this connection to attach, thus causing spiritual forms of depression,” she says.
Pastor David Ewagata, through his interaction with creatives, notes that artistes draw a lot of their energies from their work, which is also their source of income, which has been a challenge due to the pandemic.
And in such times, the default coping mechanism becomes drugs and alcoholism.
“The entertainment industry is amazing, but also brutal. If you don’t deliver you are simply out.
People cover a lot of insecurities through the laughter; there is a serious need to be able to provide support for them. Also entertainers need to have a level of discipline.
We have the hip-hop approach in entertainment, which involves money, women and lavish living. This lifestyle is expensive.
If Mike Tyson could go broke, imagine a local artiste who wants to live that kind of lifestyle,” he remarks.