It's a June night in Kinshasa, and rapper JB Mpiana's weekly VIP bash is just starting to heat up. Toned groupies splash like mermaids in a sunken pool. Middle-aged businessmen perch on the ledge above to watch. A minute before midnight, JB runs onstage among a huge posse of gyrating dancers in sunglasses. He rips into some of his biggest hits; a bombastic performer, he glides across the stage with a beefy grace, dressed in a hunter-orange jumpsuit and matching cap.
Most songs deal with the usual material, girls and gangbangers, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Lingala language. But when JB starts to chant the lyrics of his biggest hit of the night, the real purpose of this party -- festooned with yellow-and-blue banners advertising Primus, the beer that everyone would be drinking anyway, even at this lush downtown wine bar -- becomes obvious.
"I love my Priiimus!" JB yells. The crowd yells back: "I love my beer!"
After the show, as his black Cadillac Escalade purred nearby, backup dancers waiting impatiently in the back seat, we asked JB about his lucrative contract with Bralima, the Heineken subsidiary that brews and distributes Primus. In return for writing numerous odes to Primus and featuring its trademark yellow-and-blue trucks in his videos, JB gets invaluable national exposure -- and some $300,000 a year.
The dream contract for any celebrity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is with Bralima -- better than any Kinshasa-based record company, it can guarantee its stars secure, stable careers and fame, even in places where a different rebel group takes over the radio station practically each month. Bralima even played peacemaker for JB's Biggie vs. Tupac-style beef with a local rival, convincing them to share the stage for Bralima's 90th-anniversary party. "There's so many advantages to being with Bralima," JB said. "They have reach all over the country."
Of course, in the DRC, "all over the country" includes some of the most dangerous places on Earth. The authority of the national government in Kinshasa does not extend to all of eastern Congo, which is largely run by a rogues' gallery of rebel groups, including the notorious M23, whose list of alleged crimes against humanity includes looting, murder, and rape. Congo's civil wars have been fueled by everything from blood diamonds to conflict coltan extracted from the country's abundant mines, which makes operating any sort of business in the east a morally dubious proposition. But that has not stopped Heineken and many other foreign firms, which see themselves as the country's best hope for postwar reconstruction.
Corporations from the East India Company to United Fruit did shady business in conflict zones for decades, inviting the wrath of diplomats and international watchdogs who accused them of war-profiteering. By the end of the 20th century, however, the rapidly growing international peace-building community -- including NGOs, the United Nations, development consortiums, think tanks, and some developed-world governments -- started taking a different tack. These days, an emphasis on economic opening and corporate social responsibility means that many of the world's most powerful organizations are actively encouraging corporations into conflict markets, hoping this will lead to peace. Sometimes, though, when Bralima's yellow-and-blue trucks hit those dusty Congo roads, the results can be messy.