Kofi Annan and Aretha Franklin. Ghana’s global son and Soul’s almighty Queen. One an international diplomat, one an international super star. Both stood on global stages; their names instantly recognizable; communicating more than qualities and characteristics. Both now Ancestors. Gone from this world. Missed and mourned by peoples and nations and generations.
Memories of moments pour in.
The tributes and stories offer fragments of a man and his life; of his principles and his passion. The YouTube clips would offer awe-inspiring performances and a greatness that would span four decades of her singing and her life. Through him, we learn of a life lived with purpose, integrity, persistence. Kofi Annan was a gentleman with grit and grace. Through her, we learn of a space called music where she sang of life, love, longing, pain, power, respect, revolution and redemption. Aretha Franklin was a Queen with a world of soul and fire in her belly. Neither was like the other. Kofi Annan came from the motherland. Aretha’s throat was a motherland, to quote African American global writer, Lynnee Denise.
Both leave legacy.
For Aretha, her influence is heard in singers and samples across genre and generation. Her first remembering after her passing is all about tribute.
That is the first big conversation beyond the devastation of her loss. Just one word TRIBUTE. Who pays tribute to a singer like Aretha? Whose singing chops can deign to take the stage to honor her? Aretha was unlike any other singer ,with a vast range in her voice, and multiple worlds within her sound. Clearly, not Madonna; as the US’s MTV VMA’s mistakenly allowed. A tribute to Aretha from Madonna? Really. Do Better. It emerged as an Ode to the Wonders of Madonna, wreaking of narcissism and earning her the wrath of our global, active and fully engaged social media world. That horror came in 140 characters and was without mercy and drenched in scorn. Instead, the wait is for BET (Black Entertainment Television) to deliver the kind of tribute that honors this Black woman, her Detroit roots, her gospel beginnings, her musical heights and her global reach. The wait is on. Her legacy includes the story of her voice, its origins within an African-American radical and revolutionary Church, her upbringing in Detroit and what that shaped within her as well as the trauma that would visit her life and insert itself into her sound. Complex and creative – her legacy is music and story; it is sound and space; it is vision and versions.
For Kofi Annan, it is about living legacy.
How do we in Ghana and across Africa language this life via living legacy? How do we engage what he stood for? How do we not allow his legacy to rot, be reduced or diminished by the cold structure of museums, mausoleums or broken and unkept promises?
Ghana, we don’t have a problem, what we have is a window that we may choose to open to create living legacy and opportunity for Africa’s next generations on global stages, or nail shut – depending on how we proceed.
I have spent days now reading tributes, quotes, listening to discussions featuring men like Ambassador Patrick Hayford and UN Senior Communications Officer and Chief Editor of The UN News Ben Dotsei Malor as well as watching social media light up with images of this man over his career as an international diplomat, a son of Ghana who rose to stand on global stages, collect prestigious international trophies, broker peace and maintain his pursuit of a better world.
Ghana’s global son carried his nation with him to every stage or mic or mission. His bones and his blood called our Black Star Nation home no matter the space he occupied.
From those who knew him, I learned he was an advocate of working women, that he stood strong on issues of gender justice and that equality was neither rhetoric nor eye-rolling policy – but an urgent need that would strengthen Africa and the world.
His Nobel peace prize was earned due to the revitalization of the UN and centering humanity within this organization often described as a global police officer.
In carving a living legacy what would centering humanity look like here in Ghana and across Africa? How does visionary leadership transform worlds when it centers humanity?
In the accolades and plaudits that are emerging from all over the world, I am struck by how much Annan was celebrated globally, but hardly at all on this soil. Ghana did not do well by her global son; by that I mean Annan’s death reminded us of the breadth and height he reached with his international diplomacy. Mr. Malor would describe him as an ‘unsung hero’.
Africa’s first UN Secretary General and first Nobel Peace Prize winner has a bricks and mortar living tribute on this soil – the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre – and on Tuesday morning radio, we heard that this centre was not living up to the international standards espoused by the now late Kofi Annan.
Living legacy requires more than buildings. It needs us to take his words, his actions and breathe life, force, work and vision into them.
Words matter. They shape narrative, they carry power, they move and they mould.
I work and live in the world of global communications – so my focus is primarily his words.
Kofi Annan’s words revealed a man dedicated to a belief that the pursuit of a better world meant one in which women’s leadership was centralized and the path towards gender equity more hurriedly, but solidly, constructed and pursued.
On women and gender justice. He said:- “There is no development strategy more beneficial to society as a whole – women and men alike – than the one which involves women as central players. “ And on gender equality, Mr. Annan said: “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.”
This is heartening; because – to partially quote our queen of soul – looking out on the morning rain of Ghana’s gender landscape, I sometimes feel so uninspired, so we better think about what we are trying to do on this issue.
Kofi Annan’s legacy could offer us a reimagining of visionary leadership and power. That visionary leadership would incorporate education, international diplomacy, gender, global politics and good governance.
On leadership, Kofi Annan said:- “…..the leaders must lead. Where the leaders fail to lead, and people are really concerned about it, the people will take the lead and make the leaders follow.” What a beautiful call to action for citizens to better recognize and engage the power of their circle of influence? Our circles of influence are of varying size and scope – but we all have one.
How exciting might that be if such power and leadership centralizes humanity – and that humanity centralizes the best of Africa – no matter which corner of the globe we travel to, work in or stand within?
One word in particular comes to mind in hearing the tributes; IMPACT. And I too recognize that I had neglected his impact and not fully understood it or appreciated it. It is his death that has become a reminder of that impact. He was a man who reached through generations. He was 80 when the Ancestors called him home, tributes poured in from peoples of all ages, creeds and colours.
Kofi Annan said: “…to live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.”
So, Ghana, how do we choose well? Africa – what have we decided we stand for? Where do we choose to go and how do we choose to get there? Where do we want to go in building this living legacy?
For me, knowing who we are means confronting and shaking off the shackles of colonialism’s legacy. That means an internal reckoning, it means building a nation that centralizes Africa’s citizens and not foreign multinationals – not in our policy, our practice or our leadership. It means we stand for a creed and a vision of our own making. It means understanding we have multiple economies of talent – and success requires that they are nurtured and served.
In the name of Kofi Annan, let’s create a living legacy, let us choose well by deciding what we stand for is a visionary leadership where we centralize humanity, education, gender justice and gender equality.
Let us walk a talk of grit, grace and soul on local, national and global stages that yield impact within and beyond our circle of influence.
Kofi Annan, An international diplomat. Ghana’s global son. Now, an Ancestor. Rest well, our elder, our brother, you are home.