words & image: Abu Okari
Jim Chuchu is one of my favourite artists, and identity is a big part of his concerns. As part of a panel discussing the futures of Africa during the African Futures festival in 2015, Jim methodically took apart the Afrofuturism notion, idea, bandwagon, or whatever you may want to call it. He, and other panelists wondered why, when it comes to Sci-Fi creations out of Africa, they are ghettoed under the Afrofuturism banner. Wanuri Kahiu, a filmmaker who has a number of Sci-Fi productions under her belt and recently partnered with renowned SciFi writer Nnedi Okorafor succinctly captured this.
Jim’s presentation was brilliant. He listed things that, when an African tried, thought or dreamt of , they immediately became a laughing stock. The Zambian space programme was something that he clearly carries around a lot.
However, it seems that this introduction of Geography when naming something as long as it comes out of some part of Africa is not limited to Sci-Fi.
Recently, Nigerian Twitter witnessed a near pandemonium after Ayeni Adekunle, a media entrepreneur, took issue with the siloing of Urban Nigerian music as Afrobeats, especially in some sections of the media. Afrobeats is a popular moniker in the Nigerian music industry. He seemed to take issue with Western press for pushing this category.
Others seemed to also place the blame partly on African media. This article on the Guardian by Afritorial perhaps underscores the point. The caption accompanying the featured image in this place describes D’Banj as the first Afrobeats artist to reach top ten in UK charts. Interestingly, it is attributed to a new age Pan African publication.
There is a genre called Afrobeat, popularised by the late Nigerian music legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Tony Allen. But there is no genre known as Afrobeats. The music being wrongly referred to as Afrobeats is simply pop music.
The addition of an S to Fela Kuti’s creation that gave rise to the propagation of a non existent genre has been attributed to a UK DJ of Nigerian extraction.
And more laughable, if not outrageous is the knowledge that there was once an afro category for hip hop coming out of Nigeria(Africa?), afro hip hop. Hip Hop, a creation of another afro community elsewhere on the globe couldn’t escape being boxed into another afro category when some acts from this continent dabbed in the genre!
Of issue with many Nigerians who took time to register their displeasure with the misnomer is the packing of all music from Africa (acts) under one group World Beats at the Grammies. All other international acts just have one category.
Another region that seems to be always categorized under the Afro tag is the tech space, with products, news and engagements been produced or tailored for Africa alone. This could be considered a good had the motivation been somewhat positive and not the inferior status that inform such decisions. And, in most cases, when these same entities launch these things, they are accompanied by pompous narratives that convey the message that whatever they are doing is honourable, great, trailblazing. Recently, it was reported that Facebook was “finally” opening its platform to African developers for testing. Back in February, esaja.com Founder Clinton Mutambo published an article on TechCrunch where he basically said he is going to throw up if he comes across yet another tech article about Africa.
Taiye Selasi, a writer who describes herself as a local of Rome, Accra and New York, did a piece and a talk that espoused a new identity, the Afropolitan, a group that professes hodge podge of traits among them being citizens of the world. Achille Mbembe popularised it in academic discourse through the publication of his Afropolitanism essay. Basically millennial(mostly) Africans born, brought up, studied at or are pursuing jet setting careers in the various world capitals. It resonated with some. It was also didn’t resonate with some, with Kenyan writer and intellectual Binyavanga Wainaina doing a lecture titled I am Pan-Africanist, not Afropolitan in 2012. Binyavanga himself could be easily be regarded as Afropolitan. The term has stuck around, with some people proudly touting it.
I have never come across a prefix that elicits such a range of emotions, that motivates pride in one’s homeland, that inspires vile and derision when used in contexts that some consider demeaning or belittling and that never stops featuring in compound nouns that refer to a continent and everything thereof, or therein, like the term afro.
Afropolitan is a new creation, it falls under the afro-positive(see, I just created another coined another compound) category, for some. For others, it is considered as a way of commodifying a people and a continent.
Afropolitan sits in the middle of the Afro spectrum. It seems to have inspired an ambivalent attitude.
There are other afros that seem to fall entirely on the positive side. Afro-Optimist is one of them. It represents those who harbour the feeling and carry the faith that Africa is headed to a good place. It is popular with younger Africans, some of whom proudly include it on their twitter bios. Afro-optimist seems to be the modern day version of Nyerere and Nkrumah’s Pan Africanism.
An army of industrious and ambitious Africans now run Pan African brands, entities and collectives that spot the prefix.
Afro also seems to be the go to prefix for any Africa (continent) focused, or targeted product or service.
The Afro prefix, in its many forms(afro, afri, afr..) seems to be the preferred term for African and African diaspora since the days of slavery use to express their fondness and pride in their roots. It also seems to be the siloing, the gate pass that the rest of the world uses to grant Africa access to the global stage. More like, you will access, we will speak about it, but on our terms. A simple way to pretend to grant access, to associate with, to interact something without bothering to understand it, because they seem not to think it is worth being understood. It is a ghetto. After all, ghettos are where all things people know exist but would rather covertly ignore are put.
This could be an exploitation of the good vibes that Africa and its diaspora associate with the Afro prefix. Outsiders, well meaning or not , choose to go with it out of ignorance, contempt, or laziness.
In most cases, Africa always misses the chance to construct a narrative around any of its aspects. This sees foreigners coming up with an inspired version, which in most cases somehow carries the day. Take Africa Rising for instance, was that really a creation of the continent or a compound by some foreign entities(hello The Economist) in an attempt to define the growth that was either anticipated, or being witnessed on the continent?
Africa, in itself, is both a homogenous entity and a collection of several distinct identities at the same time. When an African, or a member of its diaspora introduces the Afro prefix, they wish to introduce some sort of connection and appreciation to this much maligned continent. However, when some on the other end seem to do so, it is either a short cut or a dismissive gesture, an half assed and lame way to show they understand when they really do not. Or another way of saying it is good, but it is from Africa, so it is a despite or, or an in spite of. It is worth a mention, but on some corner. It is the physical manifestation of the ghettoization of anything African. The result of this, if I may borrow Clinton Mutambo’s words is a continuous dumbing down of Africa as a monolithic and internally lethargic structure. This may be unintentional or intentional. However, that shouldn’t matter because the outcome is the same, and it doesn’t play well for the continent. So, before someone takes to describing a continent that they do not understand leave alone being part of, they should take time to get around it.