Let me first state that I absolutely detest the word “creative” as a designation for all people doing any sort of artistic work. I equally detest the word “content” as a catch-all term for all creative or artistic work. They both excel at flattening art and artists into a one size fits all dress, and if you have ever bought one of those, you know that one size certainly does not fit all. Still, you’ll forgive me for continuing to use them even in this article. It’s unavoidable and it is what it is. 

The devaluation of creative work is not something new. Better writers and thinkers have pondered this question. It has an illustrious history that probably became more pronounced as the industrial revolution took hold. The idea that work done for mass production is more important than work done for a few to enjoy makes sense in a capitalist world. There’s simply way more money to be made in the former.

That was true until they figured out how to mass produce art and it went from the artisanal arena to the mass market. Granted, mass access to art and creative work is an amazing thing. Yes, some art is still only enjoyed by the wealthy, but a good number is accessible to the general public. Still, creative work is severely undervalued and being a creator of artistic work is a huge gamble as only a lucky few get to enjoy the money in the creative economy. And there is a lot of money.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) defines “creative economy” as the summation of all the components of the creative industries, including trade, labour, and production. It is when creativity is used to create economic growth and development.  Kenya’s creative economy is worth around 5.3% of Kenya’s GDP, according to a report by the Creative Economy Business Environment Reform. It’s not bad considering the lack of an enabling environment for artists, but it’s also not good considering the wasted potential of the creative industries in the country.

As the quintessential African “creative”, I understand all too well just how much our choice of career is the quickest path to broke, sleepless nights. I was great at writing, music and a host of other creative pursuits, but it was understood that these were hobbies to help me be a better learner and well-rounded individual. Since I was an A student, the thought that I’d consider creative work as a plausible career, never occurred to anyone. Such things were for failures and rebellious young people who would eventually grow up and get into serious careers.

President Ruto famously quipped that the arts and humanities are a waste of time, reducing subjects like history to the learning of useless facts about figures like Vasco da Gama. I have a feeling he understands why the arts and humanities are important but is more interested in the subjects that he thinks will turn Kenya into a more industrialized country. This is woefully devoid of imagination and an unfortunate way to view the development of a country.

Is it any wonder then that every time artists and creatives complain about poor pay they’re told to get real jobs or to count themselves lucky they even make any money from such frivolity? This is especially true for content creators and influencers who are derided for not really doing anything to deserve the money they make. Although the government lately has been out to tax creatives who are making money through digital platforms, since apparently some are even making more money than the President.

When popular Kenyan YouTuber, Just Ivy, shared her rate card for brand consultations, there was an uproar over her $50 hourly rate. People were incredulous that she’d even charge for what they think is accessible and basic knowledge. We could go into multiple reasons for this attitude including the rise of the internet and social media and the devaluing of creativity by making it free or as cheap as possible. Granted, it didn’t start with the internet because the idea that skills like writing or painting aren’t so hard and that artists should live well off of it isn’t new. No one bats an eye when lawyers and doctors charge consultation fees. People really do think that creative work should be cheap or free and they’re doing creatives a favour by even considering spending money on it. 

I could go into the philosophy of why art matters and what mostly a bunch of old, white men have said about it. I could talk  about the psychological benefits of art. I could explore the social, political, cultural and spiritual importance of art. I could even talk about the importance of soft power and cultural exchange and jealously harp on about the explosion of the Nigerian creative industry as an example. But I’ll leave that to the academics. My only argument and interest is that creative work makes money. The creative economy is worth billions globally. The creative economy is run by the creative labour of artists and creatives, but the majority of the money made is pocketed by a few. 

From the Hollywood writers’ strike to the tomfoolery that is the AI “revolution” mooching off artists’ intellectual property to Kenyan artists being underpaid and derided by government officials, the thread is the same. It is clear that artists and creatives are not able to make a decent living off of their work not because it has no value, but because a few greedy people want to maintain the status quo of pocketing most of the money. It is a labour rights issue. It is a workers’ rights issue. 

All of us should be concerned by the continued devaluing of the labour of artists and creatives, acknowledge our role in it and support the demand for fair pay. As long as you exchange labour for pay, this is your fight too. Today it is the artists, tomorrow it’ll be you.

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